Call it the curse of Post Modernism, or a natural effect of the pervasive mass media pushing images, but it seems that today authentic people and authentic activities are few and far between. Most folks are so concerned with conformity, career and health that they are fearful of being perceived as unique or different.
As a writer in training I've always been a collector of experiences, the more varied and authentic the better. This quest has led me in several different directions in my life, in terms of career, social circles and leisure time activities.
I started running my first art gallery, Skull Space, in early 1989. Before I decided to go into the art business I’d seen the East Village change a great deal, and in my opinion some of these changes definitely were not for the better.
Junkies and dealers ruled the downtown streets back in the early 1980’s, and one simply didn’t go to the East Village in those days without a really, really good reason simply because of all the drug related crime. Back then if you hung around the East Village long enough, you’d feel the knife or see the gun sooner or later. And you knew it was bad because the cops would only patrol the streets in vans, with a squad of at least six armed officers.
To show you how absolutely out of control it was at that time, consider the activities of BTF (“Born to Fuck / Bred to Fight”), a street gang that ran the southern part Ave B near Houston Street.
BTF had forcefully secured and then through the frequent and unrestrained use of ultra violence successfully retained exclusive rights on that street for an amazingly diverse range of entrepreneurial activities including but not limited to arson, drug dealing, muscle for hire, and generally correcting folks that displayed a little too much affinity towards the police.
They were disciplined, ruthless, highly organised and displayed a sharp capitalistic appreciation towards large cash flows and net profit margins in excess of ninety percent. Over the years I got to know a couple of them pretty well and these guys could have taught some of my professors at Business School a great deal about capturing and growing market share in mature and otherwise harshly competitive markets.
If these guys had only put their energies and intellect toward legitimate enterprises, with their competitive instincts they would have fucking dominated any business they might have gone into.
Anyway, maybe once or twice a month BTF would build these huge honking bonfires in the middle of the street at night, and after establishing a perimeter of trash and junked cars around the fire, effectively block through traffic. They did this with impunity - since the cops didn’t patrol that much at night - solely to stop and rob cars, and this led to some pretty surrealistic scenes.
Some folks who often drove through that part of The City knew the score and more than once I’d see a car stop at their crude barrier while a thug approached, and even before he’d said a word the window would roll down and cash would be presented.
For uneducated ghetto boys it was a living I guess, but considering this was Lower Manhattan at times it seemed like I was living through some post apocalyptic movie. In any case, I found BTF fascinating since they were the real deal; an authentic street gang doing bad boy shit long before MTV and the record companies picked up and started marketing gangsterism to white suburban middle America.
When the Junkies started dying off I didn’t really miss them, but the galleries were another story! When I moved to the corner of Ave B and East Sixth street in 1985, there were no fewer than twelve galleries on that single block. Wonderful density of artists and musicians and all the neat stuff that happens around creative folks. The East Village was crazy cool back then!
But as movies like ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ spread the word about what was happening there, all sorts of folks became interested in living downtown and as demand increased real estate prices naturally rose. Slowly, then explosively. First the artists got priced out, as their cheap studio / living spaces were quickly snapped up by folks that wouldn’t mind paying in one month what the annual rent had previously been.
Later the galleries got pushed out; since some of them actually had viable businesses models this process took a little longer – perhaps a decade - to complete but in the end they too left, and businesses that had fatter profit margins or greater cash flow took over. Such firms could afford to pay higher rents and would outbid the less capital intensive galleries.
Now I’m not going to opine about the relative merits of expensive coffee shops or specialist delicatessens, but if I had my choice between living next to a StarBucks or some independently owned art gallery, I’d choose the latter and I suspect most other folks would also.
So it was really because there wasn’t a lot of authentic and different stuff going on anymore that I decided to open a gallery. I was used to these wild parties and great scenes, and they just weren’t happening anymore. I figured I could just bitch and moan about it like everyone else, or I could do something about it. Well, I’ve always been a person who isn't afraid to try new things so I went for it.
I got a cheap space down close to Chinatown, and secured a one year lease that my attorney at the time assured me was pretty much irrevocable, assuming I didn’t do anything patently illegal – drug dealing, prostitution or other stuff along those lines.
Well speaking as someone who used smear my tag ("Phyuking Mutayshun / Mutant 666 / Mutant") all over the East Village, I've never been one to let the law get in between me and a good time. I had absolutely no idea of doing anything really illegal, but was eager that the landlord couldn’t kick me out because I had plans for that space.
The gallery was smallish – maybe 800 square feet, and was divided into a front and back room, with a small toilet. I established the ground rules – I would prefer art that was painted or made directly on the gallery walls. I was trying to remove the speculative element to art; if it was made directly on the gallery walls, it became part of our scene. A third party couldn’t acquire it for purely speculative reasons.
We ran two shows like that and got the walls pretty well painted up with all sorts of wild graffiti. I had connections with lots of the street gangs - The 501's (I was a made member of the 501's), BTF, BTK to name but a few - back in those days, and they all dropped by to tag up my walls. The space looked pretty cool.
Later for each show I curated I would provide the artists with material. In this way, all they had to do was make art and not worry about the costs of canvas and stretchers.
For example, one show was called “Graffiti Slice of Pizza Pie to go”, and the artists made their art on pizza boxes a local pizza man (“Sal” from Sals Pizza now on Orchard Street - Great guy!!) donated. Each pizza box was unceremoniously nailed to the wall and that was the show.
For each show I’d organise a big bang off opening, free booze and performance art. But the only problem was the space was far too small to host a performance, so I took a cue from BTF: one dark night me and a couple of artists stole some police barriers, stashed them in my gallery, and later we would use them to block the street during my openings.
My performers – poets and other spoken word artists - would actually do their stuff out there in the street, sometimes getting drowned out by honking horns of cars that couldn’t get through.
So this was the real deal; an authentic old school East Village art scene as I'd experienced it and I was genuinely pleased to be able to pay back, to offer this experience to folks that maybe hadn't been around earlier.
We had a great time, but needless to say my landlord hated my guts and would not renew my lease, so I had to find another space. I managed to successfully transfer the Skull Space scene to a newer and far larger space – Anti Gallery – just off Tompkins Square Park.
Another year of fun, and then I was getting tired of the art thing since it was a great deal of work, and it was time to try something new.
I next opened an after hours, members only S&M club called “Sinners Unite!”. My lawyer advised me that I could get away with sexual activity in the space by making it members only, and it also helped because I made sure that only people with good energy joined.
I’ve always been involved in the S&M subculture, and was a regular at Zone-DKs monthly slave auction, where I’d sometimes purchase my gal-pal-of –the-moment a foot worshiper.
Foot worshipers make wonderful presents, especially so considering what some babes go through in the name of fashion. I never minded shelling out so my gal-pal could get her feet rubbed – I wasn’t about to do it myself, at least not with all the gusto these guys would rub with!
It was at the monthly slave auction that I met Peter the Pony and Urine Boy. They were lovers and a real good time to hang around with, so me and gal-pal got to know them real well. As couples into S&M our social circles and experiences overlapped slightly and complemented each others pretty well, so we all managed to see a lot of the scene that we’d never experienced before.
Peter had this huge saddle that he'd had made, and he’d wear this with a harness over his head and a ball gag in his mouth. Peters thing was giving folks rides, preferably females.
You see – even though Peter would let guys ride him, only girls got to wear the spurs. I still crack up when I remember these S&M at Sinners Unite!, music blaring, all sorts of torture and playing and games going on, and through a quiet pause in the sound you’d hear Peter shouting “MORE SPURS!”.
Authenticity, that’s what its about.
Now nobody knew Urine Boys real name, but he was perhaps in his late 40’s and his thing was lying down in a trough with a bunch of folks pissing on him. Yep, Urine Boy was a piss slave. And he was really, really into it, and willing to share his knowledge in the pursuit of his craft.
One time the four of us were out drinking, a few rounds before we hit the dance clubs when he solemnly passed along some advise I will never forget (nor use for that matter) : “You really want the first piss of the day. It’s the best. The body has been working all night, extracting and distilling and it’s at it tangiest best.” I could tell that Peter was getting himself all worked up just talking about it.
The waitress who’d was dropping off a refill gave us a dirty look. “The first piss…” he closed his eyes halfway, no doubt recalling a favourite memory.
Ok Urine Boy.
Urine Boy could usually find folks willing to piss on him, but his sexual drive was so enormous that sometimes he'd pay to get pissed on. I remember lots of parties where he’d show up with four or five young studly looking dudes who he’d hired for the evening for just that very purpose.
They’d bring along a case or two of their own beer, and immediately start slamming them down hard. Maybe ten minutes later it would start : Urine Boy would strip to reveal a saucy G-String, lie down and the boys would go at it.
He wanted the total experience though, and paid his pissers to complete the ritual by shouting out after each golden shower : “Urine Boy – We love you”.
Now regardless of your opinion of these activities, you've gotta admit one thing: it was authentic. I enjoyed hanging with these guys because like BTF, they were the real deal. Peter and Urine Boy lived their lives as they wanted to live them, not as they believe society would like them to live.
Things are a lot different for me now; I'm living in London, and working as a Quantitative Analyst for a Bahamian Hedge Fund. I telecommute, work New Your hours (the day starts for me at about 2PM GMT), building these way cool mathematical models that analyze something we in finance call "The Term Structure of Credit Spreads", and I'm generally having a ball slinging code.
I just left an Investment Bank after working for them for a prolonged period ("Ten years, three countries"), and now that I don't have a regular nine to five, I've become painfully aware of just how conformist I became during that decade. I lost my authenticity.
I won't go so far as to call it a lost decade, but I'm not happy about it either. So about two weeks ago I started looking for a space, and I'm probably going to rent something down near the Docklands Light Railway, about ten minutes away from my flat. Its a rather grim and desolate area, mostly auto repair shops, some drug dealers and the occasional hooker doing her thing. Its otherwise pretty much deserted at night. Thats good for what I've got in mind.
I'm seeing a Solicitor Monday morning, and I'm going to find out just how shit much I can get away with here in England. This country needs to experience a little authentic New York S&M. Maybe I'll get a scene happening again.
And it'll be good for my soul to raise a little hell.