Much has been said about the hybrid role of Lower East Side legend Clayton Patterson: archivist, activist, artist. A former president of the Tattoo Society of New York — back when the act was illegal in New York State — the Alberta, Canada-born photographer, filmmaker, and painter has amassed over thirty years’ worth of video recordings and photographs documenting the Lower East Side of the 80s. Patterson photographed the neighborhood’s characters and ephemera almost obsessively, snapping gang members, cops, mystics, addicts and anarchists in front of his apartment door. Eventually, Patterson’s practice took on a political slant: often working in tandem with his now-wife, Elsa Rensaa, the two filmed illegal evictions, the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot — the video of which landed Patterson in prison — and, eventually, the horrors of 9/11, effectively capturing on film what was arguably the end of an era.
The multiple layers contained in Patterson and Rensaa’s archives are rich and dense - too complex to enumerate, though they include the stories of characters like Lionel Ziprin, L.A. II — Keith Haring’s little-known collaborator — Bad Brains, street gang Satan Sinner Nomads, and drag queen Peter Kwaloff. Patterson has made a career of championing the underdog — he infamously quoted on Oprah that “Little Brother is watching Big Brother” — and documenting a substantial chunk of under appreciated but significant history. But: what to do with all of it?
With the help of willing volunteers and organizations, Patterson has been turning his archives into books, the first of which was Captured: A Film and Video History of the Lower East Side. The latest, Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side, was recently funded by Kickstarter and is still in production. OHWOW published and distributed Front Door Book in 2009. I met with Patterson and Rensaa at their home — which doubles as the Clayton Patterson Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum — to discuss their history, the archives and their future.
Monica Uszerowicz: You’re an activist, but you’re also a visual artist. Can you tell me about your artistic background?
Clayton Patterson: I’ve always been an outsider artist. I started getting things going in Soho after I came to New York in 1979. I really didn’t like that yuppified world. It was heavy on gossip. What’s interesting is that Richard Brown Baker collected some of my stuff, and after he died, it was given to Yale. I’m now helping Jeremiah Newton with his collection of work by Candy Darling. Candy Darling, aside from being part of Warhol’s world, is also this kind of icon in the transgender world. There’s this collector, Laura Bailey, who is transgender, and she had this huge collection of gender and transgender material that got purchased by Yale, so we’re trying to get part of Candy Darling’s collection to Yale, taking into account that she, too, was transgender.
The thing about Yale is that it has three active archivists working on this transgender collection. That’s really important with archives. If you give an archive to a place and they don’t have money to deal with it, it can sit in boxes forever. But anyway: there’s a crossover if it goes to Yale, because it turns out Laura Bailey collected my book, Captured, because of some of the Lower East Side characters documented in it. That means it’s connected to Richard Brown Baker, and these links start getting made. Links are truly important.
And your work is really all about links, in a way. Links between people.
Exactly. Back to the art: I continued working outside of the mainstream, and then in 1985, I opened the Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Art Museum. I showed mostly outsider art. The ‘outlaw’ factor pertains not only to criminality, though that is included. My time as a so-called outlaw plays a role, too. The police considered a lot of my documentation a criminal law; I went to court for well over twenty years for documenting on the street, such as the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot video, which I made in August 1988 with the assistance of Elsa Rensaa. I was arrested after some of the portions of the tape were put on the news. This was the first time a hand-held, commercially available video camera was ever used in a case like this. Eventually several cops were fired.
It’s said that history is really created and made by the victors. And in a way, it’s true. Artists must document everything they do in order to stabilize it. The chance of you being recognized for your contribution can be lost. You need to clarify your own work. Even now, I might be considered a legend in certain arenas, but that’s not part of the larger arena. If you go to Harvard and ask who I am, nobody will know. But if you’re hanging out at Max Fish, someone will say, “Oh yeah, that guy’s a legend!” That doesn’t really translate in a historical way.
Your archives hold a lot of stories. You’ve gained a very broad, encompassing understanding of that world.
That’s true, but I never focused on the upper echelon. My interest was always in the outsiders, the low end. The focus is inner city people. On the cover of the Front Door Book, which I published with OHWOW, there is a picture of a security guard. He is no longer alive. I know his son, and that’s really one of the only pictures of his father that exists. There are a lot of pictures like that in the archives — pictures of kids who were in gangs, too. But these images aren’t really important on a larger, social scale.
But you still feel what you’ve documented is significant, right?
Of course. I understand that the real genius comes from the roots and up. So many people accomplished things while riding on the backs of others. I always tell people, if you really want to be famous, you have to groom and develop one idea. Eventually, the idea will expand and other people will understand it and it will become palatable. RuPaul is a good example of this. I started shooting photos at the Pyramid Club because of my friend Peter Kwaloff, who is now known as Sun PK. The Pyramid Club really contributed to the 1980s East Village drag scene. That’s where Nelson Sullivan — the person who turned me onto the video camera — filmed RuPaul and Peter in their early days. Peter had a different drag character every week at the Pyramid Club shows, which made it very complicated for people to catch onto him. RuPaul, on the other hand, was just one, accessible character. Nelson let all these people stay at his place: Lahoma, Larry Tee, RuPaul. Nelson made the introductions, made it all possible. Nelson introduced me to the video camera, so I have to respect that. RuPaul doesn’t write about him in his book, but Nelson changed a lot of people’s lives.
And you know, so much genius came from cheap rent, from the ability of people to just move here and live capably. Those roots are now being cut off. New York is so gentrified that it has eliminated the gene pool. Genius is the fresh ideas, the outside ideas, the ones that change how we see and think. A lot of it came from the poor, the impoverished, the inner city.
And so much of it is in the archives.
One of the reasons I make these books, the anthologies, is that you need a hard copy of this. When you get on the Internet, you skim. You do searches. With a book like Captured, I included people who I felt were really critical to the whole situation, but were maybe unknown or obscure. Different people have different opinions about why something happened. You want to give everyone a voice. In the end, you’ll never know who was really right. In Resistance: A Radical and Social History of the Lower East Side, we featured an excerpt from a book by Ron Casanova, who was homeless and living in Tompkins Square Park during the police riot. He mentions that the police made a deal with the homeless population regarding a portion of the park in which they could legally stay. So the story about the police giving the park a curfew, thus closing it to everyone there, was an outrage. That’s what the riot was about.
When you read history, it’s usually filtered through one voice, one idea. And that’s what the history becomes. Maybe you’re trying to prevent that.
Right. I’m finishing up Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side, and I included a history of Lionel Ziprin, who was a major voice of his time period. He never became to famous — he wanted to remain obscure — but he will exist in the book. People who look in the book for Allen Ginsberg will eventually be led to Lionel. They’ll find Lionel and then a new door is open, new ideas flow. When you look back at art history, all those people you read about — Cézanne, van Gogh, DuChamp — the reality is that, yes, they were outside thinkers who were way ahead of their time, but many of them came from rich families. They were saved. Their work was saved. Other people who have made equal contributions, who were maybe influential to van Gogh — you’ll never know about them, because they will never exist.
About: Monica Uszerowicz is a freelance writer based in New York and Miami.