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Studio Visits: Clayton Patterson
The artist known for documenting Lower East Side since the early 1980s
and making tattooing legal in New York | Photographs by Kyle Reyes
HypeBeast, on June 16, 2021

When it comes to being a resident of New York City’s Lower East Side, Clayton Patterson is OG as it gets. Patterson has amassed an extensive photo and video archive of the LES ever since he moved to the neighborhood back in the early 1980s. He has relentlessly captured portraits of all kinds of people in front of his graffiti-scrawled door in the district. His prolific practice mainly champions the disenfranchised and ragtag groups of people he’s encountered such as gangbangers, drug dealers, drag queens, homeless people, graffiti writers and punk kids.

Patterson originally moved from Calgary Canada to New York City back in 1979 with his wife, Elsa Rensaa. They have lived in the Lower East Side building they purchased on Essex Street since 1983 which also served as his Clayton Gallery and Outlaw Museum which only displayed works by outsider or lowbrow artists. Patterson is also known for his custom embroidered baseball caps that attracted a slew of celebrities who wanted their own personalized versions such as Matt Dillon, Gus Van Sant as well as his former neighbor and iconic pop artist, Keith Haring. When he’s not making caps or curating shows for his gallery, Patterson was an avid community activist. He co-founded the New York Tattoo Society and helped in winning the battle to legalize the art form in the city. What’s more, Patterson was active during the 1988 Tompkins Square police riots and attended the closing concert of the CBGB’s back in 2007.

He fulfilled the romanticized role of a street photographer who captured the raw and uncut humanity of an overlooked city neighborhood: the fast-changing Lower East Side. He has published two anthologies containing his work Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side (2005) and Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side (2007). Moreover, he was the subject of a feature-length documentary entitled Captured by Dan Levin, Ben Solomon and Jenner First which received global acclaim.

Back in May, Patterson collaborated with Supreme to feature his custom embroidery of skulls, dragons and more mystical subjects across jackets, tees and of course, caps. He’s currently showcasing original textile pieces at the emerging Public Access gallery in NYC’s St. Marks neighborhood, owned by Kids star and curator Leo Fitzpatrick, which is on view through June 20.

We recently connected with Patterson to discuss his unequaled collection of LES-based portraits, challenges he faced as an immigrant and his thoughts on how the next-generation of underrepresented creatives can achieve success. Check out the exclusive interview below and follow Clayton Patterson on Instagram to get immediate updates on his projects.

“I’m an artist and anything I do is art.”

What kickstarted your photography practice?
Clayton Patterson: I originally went off on an adventure. I came to New York City in 1983 and went underground. So I spent years not working on a career. Because if you’re working on a career you have to polish it, do it again next year and you know. I had a lot of opportunities to have a career like being a photographer, artist, and a lot of that. But my wife, Elsa, and I went on the next adventure all of the time. So now that I’m playing the endgame, I have to concentrate on my career. Elsa’s got Alzheimers, so she’s a big part of this last act. I’m on the steady course, still looking for one last big adventure. But serious now about a career. Right now, I’m stepping back into the art world.

Why didn’t you take a career as an artist seriously back then?
One of my complaints about the art world is that it follows that same European trend. I come from Western Canada originally. And if I spent an hour of my life looking at a Picasso, it would be a whole fucking lot. You know what I mean? So it’s really the outsider stuff that really gets me going I dropped out of the art world and thought ‘Fuck this shit.’ It just was not for me. By that time, art became about status, money, what you eat and what kind of sneakers you have.

What sort of artist path did you want to forge instead?
The romanticism before was always Van Gogh living in the gara with the potatoes struggling and eating, that was the romance. By the time we get to Mary Boone in the ’80s she’s with Saatchi and Saatchi in the background. She’s showing Schnabel and that. Schnabel was selling for more than a Rembrandt at that period of time, because they pumped up the whole thing. This was at a time when coke was flowing, Wall Street’s going crazy, money was everywhere. So now you got Mr. Chow’s, you got the Odion, you got Studio 54, so you have all of this wealth and this new world. Now with these corporations in the background like Saatchi and Saatchi, you’re now moving from art with soul and empathy to money. I came over here during that time. So I started thinking about art differently. I start thinking about a larger vision: I’m an artist and anything I do is art.

“One of the greatest blessings of my life was capturing photographs
in front of my studio door.”

Tell us about the people you photographed in front of your studio door.
I photographed a lot of kids in front of that door. A lot of them were murdered and mostly from the streets of the Lower East Side. Some of them were good kids. One went on to become a dean at a high school and other ones joined with big musicians and whatever. But, a good percentage of them, you know, became truck drivers and like that. So when I’m dealing with them and taking their picture, I can make them look bad as fuck, And when you see these kids, with some affiliated with the Latin Kings, they’re all trying to act tough and gangster. So just before I take their picture, I tell them to say “pussy.” Of course, they would laugh and then they would look like sweet and innocent people in the picture. So I wanted the best part and not the worst part of these kids. I used to put 32 pictures on the window of my gallery.

I probably have the largest inner city collection of people that traversed the streets of New York City than anywhere else in America. These images went from 14 street all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the “Wall of Fame” and everyone wanted to be on it. This was like the fame factory. I always wanted to make these kids look good, because if I had kids looking as menacing as possible, I’m going to have beef. And I don’t want the beef. I got familiar with a big cross-section of people from the street culture of the Lower East Side. You had different graffiti crews, drug gangs, hellraisers, 510, heroin sellers, you know. So I entered into that world and I didn’t even speak Spanish, but the majority of the people I got involved with were Spanish. One of the greatest blessings of my life was capturing photographs in front of my studio door.

“Here’s one of the realities about America: you don’t really get there
unless someone takes you into the door.”

You mentioned that you could relate to Trump’s “Make America Great” slogan, tell us more about that?
The idea of “Make America Great Again” is just a brilliant idea. Not his way, because he’s not going to do it. He was going to build a wall and blah, blah fucking blah. His kids were idiots, his kids aren’t going to change the world. Come on, what’s the difference between a french fry and those kids? I don’t know. Yes, “Make America Great Again,” but do it with the independents. Bring back small businesses. Bring back art and music in schools. We can make it great again, but we have to deal with small businesses.

Did your parents have a business?
In the Philippines, they did. My mother’s family had a pretty big dried fish business in the northern region of the country.

Did they import the fish?
Yeah they would transport to the U.S. and sell it to local Filipino grocery stores or Asian supermarkets in New York.

So they knew how to do that? And you helped them out too?
I did, I helped my grandfather catch fish in the ocean, dry them and then put them inside large sacks to get ready to ship.

See that’s what we’re talking about. Taking the skills from the old country and putting it together with what you have here and making something happen. So now, once you start getting into these Whole Foods kind of stores, the cost gets a bit higher and it gets more commercial and less personal with less flavor. Here’s one of the realities about America: you don’t really get there unless someone takes you into the door. If you’re going to get inside the door, especially in a big place, you have to have a big person to do it.

“We changed the history of the baseball caps.”

You’re also known for your embroidered baseball caps, especially being one of the first ones to create customs.
There’s no question that we changed the history of the baseball cap. We’re the first ones to put a label on the outside. When we started in 1986, you had sports people and rednecks. Those were the only ones doing baseball caps. We started making a lot of baseball caps. Every time Matt Dillon made a movie, we would make him a baseball cap. We also did one for Mick Jagger when he went on tour, Gus Van Sant, and a lot of people. We were the first people to take embroidery off of the front and put it on the peak or all the way around the cap. We would do a lot of individual custom ones. Nobody was doing that type of stuff. But the thing is, we can’t get into the fashion industry books, which we should be in.

We changed the history of the baseball caps. We had a good ten years until 1996 when people started messing around with the look of the caps. We were in GQ as one of the best baseball caps made in America, we had a little thing on Elle magazine, I mean we really got it out there. But, no one was going to come to us.

So how do I get my concepts established in both the fashion and art worlds before I die? That’s the game I’m playing now. I’m finally playing the career game because I would move from thing to thing. I got involved with the cops back in 1988, did a videotape and got a lot of cops in trouble.

“You have to support the people, it can’t just be about you.”

The Thompson Square Riots right?
Yes! The Thompson Square Police Riots. I went to jail for that. If you look at that riot tape and you look at all of the big cases in America. The people that caught the cops doing the wrong thing. Whether it was Rodney King Jr. or any of these cases. The people that did it, disappeared. Not saying they were killed or anything, but they got out of the game. Well, I stayed in the business, up front and center. I mean you go back through my history, there were lots of riots out here in lower Manhattan. I got arrested 13 times, had teeth knocked out, and was beaten unconscious, but I stayed in the game. It turns out that I love that shit. For me it was good, not just the limelight, but the fight.

I have a very strong belief system in the small independents, doing it yourself, making America great again but doing it for the up and comers or new immigrants. That’s really what made America great. And also art and music, ways for people to get access to the system by using their own innate talents but they don’t have to have gone to an Ivy League school to get there. You understand?

Do you think that belief system still stands now? Can elevate someone who has nothing to become something?
Yes, I say that it works, only if we support the young people and the platforms that are supporting the next generation that are coming up. You have to support the people, it can’t just be about you. It’s got to be a crew-like mentality.

A lot of times there’s a wave coming around, it’s palpable and you know it’s happening. What happens often is that a hundred people ride the wave and only ten of them will start working their ass off because they know it’s an exciting and energetic time. The rest of them will be thinking “God, we’re just cool as hell. We’re going to party at the clubs and get banged because we got the reputation.” But when the wave hits the beach, which it always does, the ones who really worked their asses off, like Keith Haring, they made it. For the rest of them, if you go back to this period in time, you’ll see a lot of names. A lot of those people just stopped working. And if you’re the one who hits that buzz and you know you got it going, and you’re working your ass off, something will happen.