A good mohawk hairdo is a statement that both deflects and demands attention. “Look at me! What are you looking at?” It’s a uniform of nonconformity. An easily deciphered message that screams trouble with a booming laugh. It’s a sculptural and painterly art form, hard to achieve, defying laws of both gravity and gravitas. It’s tribal plumage, it’s gender neutral, or rather, gender-blasting. It’s inconvenient and amazing. It’s kind of a dare. It’s edgy, it’s aspirational. It’s been the province of the punks, outsiders, and leather-clad. There’s nothing cooler than a mohawk.
Artist Ed Templeton works with photography in the modality of long-form collections, each based on narratives that have emerged organically during his career as a world-traveling skateboard icon. In addition to skating, photography, and painting, Templeton has made loads of books and 100s of ‘zines, so his brain sort of naturally thinks in terms of thematic collections. Each project investigates a unique, semi-private subculture, for example his 1999 book and show Teenage Smokers was accumulated from his global skateboard circuit tour. This time, it’s about people with mohawks.
Templeton’s brand-new book Hairdos of Defiance, and his current exhibition of the same name at Robert Projects, Culver City, contains about 60 images culled from 20 years of random meetings, from Templeton’s backyard of Huntington Beach and across the U.S. and Europe. Over the years and around the world, whosoever young and old, boy or girl, punk or part-time partier, down and dirty fashionista, aspiring or aging rocker, skate fan, and runaway took it upon themselves to build castles in their hair, Templeton wanted them to be seen. In his introduction to the book (excerpted below), Templeton combines anecdotes from his own experiences with cross-cultural observations on the history and evolution of the mohawk, “from its origins in indigenous culture to its emergence as a punk identifier, to its co-option by the mainstream, to its significance in his own life as an outsider kid growing up in suburbia.”
Ron was punk. He had a mohawk that was usually not spiked, laying softly down the left side of his head leaving the shaved right side exposed. I was afraid of these kids, but they welcomed me into their world because I was a skater, and so I hung out with them quietly listening and learning. The next day Ron walked into school with his mohawk spiked fully erect into a great fan. I asked him how he got it so rigid and he told me, “egg whites and Knox gelatin.” Later that day he was kicked out of school for it.
The gallery show is installed in a wood-paneled, den-like setting resembling a bedroom or makeshift studio. This setting hearkens to the lowkey environments where Templeton frequently encountered his subjects, as well as reinforcing the eccentricity of his slightly retro aesthetic. This is also amplified by the varying sizes of the prints and their nonlinear arrangement in the space, which further reinforces the impact of the overall sensibility of the project. In his choices of subject, as well as these and other stylistic actions, Templeton proceeds with shades of influence from Larry Clark to the legacy of pioneering street photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, and even Robert Doisneau — scrawling notes and titles in the margins, often printing in black and white before embellishing the prints with pigment washes, drawings, and other details; though many of the works are shot color. His old-school style produces a compelling and witty tension with the often debauched and chicly feral cultures being documented. With images that were captured over the years all being printed in the past several months, the timeline of this cross-section of once and current youth culture is both brightly surveyed and shaped into a vibrant compression — sort of like a spiked fanning red mohawk spine, sparkling in the harsh light of the sun on city streets.
Book available for pre-order from Deadbeat Club Press
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, as well as HuffPost, Vice, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake,Artillery, Juxtapoz, ALTA Journal of California, Palm Springs Life, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange.