The Outlaw Spirit of Clayton Patterson
"Never give up. Never give in. Never quit."
In the summer of ’88, I was all over East Village/LES scene. Bike messenger by day, budding nightlife entrepreneur by night; I’d also make time every day to hit the basketball courts in Tompkins Square Park before heading to my $250/month room (with no windows) on Avenue C and 6th Street.
There was a lot of shit going on in the park and the hood, and the courts were just as tough, yet they were ruled by a code of honor. Pick up games consisted of everyone from crackheads to squatter punks to actors, with every type in between. You fought together and against one another because if you lost, you sat. Life was simple in that corner of the park.
Some unremembered nighttime adventure took me away from the hood the night of the infamous riot. Coming back sometime the next day, the streets were more messy than usual, abuzz with what went down, and there was a heavy police presence. My people said Clayton Patterson got it all on videotape, and now he was all over the news. From what little I knew, Clayton was this burly dude with handmade funky caps always on the streets with a camera and/or video camera. This incident would thrust him into territory that he was well equipped for. And he stood up for the disenfranchised, against the powers that be.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned more about the man and his wife and partner, Elsa, eventually making their acquaintance and chatting about art, gentrification, activism, life, etc. at art shows or random meetings on the street. Their devotion to each other is equaled to that of their adopted city, specifically the LES. That devotion is far more than a harkening back to the “New York City was better back then” mentality. It is more about the ever-increasing marginalization of the people and places that made the LES so inspiring and vibrant—and yes, dangerous, but full of real people living in sometimes unreal conditions.
An artist in the truest sense, no matter what the medium, his outlaw spirit shines through as more than just a “fuck you” to the system, than as an homage to the unheard.
Mass Appeal: What are the best and worst thing about the old New York?
Clayton Patterson: The best thing are the memories.
Worst things are so many of the parts: the pieces, the places, and the people that made NYC best are gone. The loss of individual businesses replaced by the corporate cookie cutter establishments that can be found anywhere and everywhere. The fact that it has become almost impossible for people to find an affordable place to rent to live, to rent to do a business, or afford to buy. The city has become more for the rich than for the not rich. The fact that so many of my neighbors, friends, people who made things happen have been forced out. And the next generation of up-and-comers cannot find a place to live; or if they can, too many obstacles to get a serious grip to making something substantial happen. The fact that the diversity of people and businesses that feed the ideas and working possibilities, which so many people used for self-motivated creativity, [is gone].
Best and worst thing about the new New York?
Best thing: I am still here. Managed to hold on. Worst thing is the pressure to get pushed out and the constant disappearance of what made NYC.
Never give up. Never give in. Never quit. Do what you can for community. Even though it is getting smaller, we still have a community.
Overall world view: optimistic or are we fucked?
We are not fucked, but we will be if we do not stay on point. Stay true to our goals, ambitions, and ideals. Remember where you are going, but never forget where you came from.
William S. Burroughs said, “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change.”Agree or disagree?
In the past, there was a more recognizable relationship between art and politics, between art and power, between art and social change. The relevance of the contemporary art seems to be based on profit, on investment value. Do not see many artists in any kind of political or social dialogue of any consequence. The impression is art has become irrelevant, a stock, like a Wall street investment.
My serious time in the public political ring was in the late 1980s and early ’90s. My political art was mostly video and collage. In the end, I was arrested 13 times, had teeth knocked out, knocked unconscious, took many videos, got numerous cops in trouble for doing the wrong thing.
This was the time of serious political protests on the Lower East Side. There were multiple riots; hundreds of arrests, and Anarchy controlled the LES streets. The French Situations were Mayday 68. The LES political confrontations went on for four solid years, and then bits and pieces over the next few years. And there is almost no public record of that period.
There was the struggle over the homeless living in Tompkins Square Park. It was not that the people wanted the park to be a campground. One has to remember Koch was mayor. A popular idea was to turn low-income apartments and SRO (Single Room Occupancy Hotels) into coops and condos. Soon hundreds of people were dumped on the street. Mental institutions were emptied out. The cops were heavily involved in the drug trade (see Mollen Commission), and Cuomo the Elder was the governor.
Because there were homeless people all over the city, the idea was to have one central location that was in everyone’s face, then maybe the government would do something. They did. They constantly sent in the cops. Multiple attempted evictions. Numerous conflicts with police. In the end no politician made a visit. By this time Dinkins was mayor. He promised to send in is chief of staff to meet and talk, but never did. Something about Sesame Street Big Bird was in Central Park.
Politicians are good at causing wars and creating social problems, it is just that they are very bad at solving problems related to the problems they make. It makes me think most politicians are the weapons of mass destruction.
There are a few reasons why the struggle did not get much political support. One of the main reasons was NYC was a Democratic city and they were fueling the gentrification. They wanted the squats for their government-sponsored projects. We were the rabble, we were not cool. The outlaws. Those outside the system. We were the fuck you crowd. The “good guys” that the cops were backing were the gentrifies. The big money boys and corporations coming in to take over NYC, and eventually they won.
Gone are the mom and pop stores so many of the individual businesses that made NYC such an exceptional place. Now my neighborhood is flooded with bar after bar, and gone are the CBGB’s type of clubs. We get 7-11, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and all the same corporations one finds in anywhere and everywhere. Disappearing are the originals. We get new start-up business that soon disappears because they cannot sustain the high rent. We get interesting pop-up shop, but they only last a short time.
It was these small business possibilities that feed original ideas. Original ideas and unlimited possibilities is what made America great. The chance for a person to express themselves, to make a contribution, to add a chance to the mix.
I feel I fought a worthy fight. Got six cops criminally indited. Many departmental cases, a few departmental trials, numerous CCRB reports. It was a them and us situation. The cops supported the money; not the law. Or maybe the money dictates the law. The better the lawyer, the more expensive and better the defense, the greater chance of winning. Same situation in both civil and criminal court.
With the cops, it must be noted it was a them as representatives of the money and us the community kind of situation. It was not two sides hating each other. It was more of an ideological struggle. Nobody was trying to injure the cops. It was the struggle over whose community is it. Buildings were taken over as squats because there were so many homeless and so many empty buildings. A banner would read, “WHY DOES THE GOVERNMENT OWN ALL THE EMPTY BUILDINGS?” Or “Gentrification = Class-war.”
And, as Presidential candidate Donald Trump clearly says, “As a businessman, I give politicians money, and when I need them they do me favors.” It is not only business real estate speculators who are buying up the community and forcing people out, it is also groups like NY University buying up buildings and forcing people and small businesses out.
Upstate was losing industry, unemployment was on the rise. Mayor brings in police and starts mass arresting inner city drug dealers using a program called Pressure Point. Cops arrest hundreds of people on drug charges. Cuomo replaces manufacturing industry with the prison industry. During his three terms, Cuomo tripled the number of prisons. The Rockefeller laws were on the books, and people received mandatory long prison sentences. The jails filled up. The new prison industry was going full speed ahead. A business with a guaranteed future. Give out 20-year sentences and you will have a pork chop that will feed many upstate families for the next 20 years. Then there are the other work “opportunities”: the cops, the judges, the lawyers, needed to fill the gaps in this unproductive, socially destructive industry. The other industries added something positive to society.
Another factor is Reagan was elected and running the illegal Iran Contra war. The evidence points to the fact, to fund the war, all of a sudden, it was snowing cocaine on Wall Street, and many of the “good” members of society were dumping tons of coke up their respectable noses. The only thing that they had running was their noses, the cops never seem to interfere with the gold card users. If a movie star or Wall Street type got caught up in drugs it was rehab and not jail. Same drug, same crimes, different solutions.
Another Downtown factor was after Reagan got into power, a tsunami of Hong Kong and Taiwan money flooded across Canal street, buying up as much property as the buyers could grab a hold of.
The influx of so much money was starting to, in many different “legal” and illegal ways cause many people to lose their apartments. It was not just the poorest of the poor who ended up on the street, it was a wide range of residents became homeless. And so on. This struggle is a very long conversation.
I was a radical activist and used my documentary art and photographic equipment as a tool, a weapon for community defense.
In certain court cases, I would go pro-se, that is, defend myself. I would create my legal papers, which would consist of a written part, include photos, and topped off with a collage. Three ways of expressing my point of view. The written part was a legal response, the photos a documentary response, and the collage an intuitive expressive point of view used to enhance the same point of view.
These were very eccentric court papers. In one federal case, involving a friend and an arrest in the Federal Jacob Javits building, the prosecutor and judge went over the limit: The prosecutor said the collage was a threat against the U.S. government. My friend with a gaggle of cops was arrested at 4 a.m. I was told no more collages, so of course I handed in one more. Anyway, more long stories. And after 9/11 and the intense increase in all the different kind of law enforcement, changes in the law, the weakening of democratic legal right, it became much more serious, so I pulled out of the radical protest street movement.
I have concentrated more on documentation, creating history books, movies, writing, trying to save my archive, art shows, starting up the Caps again. And taking care of Elsa. It is a time to work.
I created a book called Resistance, a radical social and political history of the Lower East Side. Seth Tobocman did War In The Neighborhood. I have a good-sized video and photo archive of this struggle. Two local underground papers: Downtown and the Shadow. There was a good amount of local NYC news coverage.
Another contribution I made was the idea of a community defense using video to document cops abusing their power. This idea lead to an organization being created called Cop Watch. I got this idea of community defense out by standing up, being arrested, getting media attention, and the widest audience was when I was on Oprah Winfrey holding up my commercially available camera for millions of people to see and saying, “Little Brother is Watching Big Brother.” I also made a MNN (Neighborhood Network show) TV show called Clayton Presents. On this program, I covered numerous community issues. I had a member of the Young Black Panthers tell me they watched my MNN program and picked up on the idea of using cameras as a community defense.
The sculpture is about time and place, often filled with Urban artifacts. Artifacts which can be seen as treasures from the street. Artifacts which reflect the environment at the time they were picked up, leaving a snap shot of time and place. What was found the Bowery in the early ’80s will be different than what we find now.
Through out all of this, I had the backing and support of my wife Elsa Rensaa. Without her, so much of what I did would not have been possible.
Starting with Bush, America has done much to destabilize and destroy the Middle East. Year after year we are at war. A war for what? Other than oil, I am not sure why we are at war. Would be stupid to say democracy. When was the last time an artist work showed the horrors of war? Is it a Banksy? We do what we can with what we got.
However, yes, we as artists can make political statements. We can be productive. Art can be a powerful voice in the mix. It is just not a career making sexy commercially rewarding way to go.
Do you consider yourself as much a documentarian as an artist?
I see the two as the same. I see all my work and life, how I live, and what I do all as part of my artist’s journey. We do what we can to keep going. We use what we have on hand. Creativity and being an artist is not tied to a painters easel. The Caps keep me alive and still making art, the Caps are art, as are the photos and videos, placed me in places where they were the best option, the court cases was another expression of my art.
The books allow me to create a collective consciousness, a creative community. The writing gives me a platform to express my views. They all make up my art, my artistic statement, my creative being.
My writing and the books. If we do not save our own history, then who will? It is up to us. Keeping the dream alive and situations which enriched my life.
The ACKER Awards form another creative community. If one links all the recipients together, it makes for a huge community. The ACKERS were created by Alan Kaufman in SF and me in NYC. The idea is to honor those who have made a major contribution to the avant-garde. To the creative community. To acknowledge so many who have given so much and who are often overlooked by the mainstream.
I also like to just be creative, to make something just within the creative realm. ART FOR ART SAKE.
I come from the bad end of the working class. I do not expect acceptance. If it happens great. I will WILL something to happen. I will make history somewhere, some place—no matter what. I will carve out a place in history; if need be, without the recognition of the mainstream.
You’ve studied, taught and worked in different mediums any preferences or do you just like to be immersed in creativity?
I use whatever is available to me at the time to keep going, to keep being creative, to stay active, to expand my creative vision.
Do you think we can get the idea of revolution back into the arts or do artists try to be too commercially viable?
I am not sure about the WE here. And I am not sure what arts you are talking about, I hope the revolution has not disappeared out of my art. I hope I have not backed down on any of my social struggles. I hope I have not moved from We to Me. I hope I have not forgotten where I came from. Or, I hope I have not compromised on any of my ideas, my hopes, my dreams, my goals.
Make no mistake, The Game is still to take the Fort. To take over a creative space and make it our own. And I hope I never forget: “Never Forget The Struggle Never Forget The Street.” Raybeez.
Who/whom have been inspirational to you? Mentors?
First, I am a Supporter of a number of individuals projects. For example, I try to encourage local young creators who are coming up. Or to support those who have been around and have a great idea.
I am still, after 20 years, a supporter of Jochen Auer and his WIldstyle and Tattoo Messe show in Austria. I was a supporter of the NYC Tattoo Convention for 15 years. I have put on a number of art shows for artists. The Tattoo Society of NY, which stopped meeting after legalization in 1997, made it possible for a number of the now-famous artists to get into the business. I have written a number of articles in support of different artists and projects and struggles. I see myself as more of a mentor than being mentored.
Are there young artists out there that get it? Who?
I support the creative movie work of Dan Levin and Jenner Furst. I am working to support a band called DAMEHT.
Describe a good day for you…
A good day is when I accomplish something and get something significant done.
Do you listen to music when you work, if so who?
Favorites spots in LES (food, drink, galleries etc.)
Angel Orensanz Cultural Center. Rapping with Al Orensanz. Pizza parlor? Not really. Coffee shop? Not really. So many businesses have come and gone. So many new places I patronized so often close. We are in a period of merry-go-round ever changing businesses. Sadly, I am lacking a place to hang. Big loss.
Thanks for this opportunity to lay out some of my ideas.