Artist, photographer, and videographer Clayton Patterson has spent the past 33 years documenting life in the Lower East Side. A pivotal member of the neighborhood as well as the underground art community, he's seen it all from the early days of drugs and violence to the area's present state of utter gentrification. Patterson's massive archive, which is believed to include among other things over 500,000 photographs, isn't limited to photos and tapes, because he's saved everything: press clippings, artwork by New York artists (himself included), protest banners, punk fliers, graffiti, even books full of stamped heroin baggies.
With the help of his wife Elsa Rensaa and the newly available video camera, Patterson was able to expose the frequent cases of police brutality plaguing the area in the late eighties. After witnessing the disgusting abuse of police authority during the infamous Tompkins Square Park police riot, where unarmed squatters, homeless and anarchist punks were violently attacked by police, he became more involved in resistant political activism. When he refused to give up his footage of the riot to authorities, which included scenes of cops who had illegally removed their badge numbers bludgeoning citizens in the head and face, he was sentenced to and served ninety days in jail. After his release he became an equally active figure in the neighborhood's anti-gentrification movement.
Patterson's work is currently on display at another LES cultural staple, Tribes Gallery, at 285 E. 3rd St. The show, "93 'til Infinity" features Patterson's photos from the LES in the nineties, mounted on heavily graffitied walls done by downtown artists Mint, Serf and the Peter Pan Posse. On May 21st, Clayton's anthological film "Captured" will be screened in the gallery's back yard. The film is a fascinating look into the area's past and the event should not be missed.
After walking around the East Village while he pointed out places that were, we sat down with as it became dark in a park on the corner of Houston and Essex.
Are you originally from the Lower East Side?
No, I've been in the Lower East Side since 1979. I'm originally from Western Canada.
When and why did you start taking pictures?
1972. Elsa gave me a camera for my birthday in 1972. They used to have those little introductory cameras for sale at places like Rite Aid, pharmacy places. It was a Pentax I think 125. They had it on sale there for a very reasonable price and she bought it for me for my birthday. Big mistake.
What was the LES like in the nineties, around when the show was based on?
Well it really kind of varied. I came over to Essex where I am now in 1983. At that time, one of the demarcation lines was Avenue A from Houston to Delancey. Below Avenue A was serious drugs and the deeper you went the more serious it got. And then this side between Houston and Delancey was like no mans land because there was really no reason to be over here, especially below Orchard Street. So this area was pure hardcore drugs. First night we moved to our place we saw somebody get shot across the street. And then from Houston north to Fourteenth Street, it used to be divided off. If you go back and look at maps of the East Village, it used to stop on Avenue A. Eventually the maps get redrawn and it went to Avenue B, and maybe by the end of the nineties it went to Avenue C. So that's how much it's changed. It used to be like the deeper down you went, the more fearful people were of going there. It basically wasn't that populated in terms of like it is now where anybody can walk around doing anything. Also at that period of time you couldn't be walking around with your cell phone, you had to be dialed in. If you weren't dialed in, you had a problem. Even in a neighborhood that's really dangerous and drug oriented you have retarded kids and you have grandmothers, you have whole families. If you know the area it's fine, but for outsiders it was more treacherous . . . . unless you were buying drugs and even then it was like cop-n-go.
So . . .
Also I want to add that The World was down there, where we just walked by.
Oh yeah, Steve's [Lewis] place.
Yeah, Steve's place. That was like right off Avenue C. So that's kind of what gave it its energy too. A lot of people would shoot up there, my friend Susan got shot there, sometimes cabs wouldn't even go down there. But because that's right off of Houston taxis would sometimes go there. But it was a great club. It's interesting because when they mention club life they really mean a lot of different club. Like you know that band the Grave, which Basquiat band was called Gray, the first place they played was A's, and anybody who was anybody had come through A's, which was at 329 Broome Street between Chrystie and the Bowery. And everybody always talks about the Mud Club and Studio 54, but really there was other places like Steve's club The World that were great. And nobody ever mentions The World . That's the thing about this part of the LES is it's always been underground. Like nobody ever mentions the Pyramid Club, once in a while someone will mention A7 but that's just because that's where Keith Harring went. But in reality there was a lot of other spots down here that were really hot and happening, which really gave the juice to the whole world, and Steve's club was one of those places. It was a big club and it was hot. When they first opened they had a penny in a piece of plastic, and I still have one of those original invitations.
That's really cool.
Yeah, it is cool.
So when you were photographing drug addicts and the general disenfranchised, did you ever feel voyeuristic about it? Like self conscious in taking the photo?
Oh yeah of course. Wait, you mean if their wrecked or something?
In that case no. You have to look at it like this , that was the environment. Real life exists in real life situations, and if something like that is going on that was the environment. I mean if you went to the North Pole you'd photograph a polar bear, right? My ambition for the most part was to make people look good. I don't try to take shitty photographs of people, that's not my ambition. But if I come into this part and photograph some guy over there, who like ODed or something, wet his pants and everything else, I mean, that was the life at the time, a record of what was. It's equal to when in war, you photograph people getting shot because that's war. Down here it was like a war zone. So I'd photograph people that'd be slashed and stabbed and shot but that was part of the culture. I didn't try to glamorize it or turn it into something heroic. Matter of fact most of those photographs I've never even shown. It's only in the last couple years that I've really gotten into showing my photos. Where I've shown my photos before is I put them in my storefront window. I used to have a storefront over here on 161 Essex, and so I used to photograph a lot of the kids in the street. So that became like a wall of fame. I would photograph people in front of my door and I would put them in the window. So you had the hall of fame, which was the pictures in the window and you had the wall of fame which was the door. Because I put them in the window, the door became such a thing that I took hundreds of those photographs. I mean hundreds of kids in front of the door… not all kids though, some older people, whatever. The thing of it is is a lot of them just look like regular kids or people, when in reality could be Latin Kings, La Familia, Nietas or all the different gangs, The Posse, 333, 501, ADT, FOS, WONE CREW, all the different crews and posses that were down here were like graffiti tags. Graffiti down here was like tagging. It wasn't like now where people went around and did big bombing. Chico would do these rest in peaces, or say his ads, but these were all drug streets. You didn't have a crew like IRAK running around tagging everything because with this shit every block belonged to somebody. But once you got into the later nineties and it opened up and more people came down here then it became accessible to a lot more writers. Then it got to the point in 2000 where it was fashionable to come down here and tag. But it wasn't like that before. My door had all these different tags on it, classic LES like VR, FOS, ADT, all those, definitely 501. 501 was a serious little crew down here. So I photographed a lot of those people when they were kids and now they're adults. Like how old are you?
23, yeah, so some of them would be around 30 now. So you take it when their like six or ten years old, and now they're like thirty, that's being really connected to someone in a serious way. In a lot of ways that was a lot more interesting for me than being part of the art world. I was part of the art world when I first got here in the early eighties. I had a good gallery, it was going well, but I hated that world. I didn't like the people, I didn't like the things, it just wasn't me. So when I came over here, it's like I found me. So it was really cool, but now me is gone and they're here. What I left is now here on my doorstep. And also now that I'm getting older, 63 going on 64, I have this huge archive that I have to start thinking about dealing with. I have to start thinking of maybe showing it, getting recognized for it and stuff like that.
So half of the show is the graffitied walls, done by Mint, Serf and the PPP. Do you have any favorite writers?
You know, in a lot of ways I'm not really a fan of anything. I run into my things by living in my world and meeting people. I had a guy come over to me the other night, I almost had to throw him out and cut it real short. He kept talking about Mick Jagger, that he was down here, and Iggy Pop… I wouldn't give a shit about those people because their not part of my world. Not that they're bad. Back at the Pyramid Club when I started shooting the hardcore scene I'd run into bands that I'd document and they became part of my world: Bad Brains, Sick of it All, Side by Side, Reagan Youth. All that hardcore things besides a lot of other bands. So yeah, whatever comes into my world. All those people on my front door, they're all a part of my world, so they're some of my favorite graffiti writers. Later on I met IRAK and kids like that. I showed Dash [Snow] before he was Dash, when they were still that little crew with him and Earsnot and some of the IRAK guys, so then they become your favorites in a way. I don't really seek things out, it's just what comes into my world and then I document it and it goes from there.
Captured is playing at the closing of the show on May 21, can you talk a bit about the film?
Captured is really taken from my archives. The material comes from things that I've shot, or Elsa Rensaa shot, she's my… we just got recently married. We were together for like 40 years, but because of the politics now we figured we better get married so that if one of us croaks we can still share the shit after one of us is dead. So the film is done by these three young guys, Ben Solomon, Dan Levin and Jenner Furst. They're all in their twenties. As far as a well done movie goes, for me, I don't think the movie could be any better. When we put it out to the festivals, because of the content; guns, drugs, politics, police riot, it really got banned and bounced from all the festivals. Then we did this thing on rooftops and 2000 kids showed up in their twenties. I realized the cut off age for the most part is about 35 and under. A lot of people in their twenties like it, and I think part of the reason is because the people that did it were all in their twenties. They were only like 25 or whatever when they did it, first thing out of film school. So it was a real blessing in my life.
Would you ever leave?
You know, I think about that a lot, and in a lot of ways I'd have to say yes. I mean I'm very attached to the area and whatever, but the area's been rolled over, it's not really what it was before. When I look across the street here I see H&R Block, I see Dunken Donuts, I see Sleepies, I see Western Union, I see Federal Express… it's just all corporate stuff that could be anywhere. The originality and the genius behind New York was really attached to cheap rent and that period is over. Now it's just people struggling and it's not that interesting anymore. It's super expensive, and then you have people like Steve who're still paying off things that he paid for already, and it's just like everything here now is about money. So here you have a guy, just take Steve as an example, you know, smart guy who works really hard, is very creative and original, but everything he's working for he doesn't get to keep because he owes the government. Well what's that about? And then they're making it almost impossible to do business here, and they're really gentrifying it to the point of making it into…. you know, you have to remember that people think New York is the all time art place. Well, there's no guarantee on that. The muse left Paris after WWII and came to New York. You have to realize it was in Paris for probably 150 years, you had all the Romantic movement, the Surrealists, and Cézanne and all those people, the Barbizon, the Impressionists. That left, and after that to go to Paris would be retarded. Same with Rome, after the Renaissance. Who would go to Rome to be an artist? Not that no artists live there, but if you're thinking of a world message, that's not the place. I'm thinking now it's probably more like China and Beijing with Weiwei and all of that. I mean, they do everything they can to destroy art here. It's just about making it nice, and art's not about just being nice and everything being cool. It has to have an edge to it, and we're losing that edge. And also there's all this stealing going on all the time. If somebody dies and has some major collection, all of a sudden everybody's robbing it. They almost lost the whole James Beard Foundation because people were misappropriating funds. So if I croaked here, and then I have this whole archive, people would come in after it, break it up and sell it, it would disperse. It's just like, is this really where I want my stuff to be?
You should make a massive book.
Well I've put out several books. I did the Front Door Book, which only 500 were printed. I did a book called Wildstyle: History of a New Idea. I've done Captured, a film video history anthology of the LES. I did Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side which is also an anthology. I'm finishing up a three volume Jewish history right now. I have a tattoo book about 3/4 done. But you know the truth is there's no support for this stuff, so I have to do it on my own. I'm trying to start a kick starter to fund the Jewish book and things like that, but there's no help for this stuff. Then you turn around and you've got a guy like (NYC Mayor) Bloomberg who started out with 7.5 Billion and now he's got 20 Billion. I'm sure it's even a struggle to keep BlackBook going, and it shouldn't be like that. The mayor should be supporting that because it supports nightlife, nightlife supports tourism, and tourism supports the economy of New York. But they don't think like that. All they think about is where's the money? All they think is "I want the money, I want the money," but nobody's putting anything back.