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INTERVIEW WITH THE IN-DEPTH LEGEND: CLAYTON PATTERSON
By Aramie Louisville Vas
Published in: Gonzo Today Magazine, Louisville, Kentucky, on December 28, 2015
In 1988, police waged war on the supposed undesirables of New York City’s Lower East Side (LES). A number of people without homes had found haven in Alphabet City/East Village’s Tompkins Square Park, and the people with homes didn’t like it. The local board enacted a 12 a.m. curfew for Tompkins Square. Police beat down the people as they protested the curfew with two separate, peaceful rallies in the hot, late summer of ’88.
The police were later condemned, even by the disaffected locals, for inciting the riots in Tompkins Square Park.
Artist and core rebel Clayton Patterson was there and documented hours of footage. Over 100 accounts of police brutality were reported, and Clayton was arrested for refusing to surrender the only copy of his footage to the DA. The riots occurred on the edge of a huge cultural cusp; they were witnessed by Allen Ginsberg and later memorialized by other counter culture artists, from Jonathan Larson’s Rent (the riot scene in Rent was caught on camera by the character of freelance filmmaker "Mark" and was a direct parallel to Tompkins Square) to Lou Reed’s Hold On, with its chorus of "I’ll meet you in Tompkins Square/there’s a riot in Tompkins Square."
Clayton himself had long run fighting against gentrification in the LES, and his artistic accomplishments were and remain numerous enough to bring you to your knees.
Here is the in-depth interview. Fucking WOW.
Aramie Louisville Vas: First, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. It’s always difficult to describe your art and your life to people who weren’t there, and didn’t know, and didn’t see things unfold.
In 1986 I created the Clayton Cap. I designed the ideas and Elsa executed the baseball Caps and jacket backs. The Caps were a new idea. Our Cap was the first to have embroidery move off the front and around the Cap. First to put a signature on the outside of the Cap. First to do specially custom embroidered Caps. Took till around the early 1990’s before anyone else had caught up to the idea of using the Cap as a specialty item. Prior to that had been just rednecks and sports fans wearing baseball caps. Clayton Caps are worn by movie directors and actors, sports stars and many interesting people. Elsa and I are the subjects in the movie Captured; directed by Ben Solomon and Dan Levin and edited by Jenner Furst, produced by Marc Levin and Blowback Productions. And a documentary on street photography called Everybody Street directed by Cheryl Dunn. Captured and Everybody Street can be found on the Internet.
My August 6th 7th 1988 video tape of a riot in the LES went a long way towards having the riot classified as a Police Riot. One of the only police riots of the 20th century. I got arrested for not handing the 3’33" tape over to the DA. I was in the Bronx House of Detention. One of only 2 people were in the jail under a situation called Central Monitoring. The other person was Larry Davis who shot 6 cops. I shot 6 cops with a video camera and got them indicted. Davis shot 6 cops with a gun. Went on hunger strike, got William Kunstler, Ron Kuby, and Lynn Stewart as lawyers and got out after 10 days. Because of how vocal I was with this video, the hunger strike, articles, a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show- brought to the front the idea of citizen journalism, the use of the new technology – the commercially available hand held camera as a protest tool and a community defense lead to the idea of Cop Watch. Community monitoring police misconduct with video cameras. On Oprah we put out the idea that Little Brother Is Watching Big Brother. Went to court for over 20 years for cases stemming from videotaping police situations in the LES.
Elsa and I have created a large video, photography, ephemera LES archive.[Documentarian] Nelson Sullivan, I met at the Pyramid Club, turned me onto the video camera. His explanation on the camera changed my life. I owe him for turning me onto the camera.
I have published a number of LES history books- Resistance: a radical, social and political history of the Lower East Side. Captured, a film and video history of the LES. 3 volumes on the neighborhood’s Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side. Have a Street Gangs of the Lower East Side with Jose "Cochise" Quiles getting ready for print. Legends, a coloring book of the LES; Front Door Book. Have taken pictures since around 1986 in front of my door. Most of the people I photographed were the local people who ran or hung out on the street. Got people from 14th street to the Brooklyn Bridge and all the [housing] projects. Many good guys, bad guys and in between guys. Was another of the great blessings I got from being in the LES. Never photographed many of the Stars — but the people of the LES are my Stars. I have photos that nobody in the family has because of fires, moving and so on. Not what the MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] and all the cool galleries want—but for me- a serious blessing. I love this material. It is me and I am them. We are all one in the Deep Sea of the LES. From the shallow end to the deep end.
Alan Kaufman, the writer, in San Francisco, now NYC, and I, created the ACKER Awards. An award given to creative people who have done much to expand and contribute to the avant-garde, whether it be writing, film, art, publishing, venues, and so on.
I won’t be so basic as to ask you to summarize your art. But can you give a few words or sentences that come to mind when you think about your life and work?
You have been a strong voice in the fight against gentrification – when did it become an issue?
For our readers’ benefit, what are your views on gentrification? How would you sum it up?
This quote of yours I loved so much that it’s now up on a wall in my house: "The genius of most of America was attached to cheap rent and an inexpensive lifestyle. Whether it be Madonna or Jackson Pollock or Jimi Hendrix or Rabbi Moshe Feinstein — all of these people were able to develop their ideas and their theories and their work because they had the time to deal with it. At $3,000 a month, you just don’t have time to grow and develop." Do you see gentrification as killing art?
You documented the fuck out of the hardcore punk scene in the 1980s and 90s. Was this as brutal and amazing as it sounds? Any stand-out favorite moments?
I am very interested in your work chronicling the Jewish population in the Lower East Side. I was raised Jewish myself but never strongly connected. By the end of your involvement, however, you’d been put on the board of a synagogue and wrote a three-volume book. How did this come about?
Just to add here- like with the limited interest in the archives- few people buy the books. I do this work because it is important, not because people care. I do it as a part of my love, respect, and pay back for how much the LES has given to me. I hope in the future people will get to this information and see the value. But remember – if we do not save our own history nobody will. For example, in the case of the Jewish history anthology, it is not about being Jewish. I am not. It is about saving the greatness of what was here. The people from the LES contributed to hundreds of cultural changes in America and the world. There is so much that is overlooked and being forgotten. And because of gentrification what was here before will never be again.
I’ve seen the quote numerous times that Clayton Patterson is leaving the Lower East Side. It was like "Atget quitting Paris". Where are you currently living? How do you spend your time these days?
The Clayton Patterson archive sounds like it IS the history of the Lower East Side. There’s 500,000 print photos, thousands of digital pictures, physical stuff from the streets like empty heroin bags, protest memorabilia, graffiti stickers, stuff from other artists – is this archive on display or accessible in any way to the public?
Maybe it’s just because I’m in such admiration of your life and work and, not to romanticize, but would you say you’ve (for the most part) lived the life you always wanted to live?
Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
Can you talk a little about the radical, avant-garde, anti-art movement called NO!art?
Your life partner, Elsa, is also an artist. Is she still actively tattooing? How can we learn more about her work?
What is your overall view of people? How do you view humanity?
Do you have a favorite place or city? One that stands out above the rest? Why?
What’s the worst emotion you can think of?
Aliens, the holographic universe, conspiracy theories, parallel dimensions: do these things hold any validity for you? Add in International, National, City wide politics.
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ABOUT ARAMIE LOUISVILLE VAS: She (née Bloom) was born and raised in Louisville, KY in the Indian Hills neighborhood. She rode horses in Prospect and wrote during school hours in the city. Aramie has been writing all of her life. Her main genres are poetry and flash fiction. She first came to read Gonzo Today after admiring Ron Whitehead's work, and had her first poem published by GT in 2015. She currently resides in Winston-Salem, NC with her artist husband, a wolf dog called Radar, and their pet boa constrictor, Ouroboros. Her favorite authors are Hermann Hesse, Jim Carroll, and William S. Burroughs. She is passionate about social justice, learning Japanese, martial arts, manners, etiquette, guns, horses, motorcycles, and working out at the gym. Aramie has earned the nickname "lean mean writing machine".
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