You know you've seen it, and were probably helpless to stare in both fascination and shock as the colorful and spiky hairdo passed by. The haircut synonymous with punk rock has had a long and varied history, moving from its origin as a ceremonial hairstyle for the Native American Iroquois tribe of Mohawk its status as the flag of defiance of the punk rock world.
The Mohicans were the first to adorn themselves in the scalp lock hairstyle we call the Mohawk—a ridge of hair sticking straight up, running down the center of the head from the forehead to the nape of the neck. The rest of the hair is shaved, showing the scalp. Sometimes short, sometimes long, the mohawk defies convention and makes a bold statement.
The mohawk made its first widespread 20th-century appearance on United States paratroopers in 1945 when they wore the center airstrip style haircut for good luck, but the mohawk quickly turned defiant. Martin Scorsese’s 1976 movie Taxi Driver starred a young Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, an unstable cabbie who shaves his head in a Mohawk style when he wages war on New York city. Punk rockers embraced the hairstyle, identifying with Bickle’s isolation and angst-ridden desperation. They expressed their cynicism at being outcasts, reflecting that anger in their look.
They grew out the center strip, much like a horse’s mane or a Roman helmet sweep, and plastered it to outrageous heights. The crowning glory of the mohawk was the way it defied gravity: whether through hairspray and gel, Knox gelatin, or Elmer’s glue, punks tried every trick in the book to maintain a stiff broom of hair. Sometimes the points of the mohawk would be shellacked to such intensity that their sharp and pointy tips were considered weapons.
A variation of the mohawk was liberty spikes, a crown of spikes that ran from ear to ear across the forehead instead of front to back. Some chose a broom-style sweep, while others preferred the clumpy spikes like a dinosaurs back. Bangs could pour over the face, obscuring the view like a waterfall, or could be spiked up like a unicorn horn. Whatever style, the shock-locks were high-maintenance and demanded attention.
Mr. T turned a variation of the mohawk (the Mandinkan) into a friendlier cut during the early 80’s thanks to his good-guy roles on The A-Team and his own cartoon series, but not for long. The style regained its shock value once T left the limelight, and even today, the mohawk remains the favorite do-it-yourself unisex punk hairstyle.