Quote and Credit

Quote and Credit


Carnival Punks Folk Art Knock Down Gay Terminology and the Ramones on Joe Franklin!

Years ago, I had the fortunate pleasure of visiting one of the most prominent collectors of American folk art on a regular basis. Besides teaching me much, I was learning at the feet of a master. (Literally...there was no room in his house and I had to sit on the floor.) We traded things back and forth monthly. I would study them, he would study them, and once in a while swaps were made. The stuff didn't have much financial value then, and I'm not sure if it does today.

I once brought the collector three huge carnival knock-down targets, each about 3 feet tall, with effigies of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo painted on them. I didn't want Hitler in my house, so I hoped to trade them for an equally not valuable whittled miniature cane he had by a carver from Georgia. (Years later I saw Saddam Hussein painted on some carnival punks at the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, so things never change.)

I cabbed them down and presented them saying "check out THESE punks!"

What surprised me was that he immediately asked me why I called them "punks" and I really didn't have an answer. I'd just always known carnival knock-downs as punks. The collector was puzzled, which surprised me, as he had earlier curated museum shows having to do with esoteric material culture from the sideshow and such, and he certainly owned some. I figured no one could puzzle the master.

He told me "punk" was a term used to refer to a younger homosexual man dating an older man. I had no idea. To me at the time, punks were the Ramones. Or as Joe Franklin, perennial host of a local TV show called them "The Ray Mones" while appearing as puzzled by them as my collector friend was at my punks.

I knew gay "punks" were called "twinks" which I believe may still be in common usage. I'm a little isolated here, so I don't know for sure, and we should refer to all without derogatory terms anyway. But that also makes sense, as my collector friend was Eastern big-city based, and I suspect knock-down targets received their punk name in the Midwest.

If you look up punk in a carny lingo dictionary, the slang term has numerous uses. As a rube, a child. a trick, a fake fetus in a bottle, a person primed for a scam, an "easy target" as it were...though the punks here were intended to be a hard target. That's why they had fur...to create the illusion of width, and the carny would also encourage the punk in FRONT of him to lean in "for a good toss" because you would then be throwing off balance. He would watch as ball after ball whiffed through the fur not moving the targets at all.

I found these androgynous punks in an antique mall. My "axis of evil" punks are long gone and I can't find a picture, but I cribbed one of a similar group from an auction website below. Mine were better, as they were entirely made by hand, but these will give you an idea. As a bonus, see Marky and Joey "Ray Mone" jabber it up with Joe!

Group of three unremarkable carnival knock-down ball toss targets (Above) Collection Jim Linderman



  1. Thank you for posting this! Having grown up on the boards of Seaside Heights and worked at many games that are "not impossible, just improbable", I can't ever remember these being referred to as punks. By the time I had my working papers, the traditional, fuzzy punks weren't much in use- way more of the topical targets that you mention such as Hussein, bin Laden, etc. Prior to that, the "geek" in the "shoot the geek" style games more of a monster or general caricature... whatever could be put together out of old football gear.

  2. Wonderful! Thanks so much for taking the time to post. Believe me, I love that part of the shore...trash at one end and the lovely state park at the other. Heaven at both ends! Much appreciate the comment from a real live carny! Heh!
    Jim Linderman

  3. Thanks for the Joe Franklin memory. I used to love watching the Ramones on The Uncle Floyd show as well. Seems like a long time ago.

  4. I just found your blog through the NYT piece and am loving it so far. Just a real minor correction on this - with respect to a punk being a fake fetus, that's somewhat incorrect. Slang for a real fetus in a jar is "pickled punk". A fake version is referred to as a "bouncer" (because they are made of rubber/silicone/etc).

    I swear I remember these knock down dolls being called something else but cannot remember the term. When you do any searching around, punk seems to be quite frequently used though.

  5. This usage of the word punk is a new one on me, but it sounds plausible, If they aren't officially known as punks, they should be!

    In reference to the "fetus in a jar", a high school friend uswed to call them "Muncie babies". Not sure of the spelling, just always assumed it was the same as the name of a small Indiana town a little south of where I live. It could have just as likely been Munsey or some other variation.

  6. I was born into a carnival family in 1943 and grew up traveling on many different carnivals every summer all over the upper Midwest, West, and Midwestern Canada until I graduated high school in 1961. "Punk" simply meant a town kid. The little car and airplane and pony rides made specifically for children were known as "punk rides." I know that carny talk varies throughout the country and throughout generations but that was the only meaning of punk I ever heard during my carny days as a kid.