Straight Edge: Why I Always Wear this X on my Hand?

By Staffan Snitting, originally published in Tigersuit Zine, #4

I have X’d up on just about every Stay Hungry show. When we toured in April 2011, I forgot on one or two occasions, and it bummed me the fuck out. Thankfully, after seventeen years of being stoked on straight edge and its symbolisms, I know what marker to use (Pentel Felt, chisel point) and it usually takes three to four days before the X’s aren’t visible anymore. I will never again settle for the inferior bullcrap ink that smears all over my fist as soon as I reach down my jeans pocket for some soda pop change or merch money.

X’s come in different shapes and techniques. We have the sporty type, done with two quick strokes with a thin pen, usually seen on youth crew revival bands. Andy in Stay Hungry keeps doing those, I think he is vain and wants to be able to wash them off easily. Some are crooked, such as the ones Fredrik from Law and Order zine usually ends up with. Some are first outlined and then filled. I prefer the really thick ones that are done with two slow, determined strokes. We can call them Earth Crisis X’s, or ’94 X’s. They are for the bold edgers; if you fuck ’em up, they will look ridiculous. There are no second chances. To me, they just feel less apologetic, and more determined.

At this point, you are probably starting to form an opinion about me and my thoughts regarding this whole ritual of X-ing up. Perhaps you think I am childish. Or you might consider it a curiosity that a full grown man cares so much about a subcultural drug free symbol that most stop bothering about before they are even allowed to buy alcohol in bars. In a dream scenario, you have already googled the Pentel Felt with chisel point (you won’t be disappointed, it kicks ass!).

And yeah, I can admit that my interest in straight edge symbolism contains a superficial level. I dig how it looks. I think it’s cool as fuck, and I have done so ever since I first stumbled upon the phenomenon on records and in fanzines in the early to mid 90s. But most of all, I dig what it stands for, and the possibilities contained within it.

The discussion on straight edge as a “personal choice” or something “more than that” has been on the agenda for as long as I can remember, and probably before that too. Basically, it boils down to whether you consider it within your interest and right to try and influence the behaviour of others via your own. Is straight edge something you exclusively keep to yourself or is it something that you choose to advertise to the world? I am the first to note that straight edge, as a very loosely knit together movement, will almost necessarily contain both these currents, in more or less extreme forms.

But no matter what side of that fence you are on, or if you are a fence-walker, or if you find yourself jumping back and forth between the opposing poles, the thing is that straight edge is always (always!) more than just a personal matter (and I am not just referring to the social consequences of drug abuse, which should be evident for everyone). That it is a personal choice to make must not be confused with that action being isolated or cut from a social context.

To be frank: even if you consider straight edge to be your own personal thing that you don’t want to “push” on others, or if you wish to keep others out of your personal business, you still have to admit that you got the idea to adapt the subcultural marker, the collective identity, from somewhere and someone. Someone talked about it in interviews, played a Strife-cover (pre-edge break, obviously) at a show you attended, yelled “fuck yeah, straight edge!” in between songs (that could’ve been Andy Stay Hungry, in which case I can forgive his wussy sport X’s). Or, perhaps you saw some kids painting big X’s on their hands at a show and wondered what the hell that was all about. You did not invent this personal lifestyle of yours, nor its symbols, so jump off the high horse, will ya?

In other words: being sober is a personal choice that can be more or less based on experience, political conviction or peer pressure. No one really needs to know. But as soon as you adapt the straight edge label, you place yourself in a specific social and historical context. Even if you don’t tell your co-workers, team mates, casual lovers or car mechanics, you chose to adapt the label because someone else once told you about it, directly or not.

I know how awesome I thought it was to see X’d up kids when I was a teenager, especially if they were older than me. If me X-ing up now can send even traces of such signals to others, then it is worth all the ruined bed sheets and black cheeks throughout the years.

This propels me to the question regarding what you actually signal by X-ing up, what message it sends to the world around you. Well first of all, becoming straight edge means adopting a collective subcultural identity. Many edgers are reluctant to the idea of straight edge as a movement, an attitude I think stems from the hype of individuality that is quite prevalent in punk. I call it hype, because that’s what it is. We’re all social beings inside the scene, and on a general level, I am more interested in collective efforts and goals than individual self-proclamation. In the case of straight edge, you can claim your individuality all you want; you have still chosen a collective label and identity. If you only “lived your life for you” and so on, I hardly see why you’d need that label, no matter how drug free you were. So the X is a symbol of that collective identity, it is something that signals community (and if you don’t like what some other edgers are up to, you’ll just explain to whoever lumps you together with them that you can’t be responsible for every single edger’s words or actions, and hey, what kind of X was the person using anyway, the sporty type?). To me, that sense of community is beautiful. I am not scared of being part of something, and showing it.

Secondly, it signals distance from and resistance towards the things you have left behind as straight edge. We are constantly bombarded with products of intoxication and poison. In the hands of consumers, on billboards, magazines, TV, movies, hit music. The resistance needs something to show too, because it is an important action to resist these intoxicants and poisons. If kids are told a hundred times a day to poison and pacify themselves, you can try to be that one example of the opposite. And look cool at the same time. Score!

Thirdly, in times when straight edge isn’t that cool anymore, you signal that you’re holding on. There used to be shirts printed with the slogan “straight edge isn’t cool anymore—so what?” This slogan can be seen in two different ways. Either you don’t care about other people in general and couldn’t be bothered if anyone else was straight edge. You just want to sit at home and play videogames. Sort of like a clean version of the stoned out student in the video for “The irony of it all” by The Streets. Or, you chose to see it the way I do, namely that it sucks that straight edge isn’t cool anymore, since that means that people will drink more and use more drugs, but that this won’t affect your position on it. You’re still going to be sober, you’re still going to be straight edge.

So, then, what if you’re reluctant about X-ing up because you don’t want to make those who drink feel bad? What if you don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable?

Well, it’s one thing if you are a little shy and not quite ready to show your true colors just yet. I am not going to judge any of our youth over that. But hang in there, kid. It’s just a threshold you need to step over, and once you’re out of the edge closet, it’s going to feel like a great relief.

But if you’re staying in that closet because you think it will be rude to the people who drink to force them to see your X’d up fists, that it will spoil their drunken fun, make their beverages a little less tasty, well take a fucking look at what they’re holding in their hands, smell what their breaths communicate to the world, ponder on what consequences their slurry words actually carry. Just try not to slip on their puke in the process. I’d say it takes about a million A Chorus of Disaprovals or covers of “Fuck you I’m edge” before we are even close to having to consider if we, as straight edgers, are too much in the face of the drinkers.

There is nothing wrong in showing that you’ve taken a stand. Quite the contrary, actually. Come to think of it, fuck those who try to silence you in this age of passivity. Fuck only minding your own business, that’s exactly the attitude that the hegemony wants us to embrace (read up on Gramsci, will ya?). Smash the status quo. And if you don’t have a hammer to do so, buy a Pentel Felt with chisel point and start the process with big fat Earth Crisis type X’s on your hands.

And be a nice person. Thank you.

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