The poetry of punk; photographer Stefano Venturi documents his enduring, unlikely friendship with poet Steve Strange
Text: Anna Sanders
Images: Stefano Venturi
Collaborative project: Tara St Hill and Stefano Venturi
Punk is resistance: a rejection of societal norms that dictate and do not discuss, a rejection of the expected and the enforced. It isn’t music or fashion – though its visceral, raw aesthetic has permeated through artist endeavours: a DIY, distressed dress code in fashion; anti-establishment lyrics in music; that unmistakable cut-out, typeset aesthetic that left its mark on graphic design. Yet punk is, for all its definitions, inherently undefinable: a shifting landscape; a living, beating thing.
In response to ’40 Years of Punk’, a retrospective of the sub-culture hosted by Punk London, photographer Stefano Venturi sought to honestly reveal the punk scene, one that still exists away from the formal landscape of a museum piece. The subjects may be older than the images of 80s youth that epitomised the birth of the punk scene, but they are no less vibrant. Softly-lit photographs etched in grey and grain have a quiet, commanding grace to them. The residual passion and anarchy of the era remains, inked into skin and betrayed in a look that yearns for something more – slumped shoulders and a downward gaze, a defiant hand gesture, emotion lined eyes. The look of Punk, tattooed and torn-up, can be easily dismissed as the look of someone who doesn’t care, but they care deeply, and through Stefano’s images the defiance and the heartache is felt throughout.
His narrative focuses on Steve, introduced to Stefano by their mutual friend, stylist Tara St. Hill, and through candid shots and intimate portraits Steve’s life unfolds: his relationship with his close friend Skip, his home, and the place where he lives.
Exclusively published below alongside his images, are Steve’s poems, written following his experiences with homelessness and addiction. His words are the haunting truths of lost love, loneliness, and of finding light in dark places.
We spoke with Stefano, Steve, and Tara about their friendship, the project, and the poetry of punk.
How did the project evolve from conception to finish, and did you work closely together to achieve the final results?
The idea of the project came up when Punk London started – I don’t feel it’s right for corporations such as National Lottery (who are the main sponsor for the event) to put Punk, a movement and state of mind, in a museum; it’s like saying in a way that punk is dead.
“Punk is not a museum piece” is an evolving state of mind and I wanted to capture the real punk scene in its natural environment. It’s an on-going project that will feature old-school punks and new generations, gigs and everything that goes on around the sub-culture – the project may have started but it’s not finished yet!
What would you want people to take away from looking at these images?
People can see and take away whatever they feel out of these images – we just want to show the reality of the Punk scene.
How did you meet first meet Steve?
Through Tara on the day of the shoot, he is a fascinating character and we stayed friends ever since.
How did you begin writing your poems?
Originally when I was homeless and a heroin addict around holloway, some bloke just came up to me and said he was doing a book about the homeless and was asking everyone to write something – a poem, a short story, just thoughts on paper. I wrote a poem about my situation, and when he came back I sold it to him for his book. I found it quite a cathartic experience, so I just carried on writing.
You often deal with political themes in your work, do you hope to inspire social change through your words or are your poems a personal outlet?
I’m an activist and have been most of my life – anti war; anti racist; whatever, and over the years, because I’m a punk and punk is quite political, my poetry has lent more toward the political side. But then again, poems about fluffy bunny rabbits are fucking boring. A fluffy bunny rabbit with an axe in their head may be a bit more illuminating but anyway, for me it’s cathartic. Its putting my thoughts on paper, in rhyme, and if other people are inspired or my words strike a chord with them then that’s brilliant, that’s a positive message, and though often the subject matter of my work is quite negative it’s done from a positive stance – to make the world a better place.
I once heard punk described as the act of making ugliness beautiful, and that resonated with me when I read your work. What does punk mean to you, and do you feel you express this in your poetry?
Punk become a life force within itself in society, and as a sub-culture it leans quite heavily on politics – punks do actually care about the state of the world, and this is often reflected in music, or imagery. Some people might call what I do punk poetry, some people might call it political poetry, I don’t know – if you want you can box and label it, but for me it’s just thoughts pouring out of my head.
How did you meet Stefano and Steve, and how did you introduce them both?
I met Stefano accidentally through Instagram. I was in the coffee shop where he works and he stopped me and said he followed my Instagram, I asked him his name, found his page, and it was one of my favourite accounts. We just hit it off straight away and we’ve been really close friends ever since.
As for Steve, I’ve seen him around the area for years and liked his clothes and how he wore them and was always quite curious of him, and then around three summers ago I was sat in Clissold Park after taking my dog for a walk, and Steve just started talking to me. We’d bump into each other a few times a week after that, and whenever we did we’d talk about music, politics, fashion and I enjoyed that he had an opinion, that he was passionate: one thing that really attracts me to people is when they’re passionate. Stef has enthusiasm for life in bucket loads so yeah, I adore them both.
What was your role in the project?
I had been thinking about how I could make the project with the boys work as the aesthetics would be absolutely perfect. Stefano’s photographs are beautiful – his images are studies on people: unapologetic, unforgiving, but there’s always this sense of something very honest and true, and all the subjects in his photographs look proud.
And there’s just something about Steve. I remember having a chat with Stefano after work one day and saying I felt Steve and his friend’s style is just as strong as anything you might find in a fashion magazine. So my role was putting these two amazing personalities together, introducing them and seeing what happened.
How have you felt about the collaborative nature of the project?
I think it’s this perfect marriage, and everyone has shown an open, vulnerable side to themselves. Steve letting Stefano into his home, Stefano taking the photos so beautifully, the boys becoming friends – and having a bromance since then!
I love the fact that through something as silly as me vaguely knowing a person a few years ago, to appreciating their taste in music, to having the same passion for clothes has made this little collaboration happen, it’s been an absolute pleasure and so exciting to see the pictures that have come out of it. Yeah, it’s been lovely.
What do you think about Punk London?
I just think it’s a load of bollocks to be honest.
What are your thoughts on Steve’s poetry?
I love it. It’s political and it’s passionate, and it shows a side to him that is very sensitive and pure. Anyone that has any passion, whatever it may be – in photography, fashion or Punk music, I absolutely believe in it.
The tears on a childs face are only a refelction of an old mans dementia of the misery that life can bring or the joy of pain , blocking it out by shallow past times it reminds me of that twisted nursery rhyme , smiling to fool myself and the public that i’m going to heaven but hell is always present , in the darkness i am the lightbringer , my soul one with all , the twisted tortured souls , the forboding of falling in love and the risks that are always worth it , embrace the blackness for within there is light but only for those that have second sight
Monkey see and monkey do,
there’s still a monkey inside you,
well this monkey has a cause,
seeing through oppression and their laws,
not joining in their bullshit wars,
it’s still a jungle outside there,
keep your head down and,
don’t you stare,
into their eyes or you might get infected,
they’re the monkeys,
that get government elected,
separated by class warfare,
it’s still a jungle outside there.
Calling anyone that has been, shafted by the system, the redundant, sacked, police oppressed, divorced, victims of racism, sexism, can’t you see we’re being conned, has the dole ever fucked with your giro, don’t listen to their lies or excuses, can’t you see were being conned, they’re shafting us, Left, Right, and Centre. They tax your income and tax you when you spend what littles left, can’t you see you’re being conned? Road tax, petrol tax, tax on tax, pension tax , tax is a pox on you, come on wake up to reality, don’t you remember the poll tax, wake up before your back is against the wall, can’t you see you’re being conned, wake up
Take my life, take my soul, for in you my friend there burns a hole,
I can heal you, I can see, that hole in you that is me
I will walk in the ruins of your decadence, amongst the rubble of your opulence, you never stood up when you could have, living on your apathetic knees, frightened of a change to your greed, when an open mind and soul is what you need, we have no future because of your selflessness, you have no fire, warmth, you’re living but mute, to slavery you commute your mindset sickens me, you look but can not see.