Free the Crass Symbol!!! By the designer of the Crass Symbol, Dave King

The very first appearance of Dave King's Crass symbol on Penny's Rimbaud's zine, "Christ's Reality Asylum."

In 1977, in an old farmhouse in the wilds of Essex in Britain, I designed a logo for my friend Penny Rimbaud's impassioned manifesto, Christ's Reality Asylum. A heartfelt rant against as many of life's inequalities as would fit into ten pages of a homemade zine. The text was printed direct from typewriter to the page on a prehistoric copy machine and the logo was hand stenciled onto the grey cardboard covers. From the beginning, the logo was designed to be easily stenciled, a quality that would become very valuable later on. Its basic elements were a cross and a diagonal, negating serpent, formed into a circle, like a Japanese family crest.

Fast forward a few months and the soon to be infamous punk band Crass, is forming in that same damp but fertile farmhouse. Some of the ideas and certainly the righteous anger find their way from the zine into songs that the band members developed. The logo was also adopted by the band.

In the intervening thirty five years, Crass' influence spread around the world and took with it what became known as the Crass Symbol, a signifier of both the band and a demanding, counter-cultural questioning of authority of all kinds.

As new generations discover the band and its still relevant critiques, the symbol has been emblazoned on school bags and clothing and tattooed on bodies. Many "homages" have been made over the years, some the enjoyable work of genuine fans, others just blatant, barely altered rip-offs.

Consider the current case of London fashion house Hardware. Taking the original symbol, wrapping it with a chain and adding their name, they then copyrighted the symbol to use on clothing they say is "chic, glam and borderline trashy". They may have crossed that border with their "Whorewear" line.

I wonder what Crass fans around the world (wide web) think of this situation?

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.

And what happens to the counter-culture, now that everything can be appropriated and sold back to a world hungry for authenticity?


You can now see an exhibit of original designs for what became the Crass Symbol, plus early variations and contemporary "re-mixes", at the zine store and gallery Goteblüd in San Francisco.

The show is open Saturdays and Sundays 12-5pm and continues through March 4th.

Installation view.

Installation view.

The 70's were not colorful.

Peace and Crass.

Make Tea Not War.


  1. I’m unfamiliar with any of the people involved or their ideologies; I’m sure they’re lovely, highly admirable people. But – especially to a naive viewer such as myself – a number of the examples shown are highly reminiscent of the Swastika, especially when it appears in red and black (on white) and contains a plus symbol at its core (the more colorful ones and especially the one containing the peace symbol have much less resonance of this sort). For better of for worse, if I saw those symbols painted on something without further context or explanation, my initial interpretation would be that it was some sort of neo-nazi symbol. Maybe that’s not fair to the intentions of the creators of these symbols, but it is my visceral response.

      1. Nobody in the history of the entire Internet, in the process of giving a snarky two-word reply to a full paragraph of sincere, lucid, if IYHO misguided opinion, has ever had the right for either of those words to be “smart” or any variation thereof. It’s a mantle your comment has already lost.

        1. When someone with no knowledge on a subject feels the need to contribute their opinion on that subject, and worse by comparing Crass’s symbol of all things to the swastika (which may be the most diametrically opposed symbol someone could conjure up), they get what they’ve earned…advice to educate themselves before opening their mouth and sounding like a fool.

          1. You’ve missed the point.  If Joe or Jane  Random encounters this logo out in the wild,  unless they know in advance that it is the Crass logo they are not going to know what to research (even assuming they had the means and inclination at the time).  And at least some people are liable to make an association with the swastika.

            When I first saw the logo I assumed Crass were some sort of National Front skinhead Oi! group.

            We can dispute just how many people are likely to jump to this conclusion but that fact is *some* people do because of the logo.   

          2. Why does anyone need “knowledge on a subject” to suggest that something reminds him or her of something? Do we now need a degree of some sorts now, or some inner knowledge,  to be able suggest that this does indeed look like a swastika?

            Neonazi groups from Athens, to Warsaw and San Fransisco all sport emblems which are unfortunately very very similar.

          3. From some cursory reading, it was specifically meant to resemble, among other things, a swastika.  If I may quote the wikipedia article:

            Originally conceived and intended as the cover artwork for a self-published pamphlet version of Christ’s Reality Asylum by Penny Rimbaud, the Crass logo represented an amalgamation of several “icons of authority,” including the Christian Cross, the swastika, and the Union Flag, combined with a two-headed Ouroboros to symbolise the idea that power will eventually destroy itself.[16][17]
            Using such deliberately mixed messages was part of Crass’ strategy of presenting themselves as a “barrage of contradictions”, which also included using loud, aggressive music to promote a pacifist message, and was in part a reference to their own Dadaist and performance art backgrounds.

            It sort of reminds me of Laibach and their co-opting of totalitarian symbolism, though I’ve been entirely sure what their plan is. It seems to be somewhere between “parodying it as a means to compare fascism and aspects of modern society”, “making the totalitarian symbolism less powerful by dilution”, and “we think it’s stylish”.

          4. That’s exactly what I was talking about.  The logo was actually meant to resemble a swastika, among many other things…only in the exact opposite way of what was assumed here “viscerally”.  Of course no one needs knowledge on a subject to share their opinion, people do it all the time.  They just need knowledge on a subject to share their opinion in a way that actually sounds at least minimally informed.  And the minimum required here to at least question an initial judgement like that is pretty small.

      1. Yes, the Swastika is a cross (especially in the German, the Hakenkreuz or hooked cross). I was hardly unaware of this. But there are plenty of crosses that don’t inspire this same visceral response in me – crucifixes and Red Cross logos, for example. The Swastika is freighted by history (very unfairly to those who’d like to honor its former use in Hindu temples, for example), and that makes it more than just a cross. As I look at the graphic art above, there’s something about the red-and-black color scheme, with a cross at the center and circumferential sweeping arms that adds up to remind me, very unfortunately, of the Swastika.

        As I said above, this isn’t meant to impugn the designers or users of the symbol. It’s just a description of my own automatic response to the image.

        1. well you got me there.  the black and red stencil piece is probably intentionally similar to the nazi swastika.  though if you are interested in seeing the common color scheme of the crass symbol as it has been used by people for the last 30 or so years just google image search “crass”.    in my opinion unfortunate would be the partridge family colors used for the that second stencil good god that’s painful to look at.  but this is just art criticism really. 
          also if you are interested in becoming familiar with crass you could start with youtube

          here’s a crass song that has always inexplicably held a warm spot in my heart

    1. That’s a smart and understandable mistake. But in fact, the folks in Crass were pacifist, anarcho-socialists: about as far from Naziism as one could be. They were very well aware of trying to use elements of these visually powerful and even fascist symbols, but with the intent of turning them on their heads. (I read an interview once where they spoke about deliberately incorporating something like a cross, swastika, and yin-yang symbol, but again, with subversive intentions). They did this with their clothing as well–all black, etc., but ideologically they were rather more idealist hippies than brutal thugs. And their songs, ultimately, are about resisting fascism and war. And love. They are raucous, wild, and confrontational, but they are about love. The visceral response is really understandable, but I promise a fuller context would very much put your mind at ease.

  2. I wonder how this sort of thing plays into the file sharing/fair use debates that are so popular on Boing Boing these days.

    Here’s an example of a business taking a person’s art, changing it, and using it for their own purposes.

    If it was going in the other direction, (meaning a band taking a corporate symbol, changing it slightly and using it for their purposes) Boing Boing writers would presumably be up in arms, talking about how ‘sampling’ is creativity, and it should be fair use.

    Trust me, I support the sentiment, I just want people to be more honest with the fair use debates.  Including (and especially) when it is people they don’t like using (and not paying for) things they do.  

    1. The issue isn’t fair use. The issue is that an unrelated third party has (successfully?) copyrighted the symbol as theirs, despite 35 years of prior use.

      1. OK, that’s a fair point, it is absurd that someone could try to copyright something that already existed.  

        I’ll save my ‘honesty in art use debates’ rant for something else.  

        1. Dear god. Did I just see somebody raise a fair but inaccurate point on the Internet, somebody else correct them politely, and then the first person issue a polite concession while agreeing to disagree?

          Lord, I will never ask you for another miracle again. I have seen the cosmos in all its radiant potential. I can die happy. 

          My day sucks less now. Both you guys go have a cookie. <3

          1. This is an example of moderation as a social dynamic.  Antinous has the readership trained in that most Boingers realize that crass behavior will not be tolerated. This is not the Yahoo! News comment boards and the moderators work hard to keep it that way.

  3. Speaking as a fellow designer, I hope he sues Hardware’s plagiaristic ass and makes some serious bank.

  4. Here’s a question… Does the fact that the band’s already used the logo for so many years supersede Hardware’s tiny change and registration? I would think so, since it’s decades of obvious widespread use over LPs, t-shirts, and whatnot. If that’s the case, it should be a fairly easy fight. 

    I would think that’d it even work despite the addition of a janky chain. I know i couldn’t throw a chain around the old Pepsi logo and call it mine, no way, no how.

    1. Agreed, though it is sad that lawyers have to get involved. That costs money.

      It’s very interesting, though, in light of recent counterculture rips. Marketers see the power of these enduring images. To some people, the Crass logo is their anti-authority Nike swoosh. 

      Fair use is fair play, but there should be some appropriate cultural critique when a business entity tries to co-opt radical imagery to sell “Whore Wear.”

  5. Interesting article, but I wish Dave had addressed the following two  issues.

    First of all, for those who can’t get the association with a swastika out of their head, his choice of symbols, the serpent and cross, and what they and their juxtaposition represent for him. Was it, for instance, inspired by the Flamel/Alchemical Cross, or even Numbers 21:9?

    And secondly, his thoughts on litigation over Hardware’s appropriation/infringement, both in a practical sense and in the context of his radical anarchist ideas (at the time).

    1. I certainly don’t get the association with a swastika out of my head, the base image  and the red/black one  – reeks of Nazi symbology to me.  

      But then again, as a German I operate in a quite different cultural context than the designer. 

      1. the red/black one also has the same layout and colors as an american “no parking” sign.  i had always thought parking nazi was just a figure of speech…

        1. Simply red/black doesn’t bother me, but the logo belongs to a family of logos/a logo style that’s being used by German neo-nazis to evoke the feeling of the original sign, which they can’t use for legal reasons.   

  6. The origin and meaning of the symbol is explained by Penny Rimbaud in this clip:
    (It’s at 37mins 12seconds in if this link does not jump to the right point)

  7. Whether it was based on a swastika- nazi, Amerindian, or whatever- isn’t the point. The point is that Hardonware is stealing it. Wouldn’t matter if it was a pic of a bum with a stick up it impaling a baby’s eye. It’s stealing.

  8. As far as HardwareLDN are concerned, have no concerns. Thanks to a few of us oldies on Facebook and via the Southern forum, we hassled, threatened, promised and made the so-called-but-not-very creative director spend a weekend on her houseboat coming up with another logo.  The dialogues between us all were precious, with the cd stating “We are all fans of The Crass”…haha, yeah right…once it was explained that Penis Envy and “whorewear” could never be considered compatible, they finally gave in.  Alison at Southern did receive some dialogue from their distributor with some veiled threats I believe, but the logo was changed within 48 hours…

  9. When I opened this in a new tab, Gmail automagically opened up, with a new tab for each mail folder.

    Bravo/That was very foolish of you, Crass Symbol!

  10. “And what happens to the counter-culture, now that everything can be appropriated and sold back to a world hungry for authenticity?”

    Hello, young bad-ass, may I interest you in a Che Guevara t-shirt?

    EDIT: How ’bout a belt to hold up them trousers while we’re at it

  11. How can they get away with it – the documents in history are there for all to see? Who vamped this design ? Yeah the chains say it all – Yeah Ironic – They might not know what they have done but their creativity does. Can you not do anything David ?

  12. As Penny Rimbaud’s explanation in Edamame’s link makes clear, the intent behind the Crass Symbol was very much to allude to fascism and its mutations. Crass was (and is) about confrontation. One of its successor bands was named “Conflict” after all. Of course, with the special history of the swastika in Germany, it is reasonable to assume that many Germans might be somewhat taken aback at first glance. However, if you are an adult, in Germany, in 2012, and you cannot tell the difference between an anarcho-punk and a neo-Nazi, all the sensitive graphic design in the world is not going to help you. Also, any German who is confused merely needs to cross the border into Austria to see all the swastika tchotchkes they might like to see, and more besides.

    Relatedly, there is a well-known case of censorship on the part of the German security apparat around the anarcho-punk crust band Doom’s record cover for “Police Bastard”. The image features an obviously derogatory image of a bobby, flipping off the camera, with a swastika drawn on his helmet. As the rest of the image and the content of the record make clear, this is in no way designed to glorify Nazism, but it was still seized under the anti-swastika laws.

    The overall point should be, I think, that part of the meaning of the Crass symbol is that contemporary manifestations of neo-Nazism and other forms of fascism are not magically negated by the banning of a certain symbol or set of symbols. For those who aim to attack and disrupt fascist organizing in their own communities, open eyes are critically important. Sticking your head in the sand and pretending that we can blot out the continuing threat of fascism simply by acts of state censorship or middle-class disapproval is a sure recipe for disaster.

  13. Every time I see that logo, particularly in its more colourful form, it reminds me of the Captain Scarlet / Spectrum logo:

    According to your article the Crass logo was design in 1977. The Spectrum logo predates it by about 10 years in that case then (it aired on ATV in september 1967). 

Comments are closed.