The photographer and filmmaker tells us about shooting Juggalos in Ohio, Thai hookers, motorbike boys, and hanging out with Vinny the ICP Kid.
What was your first impression of Ohio?
I’d been to New York before, and I always felt disappointed because I’d grown up watching Kids, and listening to New York music… all the stuff we love, all these famous New York things. And then I got to New York and it was just dudes with big hats, looking like generic hipster memes. It was full of guys like that. I was so hyped to go but then I got there and it was not what I expected. New York’s not like Kids, where they’re all running around and skating and stuff. It’s all hipsters and twelve dollar donuts. But Ohio was just like the movies, man. Ohio was like, strip clubs on the side of the street, and guys with swastika tattoos walking around, and hood guys in low-riders. All the American stereotypes. We landed in Cleveland and had to drive three hours through Amish country. Truck stops with jerky, and cowboy hats, and shit like that. It was amazing. The bible belt is one of the coolest places I’ve been.
Would you have gone if there hadn’t been a specific subculture that you wanted to discover?
It’s tough, because all of my projects depend on what specific funding I can get. Like, yeah I would have if I had the money myself, otherwise I have to plan these projects around areas that I want to go to. Like with Krahang, in Thailand. I wanted to go and photograph hookers in Thailand, so I had to pitch a project that allowed me to get there.
I think when I last saw you, you hadn’t been to Thailand yet, and you were saying you were going to go and shoot those hookers. And then the next thing I saw was Krahang, which was a different shoot altogether.
Yeah. So I went to see my dad, who I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. It was really weird, he introduced me to loads of really sleazy Italian American guys who lived in a village in Chiang Mai, who owned all these brothels. So I went to the brothels to go shoot some pictures, and I was like, fuck, this is my first time shooting documentary. I remember speaking to the mamasan, who’s the woman who looks after all the girls, and all the girls were doing all these poses, like duck lips and shit like that, and I was like, fuck, this isn’t how I envisioned documentary photography to be. And I had a bit of a freak out. When I look back at those photos of prostitution in Thailand, I was young, like twenty two, or twenty three, and they don’t reflect the type of stuff I want to do now. I was quite naive with the way I was taking pictures. But that was the start.
And then somehow I ended up in this Young Artist funding programme, and they asked what my dream project would be, and I said I wanted to make a film about prostitution in Thailand. And they said no, because I was advocating prostitution…
Who was funding that programme?
Converse. But then they gave me money to make a documentary about motorbike kids. I literally just made that up, like, ‘I wanna make a film about motorbike kids’, just so I could go over there and shoot prostitutes. And then I went there and met the kids, and yeah, I ended up doing that.
The red light districts over there are insane. Big, fat American dudes, in their sandals with their socks pulled up. Like proper, stereotypical sex tourists… it’s strange, man. Indian guys in Ferrari t-shirts with huge pregnant bellies, and handlebar moustaches. The weirdest people you’ve ever seen. But yeah I spent two and a half months out there with the boys, hanging out with them everyday for three weeks. Smoked with them, rode around with them, ate food with them…
How did you meet those dudes?
Basically I wrote on Facebook that I was looking for a fixer in Thailand. And I met this guy who went to CSM in London, who’s the son of a huge gangster. My plan was to do a film about the Thai motorbike culture because you see, like, five people on the same bike, and people die all the time… so I was thinking I’d interview a family, a kid, a funeral home…. But my fixer was like, ‘you’ve gotta meet these kids, I’ve been getting tattooed by their dad for, like, ten years.’ So I met the kids, and I was like, whoa I did not expect this! Like these steezy kids with, like, fucked sunglasses on, smoking blunts. The funny thing is when I met them, one of the kids was wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt, and the other guy was wearing, like, a Hype t-shirt, you know that really shit London brand? And a Hype backpack, and a fake Supreme hat on. I made him go to 7-11 and buy a plain white t-shirt, it was too close to home, man! It was weird. If you go to their house they have, like, fake box logo caps, and these are kids who live in the slums, it was weird to see that the reach [of these brands] had gone that far, to a slum in Bangkok.
Broadly speaking, is there any correlation between that lifestyle, and a kid who might be wearing that stuff over here?
No, not at all. Supreme and Comme out there are just logos. You’ll drive down the highway and there’ll be fifteen farmers in a truck wearing Supreme box logo bumbags. It’s not conscious.
It’s just merchandise.
Yeah, exactly. There are kids over there who are wearing Supreme, and Hood by Air and stuff, but they’re like proper rich kids with Lamborghinis and stuff. What was the question again?
What was it like meeting the kids?
Oh yeah. Well, I got on really well with them, but they couldn’t speak any English. And I was with my cameraman and a sound guy, and all we could say was ‘Kao Ka Mu’, which is ‘pork and rice’. So we would be playing card games, sipping whisky, and when the boys played a hand they’ll yell ‘Kao Ka Mu!’ And we’d yell ‘Kao Ka Mu!’. All we said for three weeks was ‘pork and rice’.
Let’s take it back to your film, The Wicked Shit. What exactly is Juggalo culture about?
Oh man. OK, when I was twelve or thirteen I used to do graffiti a lot. And there was a forum that I used to go on called 12ozProphet. And all these writers used to discuss these American subcultures. And I remember being fascinated by Guidos, and those girls in Japan who cover themselves in fake tan, and crust punks, and Juggalos… these strange subcultures. Especially Juggalos. People would post MySpace pictures with Juggalos, these weird photos where they had like, infiltrated a party or something. And I remember thinking, whoa, who the fuck are these guys, man?
So I went out there for a week, not knowing what to expect. And they’re the nicest subculture I’ve ever met. Honestly, they’re like nicer than my best friends here, they were so cool, man. It’s like a little family. They meet up and they listen to the wicked shit. That’s what they call Juggalo music. The culture is literally just people who are into that music. And their specific style is like, Coolio braids, face paint, maybe a vintage band tee, and, like, cargo shorts that go down to their ankles.
As an absolute outsider, from what I can tell online, Juggalo culture definitely does have that feeling of being a family.
Yeah, they all just look after each other. But then again it’s not all positive vibes. They’re crazy people, like, beating each other up, and fighting, but in terms of every subculture I’ve met — in and out of photography — they’re the nicest people I’ve ever met. They’re absolutely batshit crazy, and they take a lot of drugs — not normal party drugs — and party really hard.
What sort of drugs do Juggalos get into?
Like, crack, and meth, and heroin, but mainly they’re just getting stoned out of their minds and drinking gallons of vodka. There is also a stigma around heroin in the community, because a lot of these communities have been destroyed by heroin, so it’s not like people are walking around doing it, but there is definitely an undercurrent of drugs you would not see at an OVO Weekender.
Were festival-goers cool with you rocking up with your camera?
I tried to go in there really natural. I shot about sixty people and there was only one time when a guy was like, ‘get that camera out of my face’. And I feel bad even mentioning that, because I don’t want to play up to the stereotypes. I didn’t want to present the obvious ‘shock! horror!’ Juggalo mania thing, I wanted to portray them as they are. And, you know, I showed up with bright red hair and a tie dye t-shirt, smoking cigarettes and shit, so I wasn’t a complete normy. I looked mental myself. But even saying that, I met some other photographers doing stories, and they were all quite normal dudes, and they got welcomed as well. I expected more confrontation to be honest, but people were amazing.
Speaking of portraying people as they are, the film really surprised me, because the pacing, and the lens, and the perspective is one of softness, and pensiveness, and melancholy. It’s not the film I thought I was gonna see.
Yeah. I’m an emotional dude. I almost feel like any project I do, no matter the subject, is going to be deep and sad and tender, because that’s what I like to watch. I went there with a list of questions that I wanted to ask people, but when I actually got there it didn’t feel comfortable to do that. So I met two or three people and just asked them to read their favourite lyrics from ICP songs.
And that’s what the film’s voiceover was?
The voice over was actually the manuscript to the festival. The programme.
The intro, the very first page, was what you hear in the film. You know, ‘let’s take it back. Way back…’
Whoa that’s the intro! But what about when it gets quite spoken-wordy. What’s that?
Dude, it’s all the festival manuscript! It’s pretty long…
Oh man, they’ve got the world’s best copywriter.
I met this dude in the carpark. He was the last person I met before the festival finished. I was talking to him, and he was like, ‘what do you do’, and I said I was Irish — and when people hear that there they go fucking crazy — and I said I make films. He had the sickest voice so I asked him if he wanted to read something for me. And he read it. It was kind of Hollywood, but a bit stuttery, and that’s what makes it cool.
So he’s the guy who’s like, ‘Joooosh’…?
Oh, no, that’s Vinny the ICP Kid.
Basically the first ever documentary about ICP was called ‘Shockumentary’, and he was in it. So I arrived at the festival knowing absolutely nobody, and he was working in the info booth. And I was like, bro, I’ve got two cameras, my passport, I just flew over here, is there anyway I can camp next to a hot dog truck or something, just so that I’m safe? He was like, ‘just go back there, man’. So I set up my shit next to where all the hot dog vans park over night, and he basically just helped me out. Everyday I’d go see him at, like, 6AM, because I was jet lagged, and we’d smoke cigarettes, and he’d tell me about the Wicked Shit, saying all this crazy shit. He was like, ‘I’ve got some wisdom for your nugget, brother’. Sick shit, man. I’ve got hours of audio.
But he was so nice, man. He really took me under his wing, we’d have breakfast together every morning. And on the very last day we went to see ICP together; I’d never seen them before. And at the very end he grabbed me by my shirt and rushed me through this football stadium, like ten thousand people, and pulled me on stage and I hugged one of the clowns. They do this thing called the Faygo Shower, which is like at every gig, they have twenty thousand bottles of Faygo and they pour it over their heads. So I got Faygo poured on me, it was beautiful, man. There were babies, and everyone was kissing me on the forehead and shit. It was honestly so emotional.
But that’s Vinny the ICP Kid, man. He’s mad famous. In the Shockumentary they showed his room and he has mad ICP merch. I’d be sitting with him in the booth and people would be like, ‘I know who you are, man, you’re the ICP Kid!’. He was like an underground legend. He’s actually in the very end of the film, in the credits. But anyway, that’s his voice at the start.
There really aren’t many musicians, or scenes out there that have such an engrained visual language.
Yeah, Grateful Dead is the only one I can think of. They were referenced a lot by the people that were at the Gathering. They were saying that Deadheads were the most OG.
In some ways they’re like cousins, in terms of freak culture and the Gathering vibe. Are you expecting them to watch the film?
Yeah of course. That’s the thing, I could never do a dishonest portrait for them to see. But I also met a lot of people I shot online; I met this one guy who was from a group called Jesus for Juggalos, who are ex-addicts who do interventions in the campsites…
Do people get into that?
Yeah, it’s fucked man. Like, ‘may the power of Christ compel you!’, and Juggalos are crying and shit.
And that’s welcomed into the campsite?
Yeah, they’re welcomed by the Juggalos. But this guy was saying he hates doing shit with reporters because they always come and do their Vice shit, and make them look like freaks. So I was always conscious of that. I don’t want to paint people like they’re not. I don’t give a fuck if its not sensational or doesn’t get clicks, I just want an honest portrait.
So you didn’t go in there with with an agenda other than to explore?
Yeah, my agenda was just to make something deep. A bit more than then content you see everyday. Something with a bit more substance and heart to it. And also just to film something myself, which I’d never done. Test myself. It would be so easy to just go in there and make one of those dishonest films…
I think so, and to be honest, [the obvious route] is what I expected to see. Like, everyone in face paint, jumping around, but in your film there are more people NOT wearing face paint…
Yeah, it wasn’t as common as I thought it would be. Although I did see some things on Facebook where Juggalos were complaining that the Gathering had become full of festy-kids, and people who didn’t belong there. So maybe five years ago it was more intense. A lot of them are older now too, and past all the face-painting shit.
Well I guess the whole ICP/Psychopathic Records thing was like late-90s, so by that very nature people are going to be older. But what about the balance of Juggalos vs Juggalettes? Was it pretty mixed?
There were tonnes of Juggalettes, tonnes of black Juggalos, Mexican Juggalos, Native Juggalos. People from all over. I don’t think I have many Juggalettes in the film though.
What was the highlight of the whole experience?
I think taking portraits of people was the best part. Meeting people and taking their portraits, that’s my favourite thing in the world. And the young Juggalos were fucking cool, man. Like nineteen year old Mexican kids from Staten Island, who are Juggalos, that’s crazy, man.
The whole Juggalo thing is mad, rising from where it came from in Detroit, and Psychopathic, and on and on, it has kind of become one of the most enduring subcultures, at least in the United States. It’s crazy, especially given that they weren’t getting major airplay, and they’re inherently uncool at a mainstream level. It’s crazy that it’s endured.
Yeah, I think that was one of my main interests in it. Juggalo culture has never been monetised, there’s never been a coming-of-age Juggalo film, like Larry Clark style. It’s not even referenced in places. It’s so rare, and interesting. I just wonder how long it will last. But I saw Juggalos who had just been born and I saw Juggalos who were seventy years old, so… that’s dope.
I asked one of the guys what it felt like being the outsider, and he was like, ‘we’re not the outsiders. We work in the steel mills, we’re your police, we’re your military. We work in your sandwich bars, we make your shoes. Juggalos are everywhere!’.
And I was like, whoa, that’s sick.
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