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CLAYTON PATTERSON
Interview by Anne Hanavan
Photography by Ben Rayner
Short Film by Waylone Bone | edited by Greg Navarro
New York on November 2022
published in: apartamento magazine, 15th-anniversary issue!
New York, Autumn / Winter, issue 30

I met artist Clayton Patterson in the early ‘90s when I was living with the godfather of street art, Richard Hambleton, and pub- lisher Steven Neumann. I slept on the sofa in the living room, which Richard used as his painting studio. The place looked like an active crime scene. When Richard was broke, he used his blood and sometimes my own to make exquisite paintings. We were all avid drug users. On that particular day, I was passed out after a three-day binge and awoke to a video camera aimed straight at my track marks, held by what looked like a viking in biker drag. I recognised Clayton instantly. At that time, he was all over the news as the guy who had the famous video footage of the 1988 police riots in Tompkins Square Park. The City of New York, the DA, the police, and even the FBI were all taking him to court, trying to get the coveted original tapes. He eventually won the right to not hand them over; as an artist, the virtuosity in the creation of the tapes by law was deemed art. Untouchable by decree of the court. Clayton Patterson and Elsa Rensaa, his wife, creative partner, and artist in her own right, were the rare people I knew from that period who didn’t use hard drugs. They had their shit together. So much so that they bought a humongous industrial building where they ’ve lived for over 30 years. Their home is a treasure trove of Lower East Side history, filled with thousands of photos, videos, ephemera, and paintings, all chronicling the evolution of downtown New York. Beside their many diverse endeavours —book publish- ing, painting, photography, videography, and design —they ’re both passionate human rights activists who’ve focused on local struggles of historically marginalised people: outsiders, immi- grants, people of colour, unhoused, addicts, gang members, intellects, and artists. Elsa is currently living in a memory care facility. Clayton, now alone in the massive building, is respon- sible for the daunting task of preserving the extraordinary archive while hoping to find the right partner to help share the collection with the wider audience it deserves.

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Your building is iconic, especially the front door ! That door has its own book, right ?
It has a few books. I wanted to document the neighbourhood and the best way to do it was to photograph the people in front of the door. I would take 32 pictures, develop them, and put them in the window. The window be- came a thing. It was the neighbourhood wall of fame. I ’ve probably taken 10,000 pictures.

Was it a lot of kids at first ?
Whoever came along. I mean, it took a while for me to get up the confidence and for them to have the confidence to let me take their picture. We’re talking dealers, graffiti pos- ses, mailmen, school kids, and gangsters —the whole spectrum of a community.

How did you gain the trust of all these people ?
By putting them in the window, making them famous. I have people coming back and look- ing for pictures of their family because they didn’t have pictures of their family or they had pictures but they ’d moved, had a fire, the family got broken apart, or incarceration. You know, typical ghetto stuff.

What was this building used for before you moved in here?
Well, the storefront was a wedding dress place and behind it was the factory where they made the dresses —Dominican women who made wedding dresses. This was all one big space.

And then you put in those chic doors ?
It used to be just a big door here. Then I found these on the street, in front of one of those In- dian restaurants on 1st Avenue and 6th Street. They ’re really great. So I brought them here, because you used to be able to go from the wedding dresses in the front to back here in the factory. If you look up at the ceiling, see on top of the lights here? Those cables went down to sewing machines.

So they were still in business when you first got here?
Yeah. That ’s how we got the mortgage. We had to go to 42 banks and because we were unstable artists, no one wanted to give us a loan. Elsa finally told me to stay home. She went up to talk to the president of Citibank. She got up to the vice president ’s office and talked to his secretary. While talking to the secretary, she told her the whole spiel. When you talk to the secretary, it ’s like talking to the guy, right? Because it ’s a high-performance secretary.

Absolutely . At that level the secretary is kind of a gatekeeper.
Right! Then we got a call that night from the bank and we explained that it ’s a two-storey building, we have a factory and a dress shop in the front, and that the rent we collect from them will pay the mortgage, and we got the mortgage.

I love that Elsa told you to stay home.
Elsa was always good at that type of stuff. We lived upstairs and eventually the factory left and we had a couple of young artists come in, John Woodward and Scott Sternick, who used to be the bouncer at the Palladium.

John from Woodward Gallery?
Yeah, John is a great guy, always has been. They were here for 12 years and were great renters. And so they put in these two bed- rooms and the kitchen. The rest of it was open.

The bedrooms are huge. They are like two big studio apartments inside of an already huge open space. How many square feet is the whole building? Probably 3,500.

Wait, is that a third bedroom?
Yeah, I recently had a guy living here. He just moved out and took the light bulbs and ev- erything else.

Yikes ! What ’s going on with that big shower?
Because there’s a tub upstairs, I decided to build a shower down here. I always thought of it as a little bit of luxury. I built it for Elsa.
Nice. The tilework is fantastic, I love it. The downstairs eventually became Outlaw Art Museum . How long did it run for?
The museum was sometimes in the storefront and eventually in the big space back here. It ran from 1986 to about, I don’t know, 2010 or something?

You had so many cool shows and your open- ings were always so much fun . They always had the best and most diverse crowd . Gang members hanging with art stars and intel- lects . I loved it!
They were. I gave Boris Lurie his first NO!art show in New York City in the ‘90s. I had Bill Heine here, also Thom DeVita, the tattoo art- ist. I showed a lot of very interesting artists for the first time. We did an art show with Jose ‘Cochise’ Quiles. He was a member of the street gang Satan’s Sinners Nomads. Because of me, he got into art and art changed his life.

You have helped a lot of people over the years.
I have, and with Cochise I got him off a lifetime parole by doing the Street Gangs book with him. He was always locked up for violence; he did 24 years altogether. He was a violent motherfucker. But it costs the system a lot of money to be dealing with parolees once a week or once a month, so if you can prove you ’ve turned your life around and are not a big risk for re-offending, they consider tak- ing you off. Doing that book meant he was a functioning member of society. A published author. He wasn’t getting into trouble.

Incredible. You also gave the IRAK crew their first show, right?
Yeah, when this was one big gallery. That was Nico Dios, Kunle Martins, Filippo Chia, and Dash Snow.

You have the ability to spot talent before any- body else does. How do you do that?
Well, a lot of it gets attracted to me because it ’s the Lower East Side and I have sort of a reputation being here. When they come down here, they sort of migrate to what they think is cool, and I guess somehow they think I’m cool, so they came here. Because it ’s impossible to learn —it ’s like buying drugs or something. If you come into a neighbourhood like this, especially back then, the first thing you had to do is you had to meet somebody. Other- wise you got robbed or beaten up. I was the entrée, the connector. One thing I ’ve always been good at is connecting people.

Especially with the books you published . How many books have you done?
Oh god. Well, let ’s see. Captured , Resistance , I put together the Wildstyle book, Street Gangs of the Lower East Side , and the Jewish history book. I ’ve done quite a few books.

You basically brought together hundreds of writers to preserve history . You’re a historian!
I ’ve probably had 300 people writing and ed- iting for me over the years. So what I ’ve been good at is collecting the people together and making it happen.

The first time I was published was when you asked me to write a piece for your book Captured . I had never written anything before, and now I am interviewing you for this piece and writing for my favourite magazines . I can’t thank you enough for seeing in me something I didn’t see in myself.
I also hooked you up with Oren Jacoby when we made that movie Shadowman about Richard Hambleton.

Shadowman couldn’t have been made with- out you. You connected Oren with almost everyone in the documentary, and the video footage of me and Richard from our Orchard Street apartment was astonishing . You really are fearless, because other than me, Richard, and a few other addicts, no one but the cops dared to step foot in that crazy apartment. We were all nuts!
You and I worked brilliantly together on Shad- owman . We worked on it for years. The only thing is we never knew we were working on this movie. We talked about doing a book, a movie, or something. In the end, when Oren came around and he wanted to do a feature on Richard, it became Shadowman . But we have so many more stories to tell. Shadowman is just chapter one.

Absolutely ! We have to do chapter two, but first let ’s check out the second floor. I forgot how huge it is up here.
So we always lived up here, and right here was the hat factory. Elsa would use all these machines to make caps and we would sell them in the storefront.

The famous hats!
We had a lot of press; GQ magazine named us one of the two best baseball caps made in America. We did one for Supreme recently. So, yes, we are famous with the caps. A lot of people bought them. We started them in 1986. Elsa, who’d always been good at crafts, started learning how to make them. We were the first people to do a custom cap. You could have up to six designs on a hat. It had to be simple because it was a chain stitch. Every time Matt Dillon made a movie we used to make him a cap, then Matt gave one to Gus Van Sant, the director. It had a movie camera on it. Jim Dine had hearts on his. They were hand-signed. I would come up with concepts and Elsa would bring them to life.

It ’s crazy, every time you release hats, they literally sell in minutes.
Everybody loves them and we sell them. I got two different places in Japan that want them. But I got too much other stuff to do. I really need somebody to partner with, because they could be huge.

What did your parents do? Were they artists?
No, I ’m not really sure how my father made money. My mother was a nurse’s aide and we were poor. But they worked very hard. My mother wasn’t really social, she lived in her own world. My father was really a violent fundamental Christian and sort of not into me. So I left home between grade nine and grade 10. But I always loved my parents.

Where’d you go?
I slept in a car for a while with a friend of mine, then in a garage during the winter. It was really cold and we only had a light bulb between us. His jacket started on fire. I had a paper route in a hospital, where I would get 10 cents per paper. They were normally five cents, but because I delivered it to patients, they paid hospital prices. Eventually I went to work and live on a farm.

And did you continue in school?
No, I went back to school years later at an art school in Calgary. I had to take a test to get in because I didn’t have a high school diploma and that ’s where I met Elsa. I was dating her room-mate, then I met Elsa and everything changed. With Elsa’s encouragement, I left art school and became an art teacher at Memorial High School in Stony Plain in Alberta.

Really ! You must have been all the kids’ favourite teacher!
When you’re teaching art, you get everybody. The D students to the A students, so you have to find things that occupy everybody. I came up with really fun stuff for the kids to do— ceramics, printmaking—and did things like bring in sheep to shear. The kids loved it.

I love that you taught, no wonder you ’re so great with people. Are all these file cabinets filled with photographs? There are so many!
Yes, and over there is the video room. We’re just digitising them now.

It ’s very organised . How many years does all of this go back?
The video goes back to like 1985. The photographs go back to like 1979.

OK, so you bought your first video camera in 1985 and you filmed the Tompkins Square Park Riot in 1988, which put you on the front page of newspapers all around the country.
It was the Tompkins Square Park Police Riot.

Why is it important to call it a police riot?
Because there were only about two or three police riots in New York City’s history.

The cops started the riot. They were the riot.
Yeah. They were attacking us. A lot of people weren’t even there to protest.

It was vicious. What camera were you using to shoot on?
A Panasonic AG-155. It was pretty heavy. It was a big box camera, but it was really good in low light.

Where were you when the riots started?
We started off in the park by Avenue A because that’s where the congestion first started. When the riot splintered off into different sections, I ended up on East 6th Street and Avenue A. We were there all night. Elsa would come back and forth with the tapes and the batteries, because these batteries only lasted an hour or something. We had three tapes that we did. We could have done it on two, but Elsa would bring each tape back home to protect them. When it was over and Elsa and I came home that night, we looked at each other and thought,‘Wow, what was that?’

And what was the most important thing you filmed that night?
The cops beating up people. The fact that it was the cops who were the aggressors. It became obvious that the police were out of control, and some of them had their badges removed and others had their badges covered. So you knew that they were there to do dirt. The other thing, whichI learnt later, was that some cops switched badges, so that if you were a cop on the corner of 6 and B and you did something really dirty and somebody else on Avenue A and 10th Street had your badge, you could say, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Check the roster. I was on 10th and A’. There were a lot of dirty tricks.

That is so fucked up. How did you get the tapes to the press?
I got it to this guy, Eric Shawn. He put it on the news and then boom, all of a sudden we got Internal Affairs, captains, and everybody’s trying to get the original tapes. And then in the end I’m paranoid, thinking, ‘No, you can’thave my tape because if you take my tape, it becomes evidence. You own it. I get nothing out of it and it’s yours’. So when I went to court the first time, I had to dump my lawyer because I knew the strategy I was going to use from the beginning. At that period of time it made perfect sense, because New York was an art city. So I said, ‘I’m an artist. This is my art. And it belongs to me’.
I wasn’t worried about my friends and various people on the tape I know getting in trouble because nobody I knew was doing anything bad. The only people that were doing bad things were cops. I got six cops criminally indicted. Some people might criticise and say, ‘Yeah, they all got off’. Well, go through all the cases and look how hard it is to get a cop indicted. I got six of them.

During that time, you were all over the media outlets. You even did Oprah. Tell me how all that happened.
I eventually hooked up with Al Sharpton. He hooked up a meeting with all the Black press and we did a private meeting with Congressman Conyers, who was on the House Judiciary Committee. So after that Oprah showed up and invited me on her show. She was nice.

You blew up!

see printed apartamento magazine version

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