Arts/Culture Building a better region together, one story at a time

Culture Report: The History Center Explores ‘80s Subcultures

The San Diego History Center exhibition will gather stories and artifacts as its “I’m Not Like You” exhibition runs through October.

Tony Hawk
Tony Hawk, Sanoland, Cardiff, 1982 / Photo by J. Grant Brittain, courtesy of the San Diego History Center

“One thing I’ve heard from every single person I’ve talked to is ‘I can’t believe you’re interested in this,’” said San Diego History Center curator Kaytie Johnson. “They never thought that the History Center or any museum would be interested in telling these stories.”

At over 2.5 million photographs in the San Diego History Center’s library, the institution boasts not only the largest photography archive in San Diego but one of the largest in the country. (To compare, the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs archive contains 14 million items). And the Balboa Park museum wants you to know that it’s here to tell the under-told stories, too.

In the heels of last year’s LGBTQ+ SD project, the San Diego History Center will launch a new exhibition this Saturday, “I’m Not LIke You: Notes from the San Diego Underground.” It’s an exhibition focused specifically on three subcultures in a specific period of time in San Diego: punk, skate and hip-hop culture in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Last October we invited Margarat Nee, who is the founder of the San Diego Punk Archive to come and do a presentation about the history of punk in San Diego,” Johnson said. “It was one of the best attended free Tuesday events ever.” Johnson, who has her own history in punk scenes in the 1980s in Phoenix, then decided to build an installation on the subject to be exhibited in the museum, and “I’m Not Like You” was born.

Kaytie Johnson
San Diego History Museum curator Kaytie Johnson’s punk days, circa 1986 / Photo courtesy of Kaytie Johnson

Why punk, skate and hip-hop? Johnson pointed to the overlaps between those three underground scenes.

“I didn’t want to focus just on punk,” Johnson said. “I wanted to open it up, so I decided on hip-hop, punk and skate because they were all really flourishing in the ‘80s and there were interesting overlaps between the scenes.”

Floor Masters breakdancing
Floor Masters b-boy crew performs at Our Lady of Angels Church in Sherman Heights in 1983. / Photo by Tony Torres, courtesy of Mario Lopez

Each scene was made up of young people sharing similar interests and ideas. The differences between each scene was the ways the ideas were expressed. Johnson does not think the subcultures were formed of outsiders or pariahs, based on the evidence in the personal histories in the project.

“I think that these different subcultures and scenes gave them the space and permission to really express themselves,” Johnson said. “It’s like finding a chosen family. And even though they were groups, everybody was really able to express themselves. There’s a lot of self-expression and individuality. They weren’t doing all the same things, just shared interests.”

Kim Cespedes
Kim Cespedes, Escondido Reservoir, 1977 / Photo by Jim Goodrich, courtesy of San Diego History Center

Johnson also said that ending the exhibition’s era after the 80s, specifically at 1991, was an intentional choice for one specific reason: the internet. With the advent of broader connectivity between subcultures in different cities, what was unique to an individual city or region began to be diluted.

“That changed everything,” Johnson said.

Installation artifacts and items include fliers for shows and bands, skateboard decks, music, breakdancing videos, zines and snapshots of graffiti work. One local graffiti writer from the 1980s, ESCAPE, was even commissioned to create a piece for the entrance to the exhibition.

ESCAPE graffiti writer
Graffiti writer ESCAPE creates a commissioned piece for the “I’m Not Like You” exhibition. / Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center

The project’s vast scope, despite being housed in a relatively small area of the museum, lies in its longevity. Throughout its six-month run, visitors and community members will be encouraged to record their own stories and add artifacts, and repeat visitors will find new items as the exhibition grows.

“Like a living thing. It’s nice to not have it so static,” said Johnson.

The museum also hopes the exhibition will encourage multigenerational discourse, with the individuals who lived through those decades, their children and other young people.

“All three subcultures are still really resonant today. These weren’t one-off communities or subcultures; they had enormous impact,” she said.

Johnson also described the importance and timeless lure of subculture for young people: “It’s belonging but not belonging,” she said. “It’s a really important thing, especially when you’re young.”

Jacqui Ramirez Audrey Pavia Evie Bibo Kitty Johnson
Jacqui Ramirez, Audrey Pavia, Evie Bibo and Kitty Johnson outside of San Diego’s Abbey Road Club, 1978 / Photo by Tim Griswold, courtesy of Jacqui Ramirez

So Much Local Talent, Pride + Baseball and More News for the Culture Crowd

  • Convergence/Convergencia hits Escondido! The Center for the Arts in Escondido recently opened this exhibition of art from the San Diego-Tijuana region, and it runs through mid-May.
  • The UCSD’s spring quarter New Writing Series looks amazing, and kicks off on Wednesday with a new professor, Kazin Ali’s first campus reading. Events are open to the public and run through the end of May. (UCSD News)
Kazim Ali
UCSD’s Kazim Ali / Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones
  • “In Transit,” a new exhibition curated by Peggy Sue Amison at the SDSU Downtown Gallery, opens in conjunction with Thursday’s Downtown at Sundown event.
  • Out at the Park is this Friday, presented by San Diego Pride, when the Padres play (i.e., will probably crush) the Reds, with a notable joint performance of the National Anthem by the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus, the San Diego Women’s Chorus and SD Pride and Padres staff.
Out at the Park San Diego
Out at the Park / Photo courtesy of San Diego Pride
  • I don’t know if they’re trying to out-cool all the other school fundraisers, but this Museum School event is certainly doing just that. Featuring a brand new Rob Crow/John Reis project, Pinback, El Ten Eleven and more, it’s definitely not just for the PTA moms and dads. Saturday night at Music Box.
  • A Ship in the Woods — the iconic San Diego arts organization that has hosted 77 resident artists and more than 80 cultural events — is in a period of transition, and just announced new team members like Marina Grize and its first official executive director, Nikos Zoggas. In an email to supporters, founder RJ Brooks detailed the org’s history and its precarious financial situation, and announced plans for fundraising to help sustain their transition. Upcoming events and projects include a May 18 music residency benefit festival and a Living Classroom project.
  • “In Bloom” is a music, art and DJ showcase happening Saturday at 7 p.m. at Weirdhues in Chula Vista. It’s hard to find much about the event online, but the poster boasts some artists I have my eye on, including Hatepaste, Mary Jhun and Zia Sinclair.
  • Love the still shiny-new CityBeat Al Howard column, Black Gold. The most recent piece is especially good, “Black People Music.”
  • Local theatrical darlings Sam Ginn and A.J. Knox wrote an adaptation of “Servant of Two Masters,” with runs now through May 5 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad and is supposedly very, very funny. (U-T)
Servant of Two Masters
“Servant of Two Masters” at New Village Arts / Photo by Daren Scott

Closing Soon

Food, Etc.

What’s Inspiring Me Right Now

  • To brush up for the History Center’s punk-filled weekend, I recommend listening to the punk style episode of Articles of Interest, a clothing-based podcast (which is all very good). It delves into (of course) Vivienne Westwood’s Chelsea punk fashion empire and the birth of the Sex Pistols.
  • Three spring-happy local trails I’ll recommend: Mission Trails Regional Park’s Spring Canyon, which is gloriously under-trafficked. Barely a mile into this trail (heading north of the park from the equestrian staging area, beneath Highway 52), you’ll be surrounded by zero human beings, countless poppies and possibly a snake. Jamul’s Hollenbeck Canyon is a close second, with several river crossings and rolling green hillsides that seem a bit British Isles (California Department of Fish and Wildlife day pass now required). Or if you want to stay closer to the city, Florida Canyon is lit up right now with blooming native plants.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the photographer who took the photo of Jacqui Ramirez, Audrey Pavia, Evie Bibo and Kitty Johnson. It was Tim Griswold.

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