A Chat with Farrah Skeiky on Punk Culture in DC

Words by Allyna Wilson 

Hard Art, DC 1979 by MacKaye, Perkins, Rollins, Photo by Lucian Perkins

A lot of publications will tell you that Washington DC is all politics with little room for art. Beyond the glossy portrait of politicians and businesspeople, lies a plethora of diverse culture, fashion, art and music. During the days of the “Chocolate city” (1960-1990) music, art and fashion thrived in D.C. Part of D.C’s culture includes a punk scene which has existed in the area since the late 1970s. Today, that culture has been placed underground beneath the commercial art scene that exists today. Neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, the home of TRIBUTE, upheld DC’s night-life, especially during the 80’s and 90’s. Adams Morgan was a melting pot of culture, food and music. It eventually became a hub for music venues, international restaurants and bars including Madam’s Organ - a popular bar that helped put punk on DC’s map. Other locations including D.C. Space, the 9:30 Club and Smash! Records was where punk and hardcore artists could share their music with the local community. Punk's existence in DC has been preserved and maintained in the form of  pictures, books, zines, interviews, posters, articles, and blogs. 

To get a deeper dive into DC’s Punk scene, I had the luxury of chatting with Farrah Skeiky. Skeiky is a DC-based photographer, creative director, and writer. At the beginning of 2020, she published a photo book called Present Tense: DC Punk and DIY, Right Now.  

Photo by Farrah Skeiky of Present Tense: DC Punk and DIY, Right Now

When Farrah moved to the DC area at 15 years old in the mid 2000’s, the thing that brought her the most excitement was going to live shows nearby. She explained that outdoor concerts in Fort Reno Park and St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Columbia Heights offered a space for punk shows and benefit shows to happen in DC. “A lot of these spaces are all ages, they're drug and alcohol free, and they're really inclusive, so it's easier for someone under eighteen to, like, be part of it, and that was really exciting to me.” she explains. The Fort Reno concert series, which has incorporated punk music since the late 60s, was a more low-key space in the DC area for people to enjoy punk and indie music in an alcohol/drug-free zone. Artists could perform while their audience would listen to the music in an outdoor and accessible venue with their families. She goes on to say that punk is about youth culture which makes it almost necessary for punk shows to be accessible to youth. “Everybody's been a teenager where you feel misunderstood, and you feel like you don’t fit in, like you’re the odd one out.” says Skeiky. She explains that the draw of punk on youth culture is that it created a space for people to feel accepted. They can appreciate things that are not as mainstream or prescribed. Punk culture inspires young people to take hold of opportunities without waiting for someone to hand it to them. 

Photo by Farrah Skeiky from Present Tense: DC Punk and DIY, Right Now

A central component of punk is a DIY ethic. Skeiky points out that while DIY and punk are different, there is an intersection between the two. “People in the punk scene communicate by making zines and, like, before the internet that’s how you'd find out who was making what, they weren't waiting for a big magazine to publish a story about their friends band, or their band, they were like, ‘well we're gonna publish it and the mailing address is my mom's garage’ that's really what it was.” She pointed out that the pictures she captured for her photo book (some of which are featured in this blog post), are taken from unconventional venues like living rooms, bar basements, even one in a grocery store. 

Photo by Farrah Skeiky from Present Tense: DC Punk and DIY, Right Now

Punk culture is not one particular thing, it is made up of a variety of ideologies, movements and music styles. Riot grrrl, which emerged in the early 90s, was an underground feminist movement that brought attention to sexism in punk culture. While its intentions were in the right place, its lack of inclusivity drew necessary criticism. “It was bands like Bikini Kill that were kind of at the center of that, you know, their music can still be special, it can still be powerful, but a lot of it was not very inclusive, it needed another wave of intersectional feminism and womanism to follow it.” explains Skeiky. She says that the movement hooked a lot of people onto punk that wouldn’t have otherwise seen themselves as part of it, but like many other communities it has room to improve. In those settings, many people felt like they had to choose to represent either their gender or their race. “In a Riot grrrl space you might’ve been seen as, like, a woman, but not the other things that make you you, including your race, and that’s a super frustrating thing a lot of people experience which turned a lot of people off of punk.” 

Photo by Farrah Skeiky from Present Tense: DC Punk and DIY, Right Now

The people who have stuck around despite the lack of inclusivity are the ones who are working to improve punk culture. It is their home and they are creating space within the punk community for themselves. Change happens when the status quo isn't acceptable. Skeiky explained that inclusivity has to happen on all levels, from the tech people, to the person who booked the show, to the band on stage. “The thing that keeps people going is seeing people like themselves involved in every part of it.” Punk emerged from people who didn’t like how things were, and when people realized they didn’t like what they saw within punk culture, subcultures came to be.  DC is home to one of punk's subcultures, straight edge. Straight edge specifically abstains from alcohol and drug use. Minor Threat and Fugazi were two bands that formed in Washington DC and followed the straight edge style. Skeiky explains that the punk and DIY community in DC raised about a quarter of a million dollars through the 80s and 90s to give to various causes and nonprofits. The DC area offers close proximity to the political scene which can be a good place to make effective noise, but Skeiky points out that punk isn't always about global or national politics, it is also very much about personal politics.  Another component to punk subcultures is expression through fashion. “Punk as a fashion trend is the least punk thing that can happen,” says Skeiky. “Dressing that way because you like it, you're comfortable in it, and as a way of expressing yourself is a whole other story.” She continues to explain that punk fashion is not monolithic. With each subgenre and era of punk are different fashion styles. “I like wearing all black, maybe that’s the moody artist in me” she says. Whereas hardcore punk bands like Youth Crew tend to dress more like high school jocks. 

Photo by Farrah Skeiky from Present Tense: DC Punk and DIY, Right Now

In her photo book, Skeiky challenges the misconception that punk in DC is a thing of the past. “I always say that, like, Washington and DC are like two different places and states of mind that occupy the same zip codes.” says Skeiky. She explains that Washington represents the corporate side while DC represents the cultural side “Punk very much exists in DC, and it still does.” She said that it excites her to see more diversity in today's DC punk scene. She included that younger and newer bands have been keeping the punk scene alive.   In the midst of the pandemic, the punk scene has looked a little different. “What I’m seeing more, is people just, like, taking a break, stepping back, maybe making new music, working on a new song and writing, and figuring out what else they want to do.” says Skeiky. She goes on to explain that punk is not something you do to make an income. She points out that it’s typical for members of bands to have part time or full time jobs somewhere else. In the true nature of a DIY ethic, some bands have put together safely distanced shows with limited guests and in small outdoor spaces.  Punk artists dedication to their music and the punk community is obvious. Being adaptable enough to perform at any type of venue and with a lot of self reliance exemplifies how meaningful their work is. The electricity and euphoria of the scene is exuded in every picture. Skeiky explains that her favorite photos she captures are the ones where you can’t tell who is in the band or who is a part of the crowd, “If you’re doing it right, and the exchange of energies are really reciprocal, those are my favorite pictures, it kind of feels like it belongs to everybody.”  To learn more about Farrah Skeiky, check out her website and follow her socials to experience her incredible work. 



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