David King at Colpa Books in San Francisco. (Paul d'Orleans)
David King, the San Francisco artist best known for designing the English punk band Crass’ iconic and widely reproduced anti-establishment emblem, died at home Thursday following a years-long fight with cancer, his frequent publisher Colpa Press confirmed to KQED. He was 71.
The English-born designer, photographer and musician, who moved to San Francisco in 1982, created what would become known as the Crass symbol—a stencil-friendly design incorporating a cross and what he called a “diagonal, negating serpent” with two heads—more than 40 years ago to criticize the mixture of church and state. He also participated in New York’s Downtown scene of the 1980s and the Mission School milieu the next decade in San Francisco.
The “explosive and memorable image” has “acquired a ubiquitous independence as a sign of protest,” design historian Steven Heller writes in a new book of King’s work. A popular tattoo, the symbol is perhaps rivaled only by Black Flag’s logo in subcultural prominence. It’s also been appropriated for commercial purposes, moving King in recent years to revisit the stark symbol in various publications and exhibitions with color and levity that better reflects his work’s tone.
“David’s iconic symbols were a badge of authenticity in the underground scenes across the globe in the pre-internet era, recognizable at 65 mph on the back of a squatter punk meandering down an alleyway at four in the morning,” writes the artist Barry McGee, who King met at the San Francisco Art Institute, in Gingko Press’ new David King Stencils. “What symbol has even come remotely close to so immediately showing one’s allegiance to an ideology or attitude?”
King, remembered for his poise and sharp dress, was born in the United Kingdom on April 10, 1948. In a 2013 interview with this writer, he described being attracted to the “riots” and “beacons” of color in commercial designs on comic books and candy wrapping amid the grey, post-war cityscape. Mod fashion of the 1960s was more to his liking, and King attended art school from 1964 to 1967.
In college King met the artists eventually known as Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher of Crass, afterwards working as a graphic designer. At the inception of punk, he gravitated towards stencils, subverting the militaristic style to promote peace. In 1977 at the communal Dial House near London, King encouraged Rimbaud to write down his criticisms of the state’s propagation of Christian values through public education, leading to the pamphlet Christ’s Reality Asylum.
King designed a logo for the pamphlet that Rimbaud later that year adopted to represent the punk band Crass. “I think the symbol is very simple,” King said in the 2013 interview. “[It’s] against monolithic religious and cultural oppression.” Crass proved hugely influential as a band, agitprop art collective and eponymous record label on the development of anarcho-punk, famously aiming barbed invective at the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
In 1977, King moved to New York City and fell into the Downtown art and music scene, for instance creating imagery for the storied nightclub Danceteria. He moved with his Arsenal band mates in 1982 to San Francisco, where they reformed as Sleeping Dogs. The groups included his wife Dione. Beware, which Crass Records released that year, contains anti-capitalist messages and carries King’s distinctive artwork—a Mickey Mouse skull in the middle of a nuclear radiation symbol—on the cover.
San Francisco visual artist Matt Borruso, whose 1980s punk group Crucifix often played with Sleeping Dogs, said King’s clean, pointed design style stood out against the city’s underground music scene at the time. “Dave’s work connected my parents’ generation and my generation,” he said. “It was this link between protest art of the 1960s and what we were doing basically as teenagers.” King’s later exchange and camaraderie with artists such as McGee, Borruso added, further shows his unique capacity to reach across scenes and sensibilities.
King attended the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1990s to continue studying painting, sculpture and photography, and in recent years published four artist books via Colpa Press. In 2018 Colpa’s now-closed shop exhibited King’s wooden sculptures and released a companion publication, The Journey. King’s scrapbook-style collage and photography often explore themes of childhood; the self-published book Male Men collecting stills from televised English puppet shows, for example, surfaces the narrow expressions of masculinity marketed to young people.
The Crass symbol has often been appropriated. In 2011, the fashion company Hardware added chains to the image and copyrighted it. “It seems ironic that chains have been added to the logo of a band whose abiding hope has been for the breaking of society’s restraints,” he wrote at the time. This particularly tone-deaf reuse of the image inspired King to begin reimagining it in brilliant colors as, say, a bird’s nest or teapot. Goteblüd, the defunct Mission District fanzine store, exhibited the results in 2011, publishing the pamphlet Secret Origins of the Crass Symbol.
During the show Goteblüd hosted “spray days,” when attendees brought objects on which they stenciled the symbol while King watched. (Kind said in the 2013 interview he was amused when, around that time, local punks embellished the symbol with ticket stubs to protest a contentious Crass reunion show involving one original member.) Below one of his Crass symbol renderings in red, blue, yellow and green exhibited at Goteblüd and later Needles & Pens, King wrote, “The 70’s Were Not Colourful.” Colpa cofounder Luca Antonucci said King's favorite color was yellow. “He likes comic books and once designed the Crass symbol,” reads Colpa’s King biography. “Whatever that is.”
Park Life store and gallery in the Inner Richmond is scheduled to host a King exhibition early next year co-curated by his friend and studio assistant Courtney Johnson.
King is survived by his wife of 40 years Dione.
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