X-ing up (To X-up)

What does it mean to X up?

The phrase to X up (the act of X-ing up) refers to the most common symbol of the Straight Edge subculture, the Xes painted on the back of one’s hands.

Origins of X-ing up

The symbol’s origins lie in late ’70s when underaged members of the hardcore punk community were marked that way at the entrance of shows. Thus, the minors with X’ed up hands could not order alcohol at the clubs and bars where the gigs took place.

The X’ed up hands became an universal symbol of drug-free living with the release of Minor Disturbance EP by Washington, DC’s band The Teen Idles. This 7-inch record was also the first official release of the formative hardcore punk record label Dischord Records, started by Teen Idles band members.


The Teen Idles formed in 1979 and consisted of high school classmates Ian MacKaye (bass), Nathan Strejcek (vocals), Geordie Grindle (guitar), and Jeff Nelson (drums). In its short-lived span between 1979 and 1980, the band played various shows around the DC area, as well as several shows in California, taking a lot of influences from the LA’s exploding hardcore punk scene at the time, and importing a number of scene’s attributes back to DC, including slamdancing.

The Teen Idles disbanded at the end of 1980 due to a tension over Christian beliefs between Grindle and an avid atheist like Nelson. This resulted in disbanding, with Nelson and MacKaye eventually forming Minor Threat, and Strejcek forming Youth Brigade.

In 1981, Minor Threat released their seminal debut EP that featured the atheist track “Filler”, probably in response to Grindle’s conflict, and the iconic track “Straight Edge”, giving the emerging movement its name. Take note that the X’ed up hands predate the term Straight Edge.

According to Ian MacKaye, The Teen Idles’ song “I Drink Milk” from their EP, was the first straight edge song ever written, and he was ridiculed a lot by the members of the early hardcore punk community for it. That ridicule and opposition led him to write an angrier and straight-forward song such as “Straight Edge” with his later band Minor Threat.


The Mythology of X-ing up

There are also many alternative histories and urban legends surrounding the origins of the act of X-ing up and the early days of DC hardcore scene. One such such myth appears in the great satirical straight edge blog “The Straight Edge Handbook” in their post on X-ing up from 2012:

The tradition of X-ing up at shows began with the DC band Teen Idles, who desiring to play a show in their local strip club between acts, despite the fact that they were underage worked out a deal to have themselves marked so as to be clearly visible. Originally, they were going to mark their foreheads with a large ‘U’, but after arguing, they settled on Xes, since they were playing in an XXX place. Thus the symbol of the Xed hand as well as the traditional moniker ‘XXX’ for edgers came into existence.

The XXX moniker actually comes from the official flag of Washington, DC, where the three five-pointed stars were replaced by the X symbol. The XXX moniker first appeared in the seminal DC hardcore punk compilation Flex Your Head, released in 1982 with bands like The Teen Idles, Untouchables, SOA, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Youth Brigade, Red C, Void, Iron Cross, Artificial Peace, and Deadline in it.

Some people also argue that the three Xes stand for the three main tenets of Straight Edge, as put in the Minor Threat’s “Out of Step” song: “Don’t Drink. Don’t Smoke. Don’t Fuck.” This is also an urban myth.


The shape of X to come

*Inserting sarcasm below, don’t take these words for the undisputed truth*

The X on one’s hand may vary depending on the sharpie or the permanent marker used, prefered style of hardcore punk / metal, or the weight of one’s convictions.

An accepted although informal rule of behavior, is that the average straight edge person too shy to put a bold X on their hand, will use just two thin and slender lines as a statement they haven’t sold out yet. Those into the traditional straight edge sound, building their personality on a solid drug-free foundation, will use medium-size, regular Xes. While die-hard straight edge warriors, especially Vegan Straight Edge militants and ’90s-influenced metallic hardcore lovers, will put the thickest and boldest Xes they can come up with.

It’s pretty common nowadays for the X symbol to come tattooed on your hands (also on neck, face, etc), as it won’t ruin your bedsheets and pillow when you go to bed after a sweaty hardcore gig. Since the early days of Youth Crew, it’s also pretty common for an X’d up hand to come with the crucial accessory of an X-Rated model Swatch or its cheap replicas.

In its essence, the ritual of X’ing up stands for recognizing sobriety as a necessary step in liberating yourself from the destructiveness of intoxication culture. It’s a self-affirming indication for drug-free living and an easy way to identify like minded individuals at music shows, as well as making a bold statement for your belonging to a collective identity shared by many other individuals around the globe.

Read more on Straight Edge values and critics of intoxication culture at DIY Conspiracy:

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