Walking down San Francisco’s Market Street with my spiked leather jacket and my hair standing on end, I hardly notice the strange looks I get. But when a group of black teenagers approach me shouting: “HEY! You with the funny lookin’ hair! Nazi skinhead!’' I back away.
I’m a punk, not a skin. Punks and skins are mortal enemies. But I see these kids’ clenched fists, their angry looks. I know they won’t understand.
It’s not their fault that there is a communication problem. It’s the fault of the news media, which have made society believe that any young white person who shaves part of his or her head or wears Doc Martens (boots) has to be a skinhead. If you look closely, you’ll see that punk styles and skin styles are totally different.
The punk look is a reflection of the punk attitude toward life. Punks usually wear leather jackets studded with spikes, unless they’re vegetarians and wear only denim. Punk T-shirts are printed with the names of punk bands or rude political slogans. Punks also wear bullet or spiked belts, tightfitting jeans or a pair of bondage pants, and combat boots or Doc Martens. (Vegetarians wear vegan assault boots made out of canvas.)
Sometimes punks tattoo their arms with encircled letters like E for equality, A for anarchy, or anti-government slogans and punk sayings, like PUNKS NOT DEAD. Most have their noses pierced. Some have their lips or eyebrows pierced. All of this lets the world know that punks create their own standards; they don’t mimic anyone else.
Some punks are homeless and, like me, ran away at an early age. A majority of punks I know felt or were rejected as young children. Younger punks who are homeless live in squats (abandoned buildings used for shelters) and panhandle for money, which they pool to buy food, beer, or tickets to gigs.
Punk music is fast, loud, and angry and reflects punk’s rebellion at the greedy destruction of the planet and the way of life society says you have to lead.
Skinhead culture is the total opposite of punk. Most skins consider themselves working class and have manual, low-wage jobs. It’s important for a skinhead to have a clean, hardworking image to maintain the sense of white pride. The music skins listen to is called “Oi,’' which sounds like punk music but is slower and has lyrics that are patriotic.
Skins almost always wear army flight jackets, Fred Perry or Polo shirts buttoned up to the top, and suspenders. They wear either jeans or khaki pants altered to fit tight around the ankle, and, of course, Doc Martens.
Skins usually don’t pierce their bodies but do wear tattoos featuring swastikas, the letters SWP (Supreme White Power), the American flag, or the Confederate flag. Skins got their name because back in the late 1960s, they started shaving their heads as a revolt against the hippie era.
There are many different types of skinheads, but all believe in a white American nation. In the skinhead culture, the man goes to work while the woman stays at home to cook, clean, and get pregnant. Skins believe the male is the superior and stronger sex.
Nazi skinheads believe in the annihilation of all ethnicities except the Aryan race. They frequently engage in hate crimes against homosexuals and other minorities. They identify themselves by wearing red suspenders and red boot laces.
White supremacist skins believe that all non-white minorities should go back to their homelands. They oppose “race mixing’'--when people who are not from the same race date or marry. They identify themselves by wearing white suspenders and white boot laces.
SHARP skinheads (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) are an anti-racist group that believes everyone is a person no matter what he or she looks like. SHARPs conduct hate crimes against racist skins.
Punks and skins don’t look alike or think alike, but they do have one important thing in common: Members of both groups need to feel wanted.
If you’re a punk or a skin, you can go to any city in this country and instantly have friends. Dressing or looking a certain way makes you instantly recognizable as a member of a group.
Youths may get involved in the punk or skin culture and for the first time have a sense of belonging. Then, that culture becomes their reason to live.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Mistaken Identity