It’s very common among old people who were entering their twenties at the end of the 1970s to claim pedigree as punk rock OGs. In 1976 and 1977, literally hundreds of 20-something adolescents flocked to scum pits like the Masque in Los Angeles and CBGB’s in New York and San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens to perfect a look and attitude they believed could never be commodified. And now in 2018, literally tens of thousands of aged-out adolescents tottering into their sixties claim to have been at their particular town’s punky ground zero.
This late-’70s movement of youth-powered social rebellion is tellingly memorialized in the T-shirt stacks at Urban Outfitters. Monetization has obscured the initial intentions and identity of punk’s originators, but artist Paula Gillen‘s presence and contributions are part of the historical record. Gillen has photos to prove she was among the first punk wave in Baltimore’s dives, basements and alleyways. She took those photos herself, as you can see for yourself. Start with the gallery of pictures directly below this sentence; dig deeper on Flickr.
To paraphrase Gillen, the crumbling walls of Baltimore’s abandoned industrial buildings, its half-lit neon signs on funky dive bars, and crusty, old strip joints provided the proving ground for the eye and technique of a young photographer nominally enrolled at downtown’s Maryland Institute College of Art.
Gillen’s book Head Trip: The 80s documents her adventurous camera’s focus in the decade immediately following the late ’70s trip captured in the photos above.
The Skeeve: What lesson learned in 1970s Baltimore has served you best throughout your creative life?
Paula Gillen: Get out of the car and walk; you will bump into things you didn’t expect. Don’t fetishize money. Fetishize creating.
Urban areas are the best synergic spots for rubbing elbows with people who don’t look like you. Suburbs, box stores and car culture can be quite isolating and mind numbing. Every Bed Bath & Beyond should be required to install pop-up art shows.
Lose the expectation that art will make you money, and you will be more relaxed making art.
Small affordable cities are the best place for young artists. There is nothing much to compete for. I learned in Baltimore not to take life too seriously, but take your art seriously. Drawing is the building block for seeing. Don’t confuse art with a job; a job is something with a weekly paycheck attached. Stacking groceries, driving a cab, it doesn’t matter what you do to for money. Lose the expectation that art will make you money, and you will be more relaxed making art.
Best friends are made when you are young. Hang on to them, and you will have a supportive community for life. A creative community doesn’t last more than a few years or a few months; so enjoy it while it’s there.
The word Baltimore is the sound of my friends laughing, the noise of hanging out in a friend’s apartment, or the sound of feet walking down the city street and into a local pub.
Don’t hesitate too much. Keep moving forward like a shark. You will find something exciting around the next corner.
The Skeeve: People in other places tend to think Baltimore is weirder than every other place. How does your experience fit with this impression?
Paula Gillen: Anyone brave enough to stand out in a crowd is labeled weird. Baltimore is a weirder place than Connecticut (where I am from). Any isolated geographical location or person can get weird; I think being isolated allows for more time and space to develop regional and personal uniqueness. Think of the outsider art of Howard Finster or the artwork of the insane—art that is formed without boundaries and censorship of what signifies right and wrong or preconceived notions of what art should look like. Howard Finster’s work and lots more outsider art can be seen at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. It’s a terrific museum.
In Baltimore, bad taste is celebrated. John Waters is our hero. His early films were inspirational, broke taste and class rules, and used Baltimore locals as actors. He didn’t have to look farther than his neighborhood for material.
Johnny Eck was born in Baltimore with only a torso and small hidden legs, but he made a life for himself as an artist, musician, photographer, sideshow performer and a film actor. He defines Baltimore weirdness and creative genius.
Rebranded as Charm City in the ’70s, Baltimore is a historic port city (settled in 1632 by Sir George Calvert) and has a splendid array of Gothic Revival architecture that brings to mind Edgar Allan Poe. In the ’70s, it was a mix of 1850s era architectural grandeur with pockets of strip clubs, seafood joints, thrift and antique stores, abundant ghosts and tight neighborhoods made up of row homes only eight feet wide.
The citizens of Baltimore seem to have a genius for large and inspirational hairdos and speak in their unique regional dialect. Baltimore was overlooked for urban renewal money in the ’60s; so it escaped the type of corporate rebranding that hit other cities.
The Skeeve: Why is a resurgence of defiant creativity similar to the late ’70s likely/unlikely today?
Paula Gillen: In the ’70s you had to physically show up to be part of something. There was no virtual world to meet in, except to use the phone that was attached by a wire to a wall. We got up each day to mingle and get by. I mostly photographed my friend’s art projects. Nothing was marketed to a larger group or a museum. No one was interested in what we were doing. It was underground. I still volunteer my time for local artist groups. It gets me out of my head and into the public sphere.
If you never look up from your cell phone in a crowd you may miss the guy sitting next to you who thinks you are hot and wants to get laid. How sad is that?
I don’t think being on a cell phone with a friend is as fun as being with them in person. If you never look up from your cell phone in a crowd you may miss the guy sitting next to you who thinks you are hot and wants to get laid. How sad is that? Eventually the real world will slip away. We’ll live in another space, similar to the real one but removed. We’ll come back to the non-digital world now and again to be bored and annoyed that reality is too slow and surreal.
To be defiant takes more courage now. We have a job, which is to keep our online image up and running. In reality, we have warts and faults that are not polished enough to share online and may hurt our job application process. We perform in a mashed up social media world that mixes all your variant friends, co-workers, Republican cousins, transgender lgbt friends into one crowd watching you online in real time. To be defiant takes a level of honesty that in any era takes courage.
To be defiant today would be to live offline in the world of clocks, pencils and paper, film cameras, three speed bikes where you make cakes with flour you grind yourself in artisanal ovens. Today there are so many eyeballs watching you, and you are forever branding and marketing yourself as a consumer or performer with each of your posts. It’s an odd way to live.
I wouldn’t have the same experiences now in Baltimore as in the ’70s. No one would need me to photograph and document anything or need to invite a videographer or a sound recorder. All you need is one cell phone.
The Skeeve: What happened to the era’s commitment to mocking consumer culture?
Paula Gillen: Living in the ’70s in Baltimore, we didn’t mock consumer culture. We didn’t have any money to be consumers. Most of the students at MICA were working class. We made an odd career choice going to art school. That didn’t present any clear future employment options; so our anti-consumerism was picking a degree that made us pretty unemployable.
We didn’t want to be nerds. We dressed like James Dean or pretended that we were extras in a Jean-Luc Godard film.
The Skeeve: Why photography?
Paula Gillen: I like taking photographs. It captures a slice of reality documenting social behavior, cultural trends, architecture, people, fashion and political themes in time. You take a slice of reality and save it. It’s also the closest I can get to time travel. Except photography and images move backward in time as you move forward. I like the past and anything vintage. I’m happy that I have my photos from the ’70s to see what my friends and I were up to when we were hot and young.
All photos ©Paula Gillen.
Featured artists: Cindy Heidel, Jayne De Sesa, Bonnie Bonnell, Michael Gentile, tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE, Peter Haskell, Beth Lopez, Shop Girls, Alfred Harris, and Nancy Krzyanowski.
Thanks to Splice Today for pointing the way.