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Metal fans’ ‘battle jackets’ as works of art in new Wimbledon Space exhibition

Tom Cardwell, Pete’s Jacket (Motorhead), 2015, watercolour on paper, 38 x 26 cms.
Written by
Sarah McLean
Published date
22 March 2017

Opening this week at Wimbledon Space, Bad Patch is a new exhibition of paintings of customised ‘battle jackets’ worn by heavy metal fans by artist Tom Cardwell.

From Motorhead, Manowar and Sabbath patches to studs and other personal embellishments, the paintings in the exhibition celebrate the contemporary symbols that hark back to past eras in Western cultural history to biker jackets and, perhaps, even medieval heraldry. For the artist, the jackets represent a significant tradition of DIY making practice and act as a display of identity and subcultural allegiance for the fan.

The exhibition is part of Cardwell’s practice-based PhD, which includes a chapter exploring the significance and meaning of battle jackets within the context of metal subcultures, beginning with a summary of the history of the practice of customising jackets by metal fans, ideas of personal subcultural identity, authenticity and resistance.

Tom Cardwell, Aiden's Jacket, 2015, watercolour on paper.

Tom Cardwell, Aiden’s Jacket, 2015, watercolour on paper.

As part of his research, Cardwell interviewed attendees at Sonisphere and Bloodstock festivals in the UK in 2014 and The Modern Heavy Metal Conference in Helsinki, Finland in 2015. One of the interviewees, Emily, said of her jacket: “Metalheads are outsiders from popular culture and the mainstream and all that, because we choose to be that way, to become part of this underground community of people. You tend to exclude the mainstream from your insider…I call it ‘outsider/insider’ because you’re an outsider but you’re inside of this outsider culture. So yes, I do think that metalheads like to wear their vests because it gives you the opportunity to meet other metalheads, because someone can see you from down the street and say ‘Oh I love that patch, I want to talk to that person’, because you have that connection, whereas everyone else walking around the city is not going to understand.”

Tom Cardwell, Manowar, 2015, watercolour on paper.

Tom Cardwell, Manowar, 2015, watercolour on paper.

The battle jacket is an ideal way for a metal fan to express their distinctive individuality, to emphasise their allegiance to the subcultural group, and their distinction from mainstream culture. It shows their status as insiders to the metal scene in contrast to the outsiders of the rest of society.

Cardwell said: “My interest as a painter is in the ways that images (in painting and beyond) can act symbolically to communicate ideas and associations. In the case of the images displayed on battle jackets, meaning is communicated on a number of levels – the associations brought to the jacket imagery and logos will vary according to who is looking at them.”

“A metal fan will often be aware of the direct meaning of particular patches – the music that the image and text relates to. To someone unfamiliar with the genre however, these images will probably construe a less specific but still potentially vivid message.”


Bad Patch opens at Wimbledon Space with an event on 23 March, 5 – 8pm. Visit the event page for more information.

Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Graduate School

Find out more about studying Painting at Wimbledon on our course pages.