Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Facepainted fans of the Insane Clown Posse are gathering on the National Mall this weekend. And they have something important to say.
In a year of weird American politics, this weekend’s Juggalo March in Washington, D.C., offers a fresh opportunity to marvel at the rich pageant of surrealism that has become life in the nation’s capital. On Saturday, thousands of followers of the Detroit-area rap-rock duo Insane Clown Posse are gathering on the National Mall to protest the classification of ICP fans, known as Juggalos, as a criminal gang, according to a now-infamous FBI threat assessment from 2011. The band has been waging a legal war against the FBI, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, ever since.
The Juggalo convergence is being greeted with a mix of alarm and confusion among D.C. residents who are not Down with the Clown. So we reached out to Scott Cummings, a New York-based filmmaker, to help us understand exactly what to expect from a scene whose facepainted adherents are feared, mocked, and misunderstood.
Cummings immersed himself in Juggalo culture for his striking 2014 film Buffalo Juggalos. The film has neither narration nor dialogue, only intense scenes of groups and individuals who identify as Juggalos around Western New York. Some of the scenes are jarring, like a man running a hatchet down his tongue. Others are delightfully hedonistic, like a basement sex party with a fridge full of Faygo. But in his accompanying Tumblr for the film, Cummings lets Juggalos tell their own life stories in great detail. Through the project, readers see their day-to-day struggles with money, health, and family, and how their Juggalo identity allows them to more confidently assert themselves.
Over email, CityLab asked Cummings to explain his project and talk about what he’s learned from his experience inside Juggalo culture; our interview has been condensed and edited.
What do you hope comes out of the March this weekend?
Frankly, I just love the idea of America having to confront the absurd on the National Mall. The Juggalo is one of the defining American images of the 21st century! They're mostly a joyful lot, which I think sets a nice counterpoint to marches by grim white supremacists. I just hope no one gets hurt. Also, they’re not a gang—duh.
When did you become aware of the local Juggalo culture?
I’m from a small factory town called Lockport, about 30 minutes from Buffalo. I went to high school in Buffalo. I’ve lived mostly on the West Side, which is probably the side with the fewest Juggalos per capita.
My first encounter with a Juggalo came at a local street food fest in 2003. I was wearing my friend’s band’s shirt, and a kid came up to me and asked me about it. Then he pointed to his hat and said, “This is what I'm about.” The hat bore three letters: ICP.
At the time, I vaguely remembered Insane Clown Posse, but had no idea they were “a thing” until that moment. Years later, as Juggalos got more and more attention, I started noticing Juggalo graffiti around town and started to wonder if there was a big scene there.
When did you first decide to start your Tumblr project, and how did it affect your approach to your film?
I originally tried to make the film from New York over weekends, but it was just too difficult to get anywhere or meet anyone and I had little luck getting responses. I think the idea that a “filmmaker from New York wants to meet you” was too abstract for people. Eventually, I decided to leave my job and move to Buffalo. It took a long time to make any progress. I spent a month totally dejected.
Finally, I met the first guy to make things really happen for me, Jonny Blaze, who introduced me and vouched for me all around town. In order to stop myself from losing track of the project during the filming, I took photos, did interviews, and published them on Tumblr, so I felt like I was making visible progress. It also helped legitimize me to them—I was publishing visible results, and they really enjoyed having it online, which led to more and more people wanting to meet me.
A lot of them had pretty interesting life stories and no one had ever really asked them about that before. All of a sudden, a lot of Juggalos knew about me. I didn’t want the film to include any interviews or even any explanations, but when I heard stories like Kaitlin's I really wanted other people to learn about it.
What was your method for meeting more Juggalos as you continued talking to people?
I connected with Jonny Blaze and his best friend Julian on Facebook and they asked to meet me in a park downtown. He was the first person to take the film seriously. Jonny was homeless at the time, so it was a little dodgy. He’s definitely a street dude and he was in full facepaint. I think there’s a perception that a lot of Juggalos are, like, chubby white dudes that live in their mom's basements. That is not Jonny. He's a good-looking Sicilian hustler. He’s whip smart, he's done time, he has tattoos. He’s done a lot I can’t mention.
Jonny invited me over to a Juggalo house that he told me was “totally crazy.” They called it “Hatchet House.” Jonny said I should come that night and promised to call me.
I went home and waited for his call. I’d basically written it off until my phone rang at 3 a.m. He gave me an address and told me to bring beer. I definitely hesitated—like, this guy just invited me to a sketchy crazy house full of Juggalos at 3 a.m. in a neighborhood I’ve never heard of. Every alarm bell was going off.
I pulled up on a dark street next to a derelict grain elevator. I could see the faint light of a blunt and hear low voices. I walked up to that porch and the voices stopped. It turned out that I met some of my favorite people that night—Paul and Sarah, the couple who rented the house, and Arlowe (a genuine sideshow performer), Jon Edwards, Shaggy, and Shadow. These are some of the Juggalos I am closest to today. They were nice. They were curious. We talked about skateboarding and the Misfits, and they fed me hot dogs. I stapled $5 to Arlowe’s tongue with a staplegun. Everyone had obviously seen this trick from him a thousand times but they still loved it.
Paul and Sarah were due to be married in a few weeks. In true Juggalo fashion, Paul invited me to his wedding. I volunteered to be their wedding photographer. This was a legit Juggalo wedding, with everyone in facepaint.
One thing you learn, Juggalos bring people into their fold pretty quickly, and I eventually just became another fixture. I just hung around with them all the time, went to shows, ate meals, watched movies, whatever. My “real life” in New York gradually started slipping away and I thought about staying in Buffalo. I guess the interviews helped me hang on to that last bit of the filmmaker in me, because I ended up in pretty deep.
Generally speaking, how did the Juggalos you talked to feel about their city?
They love Buffalo, but until recently not many of them had been anywhere else. But all people from Buffalo love Buffalo. It’s the city everyone loves to rag on, so Buffalo has a huge amount of pride. It’s kind of the perfect Juggalo city.
They definitely gravitate toward areas that are struggling or working class. Of course, this is where they can afford to live, but also I think it's where they feel comfortable. Most of the Juggalos I know were originally based in South Buffalo, which is often considered—not totally correctly—a working-class white area. They were eventually evicted and they relocated to the East Side of Buffalo, which is a mostly black part of town that is also unfairly maligned. Buffalo is a highly segregated city, and the East Side is continually and historically neglected. The Juggalos are good neighbors, and they’re friendly, so everyone tends to get along with them. Their current neighbor is a retired 70-year-old teetotaling veteran and he’s at their house all the time. They genuinely love community and have been a positive addition to the neighborhood. Also, people get a kick out of them.
The West Side of Buffalo has gotten hipper as it has gentrified. The Juggalos were definitely not interested in living there. Honestly, they fit in pretty well on the East Side. Also, most of the people who make fun of them would wet their pants if they walked down one of those streets at night.
Juggalos are a lot more diverse than what you might expect. I almost immediately was shocked to meet multiple black Juggalos. Most surprisingly, there are a ton of Native American Juggalos, in part because one of the most successful Native musicians, Anybody Killa, is on Psychopathic Records. One of my favorite people I met is a gay Juggalo pharmacist, and he’s as real as they come. He lived in one of the nicest apartments I’ve ever seen in Buffalo.
Most of the Juggalos I know work in the food service industry, or maybe do construction or roofing. There are a couple of good local supermarkets that offer insurance, so that’s the dream. A lot of the guys worked at a pizza place. The Juggalo lifestyle does attract a lot of mentally ill and physically disabled people, so there are also plenty of people who are on disability.
Hatchet House itself is a commune. Everyone shares expenses, food, chores, etc. People sometimes show up and crash there for long periods of time as long as they contribute.
Some Juggalos might sell a little weed, mostly to keep themselves stocked, but they don't fuck around with really hard drugs, at least in Buffalo. Heroin and opiate users are totally excommunicated. Meth is also not welcome. They are definitely sympathetic if addicts are trying to turn their life around, and a few recovering addicts have had stints at Hatchet House, but any sign of Oxys or whatever would get you kicked out and never invited back. It's zero tolerance in a way that I think would shock a lot of people.
I'd hesitate to paint Juggalos as having a political stance. Their worldview tends toward libertarianism. It’s very “mind your own business” and non-judgmental. I should say, though, that this is a group of poor people who are essentially walking around emphasizing their class as a way to reclaim it. They are very aware of what they are; in that sense, they are walking politics.
What were the most rewarding revelations or experiences you got out of this project?
For me, the true reward was bringing many of the participants from the film to BAMcinemaFEST in Brooklyn for the New York premiere. I Kickstarted money in part just for this, and paid for about 15 of them to come down and stay in Brooklyn. They’d never been to New York City. It might as well be Mars when you make $150 a week.
To go to a theater like BAM and sit with their faces painted among 400 people, it was pretty breathtaking, both for them and for the audience. They all also sat in the front row, in a line, so it was like a Juggalo wall in front of the normal Brooklyn audience. I highly doubt I will ever have a better screening.
They also totally made the most out of being in New York. They stayed up all night, managed to find free weed, got laid by non-Juggalos, went to Times Square in the middle of the night. It was kind of carnage. Walking through Brooklyn whooping—they were stopping traffic. It was just total spectacle on all sides.
The next day, Paul and Sarah went to Coney Island and got into the ocean for the first time. They were so genuinely moved by that and they sent me a video.
What were the most upsetting or disappointing?
Like a lot of the rest of the country, fentanyl and heroin have invaded Buffalo now. I was very sad to find out that a Juggalo I felt deeply connected and close to was struggling with heroin and soon turned to the streets to support her addiction. I’ve known addicts before, but this was probably the first time I saw someone destroyed by heroin. Thankfully, she’s clean now.
Do you keep in touch with the people you interviewed? If so, how have they mostly responded to the fallout from the election? How many are going to the March in D.C?
Yes, I keep in touch with basically all of them. They’re usually the first people I visit when I go to Buffalo, and they were some of the first people to know when my girlfriend got pregnant. As far as the election, some of them care, some of them don’t. If you're severely disenfranchised, it’s hard to really care much about politics. The Juggalos I know are probably like 65 percent apolitical or totally anti-government. Twenty percent were for Bernie Sanders, 10 percent for Trump, with a few Jill Stein and Gary Johnson supporters thrown in the mix. When [attorney general] Sessions started talking about making marijuana completely illegal again, that 10 percent of Trump supporters immediately halved. The politicized Juggalos that liked Sanders despise Trump.
The March has nothing to do with Trump or the election, but Juggalos don't like rednecks, racists, or neo-Nazis. Juggalos widely shared this image. I only know one person who's going, and she is one of the Juggalos I know who likes Trump. The Gathering [the band’s annual festival] and the March are expensive. These things are pipe dreams for people. A lot of the Juggalos you see at the Gathering are the ones with a little money. Sadly, most of my Juggalo family don’t have the money to go to the March, even though they want to. I was really happy for them because a lot of them did get to save some money and go to the Gathering last year.
There’s been a lot of media interest in figuring out what (often white) working-class people in economically stagnant towns want out of politicians and institutions. But Juggalos are still seen by a lot of that same media culture as a one-dimensional joke. What's missing in this media narrative?
Juggalos are a diverse group of people, but there are a lot of poor, white Juggalos. This is complicated, in part because the far right has been so successful at weaponizing white poverty. Talking about this stuff with any honesty starts to veer dangerously close to white supremacist rhetoric.
Many poor whites feel left out precisely because they are left out. We literally refer to poor white people as “trash,” as if the default mode of whiteness is some pure ideal they’ve failed at. The narrative created for disenfranchised whites is often one of laziness, and rarely that class and poverty are institutional traps that are almost impossible to overcome.
When you’re poor, small things like trying to get a state ID can ruin your life. How do you sign up for the ACA when you don't own a computer? If your teeth are busted and your skin is bad and you’re walking down the street, the cops don’t just drive by you and wave. And if you don’t have an ID when they stop to talk to you, you end up in jail. Once you’re in the system for something stupid, an unpaid parking ticket puts you back in jail.
Contrary to most middle-class assumptions about white poverty, a lot of Juggalos are pretty “woke,” without even knowing that term. They’re basically open minded (in Buffalo at least). There’s a strong LGBTQ presence in their world. They’re sex positive. They live in and contribute to diverse communities. They’re everything “scary” white and poor people aren’t perceived to be. I think this is probably true of many poor, disenfranchised younger people of all colors, at least in the Northeast.
What's unique about Juggalos is that they embrace and throw their class status in everyone's face—they’re flaunting their own disenfranchisement. Many Juggalos would say they don’t aspire to a middle-class life; they embrace poverty, and that seems un-American to some people. They've recognized that the American dream is unattainable and made new dreams for themselves. They own their poverty, but they want you to own it too. That scares people. That scares the FBI. This is not what poor people are supposed to do.