Article first published in Nieuwe Vide's Journal of Humanity no. 8 'Counter Culture Now'.

‘Wearing Badges Is Not Enough, in Times Like These'

Billy Bragg

The majority of my pin badge collection is of 20th Century post-war origin. The previous owners include:

· Young British radicals who studded their practical protest attire of naval sweaters and duffel coats with CND and anti-apartheid pins;

· Dressed to distress punks of the 1970s with large tin Ramones, X-Ray-Spex, and Sex Pistols badges dubbed ‘bin lids’ hanging from the threads of ripped shirts;

· Long-haired metalheads with gnarly pewter Motörhead pins sat alongside heavy metal music patches on sleeveless, beer-soaked battle jackets;

· Thatcher-era art students with striking anti-Nazi league or sexual liberation badges attached to mohair jumpers.

Badges infiltrated all subcultures, forming allegiances through aesthetics. In the post-war era, political, sexual, and cultural identities were worn on the sleeve…or lapel.

Paradoxically, badges were also popular in mainstream society as a source of free advertising and mass consumerism, creating an uncomfortable overlap between counterculture and social order.

The lyrics from the Billy Bragg song that title this article were written at the height of the British Thatcher government pinpoint this contradiction. They express the singer’s frustration at liberals with a small ‘L’ who shouted at the television and wore pin badges without making an effort to implement a change of the social or political status quo. It begs the question – can pin badges promote change, or are they simply a hip extension of consumerism?

Looking back further than the 20th-century explosion of badge culture can help shed light on this question. Badges have in fact have been mass-produced since the 12th century when they were worn as souvenirs by pilgrims.

Pilgrim badges were worn in the later medieval period by Roman Catholic travellers. Usually made of lead alloy, they were sold at sites of Christian Pilgrimage and bear imagery relating to the saint venerated there. Tens of thousands have been found since the mid-19th century and form the largest body of medieval art objects remaining today. The ubiquitous nature of the badge makes it clear that to express a belief on your person and be seen as part of a larger social group has had an enduring mass appeal.

The badges we are familiar with today are usually button-shaped with a metal pin-back and 25mm in diameter, a style dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The patent was taken out in 1894 in New Jersey. A protective celluloid covering made the simple badge design durable, ideal for mass production and circulation. In 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee and badges hit the mass market as a fun and cheap souvenir.

Whilst it is easy to see the commercial appeal of badges, it would be short-sighted to ignore their wider significance. Badges allow people to subvert and reclaim negative marks that have been forced upon them. Historically, a badge of shame or a stigma is a distinctive symbol required to be worn by a specific group or an individual for the purpose of public humiliation or persecution. A prominent example is the pink upside-down triangle that many gay men were made to wear in Nazi Germany. They have now been adopted as a sign of gay liberation, featuring on slogans that celebrate the LGBT community. The graphic has been powerfully subverted and transformed, often using badges to communicate this visual message.

Badges have also helped to heighten the profile of other political causes, including trade unions, the environment, and AIDS campaigns. By making taboo subjects visual, they raise awareness and encourage dialogue. The instantly recognisable AIDS ribbon, symbolising both blood and love with the striking red design owes much to badges for its universal commonality.

Additionally, the popular anti-Nazi League badges helped to establish a recognisable brand for the Left in the 1980s. The colourful Soviet Constructivist-inspired graphics designed by David King were a useful political tool. They helped to create solidarity and a strong, consistent style for a party infamous for ideological differences and fractures.

The relationship between wearing a pin badge and consumption becomes more complex when looking at subculture. Jolly MacFie was the creator of Better Badges in London, the first company to make and sell cheap badges promoting bands and politics. Between 1977-1984 it became the leading publisher and merchandiser of punk badges. His first stall was at the Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies show at The Roundhouse, London. Better Badges evolved to export millions worldwide from their offices on Portobello Road.

MacFie notes how anyone could afford to wear a badge, fans, rather than labels or the music industry could dictate trends. They are cheap, small, and easy to make, they tell the story of what is on the street. In this sense, the badges seem to be giving an autonomous expression to people in the form of grassroots fashion and style. They harbour a coded subculture and act as a means of communication. Badges include those within the subculture and operate as a smaller microcosm of larger society, offering security and solidarity between those marginalised in the wider world.

However, MacFie also sees the uncomfortable contradiction of this culture and asks: ‘are we a crassly commercial cash-in or a living breathing extension of culture? It was easier to sell an IT [International Times] badge than a copy of the magazine itself. There is an argument that people are not interested in the information itself, only being seen to apparently have that knowledge. I can remember going to school with an obscure blues record under my arm to pose around with.’

This piercing social comment highlights that the cheap, popular, and viral pin badge is both a blessing and a curse for political causes and subcultures. Circulating a message on a badge is quick and visual; this can rally up immense support and awareness or render a slogan meaningless. Ultimately, this power lies in the hands of the wearer and with the appeal enduring since the 12th Century, the tightrope walk between activist and exhibitionist is set to continue.

The Ephemerist has long been one of my favourite periodicals so I am delighted to be included in the 2021 Winter Issue. Looking through my collection of badges, I chart the history of the smiley face and its subversion over time. Head over to The Ephemera Society website to grab a copy!

A condensed version of my dissertation has also been published in the 'Counterculture Now' issue of Nieuwe Vide's Journal of Humanity. If you are interested in non-Western counterculture then it's an informative read about dance culture and style in Mali in the 1960s.

Some of my favourite vintage badges are old yet sport a timeless message. Sometimes it's a novelty message 'Vampires Stole My Lunch Money', or a protest slogan 'Nuclear Power, No Thanks'. Either way, the phrase continues to resonate with society because it's funny, catchy, or on the nose. The 1977 'I'm A Mess' button pin is one of these special badges, as it captures the unabashed recklessness of early punk.

Original 1977 'I'm A Mess' Badge, @PunkBadges

Many pins made after the initial explosion of punk get carried away with obvious signifiers. Cartoon safety pins, Union Jacks, British Bulldogs, and any other stereotypical punk imagery that fits onto a 32mm surface area. Whilst these badges can be charming, there's no denying that they look dated, cliched, and dilute the original spirit of early punk.

The mass-produced punk badge below even appropriates fascist imagery by including a swastika ring on a clenched fist. It lacks the nuance, context, and intended shock factor of the original usage of fascist imagery by a few famous individuals - and even then this subversion was controversial, to say the least.

1980s punk badge of a clenched fist with rings. A Nazi ring with a swastika has been scratched out by the previous owner.

The 'I'm A Mess' badge on the other hand is achingly simple. The statement makes it punk, not the graphics. The black and white colourway and capital letters in Times New Roman give the blunt statement an authoritative air; it looks like it could have been made on a typewriter in an office - a standard-issue badge. By wearing the pin, a person could become a certified mess and gain a certain power by owning the undesirable credentials that society rejects.

The badge has gone on to represent the epitome of punk. It bears resemblance to the 'Bored Teenager' badge made to promote The Adverts single of the same name (if you add an 's' to the end.) The statement is as bold and as simple as possible; the words look like they are being shouted at to the general public.

Original promotional badge for The Advert's single 'Bored Teenager'

The 'I'm A Mess' badge has been worn by some famous self-declared scoundrels. Most notably, Sid Vicious. The phrase become so associated with him that Sid's compilation album released in 2015 featuring songs recorded live in Camden, 1978 is named after the badge. He wore it attached to his black leather jacket on the Sex Pistols tour of America.

However, Wreckless Eric beat Sid to the post, wearing the badge a year before. It makes an appearance on his jacket lapel on his debut album cover in 1978. Lemmy Killiminster was also spotted wearing the badge on Top of the Pops in 1979. More recently, and less excitingly, it has been worn by Noel Fielding on Never Mind The Buzzcocks in the mid-2000s.

Wreckless Eric Self Titled 1978 Album Cover Featuring the 'I'm A Mess' badge on the guitar strap

Unfortunately, the original punk badge is notoriously hard to come by and expensive. The last one seen for auction on eBay went for an eye-watering £127.00. Furthermore, the origin story of the badge is unclear. I decided to look into the history of the badge in an effort to track one down.

The first surprise was finding out that 'I'm A Mess' is the name of a single, by a little known band called Stormtrooper from the Isle of White. In September 1975 the band made a demo tape which was rejected by a number of labels. By December, the band had split and it seemed like the world was destined to live without the 'I'm A Mess' single.

In 1977, by means that I'm not entirely sure of, a self-financed record had been cut from their original demo tape, and 'I'm a Mess' was released two years after the band had split. It sold around 3,000 copies, mostly in and around London. Each record came with the 'I'm A Mess' badge as a promotional freebie.

The record is now hailed as one of the earliest known punk singles. It was described by the early 70s British music press as “the sound of a commuter being shoved under a tube train”. Looking at the lyrics there is no doubt that it embodies the spirit of the punk era. It's not hard to see why it resonated with a generation of soon-to-be punks in 1977.

I'm A Mess

I always go out drinking

On a Friday night

After a week of coming down

I'm bustin' for a fight

My brother gives me pills

And me mother gives me ice

'cause every Saturday morning

My head don't feel so nice

(Chorus) I'm a mess But don't tell me I'll beat you Don't need no friends see

My doctor says I'm down And I need a two-week rest So I take it down in Soho 'Cause I fight down there best And the man from down the "dilly" Sells me bombers and hash And I'm always found in Wardour Street, Where the junkies all crash

(Chorus) Three o'clock on Friday night A copper comes along And after kicking me around I started to run But the law was all around me So I just hit out Now they've thrown me in the nick Where I can scream and loon about

(Chorus) You're a dirty mess I'm a dirty mess

Sid Vicious photographed wearing 'I'm A Mess' badge on Sex Pistols 1978 US tour

As a tribute to one of my all-time favourite badges, I've made a few bootlegs. 'I'm A Mess' is printed in Times New Roman on aged vintage paper to give it a pleasing off-white hue. It comes in two sizes, a modest 32mm or the classic 63mm bin lid size for those who are loud and proud about being a mess.

Bootleg 'I'm A Mess' Pin Badge by @therustypin

With thanks to for research into this badge.