Gavin Watson: Spirit of ’69
Gavin Watson acquired one of the UK’s most important documentary portfolios by complete accident. Capturing three of the country’s most iconic subcultures – skins, punks and rave – it’s his photos of the original skinhead subculture as it emerged and transformed that form his most seminal work.
Watson now works for various publications and fashion brands, and his work for Dr. Martens’ Spirit of ’69 campaign explores a look and attitude that started back in 1969 by first generation skinheads and frames the epochal style movement in a modern environment, including a video voiced by Mike Skinner exploring skinhead history.
Born in London in 1965 and brought up in High Wycombe, at the age of 15 Watson began photographing the ‘Wycombe Skins’. A true working class movement, this skinhead culture fused a fixation on meticulous, ultra-minimalist style with the disparate influences of post-Windrush Caribbean culture, Trojan Records’ ska and rocksteady and a proud British sensibility.
Watson documented the bulk of the historical ‘skins’ era, taking place between 1979-81, and later compiled the images into his 2008 book Skins. Himself immersed in the scenes as they took place, Watson’s work challenges common perceptions of skinhead culture, and provides a powerful documentation of these iconic scenes. We caught up with him to talk Madness, modernism and making history.
What were your first experiences of skinhead culture and how did they influence you at the time?
I grew up on a council estate in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, around gangs and with no real education. It’s strange looking back. My elder brother was a big reggae fan and I grew up listening to the music. Before Madness was on TV I hadn’t even heard of a skinhead, I didn’t even know they existed. Perhaps I was just cut off from culture. But ska and reggae music hit us in a different way – I was opened up to a culture that I never knew existed. My brother got so into it. I was more ‘combat trousers and ready for agro’, but my brother would invest time tracking down obscure records. Of course there was no internet back then so getting hold of the music was all part of it. The punk element came along and next minute I know I’m an uneducated angry young man.
How would you describe the spirit of ‘69?
I was four in 1969. It goes back to a time when Caribbean and British cultures mixed properly for the first time. Reggae music gained recognition and popularity. People will always want to flirt with the feeling of that time.
Why do you think your images of the scene are so potent now, looking back on them?
Skins spoke purely to our tribal instincts. We are all tribal by nature. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting on the weekends with a Range Rover, you’re in a mob, you’re in a gang. You might think that the Range makes it more legitimate, but it’s still a gang. The skinheads spoke to something more, beyond fashion… I can’t really speak for everyone but for me it was about the urge to be in a society where we protect each other. Skinheads were the working class heroes. We were the rebels against what we thought was oppression. Political shit got dumped in our faces. Skinhead was a combination of clothes and fear – fear of life, people in uniforms all in one place and stuff. People will always look for reason. But, at the end of the day, when everything goes out the window, we are left with the music.
Can you tell us a bit about your recent work for Dr. Martens, how did you frame skinhead culture within a modern context?
I’m a modernist. I was a modernist then and I’m a modernist now. Dr. Martens has its heart in the right place and that matters. They do things properly. They worked hard on Spirit of ’69 and treated it with respect. It was important that people loved it. No other company would have done it. No other company could have done it. Dr. Martens are brave enough to embrace their heritage and acknowledge that they exist partly due to skinheads despite the fact that a lot of us were angry. They still embraced it and celebrated what’s positive.
I had the control with Dr. Martens and was happy about that. I went out, found the location. I knew exactly in my head what I want to do. The visuals of skinheadism come from 60s and 70s skinhead novels by Richard Allan and films like Pulp Fiction. They were gritty and I wanted that feel for the backdrop. The modern day skinheads were wicked and at the end of the day it will always be about the subject and these guys had an essence of the real deal.
What’s next for Gavin Watson?
People look at me for skinhead stuff because of Shane Meadow’s This Is England. I had so many calls when the film came out from people saying that my work had been made into a film and can I do this and that. The film was so needed and laid the groundwork for the rest of my creative life. Before then I was a lone, distant voice in an agenda that pushed the right-wing fairytale. The outside world had anointed us with a demonisation brush. When Shane brought out This is England I could only watch the film once because that was my life, I was in it for real.
The Dr. Martens Spirit of ’69 collection can be found or ordered at your local store