Oh So Pretty

From bedroom chords to Blondie: Toby Mott celebrates punk art in a new exhibition
Art | 6 October 2016

Toby Mott in his bedroom (1977)

Top image: God Save the Queen, “Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print”, courtesy of Phaidon

British artist Toby Mott started collecting punk paraphernalia as a teenager in the late 1970s. It was a time when punk was in full swing, and growing up in London’s Pimlico meant that the movement was practically unfolding on his door step.

From music, to fashion, art and publishing, Mott became totally enthralled by the subculture. He founded his own collective the Anarchist Street Army and started to compulsively collect gig posters, zines and record sleeves – all souvenirs and treasures from his days as a young punk in the city.

Mott now owns one of the most rare and comprehensive collections of punk artefacts and graphic artworks in Britain. As part of Frieze Art Fair, Mott will be celebrating punk artwork with a new exhibition and book, Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print. The book is an edit of key pieces from his archive, highlighting the immediate graphic culture that punk developed. He has also teamed up with rock, punk and general music enthusiast John Varvatos in a special exhibition at the designer’s Conduit Street store.

Here Mott looks back on his collection, shares his thoughts on why he thinks punk is still very much alive and we find out about his countercultural publishing platform, Cultural Traffic.


Nazanin Shahnavaz: Can you tell us how you first became involved in punk?
Toby Mott: So I grew up in Pimlico, right by the Kings Road in Central London. I became a teenager in 1977, which was the high point of the punk explosion so I was totally immersed in it. Also, at the time – aged thirteen or whatever – I was a creative kid and was drawn to the creative rebellious energy of punk.

NS: As a teenager you were part of the Anarchist Street Army, what did that involve?
TM: Growing up, I obviously hung out with other teenage delinquents and we decided to create our own identity, which we called the Anarchist Street Army. We listened to Crass and read about anarchy, alternative forms of government and ways of doing things differently.

Toby Mott in Kentish Town (1978)

NS: Why did you start collecting punk paraphernalia?
TM: Being involved in punk becomes your whole identity. You dress as a punk, you listen to punk music, you go to punk gigs and you socialise with other punks.  I also created my own punk world, which would have been my bedroom. It was covered in posters, flyers, record sleeves and all the sort of ephemera that punk culture generated. Every aspect of my life that I controlled had some sort of punk element to it.

“Today when we say, ‘punk culture’ we are not really talking about people rehashing the Sex Pistols or The Clash, or a pastiche of punk graphics. We are talking about an attitude to do something outside of the mainstream, it’s an energy that operates on its own.”

NS: How big is your collection now?
TM: The collection has grown, there’re about 6000 artefacts now. It starts with punk in 1976 and includes items on skinhead culture, Crass and anarcho-punk which is more of a 1980s off-shoot of punk. It’s all pre-internet, so when information was communicated by bits of paper.

NS: What’s your most prized possession in the collection?
TM: I think issue one of Sideburns is my most prized possession. They had a blank page and drew what is now and the iconic image that says, “Here are three chords, now form a band”. That drawing credits with the whole ethos of punk, it was not so much about your ability to be a musician but more about the energy to do something.

Sideburns Zine, Issue 1

NS: Can you pick a personal item from the book and share the story behind it?
TM: There’s a Snivelling Shits gig poster in the from  from the Music Machine, a venue in Mornington Crescent which is now called KoKo. What I think is so great about that poster is that it reflects what punk was really about. If you call your band Snivelling Shits, the idea of being some kind of X Factor type success was obviously very far from your thinking and that does reflect the attitude of punk, you didn’t want to join in the dominant pop culture of the day.

NS: Some people say punk is dead, others say punk lives – what are your thoughts?
TM: Cultural Traffic, which opens this Friday, will show a celebration of today’s punk culture. Today when we say, ‘punk culture’ we are not really talking about people rehashing the Sex Pistols or The Clash, or a pastiche of punk graphics. We are talking about an attitude to do something outside of the mainstream, it’s an energy that operates on its own.


Blondie, “Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print”, courtesy of Phaidon

NS: What are your thoughts on how punk is represented by institutions such as the British Library?
TM: What the British Library is doing is showing artefacts from punk, 1976-1977 was a high point in British culture and so that’s exactly where punk should be. It is a springboard for people to take from and make something new, I don’t see it as being cooped by the establishment.

The ‘Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print’ exhibition will run to October 17th at the John Varvatos gallery on Conduit Street and the book will be published by Phaidon worldwide from Monday 15th October.

‘Cultural Traffic’ is on at Juju’s, Eli’s Yard, E1 from 7th–8th October 2016


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