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.
You’re an artist, housing activist, videographer, photographer, historian, archivist, writer, and you made your own designer baseball caps for the likes of Gus Van Sant, Mick Jagger and Matt Dillon. You are also the founder of The Tattoo Society of New York and the subject of a documentary film called Captured. Anything left out? Wanna talk about all that?
Much of what I have done is with Elsa Rensaa my partner since 1972. Ari Russomoff and I created the Tattoo Society in New York (TSNY) after Roger Kaufman attempted to start the Tattoo and Body Art Society. Did not work. This was around 1986. Ari left the TSNY after he finished his movie, Shadows In the City, in the early 1990’s. The whole big NYC tattoo scene wave starting in the late 1980’s early 90’s came out of the TSNY. Many artists went on to national and international acclaim. In 1997, connected with Wes Wood and City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed, we spearheaded and were most responsible for getting tattooing made legal again in NYC in 1998. We went on to work with Wes Wood, Butch Garcia and Steve Bonge, to form the NYC International Tattoo Convention. They owned the convention and I became the manager. I stayed involved as manager for the first 15 years. With Butch Garcia and Steve Bonge as owners and I as manager we put on 2 NY Hot Rod tattoo Conventions.
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?
Maybe could say my art deals, at times, with imagination, magic, activism, art ideas, documentation, and a symbol. As to symbol, since I come from the bad end of the working-class, a place were not so many make it to a position of social recognition, one of my ambitions is to serve as an example that one can come from a place where people do not think achievement comes from and to prove the people wrong.
You have been a strong voice in the fight against gentrification – when did it become an issue?
For me- the initial LES gentrification surge started when Reagan got into the power and a Tsunami of Chinese money crossed Canal Street. The Police State got its start after the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot.
For our readers’ benefit, what are your views on gentrification? How would you sum it up?
The loss of community, neighborhood, opportunity, the corporate take over of NYC, the loss of individuality and the homogenization of so much individuality that used to be so sweet, so good. What was before will never be again.
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?
Killing art is only one part. It has killed the kinds of opportunities and chances of success for so many from non-big money situations- most of the creative fields, and small businesses. I could never be me again- meaning the opportunities I needed to do what I did are no longer available.
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 did, as many others did, documented the LES music and art scene. One major blessing was to have documented just about every Sunday CBGB hardcore matinee in 1987. In the summer- the place was extremely hot- the bands were hot- like magic the whole situation became one music and the people. It was Ray Beez of Warzone and Anthony County manager of the Bad Brains who made it possible for me to do what I did in the hardcore scene. Many great shows- The Bad Brains at 10:18 was off the hook. In TSP Ralphy Boy on stage screamed over the mike that I was ripping off the scene. Of course all the new jacks in the park wanted to fuck me up. One guy went to kick my camera. Elsa was behind him- she held onto his shirt. It ripped off missed the camera. Somehow later he ended up with a broken leg. Because this period was at the height of my police monitoring period it made me wonder if Ralphy was working for the cops. The cops were there, they loved it. In the end no big deal- and all was good. Just another stupid moment in the LES. One other time a woman in the park, a junkie was going out with one of the Satan Sinners (Satan Sinners were the last LES street gang to wear colors)- she told them I was videotaping the people and turning it over to the cops. Lead Cochise, the president, and a couple of his Boys, came knocking on my door. I came out, we did a little pow wow. They left and Cochise checked with other people. Soon she was no longer the girl friend and Cochise and I and the Bothers became solid friends. Cochise just got out of jail after 18 years. We are friends and he and I are working on his LES Street gang book. Basically all the troubles I had on the street came from the cops. After 911 I pulled way back on my civil disobedience and social street activism. Too many new laws governing our behavior and freedom. Books, movies, talks and so on are, for me, a more sensible, constructive way to voice my opinion.
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?
The Jewish part is another one of my major blessings of documenting the LES. Met some incredibly inspiring people. And if you look at the books you will realize that to be a Jew is more about being a part of the Tribe of Moses rather that a religious affiliation. The books have Orthodox, Hassidic, Reform, atheists, communist, Rock ‘n’ Rollers- theater- film music art and on and on. There is very little LES Jewish People’s history.
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?
I am still here @ 161 on the LES and still doing what I always do. Elsa has health issues. The sharks are always swimming around looking for ways to get rid of the old LES, which includes me. Gentrification has changed and wiped out so much of what I was connected to. So much of my world is gone or changed. It is not so easy to stay. It has become very expensive to be here. I need to learn a new game and get good at the game. NYC is always a love hate thing—but the LES has forged its presence, power, and significance, into my bones, my marrow, my heart and soul. Its vibe has married my vibe. The LES is such a large part of who I am and became. I am blessed by having been here and appreciate my debt to the place – my gratitude to the place. The society may have seen us as the rabble, but we were one. We were a community. A neighborhood. I feel as connected to the street as the dirt on the street. I feel it is me. Yes, the environment may have been dark and dangerous, but it was also where the light, the beauty, the love, and the greatest were created. It has become such a large part of who I am. I understand the love and commitment to the place. But the demons are biting at my heels.
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?
No not accessible. Between all that is going on I am overwhelmed. But I am now working at bring back the Caps and organizing the archive and museum.
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?
Thanks for saying that. All in all- with all the struggle and nonsense- I have been blessed to be here at the time I was and for the LES giving me the freedom it did.
Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
Calgary, Alberta, West Canada – mentioned my back ground. My parents came from pioneer families. Spent much time on Native American reservations. That culture had a deep penetrating effect on me. In junior high school I was in a serious train accident which ripped my soul. A high school teacher, Miss Godard, introduced me to art. Her class changed my life. Art school was my first real introduction to the middle-class. Was a total disaster! Almost killed me. Hooking up with Elsa in 1972 was the biggest blessing in my life.
Can you talk a little about the radical, avant-garde, anti-art movement called NO!art?
I became a part of NO!art because Boris kept insisting that I join his politically inspired movement. I became part of this movement in late 1980’s and officially a leader in this movement in 1998. Even though Boris and I disagreed on many things, argued about most everything. I loved, was inspired by his life, his art, his struggle, and we were brothers. Boris ► was a holocaust survivor, never got much love and attention for his art. I see it as some of the most powerful art to come out of the Holocaust. His art is not the cream and butter of a Spielberg movie. It is ugly, much is disgusting, brutal, and it is a dark and penetrating scream coming from an unhealed scar caused by his experience of a survivor. A very important part of NO!art is Dietmar Kirves in Berlin. He is NO!art East. Dietmar made so much possible for Boris. So much of Boris we know is because of Dietmar’s work. I made some solid contributions to Boris in NYC. And on another side Boris was a complete asshole- an intensely, oh, contrary person. Once Boris had a point of view, it would be as hard and as futile to try to change his opinion or move him over to another point, as it would be to move the Empire State building. Love Boris (R.I.P.) and his art. Want an example of Hardcore- Boris was it. Look up his art.
Your life partner, Elsa, is also an artist. Is she still actively tattooing? How can we learn more about her work?
►No she is no longer tattooing. A great artist. So much of who I am is because of her influence and guidance. When you see me you see her. Watch Captured. We had a show at the HOWL Happening space and her work can be seen on that site.
What is your overall view of people? How do you view humanity?
For the most part the people are great- it is the politicians- the greedy- the power mongers- the rulers of society that have ruined so much.
Do you have a favorite place or city? One that stands out above the rest? Why?
Outside of the LES. I like Bad Ischl, Austria because Jochen Auer is from there and has contributed much to my life.
What’s the worst emotion you can think of?
For me- probably depression
Aliens, the holographic universe, conspiracy theories, parallel dimensions: do these things hold any validity for you? Add in International, National, City wide politics.
And my short answer would be NO! Because I have no way to make a contribution to the situation- to have a real voice- so my real interest is local, because I can see, smell, touch what is going on. Possibly have an influence. On the local level it can be hard to find out certain things- but at least I have a chance. I will never meet, hangout with, be heard, or listened to by, let’s say, a Bush or a Clinton. Locally we can have as large a voice as we want to spend the time creating.