The first recorded use of the A in a circle by anarchists was by the Federal Council of Spain of the International Workers Association. This was set up by Giuseppe Fanelli in 1868. It predates its adoption by anarchists as it was used as a symbol by others. According to George Woodcock, this symbol was not used by classical anarchists. In a series of photos of the Spanish Civil War taken by Gerda Taro a small A in a circle is visibly chalked on the helmet of a militiaman. There is no notation of the affiliation of the militiaman, but one can presume he is an Anarchist. The first documented use was by a small French group, Jeunesse Libertaire ("Libertarian Youth") in 1964. Circolo Sacco e Vanzetti, youth group from Milan, adopted it and in 1968 it became popular throughout Italy. From there it spread rapidly around the world.
As noted above, the circle-A long predates the anarcho-punk movement, which was part of the punk rock movement of the late 1970s. However, the punk movement helped spread the circle-A symbol more widely, and helped raise awareness of it among non-anarchists. This process began with the use of anarchist imagery by the Sex Pistols, though Crass was the first pop band marketed under the "punk" genre to use the symbol in their promotional materials as well as espouse a more traditionally orthodox anarchist stance. They had become aware of the symbol, while traveling through France. With time the symbol, and "anarchy" as a vague synonym for rebelliousness, were incorporated into common punk imagery. This led to gradual appearances in mainstream culture over the course of several years, at times far removed from its political origin (described by Situationists as "recuperation"). These appearances typically connected it with anarchy and were intended as sensationalist marketing ploys, playing off of mainstream association of anarchy with chaos. This process mirrored the process of punk subculture coming into the mainstream, which occurred at approximately the same time.
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