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