"Your body belongs to you, and in the appropriate ritual, it has been given to you to explore the full dimensions of your being." -Fakir Musafar
Putting a sharp pointy object straight through the skin is a time honored practice among us humans. Piercings have long been a way we have sought to make ourselves beautiful. Wearing jewelry through the skin has been a part of our aesthetics of adornment dating back thousands of years.
But why do we pierce? The answer to this question has varied depending on the time and era. Some people have gotten piercings for magical, mystical and spiritual purposes; for others it is just a way of expressing themselves. Some get piercings for sexual pleasure, such as on the nipples or genitalia. There was a time in America when getting your ear pierced as a man, was seen as an act of outright rebellion. Getting another part of the body punctured was beyond the beyond of proper decorum, for either sex. Yet in other societies being on the receiving end of a needle for a piercing is a way to conform to the norms of the culture, be a part of the group, and fit in. It is much the same with those who belong to certain subcultures, such as punk, where a piercing can signify affiliation.
Piercings started to regain prominence in western society starting in the seventies, and underpinning their revival was a strong current of magic.
ENTER THE FAKIR
The late Fakir Musafar was often called the father of the modern primitive movement, for his pioneering work in body piercing, modification, ritual and teaching. Fakir was born on August 10, 1930 as Roland Loomis on what was then the Sissiton Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota, a baby of the Great Depression. There wasn’t a lot going on in Aberdeen, where he grew up, and by 1943, at age thirteen, he was a bored teenager, looking for something to do while the world was at war. He felt different, and knew there must be something different to discover out there in the wide world; something other than what was presented to him by straight-laced society.
Loomis took to haunting the school library, in search of anything strange. In one of the libraries dusty and forgotten corners he found what he was looking for in some old issues of National Geographic Magazine. His imagination became captivated by the pictures and articles he saw of people from other times and places. There was one issue in particular, from the 1920’s, where he saw photographs of people in India who had pierced their flesh with hooks and hung suspended from a cross arm high up in the air. The thirteen year old wondered why they were doing this. He also wondered what it felt like. The imagery called to him, touched something deep inside his soul.
A couple of years later Loomis learned that some Native American tribes also practiced piercing their flesh so they could either hang suspended from it, or be pulled for long hours against the these piercings in a ritual known as the Sun Dance. This set off an aha! moment for Loomis. The tribes who practiced these rites had been those of the Plains Indians, many of whom lived in South Dakota, his birthplace. These ceremonies had last taken place some fifty years before he was born.
There are a number of commonalities across tribal cultures that held the Sun Dance. A sacred fire, smoking and praying with the sacred pipe, and fasting from food and water were all typical. The songs and dances used were passed down over many generations. Traditional drums and drumming accompanied the song and dance, the latter of which was seen as an arduous spiritual test. Some Sun Dances involved a ceremonial piercing of the skin, a further test of bravery and physical endurance. The pain and blood were seen as part of the sacrifice involved in the ceremony, that was used for the benefit of the tribe. Some dances involved going around a pole that the men were attached to by a piece of rawhide pierced through the skin of their chest.
He also learned about the Okipa ceremony of the Mandan people of North Dakota. It was a four-day ceremony performed every year during the summer that retold their creation story. Like the Sun Dance, the Okipa involved dancing inside a lodge filled with their sacred objects, while men prayed, fasted and sought visions. The younger men demonstrated their bravery by being pierced with wooden skewers pushed the skin of their chests, and backs. These men were hung by ropes from beams in the lodge or from trees, while their legs were weighed down from other skewers sent through their thighs and calves. Crying was seen as cowardice. Those who could withstand these intense sensations the best went on to become leaders within the community.
Loomis started hunting out the places where the Sun Dance and Okipa ceremonies had taken place, and went to visit them on his bike. He found they had left behind a psychic residue and that this residue seeped into his own life as he absorbed the energies from the places where the Lakota, Arikira and Sissiton peoples had pierced their flesh, sometimes in rites where they hung from a tree. Loomis got to know some of the trees, as some were still there, holding memory on the living land. This became a tremendous inspiration to the young man.
He was so inspired by these discoveries he had to try piercing himself. He even felt like he had done these things before -perhaps in a past life. He claims his first experience of these past lives came to him at age four. His later anthropological studies gave confirmation to his feelings. So he started modifying his body. Loomis did his first permanent body piercing, on his penis, at age fourteen, conducted his first mini Sun Dance ritual and had an out-of-body experience as the result at age seventeen, and his first self-made tattoo at age nineteen. At first it was a private thing, and he kept it private, kept it secret for thirty odd years before he went public.
While he pursued the inner calling of exploring the outer body his destiny had born him into, he also racked up some impressive skills inside the confines of the culture at large. He worked for the U.S. Army during the Korean War between 1952 and 1954, where he was an Instructor in Demolitions and Explosives. He taught ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray’s. Loomis picked up a B.S.E in electrical engineering from the Northern State University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, the city he’d moved to at age 25. His creative abilities as a writer helped him in his work in executive positions as an ad man in San Francisco. He also operated his own advertising agency in Silicon Valley for a spell.
Yet there was also isolation and shame around the things he was doing in secret, and those came from fear. Fear, that if he let people in his interests and practices, he would be deemed crazy, institutionalized, locked up and the key thrown away. Through his extensive research into other cultures, and long talks with native elders, he had learned that his interest wasn’t something that should be considered a sickness, a perversion or a mutilation of the body, but a practice that could lead into what some traditions called a “state of grace.” Rituals of piercing could be used as a way to access different modes of consciousness.
Loomis eventually came out of the closet as piercing freak, a process that started when he met Doug Malloy in 1972, an eccentric millionaire, and ally who proved to be the alloy that bound the disparate elements of the underground piercing scene together and brought them up to the surface.
AN ECCENTRIC ALLOY
Malloy was a man who led a double life. His first life was as Richard Simonton, an aficionado of organ music, steamboats, a family man and a businessman who worked for the Muzak corporation, selling their piped in sounds to corporations in California. The side of him that was Simonton led a fascinating life in his own right, but I don’t have space to get into that aspect of his personality in this context. Simonton tended to keep his fly zipped anyway with regard to his penchant for piercing his penis, except in sympathetic company, or when he wrote about the subject as Doug Malloy. His double life was also exemplified by his bisexuality.
Of his many interests, Malloy had made a study of the New Thought movement, even going so far as to meet Ernest Holmes, author of The Science of Mind, in 1932. His interest in metaphysical and spiritual topics prompted him to traveled extensively in India and the Philippines where he explored Eastern thought-ways. His mind had always been bent towards the unusual and different. Adorning his body with bits of metal poking through the flesh wasn’t so weird. At some point he started getting pierced.
In 1975 Malloy’s fictional autobiography titled Diary of a Piercing Freak came out, released by a publisher who specialized in fetish material. It was later republished in softcover as The Art of Pierced Penises and Decorative Tattoos. Malloy had also started to cultivate a network of like minded individuals. These included Roland Loomis, Jim Ward, Sailor Sid Diller and the Londonite tattooist Alan Oversby, better known by his alias Mr. Sebastian.
Malloy had also organized the Tattoo & Piercing group (T&P) of ten to fourteen people or so who would meet once a month for a “show and tell.” Malloy had seen some photos of the experiments Loomis was doing with his body that dated back to 1944, and invited him to be a part of T&P. This group expanded the practice of piercing and tattooing as the individuals gathered would later help each-other execute further body modifications. Together they developed a lexicon around body piercing, what each type of piercings was called, and what the best practices and tools were to do them.
Jim Ward, the other prong in the trifecta that catapulted the practice of piercing to what it is today in America, was a close friend of Malloy’s and co-founder of the T&P gatherings.
WARDEN OF THE BARBELL
In the course of his long time wandering, Doug Malloy had made a visit to Germany where meet Horst Streckenbach, better known as Tattoo Samy. Samy had been born in 1925 and got his first tattoo at the ripe old age of ten. By 1959 the rubble had stopped bouncing from the second world war and Samy opened a tattoo shop in Aschaffenburg. Later moved he moved it to the bigger burg of Frankfurt in 1964. There, one of Samy’s students was a guy named Manfred “Tattoo” Kohrs. Together they worked on developing some new styles of piercing jewelry, namely, the barbell. In time, Samy started to make trips to America, and on these visit’s he would come to LA to visit Malloy, who in turn introduced him to Ward and others in the T&P circle.
Ward was born in 1941 in Western Oklahoma, moved to Colorado at age elven, and by the time he was 26, was in New York city where he joined a gay S&M biker group, the New York Motorbike Club. That’s where he got on the nipple piercing tip, and started studying how to make jewelry. Ward stated, "The first barbells I recall came from Germany… On one of his [Samy’s] first visits he showed us the barbell studs that he used in some piercings. They were internally threaded, a feature that made so much sense that I immediately set out to recreate them for my own customers."
From his own studies, and from Samy’s innovations, Ward began to put his spin onto the piercing jewelry he was creating, including the fixed bead ring design. Meanwhile Malloy had encouraged Ward to start a business for piercing people and gave him the funds to do so. Ward ran this business at first ran privately, out of his own home starting in 1975. He dubbed his studio the Gauntlet. Malloy drew upon his contacts to help Ward build a clientele. Ward the placed ads for the Gauntlet in underground gay and fetish publications.
His business started to boom.
BODY MODIFIERS UNITED
Next up on Malloy’s masterplan for modifying the body of the American republic was to host an International Tattoo Convention, in Reno, Nevada. He did this with the help of tattooists Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, and invited both Loomis and Ward to participate in the convention and show their piercings to the public. From this fixed point, 1977 on the timeline, piercings began to take off in tandem with tattooing.
Malloy asked Roland Loomis to demonstrate the various practices he had begun to adopt from other cultures, such as laying on a bed of nails or bed of swords for the convention. Malloy didn’t think the name Loomis was memorable, and he encouraged him to change his name for the event so as to receive more publicity. Loomis had revered the 12th century Sufi saint whose name was Fakir Musafar. This saint had also practiced piercing himself as a way to get closer to the divine. Loomis adopted the name for himself and it stuck.
His namesake was a mystic from Meshed, Persia (now Iran) who lived for sixteen years with six daggers embedded in his chest and back. He also had six horseshoes he kept suspended from twelve permanent piercings in his arms and shoulders. He believed, as did the man who took his name, that unseen worlds can be accessed through the body. From the unseen worlds the very source of being can be found. The stories around the original Musafar speak of how he was ridiculed and thought of as strange. He felt his message was going unheard and these rejections caused him to die of heartbreak.
At the convention Loomis “came out” as body piercer and started to go by his adopted name. Fakir Musafar became the mystical and magical pioneer around these practices in modern times laying out a metaphysical and cross-cultural groundwork for body modification. Meanwhile, Jim Ward, bolstered by the success of his private practice, took The Gauntlet public in 1978, and laid the framework for the commercial success of piercing with its first business.
All of this was synergerzied by the networking and business acumen and can-do spirit of Doug Malloy. Together these three exerted a lasting influence on the American body. As Musafar, Ward, and Malloy continued their crusade, they each also contributed further metaphysical, theoretical, and practical material to the growing scene. Malloy wrote the pamphlet Body & Genital Piercing in Brief, which continued the process of getting stories into circulation about the origins of various piercings, especially those relating to private parts. In 1977 Jim Ward started publishing Piercing Fans International Quarterly, which featured contributions from both Malloy and Musafar, as well as the coterie of metal clad pierceniks who had begun coming out of the shadows.
Fakir Musafar continued to develop the ritual dimensions around piercing and other more extreme forms of body modification, transforming himself in the process into a contemporary shaman and father of the modern primitive movement. Along the way he racked up some impressive experiences, within the body, and while hanging from hooks, in the planes beyond out of body.
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Read the other articles in the DOWN HOME PUNK series.
We humans have been tinkering on ourselves from the get go. We have made tools to manipulate our environment as well tools to modify our bodies. Since we first donned clothes, we have looked for ways to use our coverings as expressions of individuality on the one hand, and kinship with our families, tribes, extended clans and culture on the other. These adornments extend to jewelry and piercings, and tattoos. Just as rings, bracelets and necklaces may be given to mark a stage of life or commemorate an event, so too may a permanent tattoo be used to mark a stage of life or transition in time. Examples of tattoos, piercings and body modification go back deep into ancient times of our human record.
Many types of body modification are done by people without giving it a second thought, that they are doing something to their body, it is so natural and ingrained in the culture. Hair styling and dying in a salon by older suburban women is one example, as is the daily ritual of putting on makeup. To shave or not to shave, that is another question of expression. Painting nails, or even bothering to clip them are others. Expensive surgeries for breast implants and tummy tucks, and a quick nose job for leading ladies and men, not to mention teeth whitening, are all examples of what may be considered acceptable forms of body modification in a materialist minded America intent on keeping up appearances. Many contemporary life saving surgical procedures wouldn’t be possible without some extent of body modification.
Though there are many ways to modify the body, in the context of this article I’ll be writing mostly of those that were taken up in the punk community under the broader rubric and pan-subculturalism of “body modification” as relating to scarification, tatoos, piercings, implants, body suspension and some other techniques borrowed from traditional cultures and carnie culture. This first section deals strictly with tattoos.
MY BODY, MY TEMPLE
Those raised in a Judaeo-Christian worldview, and who have stuck with the tradition, tend to view the body as a temple. This view seems to originate from a Bible verse attributed to Paul (who to be fair, could be as brilliant spiritually as he was off base, in my opinion.) He wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:20 “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (NIV). Yet treating the body with the respect due to a deity isn’t only found in Christianity. We can see echoes of this principle at work in Hinduism, with their highly evolved systems of yoga and Ayurveda, and other religions.
It was the latter-day punk of the kitchen, Anthony Bourdain who said “your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
I think both viewpoints are valid, and it is useful with any binary such as this to try and triangulate away from the extremes. What about a temple inside an amusement park, or an amusement park inside of a temple? The carnival happens before the holy season of Lent. Festivals are held on high and holy feast days, and I can see the return of the festival where the passions of the body are indulged in periodically as a necessary steam valve in our future world with more limited resources. As in the period of festival, the sacred and profane can both exist within the collective body. So too in the way we adorn and modify our individual bodies can partake of the sacred, the profane, and points in between, as it has throughout history.
AN ELDER FORM OF ART
Tattoos can rightly be considered one of the eldest forms of art. Our evidence for this goes way back. An Egyptian mummified priestess of Hathor known as Amunet was one of humanities oldest examples of a tattooed person for some time. She was doing her thing during the Middle Kingdom Period (2160–1994 BCE) and hung out with some other priestesses who got tattooed as part of a ritualistic process. In this time, tattoos were reserved for women, and may have been part of magical rites regarding fertility and rejuvenation surrounding the worship of Hathor. Egyptain menfolk started getting ink during the 3rd and 4th dynasties when the pyramids were being built. The Egyptians were influencers, being the center of civilization for some thirty odd centuries, and from there the practice of tattooing spread outwards to other cultures who came to trade and learn, going deeper into Africa, and over into Asia and Europe.
Egyptians weren’t the first to make permanent marks on their body and the priestesses of Hathor had to give up their OG status when Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. Ötzi was dated to between 3350 and 3105 BCE. The tattoos found along the preserved skin of Ötzi were line and dot patterns. Researchers noted how the placement of these lines and dots were along acupuncture points. This points to the idea that he was not just tattooed for adornment, but also for spiritual purposes. Ötzi had a total of 61 tattoos. In 2018 tattoos were again found on Egyptian mummies using infrared that were of the same vintage as Ötzi. Numerous other ancient mummified bodies from other parts of the world have also been found with body modifications. This shows how widespread the practice was in early times.
The nomadic Ainu people brought tattooing into Japan around 2000 BCE. On those islands the magical aspect of the practice seems to have been downplayed in favor of simply having and enjoying them for their aesthetic beauty. Over the centuries the Japanese developed a tradition of tattooing that involved large pictures over big swathes of the body, creating what is now called a “sleeve.” This tradition was adopted by the Yakuza between 1600 and 1800 and still continues to this day. Known as irezumi in Japan, traditional tattooist will still "hand-poke" there work using ink is inserted beneath the skin with the traditional tools of sharpened needles made of bamboo or steel. Getting tatted up this way can take years to complete.
Starting between 1200 and 400 B.C. tattooing migrated from China and Russia to the Picts and also into the Celtic countries of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The Celts liked the color blue and used a substance known as woad to imprint symbols from their culture onto their body. These included spirals, labyrinths, and knotwork.
Native American tribes were also invested in the practice of tattooing and associating it with spiritual power. They would prick themselves with sticks and needles and then rub soot and dyes into the open sores to form their pictures. Often these pictures were made in commemoration of battles they had fought or they were of animal powers whose strengths and abilities they wished to emulate, or of traditional symbols whose magic they wished to imbue into their life.
At the same time tattoos were flourishing in North America they were also flourishing across the Polynesian islands. The word tattoo itself comes from “tatu” as used by Polynesians and picked up by Captain James Cook -who also helped spread the tattooing habit to sailors, and bring it back into practice among that group after his visit to the islands in 1769. The Polynesians were all about the spiritual power of a tattoo, and they believed that it made the invisible powers a person had in the spiritual world visible on their body. A rich tradition of tattooing was carried out by these peoples, and it often involved rites of passage between father and son.
It was in Tahiti aboard the Endeavour, in July 1769, that Cook first noted his observations about the indigenous body modification and is the first recorded use of the word tattoo to refer to the permanent marking of the skin.
The Captain’s log notes how, "Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible... this method of Tattowing I shall now describe...As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing of their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their Lifetimes."
Sir Joseph Banks, the Science Officer and Expedition Botanist aboard the Endeavour was taken with the idea of getting a tattoo himself. Banks had first made his bones on the 1766 natural-history expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador. Then he signed up for Captain James Cook's first great voyage that lasted between 1768–1771 where he visited Brazil, Tahiti, and then spent six months in New Zealand and Australia. He came back with a tattoo upon him and heaps of fame for his voyage and work. A number of rank-and-file seamen and sailors came back with tattoos from their voyages, and this class of people began to adopt the practice further, helping to reintroduce tats to Europe, where they spread into other branches of military men, and into the criminal underworld.
Yet tattoos had already made some headway back in Europe among the aristocracy by another route. In 1862 Albert, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm on a visit to the Holy Land. Christian tattoo traditions can be traced back to the Holy Land, to Egypt and the Coptic tradition all the way back to the 6th and 7th century. The practice was passed on to a variety of Eastern communities including the Armenian, Ethiopian, Syriac and Maronite Churches. It is a standard practice within todays Coptic Church to get a Christian tattoo and show it as proof of faith in order to enter one of their churches. At the time of the Crusades this tradition was passed on Europeans who had come to the Holy Land where they received tattoos as part of their pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
These pilgrimage tattoos were one of the routes the practice went into the European aristocracy. Edward the VII got one after his pilgrimage, and George the V followed suit. King Frederick IX of Denmark, the King of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexander of Yugoslavia and even Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, were all tatted up, often with elaborate Royal Coat of Arms and Family Crests.
Meanwhile in America Martin Hildebrandt learned the art of tattooing while in the U.S. Navy, which he had joined in the 1840s. During the Civil War he fought with Union soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, and often traveled from camp to camp tattooing his fellow enlisted men. The Civil War veteran, Wilbur F. Hinman, wrote that it was common for regiments to have tattooists among them who inked their fellows with "flags, muskets, cannons, sabers and an infinite variety of patriotic emblems and warlike and grotesque devices." It was also common for the soldiers to have their names and initials marked permanently on their body to serve as a way of identification should they be killed in action.
After his service Hildebrandt opened up a shop in New York City where he made tattooing his full-time job. His parlor was in a tavern on Oak Street in Manhattan, and opened between 1870 and 1872 and is most likely the first shop of its kind in America. Using vermilion and India ink, he tattooed people in black and red from across the spectrum of society. Nora Hildebrandt, who became his common law wife, also became a tattooed lady inked up by Old Martin. In 1885 she left to go on tour with a sideshow and he got arrested for disorderly conduct and was taken to the Insane Asylum where he died in 1890. But don’t blame that on his profession.
The carnie culture surrounding circuses, sideshows, and dime stores, with their freaks and tattooed ladies were another medium through which the practice of getting marked up permanently for life started to spread throughout the United States.
Becoming a tattooed lady was good work at the time, especially for those who wanted to have a bit more clink in their pocket and live life on their own terms. Dime stores, freakshows, and dime museums would often put ads in the paper looking for tattooed ladies, because they had become popular attractions. In the years that closed out the 19th century and opened up the 20th, it didn’t cost a fortune to get a tattoo, and if it was used as a way to make money, could be an investment. A full body job could be completed in less than two months and only set a gal back thirty buckaroos. Yet, if a tattooed lady was popular, she could rake in a Benjamin or two a week, give or take a little. Teachers in 1900 only made about seven dollars a week with room and board. Secretarial jobs might only earn about twenty-two dollars a week. Getting tatted up and showing it off to an eager public made sense, especially for those who wanted to leave behind traditional sex roles.
By the 1940s however, the craze surrounding tattoos had again abated for a time. People who had them were often considered outcasts, less-than’s, and, of course, freaks. Yet bikers, motor cycle clubs and other greaser types kept the tradition alive in the 1950s alongside the usual suspects of sailors, military men, and underworld inhabitants.
The cool factor started to creep back into the practice in the 1960s when Janis Joplin and other musicians, such as those in the Grateful Dead, started getting tatted up. Starting in the 1970s, tattoos started to move further into the mainstream and to people from all walks of life. Part of this had to do with the proliferation of subcultures where tattooing was seen as an acceptable form of self-expression. Freedom loving hippies, nihilistic punks, rappers and hip-hoppers and transgressive industrial music heads were all making modifications to their bodies.
In the 1980s tattooing got a magical boost from Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth (TOPY). TOPY was an artistically-oriented occult and magic group that emerged from the industrial music subculture surrounding Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. One dimension of it was that it was like a "fan club" for Psychic TV except instead of creating followers their intention was to create leaders and get people doing their own individual creative work. Active between between 1981 and the early 1990s, the people involved were also heavily interested in piercing, body modification, tattoos and what I have taken to calling "gender blending". They did a lot of magical and occult work around these practices -and with their added influence, body piercing and tattoos went from something being done by counterculture freaks to being de rigeur. Their magic worked. The same could be true of some of their ideas about gender. TOPY is another example of a fringe group doing magic that went on to have a wider influence on the culture at large. They often included ritual elements as part of their piercing and tattooing works aligning themselves with the retro cutting edge of modern primitivism.
Scholar Arnold Rubin’s had organized a symposium called "Art of the Body" at the University of California in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. He invited colleagues from the fields of anthropology, sociology, art history, archaeology, and folklore to come and share their work. There was a geographical and historical focus on body modifications from Europe and Euro- America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific Basin (Asia, Oceania, and Native America). In 1988 he edited a book, “Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body” that showcased body art as a potent aesthetic and spiritual component of human behavior. The book started to circulate among the cognoscenti of the counterculture.
In Rubin’s book the term “Tattoo Renaissance” had been put forth to denote the 20th century moment where technology had changed tattooing practice. The tattooist went from just doing a job, often repeating the premade designs known as flash, to becoming a “Tattoo Artist” who made their own designs and fulfilled the dreams of their patrons, with a strong influence coming from Japan and Polynesian traditions of full body tattoos and sleeves.
Another book, "Modern Primitives: an Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual" put out by V. Vale and Re/Search publication came out a year later in 1989. V. Vale and Re/Search were stalwarts in the punk and industrial music scenes, where his zines and books of interviews always made a big splash. It ended up being another big influencer on many people in the underground music world and continued the push in this direction that was started by TOPY. A lot of the focus of the book was on genital piercings, which had started to be practiced again in the west by the aristocracy with the story that Prince Albert had pierced his dick. The topic of piercing will be covered in detail later, so hold those thoughts.
By the late 90s tattooing had become pervasive among members of Generation X who had grown up in these subcultures, and the practice was passed on to their children, the millennials and zoomers for whom the question of the legitimacy around getting a tattoo is foreign.
In the 21st century tattoos, while in many ways, always personal, have become even more about a person’s identity. People get these most personalized forms of art to embody something about their inner life. At the same time, getting a tattoo has become much more common, so where before it had been a signifier of uniqueness and transgression, now it is seen as just another avenue for possible self expression. Where in the past just having a tattoo was enough to be a personal marker, now having a tattoo isn’t seen as such a big deal, especially among zoomers and millenials, who are more likely to have been tattooed at least once. These markings take on extreme personal significance, and may relate to family motifs, and names of loved ones, to mother-daughter tatoos (as abound in my immediate family) to those resonate with some particular core of their being.
As we move deeper into the Aquarian Age it will be interesting to see how Americans mark up their bodies as continued evidence of their individualism.
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Read the other articles in the DOWN HOME PUNK series.
1973 marked a turning point for the future trajectory of Dial House and those who made a home there. It all began when Phillip Russell arrived. Even by crazy freewheeling hippie standards, he was an eccentric. Russell went by a number of aliases, his most famous being Wally Hope. According to Nigel Ayers the use of the name ‘Wally’ by hippies “had come from an early seventies festival in-joke, when the call `Wally!' and `Where's Wally?' would go round at nightfall. It may have been the name of a lost sound engineer at the first Glastonbury festival, or a lost dog at the 1969 Isle of Wight festival. There have been other suggestions for its origins, but it was a regular shout at almost any festival event.”[i]
From what I’ve read of the man it seems that one thing Phillip Russell had was a heart full of hope, for the earth and its people. It thus seems fitting he called himself Wally Hope. Just as his heart was filled and brimming, so his head was full of ideas.
One of his ideas was to take back the Stonehenge monument for the people of Britain, and he planned to do it by staging a Free Festival there. Wally thought Dial House would be the perfect HQ for his nascent operation. By that time Penny Rimbaud and Wally had become fast friends and Rimbaud was quickly recruited for the project, leading him to become a co-founder of the fest. Despite significant backlash from the authorities, whom the hippies and proto punks thumbed their noses at, Wally’s inspiration and dedication led to the first Stonehenge Free Festival in 1974.
In The Last of the Hippies, Rimbaud’s book about Russell and the events surrounding the first few years of the festival he writes of his motivation in helping Russell see his vision come to be. “We shared Phil’s disgust with ‘straight’ society, a society that puts more value on property than people, that respects wealth more than it does wisdom. We supported his vision of a world where people took back from the state what the state had stolen from the people. Squatting as a political statement has its roots in that way of thought. Why should we have to pay for what is rightfully ours? Whose world is this? Maybe squatting Stonehenge wasn’t such a bad idea.”
That first year the gathering was small, and the gathered multi-subcultural tribe lived in an improvised fort around the ancient monument. It was essentially a megalithic squat. Expecting to be turned out by the System, the squatters had all previously agreed that when the authorities tried to remove them they would only answer to the name Wally. The Department of the Environment who were the keepers of Stonehenge issued the ‘wallies’ what amounted to an eviction notice: they were told to clear off and keep off. When the London High Courts tried to bring the people who had squatted at Stonehenge to trial they were faced with the absurdity of the names on the summons papers: Willy Wally, Sid Wally, Phil Wally and more. The newspapers had a heyday with the trials, and in a mercurial manner helped to spread word of what had happened, priming the pump and setting things into motion for another, bigger, Stonehenge Free Festival the next year. The Wallies lost the court trial against them but as Wally Hope said, they had really “won” the day.
An article from the August 13, 1974 Times has it thus, “A strange hippie cult calling themselves 'Wallies' claim God told them to camp at Stonehenge. The Wallies of Wiltshire turned up in force at the High Court today. There was Kris Wally, Alan Wally, Fritz Wally, Sir Walter Wally, Wally Egypt and a few other wandering Wallys. The sober calm of the High Court was shattered as the Wallies of Stonehenge sought justice. A lady Wally called Egypt with bare feet and bells on her ankles blew soap bubbles in the rarefied legal air and knelt to meditate. Sir Walter Wally wore a theatrical Elizabethan doublet with blue jeans and spoke of peace and equality and hot dogs. Kevin Wally chain-smoked through a grotesque mask and gave the victory sign to embarrassed pin-striped lawyers. And tartan-blanketed Kris Wally – ‘My mates built Stonehenge’ - climbed a lamp-post in the Strand outside the Law Courts and stopped bemused tourists in their tracks.
The Wallies (motto `Everyone's a Wally: Everyday's a Sun Day') - made the pilgrimage to the High Court to defend what was their squatter right to camp on Stonehenge. . . the Department of the Environment is bringing an action in the High Court to evict the Wallies from the meadow, a quarter of a mile from the sarsen circle of standing stones, which is held by the National Trust on behalf of the nation. The document, delivered by the Department to the camp is a masterpiece of po-faced humour, addressed to ‘one known as Arthur Wally, another known as Philip Wally, another known as Ron Wally and four others each known as Wally’.
For instance, paragraph seven begins resoundingly: ‘There were four male adults in the tent and I asked each one in turn his name. Each replied `I'm Wally’'. There are a soft core of about two dozen, peace-loving, sun worshipping Wallies - including Wally Woof the mongrel dog. Hitch-hikers thumbing their way through Wiltshire from Israel, North America, France, Germany and Scotland have swollen their numbers. Egypt Wally wouldn't say exactly where she was from - only that she was born 12,870 years ago in the cosmic sun and had a certain affinity with white negative. Last night they were squatting on the grass and meditating on the news.”
[i] See: WHERE'S WALLY? a personal account of a multiple-use-name entanglement
by Nigel Ayers https://www.earthlydelights.co.uk/netnews/wally.html Nigel Ayers was a regular attendee at the Stonehenge Free Festival. He later went on to found the influential, multiple-genre band, Nocturnal Emissions. Nigel’s explorations of Britain’s sacred and mythic landscape, and megalithic sites, can see and heard throughout his body of work.
If the druid hippie punks were the winners in the eyes of the public, the forces and people at play within the State were sore from the egg thrown on their face by the media. Someone had to be taught a lesson.
In 1975 preparations for the next iteration of the Festival began and the counterculture rallied around the cause. Word of mouth spread it around the underground and handbills and flyers had been printed up in the Dial House studio for further dissemination. Things were shaping up for it to be a success. In May before the second festival was to be launched Russel went off on a jaunt to Cornwall to rest for a spell in his tepee before it began. He left in good spirits and high health. These activities weren’t going unnoticed by the State and the people involved in them unwatched.
Only a few days later he had gotten arrested, sectioned and incarcerated in the psyche ward for possession of three tabs of LSD. It just so happened that the police mounted a raid on a squat he had been staying in for the night. The cops claimed they were looking for an army deserter. Wally somewhat fit the description of “the deserter” because he had taken to wearing an eclectic mixture of middle-eastern military uniforms and Scottish tartans. When they searched his coat they found the contraband substance and nabbed him. Of course no one had really been trailing him, no one knew who it really was: the guy who’d made the British courts look like fools when prosecuting the hippies who had staged the Stonehenge coup. Upon his arrest Wally was refused bail, kept in prison, given no access to phone or the ability to write letters to his friends. His father was dead and his sister and mother had cut ties with him.
Held against his will in a psychiatric hospital, no one in Dial House saw him until a month later when they finally learned of his predicament. When they did manage to visit him he was a changed man. He had lost weight, was nervous and hesitant in his speech, and was always on the lookout for authorities. After their first visit they attempted to secure his release looking first to do so in a way that was legal. When they hit the blockades set in place by the System they hatched an escape plan but the psychiatric drugs Wally was being fed and injected with had taken a toll on all aspects of his health. To execute their plan would have caused him more damage. Rimbaud and the other plotters weren’t sure if he could physically and psychologically cope with an escape that would place him under further strain and demands. So they had to let it go, and leave he was, even though their hearts were tortured by this decision.
Meanwhile the second Stonehenge festival went on whilst the visionary who had instigated it was suffering the side effects of modecate injections. This time thousands of people had turned up for it, whereas the first year estimates were in the realm of a few hundred to five hundred attendees. This time the authorities were powerless to stop the gathering.
Eventually Wally Hope was let go, but the prescription drug treatment the authorities had forced him to take while on the inside had taken their toll. He was in a bad way, incapacitated, zombie zonked on government sanctioned psych meds. Three weeks later he was dead. The official verdict was suicide from sleeping pills, but Rimbaud disputed this, and delved into his own investigation of the matter over the next year. Later he wrote about his friend and the case and concluded that Russel had been assassinated by the state.[i]
Other’s aren’t quite so sure and see his death as existing more in the grey area of the acid casualty. Certainly the System pumping him full of drugs had done him no good. It is hard to know how his own previous and pre-prison profligate experimentation with psychedelics precipitated his decline.
Nigel Ayers who attended the festival in the years ’74, ‘75, ’76 witnessed the buildup of the legend surrounding Wally Hope. He writes of him, “I last saw Russell, seeming rather subdued, in 1975, at the Watchfield Free Festival.[ii] A few weeks later I saw a report in the local paper that he had died in mysterious circumstances. The next year at the Stonehenge festival, a whisper went round that someone had turned up with the ashes from Wally's cremation. At midday, within the sarsen circle, Sid Rawle said a few mystical words over a small wooden box and a bunch of us scattered Wally's mortal remains over the stones. I took a handful of ashes out to sprinkle on the Heel stone, and as I did so, a breeze blew up and I got a bit of Wally in my eye.”
[i] Footnote: All of this is detailed in Rimbaud’s book The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance. It was first published in 1982 in conjunction with the Crass record Christ: The Album.
[ii] This would have been shortly after his release from psychiatric confinement.
Punks weren’t the first subculture to cram a bunch of bodies into a house to share chores, living expenses and cut costs while working on projects they loved and do things they needed to do to survive. While various quasi-communal living arrangements have been enjoyed down the centuries in various forms, we only have to travel back in time to the late 1930’s and early 40’s to see the dream of a shared house established among the first nerds of science fiction fandom. Yes, I’m talking about Slan Shacks.
But what the heck is a Slan Shack anyway? The name Slan came from the novel of the same name by A.E. van Vogt, first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940 and later published as a hardcover by Arkham House in 1946.[i] In the story Slans are super intelligent evolved humans in possession of psychic abilities, a high degree of stamina, strength, speed and “nerves of steel”. Named after their alleged creator, Samuel Lann, when a Slan gets ill or injured they go into an automatic healing trance until their powers are recovered.
SF heads came up with the slogan “Fans are Slans” after Vogt’s book came out as a way of expressing their perceived superiority, greater intelligence and imaginative ability over non-science fiction readers, so called “mundanes”. Though some considered this to be elitist, others just thought it was a natural reaction against the derogatory way science fiction and its fans were often treated by those who thought the pulps were trash literature. Later, when groups of fans and aspiring SF writers started living together as a way to share expenses, the homes were named Slan Shacks.
According to the science fiction Fancyclopedia its “a tongue-in-cheek reference to Deglerism, which came to mean any household with two or more unrelated fans (or, provided three or more fans were involved, could include married couples).” The Fancyclopedia goes on to say, “Although many early New York fans, attempting to economize while seeking a pro career, shared apartments in the Big Apple, the first Slan Shack so dubbed came into being in late 1943 in Battle Creek, Michigan; it lasted only two years, breaking up in September 1945 when its occupants moved to California, but gave its name to the practice. The best known fans of the ‘original’ Slan Shack included E. E. Evans, Walt Liebscher, Jack Wiedenbeck and Al & Abby Lu Ashley.”[ii]
The Slan Shack or the idea of it if not the name, had actually been around a bit earlier than this, since 1938. One such group was the Galactic Roomers, a pun from the name of SF club the Galactic Roamers based in Michigan and centered around the work of writer E. E. “Doc” Smith. The idea was basically the same as a punk house, a place where science fiction fans could share the costs and loads of living, bum around and off each other, store their collections of books and pulp magazines, and decorate the place as they pleased. Other shacks group up out of fandom as well and these included, the Flat in London, England, then the Futurian House and in 1943 the Slan Shack itself. The name stuck for these dens of high geekdom.
The punk movement evolved out of and in retaliation to the hippie subculture, and the punk house is similar to the crash pads of the 1960’s. Andy Warhol’s Factory was a foundational precursor and model for the punk house as it developed in New York City. Across the pond in Essex the Dial House formed in the late 60’s later to become the birthplace and home of the band Crass. I consider Dial House even more than the Factory to be one of the foundational templates of the punk house. It still exists today. The Positive Force house in Arlington, Virginia served as a locus for the Washington D.C. hardcore and straight edge scene of the mid-80’s. The alternative art and collaborative space ABC No Rio grew out of the squatter scene taking place in New York’s Lower East. Taking a detailed look at each of these places will give insights into what has been done, and what is possible. Let’s start with Dial House.
[i] Slan by A.E. van Vogt, 1946: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slan
[ii] See Fancyclopedia 3: http://fancyclopedia.org/slan-shack
Though the punk house is especially suited for urban areas, especially when groups of individuals take over an abandoned building or spaces to homestead, the principal may also be applied to a home on a piece of property in the country. The rambling farm cottage that became Dial House was originally built in the 16th century. Set on the idyllic land of Epping Forest in south-west Essex, England, one could easily imagine it as a haven for hippies and others in the back to earth crowd. But punks? Dial house was launched in 1967 and had been heavily influenced by the hippie subculture. In the book Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture, Jon Savage described punk as bricolage, combing and mixing and blending together elements from all the previous youth culture in the industrialized West going back to WWII, and as he says, it was all “stuck together with safety pins.”[i] Various philosophies and artistic styles that could more broadly be described as bohemian were all collaged together by the nascent punk rockers. Anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor was taken and glued to something that had been dumpster dived from somewhere else.
Dial House was an alembic for this yeasty form of cultural fermentation and a variety of influences were baked into its foundation when they first started launching artistic spores out into the world in 1967. The building itself was the former home of Primrose McConnell, a tenant farmer and the author of The Agricultural Notebook (1883), a standard reference work for the European farming industry. By the late 60s the property had sat derelict, its gardens overgrown with brambles, and was ripe to be taken over by some starving artists who needed a place to set up shop.
It began with resident Penny “Lapsang” Rimbaud. Penny is a writer, artist, philosopher, musician and jazz aficionado who at the time was working as a lecturer in an art school. Two other teachers joined him on the property and they started working on making improvements, making the cottage livable and the land workable. They were able to sublet the property from an adjacent farm with minimal rent due to the amount of sweat equity they were putting in to make a perfect domicile for the wayward.
By 1970 Dial House had become something of a bohemian salon. Creative thinkers of various stripes were attracted by the atmosphere Rimbaud and his cohorts had started to create. Seeing the possibilities afforded by low rent and collaboration Penny decided to quit his job in order to expand on the further potentials for developing a self-sufficient lifestyle free from the time constraints the cramping day job. He also wanted the place to be a free space open to anyone and everyone. Rimbaud said that Dial House would operate with an “open door, open heart” policy. To that end all the locks were removed from all of the doors. Anyone who wants to drop in and stay may do so, and is welcomed, though they are encouraged to help out with the chores.
Penny writes of his motivations, “I was fortunate enough to have found a large country house at very low rent, and felt I wanted to share my luck. I had wanted to create a place where people could get together to work and live in a creative atmosphere rather than the stifling, inward looking family environments in which most of us had been brought up. Within weeks of opening the doors, people started turning up out of nowhere. Pretty soon we were a functioning community.
… I had opened up the house to all-comers at a time when many others were doing the same. The so-called ‘Commune Movement’ was the natural result of people like myself wishing to create lives of cooperation, understanding and sharing. Individual housing is one of the most obvious causes for the desperate shortage of homes. Communal living is a practical solution to the problem. If we could learn to share our homes, maybe we could learn to share our world. That is the first step towards a state of sanity.”[ii]
The visual artist, print maker and skilled gardener Gee Vaucher soon joined the household to become its most long-term resident besides Rimbaud himself. The ground floor of Dial House transformed into a shared studio space while the upper rooms were reserved for accommodations. Later a couple of trailers were added to the grounds to accommodate the constant influx of visitors. At this point the house became an ever-shifting interzone populated by artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers who spent their time working on projects and helping to run the house and garden. The garden itself was run on organic principles, guided by Vaucher’s green thumb and intuition about plants. Under her guidance they were also able to set up a cottage industry producing small batch herbal remedies. The place was beginning to develop its own home economy.
With all of the life force bubbling up in the garden, and the creative passions of the visitors and long term residents stewing in the studio, it wasn’t long before new collaborative projects were created. Vaucher and Rimbaud had already been working together as members of the Stanford Rivers Quartet, where they explored the relationship between sound and imagery. The group found its inspiration from the Bauhaus art school, jazz and classical composers such as Lucio Berio and Edgar Varese.[iii]
In 1971 the Stanford Rivers Quartet expanded into an ensemble that sometimes consisted of up to a dozen players and changed their name to Exit. Even more artists and filmmakers got involved to put together “happenings" as was the spirit of the day, and these spawned into circus like proportions. The operational strategy of Exit was guerilla. Unannounced they would turn up at venues to play their music. How this fared for the audience, I’m not sure, but it was a strategy for getting their material out into the world without relying on traditional booking methods.
Around this time Dial House members became involved with various festivals including ICES 72. Exit played at the fest and several related events were held at the House itself. Vaucher, Rimbaud and the other residents proved critical to its success and organization, producing and printing flyers in their print room, and helping the founder Harvey Matusow with the programming. One of the connections they made via ICES was with filmmaker Anthony McCall with whom they would continue to work. The print shop at Dial House became an integral part of their home economy and out of it was born Exitstencil Press.
A collective home with a print shop is potentially a viable way to earn an income, or at least print the kind of things you would like to view and read yourself and to circulate within the subculture. Other homespun efforts may be more or less viable as part of the home economy. Enterprising punks and science fiction freaks will find a way to get it done.
[i] Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage, Viking, New York, 2007
[ii] The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance by Penny Rimbaud, PM Press, 2015.
[iii] The Story of Crass by George Berger, PM Press, 2009.
Migration and homelessness caused by climate change and economic collapse in the coming Long Descent will be a huge social challenge. We must think now how we will deal with it when it comes. To do that we should first look at the history of squatting over the last two centuries for some context of squatting in an urban environment. This is the second in a series of articles on the subject of "Down Home Punk"
If you live in a city you’ve seen the specter of homelessness.
Unless you are totally tuned out, indifferent and clueless, you probably understand that the chain of events that has led a person or a family to life on the streets has not been in their complete control. The rise and fall of the wheel of fortune, the ebb and flow of the tides of fate can be both boon and bane. It is not up to us to judge how people end up in the circumstances they inhabit. It will probably also never be up to us influence how they react and respond to the hand they have been dealt. Yet within each hand of cards life has given a person, there are certain plays and arrangements which can be made to make the most of a situation.
For the increasing homeless population of the world there is an opportunity to be found in something else industrial society has so carelessly discarded: buildings and home. Chances are, if you live in a city you have seen abandoned buildings boarded up somewhere (or everywhere), with knee high weeds surrounding the yard. Maybe you’ve even snuck into one of these empty houses, looking for ghosts, or as a dare or a cheap thrill, or perhaps just because you like exploring the ruins society has littered around us. The banks may see these empty homes as liabilities. In the eye of a green wizard, or anyone who doesn’t like to see things go to waste, these houses are resources.
Environmentalists have long taught the practice of the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Occupying an abandoned home is a way to do all three. It also seems like an obvious solution to the housing crisis in America. It’s quite unfortunate that obvious solutions aren’t always embraced by the System. They would rather seek some baroque way, involving lots of forms and red tape, to keep their fingers in the pie. Meanwhile space is wasted and homes left unoccupied suffer from the lack of care and grow sick with decay. Urban planners have a word for that and they call it ‘blight’.
Anyone who takes off the blinders provided by the infotainment industrial complex can see the sickness and decay at work, despite the new shopping centers being built next to the new shoddy suburbs planted on top of old uprooted trees. The world is awash with refugees, migrants, folks who have been displaced, folks who have been discarded from the official narrative in way or another. Where do they all go? There is a strong possibility that many of them will become squatters. It is quite fortunate that they don’t have to wait for permission to find a place where they can take shelter, make a life, make a home.
In his 2004 book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, Robert Neuwirth reported on his visits to cities Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. At the time of his writing it was estimated that there were roughly 1 billion squatters around the world, and that by 2030 that number would double to 2 billion. The squatters he reported on lived in all manner of conditions including shantytowns, favelas, shacks, and other improvised structures. His study was isolated to third and second world countries. It can be surmised that as the U.S. and other industrialized first world nations descend the staircase of catabolic collapse, the number of squatters and squatter neighborhoods in large “first world” cities will begin to rise.
Squatting is a response to circumstance and need and both existed in Berlin after WWII. By the end of the war it had endured 363 bombing raids, each one chipping away buildings that had been built in the 19th century. When the city was divided into two during the Cold War, new buildings were erected on both sides of the wall. These were called neubauten. These soulless, modern, purely functional buildings sat amidst others in serious states of disrepair.
The population of Berlin had also been sharply reduced by the war. Before WWII it had housed five million. In its aftermath, there were only three million. The vacant buildings left behind went on to become the squat-homes of a generation of young Germans deeply steeped in the counterculture, a post-war generation who rejected the values of their elders who had been complicit with the holocaust. Young college students could live there almost for free and they “declared squatting the natural response to a city on the edge of nowhere”. These students gathered together in masses, mobilized by being in close proximity with each other in the squats. In 1968 rioting ensued.
After the riots European squatting culture blossomed in West Berlin in the 1970’s. The city was ripe for the kind of intellectual and artistic fermentation about to take place there. It had already seen so much destruction that something was bound to emerge from the ruins.
The first formal squatting communes in Berlin were organized in 1971 in Marianneplatz in Kreuzbeurg. In S. Alexander Reed’s book Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, he writes, “at any moment in the late 1970’s 150 unlawfully occupied squats operated in West Berlin, mostly in or near Kreuzberg. Just south of the Spree River and separated by the wall from the East Berlin borough of Friedrichschain, Kreuzberg was an impoverished, ugly part of Berlin. Those who lived there were generally vagrants, students, or Turkish immigrants who had come to Germany for postwar work rebuilding the country. Young anarchists and socialists took over entire streets and parks in the corners of West Berlin. Any given squat would house between eight and fifty people, either living rent free or paying a low-lease, sometimes attending the Berlin State School of Fine Arts or the Technical University, but fundamentally acting on anti-establishment rage. The numbers were too great for the police to control: phone trees powered by hacked communications lines enabled these young people to assemble by the thousands within an hour. The organizational soundness of the culture afforded an artistic scene complete with cafes (the Rote Harfe was a favorite), discos and makeshift libraries. Berlin’s constantly changing cast didn’t impede the microcosm’s day-to-day life, but instead, change was built into the scene’s basic operation. Indeed, a student’s political shift or change of drug habits might mean moving from, say, Albertstrasse 86 to Weinerstrasse 25. Some squats were ideologically dogmatic; others offered non-stop partying.”
Berlin was one of the cities where industrial music originated via the band Einsturzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings). They used custom-built instruments made out of whatever metal scraps they could find laying around alongside building tools combined with standard musical instruments to make a rough punk music mixed with noise. Their early music was as harsh as the sound of modern industry, with Bargeld's vocals shouted and screamed above a din of banging and scraping metal percussion. It was the sound of civilization falling.
Yet the punks weren’t satisfied to just sit back and let life pass them by, they responded, they participated, they acted. They did something, they did anything, and it was better than doing nothing. Taking action is part of the punk mindset. As Steve Ignorant of Crass put it in a 1997 interview, “There has to be an alternative to the dole, do something creative.”
What if the large number of unemployed people in the United States got creative instead of on opioids? What if instead of passively accepting what life has doled out, people reacted with the sense of primacy and immediacy embodied by the punk movement? Something new might emerge from the ashes of our failing state.
Since the Great Recession there have been increased numbers of people in the U.S. squatting in foreclosed homes. I predict that Detroit will become the first North American city to have whole neighborhoods of squatters on par with Berlin in 1970s and the cities Robert Neuwirth visited when writing Shadow Cities. A lot of people are already squatting there. According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a public agency that manages the city's abandoned properties, squatters occupy more than 3,000 home, in a city where 43,000 remain vacant. These vacant homes are a cause for concern among residents. Some try to adopt abandoned houses on their block in an effort to contain the spread of blight and structural decay. If a squatter moves in and actually works to improve the property, as many do, it can be a win-win for everyone.
Some folks in Detroit go a step further and homestead the vacant buildings, using them as spaces to grow food, raise chickens, and engage in other regenerative activities. Mark Covington decided to plant a community garden on one site as a way to deter the people who were using it as an illegal dump. In 2008 he had started by working three properties and by 2018 was creatively reusing twenty-three, having gotten some help along the way from neighborhood kids and other volunteers.
Taking over abandoned land and spaces is a logical response to dire situations. It may even be preferable to government sanctioned housing projects. It may also become necessity when rich people take over neighborhoods they were formerly afraid to even visit.
In Glasgow, Scotland folks living in the neighborhood of Gorbals have also had a long struggle with poverty. In the 1970’s the situation was harrowing. The city blocks in the district were semi-derelict. Young mothers lived in rat infested tenements where rainwater pooled on the floors. The non-profit group Shelter had made strides since that time in improving the living conditions of the people but there continues to be shortage of affordable living as the process of gentrification takes over places once seen as undesirable. “…at the end of last year  Scottish Labour's former housing minister warned that Scotland is facing its largest housing crisis since the end of WWII, with the potential of a shortfall of 160,000 homes by 2035.”
Detroit and Glasgow are only two examples among a plethora where blight has set in and continues to spread.
One solution to housing problems is to squat and if you’re going to squat it might as well be in style, albeit cheap, salvaged, scrounged and grungy style. Punkers already know how to live grungy on the cheap, so why not take a few tips from those who have done it intentionally, from people who have avoided the rush to collapse by living that way now?
Enter the punk house, a place where members of the punk subculture dwell together, as a way to pool resources, and cut back on their participation in the financial system. Protection and safety is another reason to band together. In places like Detroit where the entire city system is under stress, law enforcement is underfunded and understaffed. Human predators seeking human prey have been known to hunt and kill in the derelict landscape.
A punk house doesn’t have to be a squat though; it could just be a low-rent house or space. What ties one punk house to another is a shared ethos for a communal/common living space, frugal living, a DIY lifestyle, and individuals contributing to a home economy. What makes one punk house different from another are specific aesthetics and tastes of the individuals living there for genres and subgenres of music (i.e. hardcore, thrash, black metal, dub). A greater variance is the ideologies some punk houses are organized around: vegan and straight edge, for example, or carnivorous hedonistic revelers for another. Some may be anarchist, while others are apolitical with many examples along such a spectrum.
Penny Rimbaud, co-founder of the punk band Crass wrote on his motivation to found the communal style artist sanctuary Dial House, “Individual housing is one of the most obvious causes for the desperate shortage of homes. Communal living is a practical solution to the problem. If we could learn to share our homes, maybe we could learn to share our world. That is the first step towards a state of sanity.”
Living together is nothing new for most of the world. It was a simple matter of course before the Cold War and the advent of the nuclear family. Multigenerational family living arrangements were a norm. Then the bomb exploded that sanity, and the boom economics of the American empire at its peak made it possible for individuals to be able to afford to live on their own and in smaller groups. The number of multigenerational homes was in overall decline in America from 1950 to 1980 when it went from 21% to 12% of the population. Now it’s on the upswing again thanks to the hole the Great Recession ate in Americas pocketbook. In 2016 it hit a record of 64 million people, back up to 20% of the population.
Even in the age of the nuclear family blood is still thick. Those who choose the Down Home Punk option and make a go at shared living arrangements may choose to bring in their blood, but I imagine there will also be a mixture of old friends and newcomers. We live in a time when many people have abandoned their hometowns for the allure of upward mobility. From these scattered tribes new weaves of extended, blended, multigenerational families will emerge. Different folks will simmer together in the stew pot of circumstance and need.
As a family they have a better chance of taking over an empty home, retrofitting it, rehabbing it, and eventually through the rites of the squatter, taking over legal ownership of the property. In a world made harsh, and in a world made by hand, whatever legal powers of state and law remain will be happy that gardens have been planted and homes on the brink of falling apart will have been made livable again.
The time exists now for right action. The time exists now to take a step. We don’t have to wait.
Penny Rimbaud of Crass offers just a smattering of possibilities awaiting those who are willing to take action. “Quite apart from direct action, there are things that we can do within the existing social structures that will weaken those structures while at the same time helping ourselves and each other. We can open up squats and start information services for those who want to do the same. We can form housing co-ops and communes to share the responsibility of renting or even buying a property. In places where we already live, we can open the doors to others. We can form Tenant Associations with neighbours and demand and create better conditions and facilities in the area. We can form gardening groups that squat and farm disused land, or rent allotments where we can produce food for ourselves and others that is free from dangerous chemicals. We can grow medicinal herbs to cure each other’s headaches. We can create health groups where we can practice alternative medicine, like herbalism and massage that create healthy bodies and minds rather than drugged-up robots that are the results of conventional medicine. Maybe we can learn to love and respect each other’s bodies rather than fearing them. We can form free schools where knowledge can be shared rather than rules laid down. Education, rather than being State training in slavery, can become a mutual growth and true enquiry into the world around us, a place where everyone is the teacher and everyone is the pupil.”
Though we may face the limitations of the natural world, and stumble against obstacles of our own making, we will still be able to tap into the supply of imagination. Availing ourselves of this resource we can begin to make adjustments to the predicaments of our age. All we have to do is put in the required hard work to make those adjustments real.
[This article first appeared on the Green Wizards website: http://greenwizards.com/node/906 ]
Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth, Routledge, 2004.
Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music by S. Alexander Reed, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Steve Ignoratnt, interviewed bySid and Zillah (Rubella Ballet): https://youtu.be/IgNToZnyslE
Families Squat In Abandoned Homes As The Housing Crisis Grips Detroit by Kate Abbey-Lambertz, huffington post article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/detroit-housing-crisis-abandoned-homes-sq..., retrieved in July and August of 2019.
For another view read: Dead bodies, wild dogs, squatters in government-owned Detroit houses by Jennifer Dixon, Detroit Free Press https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/2018/07/19/squatters-detroit-land....
Furthermore there is even a book about how to get by in Detroit due to its lack of services. It’s titled DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City Without Services by Kimberley Kinder, University Of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Comparing the Slums of 1970s Glasgow to the Buildings That Stand There Today by Hope Whitmore https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3bjyg9/nick-hedges-scotland-slums-288
The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance by Penny Rimbaud, PM Press, 2015.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.