Jamie Reid, the British artist and political activist whose iconic designs for the Sex Pistols became synonymous with the punk aesthetic and anarchist movement, has died, his gallerist John Marchant announced Wednesday. Reid was 76.
Reid’s “ransom note” graphics and political boldness helped cement the Pistols’ celebrity and gave punk rock a clear, enduring visual style. His work remains incredibly popular and instantly recognizable, even among art world elites whose approval he rejected throughout his life.
“When people get drawn into the mainstream they lose their radicalism and their spirit,” he said in a 2018 interview with Another Man magazine. “I never wanted to get drawn into that incestuous world.”
CNN has reached out to Marchant for comment.
Reid’s political roots ran deep
Reid was born in the South London town of Croydon in 1947 and spent much of his early life there. His parents were socialist activists, and he was deeply influenced by his family’s long involvement with Druidism, a spiritual practice that champions nature and environmental causes. Reid marched with them against nuclear weaponry and radical causes, according to the John Marchant Gallery.
While at Croydon Art College, Reid was a compatriot of Malcolm McLaren, who went on to manage the Sex Pistols. In 1968, the two organized an “occupation of the college,” per the Marchant Gallery, inspired by wider protests across arts institutions in the UK among students who felt their instruction was lacking and that faculty and staff were stymying their points of view. Reid was also heavily influenced by the Situationist International, a group of artists and political activists who espoused Marxist philosophies as a rebuke of conservative leadership across Europe.
From 1970 to 1975, Reid ran an anti-capitalist alternative magazine called the “Suburban Press,” where he perfected his signature DIY punk aesthetic, cutting up preexisting graphics and text and collaging them in a way that evoked a “bizarre ransom note,” said the art collector resource Widewalls.
Within its pages, he decried the South London town’s increasing commercialization: One cover of the Suburban Press read “Lo! A monster is born” over an image of highways and towering buildings.
“We are left dwarfed in the streets by huge towers of bureaucracy,” read one article in a 1972 edition. “The people … have been made to perform in an urban environment of commerce and administration.”
Reid made the Sex Pistols instantly recognizable
That ethos of rebelling against the capitalist-driven, traditional status quo was adopted, too, by the Sex Pistols, formed by McLaren in 1975 (though he created the band in part to help promote Sex, the boutique he ran with his then-partner Vivienne Westwood). McLaren brought Reid on board to concoct graphics for his group, many of which appeared on garments made and sold by Westwood.
Reid cut up letters in a mishmash of fonts and letter sizes for the Pistols’ logo. His simple but arresting art for the Sex Pistols’ first and only album, “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” was named one of the best album covers of all time by Billboard. The album’s title was printed on a bright yellow background in black typeface (three fonts — Reid formatted “THE BOLLOCKS” in a stately serif) before the pink Sex Pistols logo lit up the cover’s bottom third.
One of his most iconic — and, at the time, incredibly controversial — works was the cover for the Sex Pistols single “God Save the Queen,” a song which condemned the monarchy and Queen Elizabeth II’s reign as a “fascist regime.” The single’s artwork featured text of the song’s title in the font Reid created superimposed over a black-and-white portrait of the monarch.
He remained a politically motivated artist post-Pistols
The Pistols imploded at the start of 1978, and anarchic punk went with them. Reid told The Guardian that he was “desperate for money” by the mid-1980s. During this time, he started painting again, per the John Marchant Gallery, and devoted himself to works that took years to complete, such as his work painting the interior of Strongroom Studios in London. He also released the 1987 book, “Up They Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid,” with the music journalist Jon Savage.
He was disinterested by the popular artists who followed him in the ‘90s, from Young British Artist poster child Damien Hirst to Banksy. He found their “shock tactics” to be cheap and without political purpose, he told The Guardian in 2018.
“There’s nothing remotely shocking about what they do,” he told The Guardian.
Reid also deeply resented attempts from corporate art firms and artists like Hirst and Banksy claiming the punk movement and his work as inspiration.
“The commodification of art has become a disease,” he told the Barnsley Civic, an arts center in the North England town of Barnsley, in 2021.
Interest in his work revived widely in the late ‘90s when Reid started designing album covers for the Afro Celt Sound System, a band whose members fused West African and Gaelic musical styles.
In 1997, Reid met Marchant, who was tasked with curating a retrospective of Reid’s work in New York tied to the anniversary of punk. The two became fast friends and longtime collaborators, with Marchant maintaining the archive of decades of Reid’s work.
“It quickly struck me how this was a man of conviction and wisdom, possessing a wide breadth of knowledge that encompassed social politics, esoteric spirituality, astronomy, free jazz and Fulham FC,” Marchant wrote about his longtime friend.
Reid continued to create politically relevant work in the 2010s and 2020s, with posters calling for Pussy Riot, the Russian all-women punk band to be freed (featuring a feminized portrait of Vladimir Putin in a balaclava, worn frequently by the members of the group) and criticizing former US President Donald Trump, including a piece that placed swastikas over Trump’s eyes. He felt radical art remained an important tool of protest, just as it had in his early life, he told The Guardian.
“The establishment will rob everything they can, because they lack the ability to be creative,” he said. “That’s why you always have to keep moving.”
Upon Reid’s death, several artists and musicians praised his commitment to radical causes and the style he popularized that went on to inspire generations of artists.
“So rare for someone who came to such notorious fame in their earlier career to maintain their integrity & provocateur status for decades after til the very end,” the artist Trevor Jackson posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “R.I.P – No Sell Out.”
Savage, who co-wrote “Up They Rise” with Reid, said Reid’s “ability to render complex ideas in eye-catching visuals was (the Sex Pistols’) perfect accompaniment.”
Marchant remembered him as an “artist, iconoclast, anarchist, punk, hippie, rebel and romantic.”