This year, the world said goodbye to Jamie Reid – a true icon who spent an incredible five decades on the cultural frontline, shining his artistic light on social and cultural injustices.
While Reid hated labels, we think his gallerist, John Marchant, said it best when he described him as, ‘an anarchist, punk, hippie, shit-stirring rebel and romantic.’ Reid may be best known for piercing the Queen’s lip as the Sex Pistols’ art director, but over the years we’ve watched him wage witty war on more than just the monarchy.
In today’s blog, we’re journeying through the iconic career of our favourite shit-stirring rebel, to honour his life, his politics, and his unforgettable impact on popular culture.
Where it all began…
Reid described himself as a ‘socialist druid’, inspired by ‘a strong belief in living’. Politics were a huge part of his life from the off, with his socialist parents encouraging his fighting spirit by taking him on marches as soon as he was old enough to walk.
Reid’s uncle was also a Head of the Druid Order, which nurtured the love and respect for the planet that we’ve seen him prioritise throughout his career.
According to punk historian Jon Savage, who collaborated with Reid on the artist’s 1987 book: Up They Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid, it was this grounding in radical politics that lent Reid’s work the authenticity that spoke to the masses. Savage stated:
“[His politics gave his work] an added element of sophistication. In comparison to some of the rather tawdry and imitative punk graphics, Jamie’s came from a deep place.”
When Reid made the move to Croydon in the late 60’s to attend art school, his career took off in an interesting direction.
Firstly, Reid met Sex Pistols’ future manager, Malcolm McLaren. The pair became fast friends, bonding over their shared interest in the French situationist movement. This group of revolutionaries and political and social theorists, who were known for provocative critiques of capitalism, were a clear influence on Reid’s artistic output, both in the Sex Pistols era and beyond. Speaking of his time at Croydon Art School, Reid stated:
“I was so lucky getting a place at Croydon Art School. If I hadn’t gone to Croydon I would never have met Malcolm McLaren. For me, Malcolm was the greatest conceptual artist of the 20th century. Not just for what he did with the Pistols but for everything else he did. The irony is that neither Malcolm or I would have got in to Croydon if it was today. What does that tell you about what’s happened to our education system?”
Later in 1970, Reid launched Suburban Press – a magazine which focused on local politics and council corruption in Croydon. Reid described this time as ‘invaluable’ mostly because of his direct involvement with the printing process. Reid stated:
“A lot of work that came to the public eye with the Sex Pistols was a result of what I’d learnt on that press.”
Key works created by Reid during his five year stint at Suburban Press include disobedient stickers reflecting the world running out of raw materials, alongside calls to burn cars and shoplift.
Anarchy in the UK
While at Suburban Press, Reid also released Monster on Nice Roof, a piece depicting a giant beast perched on the roof of a suburban home. Retrospectively, this artwork is considered to foretell the monster that became punk.
When McLaren began managing the Sex Pistols, he had to let Reid know he wanted him onboard via telegram. This is because, at the time, Reid was residing in the Outer Hebrides, learning a traditional Scottish working community system, called ‘crofting’…as you do.
What Reid went on to create for the band was an amalgamation of his politics and life experience. Reid didn’t just create record cover art, he created an entire visual language that stuck two fingers up at slick record companies, and ushered in an entirely new DIY approach to album art.
God Save the Queen
Reid created numerous iconic works for the Sex Pistols, including the pink and yellow artwork for their landmark 1977 debut album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, the smashed empty picture frame for Pretty Vacant, imagery for The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle and the single cover for Anarchy in the UK, which featured a torn Union Jack flag beneath ransom-note-like lettering torn from newspapers that spelled out ‘Sex Pistols’.
However, it was one controversial piece in particular that became so infamous even Reid got bored of talking about it – the artwork for God Save the Queen.
Released in 1977 to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the cover of the hit single (which was banned by the BBC) featured a portrait of the Queen defaced by Reid. In one fell swoop, Reid’s image perfectly encapsulated the Sex Pistols’ anarchistic attack on music, art, politics, and instantly defined the popular image of punk. Nowadays, you can’t think of punk without also thinking of Reid’s creative genius.
The Post Punk Years
After the Sex Pistols imploded, Reid found himself living in a Brixton squat, where he continued to make art, lectured at schools, designed a recording studio, and protested everything from anti-gay legislation to government plots to quell the UKs thriving rave scene.
While Reid moved away from blackmail lettering and safety pins, and towards matters more important to his heart and soul, his punk-outlook remained. A prime example of this came with the emergence of the Young British Artists (YBAs), who cited his work and punk ethos as an inspiration. Commenting on this, Reid was on characteristically candid form:
“Brit art - Hirst and Emin, etc - leave me cold. I associate the YBAs with Thatcherism - it was spawned out of that, people paying a lot of money for nothing. It's just empty gestures - the nouvelle cuisine of the art world. There’s nothing remotely shocking about what they do.”
Ever one to stand up for the underdog, in 2009, Reid protested Hirst himself when the YBA threatened to sue an art student who used an image of his infamous diamond encrusted skull.
In response, Reid released God Save Damien Hirst, condemned the YBA as a ‘greedy art bully’, and put out an open call for artists and members of the public to send in their own appropriations of Hirst’s skull. Inflammatory and defiant, but undeniably amusing, the submitted artworks were displayed on a website entitled RedRagToABull.com. In the years since, Reid created savage artworks deriding Donald Trump and celebrity culture in general.
From iconic record sleeves to his support of radical causes like Extinction Rebellion and the Occupy movement, to collaborations with the likes of Pussy Riot and Jimmy Cauty from The KLF, at every stage of his career, Jamie Reid waged a visual war on the narrow-minded.
Via his acerbic copywriting and striking images, Reid single-handedly exposed injustice, opened minds, and made a whole generation of disenfranchised youth feel less alone.
His work is proof of the power that lies in art, and has inspired untold artists around the world to use their work to engage politically. In one interview from 2015, Reid stated:
“Radical ideas will always get appropriated by the mainstream. A lot of it is to do with the fact that the establishment and the people in authority actually lack the ability to be creative. They rob everything they can. That’s why you always have to move on, and move on, and move on.”
Jamie Reid may have moved on, but he’ll never be forgotten.