20 Radical Photos That Show What Life Was Really Like In The 1980s
By | August 29, 2022
Which bike do you think is faster?
When you’re a kid the most important thing that an adult someone can do for you is make you feel like you’re grown up. When they treat you with respect and make you feel like you’re one of the gang it instills a feeling of respect. This kid is obviously excited that his uncle is letting him get his first taste of riding a real deal hog, even if it’s going to take a few years before he’s road ready. This is such a heartwarming photo because it shows a kid growing up in a tough decade with a family that cares about him and treats him like an adult. And, it’s a really cute photo, we can’t forget that.
Behind the scenes of E.T.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is one of those movies that kids from the ‘80s can return to time and time again and be transported back to their childhood. The making of the film was just as magical as the movie itself, and its effects are truly some of the most inspired tricks of the decade. In the famous scene where Eliot and E.T. fly their bike in front of the moon Industrial Light and Magic used a real shot of the moon coupled with a puppet of the two characters superimposed over the shot. In order to find the right shot of the moon Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Muren spent weeks looking at maps and charts to find the right spot for filming.
Denim fashion on King's Road
King’s Road in Chelsea is the mecca of fashion. It’s always been the place where you go when you want to change your look or show off your new style. It’s also the site of some of the coolest street photography that’s ever been taken. It began as street full of punks showing off their spikes and leather and softened as the ‘80s came on strong. This look is definitely more in line with the yuppie style of the day, but it’s still a lot of fun. Can you imagine a time other than the ‘80s when you’d see a pair of denim boots to match a denim skirt? Who knew they had rodeos in England?
Nothing beats a game of Donkey Kong on the living room floor
Sure, there’s a sublime feeling that accompanies the journey to the kill screen in the arcade version of Donkey Kong, but sometimes you just don’t have the quarters and you really don’t want to go to the arcade to stand in line and wait to have your noggin bashed in by some unruly, princess obsessed ape. Thank goodness for the Atari, the home gaming system that allowed us to stay indoors for days at a time while we worked on a strategy to save the princess and dodge the Kong’s ballistic barrels. The game, which followed “Jumpman” as he raced through the early platform was a hit from right out the box, led to the creation of the Mario franchise which continues to bolster sales for Nintendo decades later, but we’ll always have love for his first appearance on the Atari.
This maroon birthday takes the cake
People have been having birthdays since the beginning of time, you don’t need some know it all writer telling you that, but in the ‘80s it’s as if everyone needed to have a themed birthday of some kind, or at the very least have a birthday party at an arcade or a pizza place - preferably with a buffet. This birthday is a classic Saturday afternoon affair that everyone who grew up in the ‘80s remembers; the oddly colored walls, the vaguely themed table spread, and the friends that your mom made you invite cheesing for the camera. Here’s the thing that’s confounding about this photo, did the kids eat half the cake? Or is it just really small?
Portrait day at heavy metal high
What do you love? What’s the thing that defines you? More often than not when it came time for senior portrait day students were asked to bring in something that was important to them, that resonated with their souls. Obviously this isn’t a senior portrait, but a more personal shot that was set up outside of the classroom, unless this guy went to some whackadoo high school were tattered American flags were considered a cool backdrop. Everything about this photo screams “1980s,” from the hair to the jeans, to the sneakers and the snake print stretch leggings. For those about to rock, this guy salutes you.
Guys kicking it in the Bronx
In the 1980s hip hop culture and fashion were growing at the same time. Both things blossomed from the same nucleus and they mutated and morphed at the same time. In those days young guys hung out on the street corner and talked shop in between working on raps and doing their best to get by. New York City in the ‘80s was a jungle, but the people who came up from the concrete wasteland became some of the most influential people of the 20th century. Even though the city was consistently on the verge of burning down, everyone was living their life and having fun.
What? Didn't your family pose with an E.T. doll?
When you think about it, it’s hard to grasp why a movie about an alien who dresses in drag while hiding in a closet and eating Reese’s Pieces was such a big deal. The movie made $792,910,554 worldwide and it cemented Steven Spielberg’s status as a blockbuster filmmaker who worked for the entire family. Even though the film made a play for the younger members of the audience, it was a story that everyone watching could connect to. Honestly, who didn’t tear up when E.T. told Eliot that he had to go home? That being said you probably didn’t pose with a doll of the alien in a closet. That kind of thing was for super fans only.
Look at the size of that thing, the Walkman is almost as big as he is
The day that you received your Sony Walkman was the demarcation of a new way of life. No longer would you have to listen to what your parents wanted to on a long car ride, and the bus to school would never be the same. You could put on your headphones, slip in your favorite cassette and drift away. Everyone had their favorite cassette, be it an album by Weird Al or a mix tape made by a friend, the possibilities were endless with a Walkman. The first versions of these portable cassette players were majorly chunky, and as time went on they slimmed down, but nothing beats the heavy duty TPS-L2 - the original Walkman.
A date in Central Park
New York City was nowhere near as cleaned up in the 1980s as it is now. The streets were dirty, Times Square was a mess, and Central Park looked like the site of a nuclear bomb test, but that didn’t stop young lovers from taking a spot in the park for a date. It’s proof that no matter how dirty or how dangerous young people will find a place to get together and make out. Things turned around for Central Park in the ‘80s thanks to The Central Park Conservancy, although it took some work. A representative for the CPC said:
We learned early on that the park needed a system of accountability in management, and that was the beginning of the zone management system we have in place today. The reason the park is managed so well and so well taken care of is that it is broken down into zones and each zone has a team directly responsible for everything in that zone: from lawns to plants to trees to benches.
Festival in Pasadena, 1980. Barack Obama happened to be there
While most people think of Barack Obama as a Chicago boy (or as one of the most famous residents of that big White House on Pennsylvania Avenue), he actually spent a couple of years in California while attending Occidental College as an undergrad. While attending college he lived in Pasadena with roommate Hasan Chandoo where he did what normal college students do - go to parties, eat pizza, and even hit up local festivals. According to Margot Mifflin, Occidental College graduate, the future president was a great neighbor who threw rad parties:
In short, Barry, as we knew him, and Hasan (Chandoo), his friend and roommate (who was my boyfriend), had some marvelous parties there, some were huge parties where we danced to the Talking Heads, The Clash, and Bob Marley. We also had study sessions at their apartment.
We're a happy family
Who doesn’t love a family photo from the ‘80s? While they all include goofy hair, clothes that only seemed to exist for 10 years, and pre-Photoshop camera effects, this one really sticks out like a sore thumb. Aside from the god-like presence of the mother, the inclusion of Cabbage Patch Kids and an ALF doll are like a time machine. Who remembers having to bring your favorite toy to a photo session so your love of Microbots or whatever could be frozen in time? Hopefully this family took another photo with less stuffed animals, or maybe with the stuffed animals looming over the family, that would be the better conversation starter.
Hit the two lane blacktop with this Ford Spectron
While we hadn’t quite moved into the era of the minivan, the ‘80s saw an influx of vans that were somewhere between the cool party vans of the ‘70s and the soccer mom minivans of the ‘90s. The Ford Spectron was on the crest of the inbetweener wave, and while they’re definitely not as radical as their predecessors, they’ve got a charm all their own. These vans were fairly basic and meant to fit nearly 10 people comfortable and while it doesn’t have the open space that a van from the ‘70s has, the driver does have the ability to put all the seats down. That’s something, right?
A classic boombox on the subway, believe it or not but they could get bigger
The boombox, the ghetto blaster, whatever you want to call it was a staple of city living in the 1980s. Carrying one of these around meant that you wanted the world to know exactly what you were listening to; their gargantuan size was intimidating to the casual listener, and they could reach ear splitting volumes which ensured that your favorite song would be heard around the block. A boombox like this came with built in status, it was cool to be the person with the music. Why were they so big? Boomboxes were meant to provide the home audio experience on the go, which means that the bodies had to be both large and structurally sound to encase an amplifier and crossover electronics. According to one collector:
Practical issues aside, a bigger, louder, flashier box got you more attention on the street—boosting your reputation—and manufacturers could charge more; so win-win. Bigger is better.
Who wouldn't be grinning to ride this Honda Mini Trail bike?
What do you ride when you’re not big enough for a full sized motorcycle? You get a mini-bike, obviously. Honda has been making dirt bikes since the 1920s, but in the ‘80s the thing to have was a Z50 Mini Trail. This bike wasn’t a standard minibike made for puttering around the neighborhood, but a functional and durable piece of machinery that definitely started a lot of two wheel addictions. These were small, lightweight, and reliable bikes that were perfect for a young person who wanted to get comfortable riding a motorcycle. Heck, these bikes were great for adults who just wanted to have a little fun. All in all they were great bikes.
Freddy Krueger doesn't go anywhere without his Vision Skateboard
The ‘80s belonged to Freddy Krueger. There were five Nightmare on Elm Street movies released between 1984 and 1989, a TV show that ran for two seasons at the end of the decade, and all manner of licensing deals. The world had Freddy fever and it wasn’t going away any time soon. Horror movies and skating culture were always heavily intertwined, maybe it’s because teenagers made up the largest demographics of skaters in the ‘80s, or maybe it’s just because skaters like things that are a little more edgy. Freddy and skateboarding culture combined in a big way 1989’s The Dream Child when he actually rode a board to commit a heinous dream death, proving himself to be truly radical.
Dave's Corner Luncheon used to be the place to eat in New York City
Cities just don’t look like this anymore do they? What this area lacks in the clean lines of the modern era it more than makes up for in grit and personality. Taken in the early ‘80s, this shot shows what life was like when there were still corner luncheons and mom and pop businesses could still thrive in an urban setting. Dave’s Luncheonette was a staple of the SoHo area of Broadway, a spot that was mostly full of textile businesses. No one really lived in the area but there were people around all the time and when they needed something to eat they popped into Dave’s, an all night diner that could be filled up at any time with truck drivers, people who’d just been at the Mudd Club, and the strays of New York City.
These guys are either ready to rock or to model tight red shirts
Just one look at these guys and you’re transported back to your teens; to the sound of drums crashing out of a garage, of the same song being played over and over, to endless photo shoots to make sure the band looked just right. In the ‘80s you were either in a band or you knew someone with dreams of making it big. By the mid 80s, bands like Loverboy and Huey Lewis and The News inspired every teenager who just wanted to party to pick up a guitar and start writing their own pop rock tunes. They wore flashy colors, tight pants, and the much sought after headband. If you were in a band and still have any of your demo tapes sitting around feel free to send them our way, we’d love to give them a listen.
Name a more iconic duo, we'll wait
There is so much going on in this photo from a boy’s birthday party. First of all, those Smurf drums are absolutely stellar. They’re from an era when branded toys were absolutely wild, you could own a set of Smurfs drums, a Smurfs watch, and a Smurfs wallet, no matter what kind of thing you liked you could be all in on it. Aside from the totally rad gift this photo sums up so much of what was great about the ‘80s - a smoker forged from a steel drum, a cool Michael Jackson shirt, and a deep V polo that seriously needs to make a comeback.
Breakdancers working out moves on the street
Anyone who lived through the 1980s remembers a truly embarrassing time when they tried to breakdance. Maybe it was at a wedding, at school, or just alone in your room; wherever you were you definitely tried to spin around on your back and looked like a fool, but that's okay because we did too. The love for breaking started in the early ‘80s when dance crews around New York City started battling one another to see who reigned supreme. The acrobatic movements combined with the infectious grooves of hip hop blossomed into its own subculture that’s still influencing people today.
Cops ride the New York Subway, forever on the hunt for crime
In the 1980s the New York subway system had the ugliest trains, they were covered in strange graffiti, and at least half of its passengers were the scariest people you’d ever meet. Crime was rampant in the system, and there were only so many cops to go around. Author Paul Theroux spent a week riding throughout the city and chronicling his experience, these are some of his thoughts on the New York Subway:
The subway is like a complex — and diseased — circulatory system. Some people liken it to a sewer and others hunch up their shoulders and mutter about being in the bowels of the earth… No one speaks... Avoiding the stranger's gaze is what the subway passenger does best. Most sit bolt upright, with fixed expressions, ready for anything.
Even shirts were postmodern in the '80s
Fashion in the ‘80s was all over the place, but one of the most prominent themes were squiggly lines. These busy geometric patterns adorned everything like the shirt seen here to the walls of your favorite restaurant. They were omnipresent and completely unique to the decade.
These bold patterns are inspired by the Memphis Group, a collective that designed postmodern and abstract architecture that was both minimalistic and maximalist. Bright and in your face, the design was all about fun and breaking with tradition. At the time it was seen as a symbol of trend-chasing yuppies, but in hindsight it actually looked pretty cool.