Investigating the art of customisation with Tom Cardwell 

Image courtesy of Tom Cardwell

The artist depicting the uniqueness of Heavy Metal battle jackets

Tom Cardwell is the artist exploring the personalities of heavy metal battle jackets, in his current exhibition ‘Bad Patch’.

Recently graduating with a PhD from Wimbledon College of Arts, Tom Cardwell drew inspiration from his past, including the teenage interest he often revisits as he works. “It comes from my own experience growing up listening to heavy metal. I was always fascinated by the visual expression of the music – the album artwork, t shirts and patches – this was a formative element of my identity as an artist I suppose”, he explains.

A subculture that fashion and music frequently reference, heavy metal fuses rock’n’roll and biker culture. Notable for its aggressive, loud and gritty form of rock music, heavy metal style reflects the attitude of it’s music. Denim jeans, band t-shirts and leather jackets, often ripped in the violent mosh pits, form the basis of the heavy metal uniform. Describing the look, Cardwell explains “In terms of style, heavy metal clothing has been very influenced by motorcycle culture – denim, leather, patches etc. there’s also some crossover with punk and goth”.

The gritty grunge aesthetic of distressed and ripped denim, sleeveless jackets and graphic band t-shirts have become a popular trend since heavy metal arrived in the mainstream. Last year, streetwear label Supreme collaborated with heavy metal rock group Black Sabbath to create collection including graphic t-shirts, denim battle jackets and caps, all covered in band logos and patches. More recently, designers including Demna Gvasalia of Vetements and Balenciaga, and Jerry Lorenzo’s Fear of God have replicated the heavy metal look in their latest collections.

Examining the dress code of heavy metal fans, Cardwell focused on the subculture’s iconography as the subject of his latest series of watercolour paintings. Battle jacket, also known as patch jackets, cut-offs and battle vests, are the vital component in achieving the heavy metal look.

Image courtesy of Tom Cardwell

Similarly to punk zines, battle jackets indicate which bands an individual follows and are often personally customised by wearers.
Portraying existing garments, Cardwell investigated the stories behind the jackets he depicted through a series of interviews with their owners. One jacket is covered in an array of AC/DC patches, 38 to be exact, as well as international flags, symbolising the journey a fan takes in order to follow their favourite band. Another jacket in the series dedicates its denim surface to Manowar, as others feature Iron Maiden, The Ramones and Black Sabbath, along with punk-style studs and chains.

Unraveling the tales behind the jackets and the patches stitched onto their fabric, revealed the artistic nature of personalised customisation. “Generally it’s good to hear how the jackets are personal to each person and the patches reflect their stories and life experiences.” Cardwell said. “I interviewed a Canadian fan who was a truck driver and wore his jacket at work – he had some good stories to tell. I’ve also spoken to a few people in well-known bands who have jackets so I guess that pleases the metal geek in me”, he admitted.

Tom Cardwell himself owns a battle jacket and believes some of the most interesting and sentimental patches on his jacket to be the hand-painted and embroidered patches that he personally made. Customisation often separates individuals from the uniformity of their group as the majority of British subcultures are centred around the formation of a family-like style tribe and uniform way of dress.

Making their own patches attaches the characteristics and personality of the individuals to the item of clothing they wear. Whilst signifying the heavy metal band the fans follow, patches also have the potential to present their identity through the originality of the shared symbols. Style tribes such as Punk and Mod, envisioned their uniforms upon the art of customisation – safety pins, zippers and roundel motifs have become highly recognisable to such subcultures and are becoming increasingly present in fashion.

As we spoke to Cardwell about his latest exhibition, the art of customisation seemed precious to him, hence his decision to translate the battle jackets of heavy metal fans onto canvas. “I hope that people will look at the paintings and their subjects in a different way” he expressed. “As a painter I try to re-appropriate interesting objects or images. By making paintings of these things I can think about them in a different way. Painting offers a more contemplative space than the everyday world.”

Words by Emily Gallagher


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