Sharpies: expressing difference through a well-dressed thuggery
April 14, 2009 9:35 PM   Subscribe

"Normally subcultures in Australia are taken from other countries and just reproduced here. Sharps or sharpies are an Australian specific subculture, developed in Australian specific conditions." Sharpies were members of suburban youth gangs in Australia mainly from the 1960s to 1980s, particularly in Melbourne, but also in Sydney and Perth to a lesser extent. "Everybody was in a gang. Everybody. Every second street there was a gang. Um -- there was like you were either in a gang or you were the victim." The time of the sharpies is part of Melbourne folklore. Forget JFK. Where were you when Frankston erupted after the AC/DC concert in 1977? While the violence was legendary, so were the fashion and the music. Lobby Loyde and the Coloured Balls, Buster Brown, Skyhooks, Fat Daddy, Hush. And nobody danced like the sharpies (which resembles skanking of some sort). Anyone over forty who grew up in Melbourne has at least one story to tell about the sharpies (PDF). Some stories are about gang leaders with missing teeth and shit-eating grins, while others look back with some sort of fondness.
posted by filthy light thief (23 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
That last link is to a website for the gallery of a fellow who has spent the past 10 years collecting memorabilia of 1970s teenagers, and the PDF article is associated with that gallery.

The Fashion and Music video was part of a documentary by Greg Macainsh, bassist of the Skyhooks. I'm not sure how fans of AC/DC would also go to a Glam show, but apparently Sharps followed both groups.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:42 PM on April 14, 2009

Great stuff; gonna pore through all the links when I have more time. My initial impression is that it reminds me a bit of stone grease
posted by jtron at 10:21 PM on April 14, 2009

Great post! Been a good few years since I spotted any of these fellows in the wild.
posted by Wolof at 10:51 PM on April 14, 2009

When I think about how old some of the people in the documentary must be now, I understand present-day Melbourne talkback radio a lot better.
posted by awfurby at 11:09 PM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Huh. At first I confused these guys for SHARP, Probably no relation though (none mentioned on the wiki page at least).
posted by idiopath at 11:10 PM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up near Frankston and am saddened to report Sharpies gave way to a new, way moronic form of dickhead called the Yuppy. At least Sharpies had their own fucking dance!
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 11:31 PM on April 14, 2009

Holy Crap that Coloured Balls stuff SMOKES!!

Thanks for the post!
posted by black8 at 11:38 PM on April 14, 2009

Yuppies in Frankston? Say it ain't so!
posted by Jimbob at 12:58 AM on April 15, 2009

fascinating comment at the bottom of the "danced like the sharpies" link -- the producer of a Quay brothers dvd explains they didn't include the Peter Gabriel "sledgehammer" video in their collection because they had been asked to imitate the style of Jan Svankmeier. It was precisely the last thing I thought I might read in an exploration of an Australian gang's dancing style.
posted by Hat Maui at 2:54 AM on April 15, 2009

Thanks for this - it totally explains both the way my uncle and his wife dance. And the middle-aged dude who walks around my suburb in skin tight jeans and jumper and nearly-shaved head, he'd fit right into the Greg Macainsh doco. Oh, and a video on Rockwiz showing girls like this, pumping their fists to the Seekers. Although given the rest of the music, maybe they were pulling the piss.

I had kind of put them in the bogan category, but after looking at these sites I don't think it's that simple.

Does make me wonder why my dad wasn't a sharpie, though. He's the right age (like his brother/my uncle), was into the same music, and would have fit right into a gang or just gone along for some casual beer-fuelled fighting. But he would never be caught dead in that fashion or dancing like that (much prefers to jive). Maybe he just wanted to be different from his brother.
posted by harriet vane at 3:40 AM on April 15, 2009

That "some sort" video made my morning!
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 5:25 AM on April 15, 2009

my mum knitted me a cardigan like those sharpie ones when i was in primary school. never realised how awesome & full of street cred i must've seemed.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:39 AM on April 15, 2009

Bodgies and Widgies may have just been greasers by another name, but what a name.
posted by onya at 5:47 AM on April 15, 2009

and that links straight on to...bogans!
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:56 AM on April 15, 2009

Sharpies are interesting to me for a variety of reasons. One is that the gangs were multi-ethnic. I've never heard of anything but white skinheads (though idiopath's link clarifies that the origins of Skinheads was multi-ethnic), and the gangs didn't look or sound to be motivated or focused on race. Another interesting bit is that they stuck by two cardigan knitting shops and two shoe makers for their whole style.

This version of the 1974 documentary clip actually has some insightful comments. And I was going to include this clip of Long Way to the Top: Stories of Australian Rock n Roll, but the formatting of it is odd (some guy recording the clip from YouTube, weird cuts, and the clip abruptly ending, to be followed by an AC/DC video).
posted by filthy light thief at 6:46 AM on April 15, 2009

This is fascinating... I love reading about subcultures whose existence I was never aware of. Great post!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:07 AM on April 15, 2009

I didn't know of this until I saw the fashion and the music video, and went searching from there. I can't claim to have any first hand knowledge of this culture. I'm glad others found it interesting, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:36 AM on April 15, 2009

Brilliant freaking post! It's really interesting how the music had this lo-fi, jazzy 60s-70s kind of feel to it like Can or something, but with really drawn out, dark progressions like modern-day post-rock style stuff.
posted by Drexen at 12:17 PM on April 15, 2009

Yeah, that was really fascinating; thanks! I got lost in those links for hours.

Interesting as well, how people publishing their old photo albums etc can provide such a potentially valuable resource for historians & sociologists. So much of this stuff would've just been lost into the memory hole without the web.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:55 PM on April 15, 2009

Hurrah for violent thuggish gangs with unique fashion sense!

Here are a few things that former Sharpies online have had to say:

"It was all about image, a sense of belonging and camaraderie and getting into fights with other gangs."

"We'd travel in numbers. . . Really it was such a hassle to go somewhere you'd either get in a fight or the cops would get you, you sort of stayed in your boundaries unless you had something you wanted to go to like the Myer Music Bowl to see AC/DC. There we had a big punch up with the Melbourne Sharps. Everywhere we went we had trouble. . . We just liked everything that was tough. Tough movies, acting tough, and that's what it boils down to basically."

"We would . . . cruise suburbs where other non Sharpie gangs hung out and get into fights, also concerts was another place to venture for a fight."

"Just in my time we’d had the rockers beating shit out of the jazzers (a specifically Melbourne experience) then the skinheads/sharpie’s running riot for a while without media detection because these neatly dressed, short haired cretins didn’t attract the attention the freaks they regularly beat up did. In the mid to late 1960’s it was dangerous just to walk up Swanston Street as the sun went down for fear of sharpie attack - the media finally got the message and they were banned from a lot of venues and vilified in the newspapers - not unjustly."

Yes, they had a fashion and music sense about them... but at the same time, it's worth remembering that they were bored suburban kids turned violent thugs who acted in packs to beat up on surfers, hippies, or basically anyone on their turf.

Really, really... not a good example or a good influence on things to come.
posted by markkraft at 4:42 PM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Great stuff, thanks!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:59 PM on April 15, 2009

Stone greasers and SE Hinton's youth seem pretty simple in comparison to all this sharpie suedehead business. Great post!
posted by bonefish at 1:53 AM on April 16, 2009

Here's a comment from one of the YouTube links above:
I was there, pure Neanderthal rock lifestyle, it said a lot about how we were, very scary, i remember the violence, the mindless destruction, the gangs would live for the weekend where they'd travel to a suburb to beat the living daylights out of a perfect stranger for no particular reason, i never understood it? like a gang a prisoners on weekend leave fresh off the bounty, we're talkin ''Fight club'' with crocodiles, they couldn't be tamed, utter madness, fueled on alcohol and revenge.
I'm not sure about the crocodiles, but the sheer scale of violence should have caught the eye of some journalist. Just think of the police reports - a surfer, hippie, or quiet studious kid comes in, beat to a pulp and says some sharps did it. What did they look like? Nice cardigans, tight jeans, custom shoes, and missing teeth.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:57 AM on April 16, 2009

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