Documenting the streets and the people of New York City, in my case, mostly the Lower East Side, can yield rewards as well as have its drawbacks. Most of the negative incidents happen because people are high on drugs or drunk, or have something to hide, or because the people are paranoid and imagine you are working for some government authority. Or for whatever psychological reason I have never been able to figure out, the police have also been known to take great offense to being documented doing their job. But the rewards far outweigh the downside.
In 1990 Dinkins becomes mayor of N.Y.C. In 1991 Tompkins Square Park is cleared of the homeless and closed for renovations. Then the band shell is torn down. Then “Dinkinsville” on Eighth St. burns down as cops come in to evict the lot, and the protests continued.
One day there is a constant and aggressive ringing of my doorbell. I answer the door and standing there are three menacing-looking guys all wearing colors. The black and red colors look like the kind of embroidered patches a motorcycle club wears on the back of their jackets. The top rocker in black letters with a red background reads, “SATAN’S SINNERS.”
On the bottom rocker, in the same color scheme is “NOMADS.” The middle patch is made of a white skull with a red eye patch covering the left eye, wearing a WWII German black helmet with a red swastika in the middle. The background has an outline of flame in black. A strong image, to say the least.
From the person I assumed was the leader I get the intimidating: “Yo, what’s up?” Followed by, I hear that you have been documenting people in the park and giving the information to the cops.
I respond with, Not sure where you are getting your information from, but I tell you I shot the riot tape that helped get the night classified as a police riot. I have been arrested a bunch of times for documenting police brutality, and no, I do not work for the cops.
I was lucky. Turns out that Cochise, the leader, was an intelligent person and he said he would get to the bottom of this. And he did.
One of the junkie protesters by the name of Stacy, living in a squat with her Satan’s Sinner boyfriend Rocco, wanted to see me beaten up. Why Stacy was mad at me, who knows?
I discovered that the Satan’s Sinners had no connection to motorcycles, but were an L.E.S. street gang. And they were the last of the L.E.S. classic street gangs. Spider, who shows up in my ’88 Tompkins Square police riot tape, is a member of “Tent City” and is an associate member of the Sinners. Another gang member, Mantis, also lived in T.S.P. and was a member of Tent City, which is why Cochise had a Tent City button on his jacket.
As far as people go, these guys did not scare me, since I grew up in a tough working-class neighborhood. I left home between grade 9 and 10. I had been homeless and was a high school dropout, so talking to these guys was not a big stretch for me.
The blessing that came out of this initial confrontation was truth trumped the lies and Cochise realized Stacy was lying. When the drama died down, I found out that the gang’s clubhouse was in a casita (a small shack), in a lot, which extended between Third St. and Fourth St., between Avenues C and D. This was the last of a long tradition of street gangs on the L.E.S.
Turns out that Cochise and I became friends, which meant that I was able to document the Sinners. I was given unlimited access. And in return, I did what I could to help them with whatever useful assets I could provide. After I learned that Cochise was the person who designed the club’s colors, I knew that he was an authentic artist, so I persuaded him to get involved with painting and drawing. He produced a sizable body of artwork and I included him in some art shows in my gallery.
The good fortune that came out of Cochise producing art is I was able to intrigue Herbert (Bert) Waide Hemphill, Jr., to look at Cochise’s work. Bert was one of the founding members of the Folk Art Museum in N.YC. I had made Bert a Clayton cap, an embroidered jacket back and had documented his story on video and in photographs. So I knew something of Bert’s discriminating taste. One day Bert and I came to visit Cochise at the clubhouse, and Bert ended up purchasing some of Cochise’s work. When Bert passed, his prized collection ended up in museums.
Since the Sinners were the last street gang on the L.E.S. and there are people seriously interested in the history of N.Y.C. street gangs, and the L.E.S. gangs have been so overlooked, I wanted to get them as much exposure as possible. I introduced a few of the members — including Heavy, Mantis, Manny and Cochise — to Flo Kennedy and she interviewed them for her TV show. At this time I was connected to the Spirit newspaper, and a reporter did a story on the club. A reporter for Channel 9 news interviewed the Sinners. Since I documented tattoos and had a connection to Outlaw Biker magazine, I got a writer from the mag do a story on the gang. I included them in one of my “Clayton Presents” M.N.N. public-access TV shows. Angel, one of the members, worked as a custodian for the Cooper Square Committee. And both he and Manny were acoustic guitar players and singers. I have an especially poignant moment in one of the videos taken at “Sucker Hole” — the old band shell at Grand St. on the F.D.R. Drive — where Manny sings “Pardon Maria.”
The gang was interested in tattoos. Most of the tattoos they had were done by hand poking. Cochise and Heavy wanted a professional tattoo done with modern electric equipment. Since I was the president of the Tattoo Society of N.Y., I brought them to a club meeting and introduced them to artists. This was during a period when tattoos were illegal in N.Y.C., and it was an underground activity. The club was responsible for incubating the N.Y.C. generation that broke out in the early ’90s. One of the top artists did Satan’s Sinner tattoos on Cochise and Heavy. Cochise in turn gave me a handmade prison tattoo machine for my Outlaw Art Museum collection.
The Sinners hold down an especially important section in the Clayton archives, and many productive things happened during that period. The downside, the dark and evil side came out when Cochise drank a belly full of hard liquor. For some drinkers, Jack Daniels can come on like liquid crack. One especially dark and dangerous night, Cochise and another member, for all intents and purposes, killed two members. However, they lived, and Cochise and Heavy were sent to prison. Heavy is still locked up, and recently, after 18 years, Cochise came out.
In jail Cochise turned his life around. He did a four-year apprenticeship and got his journeyperson’s papers as an offset lithographic press operator. Now that he is out, he wants to be a guidance councilor for the youth who are at risk at getting into the lifestyle. There are no more street gangs on the L.E.S., but they have been replaced by different kinds of associations, like the Bloods, the Crips and the Latin Kings, which can lead to going to prison and are national rather than just neighborhood. My interest is that Cochise continues making his art, since I would like to show his new work, and my hope is that he will write a book about L.E.S. street gangs. I would like to help him with this book project.