Race, Culture, Mob Mentality and the journey to Nyc / by Walt Cassidy




Photographed by Michael Fazakerley

Race, Culture, Mob Mentality and The Journey To NYC

This is a good example of my early makeup.

In high school, as a punk kid, I had worn black eye liner daily, but that was the extent of my experience with makeup when I arrived to New York City in 1991.

When I began pushing Club Kid looks, I started out with a palette of black, iridescent white, grey and red makeup.  I used cheap Maybelline or Cover Girl liquid foundation and white baby powder.  All of which I purchased from the local drug store.

I was a transfer student to School of Visual Arts.  I had attended one year at Kent State University in Ohio, where I majored in Painting and African Studies.   it was there where I made friends with a guy named Ivan Samuels from the Bronx. 

At Kent State, my goal was to move to Africa and make art.  I am not sure why I was so drawn to Africa, but there were a few key things that probably influenced my interest.

I had been raised on Darwin’s theories of evolution.  The skull that is tattooed in the center of my chest, was actually drawn from the skull on the cover of the book, On The Origins Of Species, that I grew up with.   My father rejected the Catholicism of his parents, and raised me Agnostic.  I never went to church, and religion was considered hypocritical, backwards and basic.

He had grown up on the South Side of Chicago, and throughout his life caused a tremendous amount of friction with his family for dating multi-cultural girls and running around with the Greek Mafia. 

When he was young, my grandmother told him to lie about being Irish, and to tell people he was English, something for which he carried a resentment towards his mother his whole life.  At that time, being Irish was akin to being Black or any other minority, and perhaps this is why he felt more comfortable dating girls of color. 

While he was in the Navy, he met and married a Filipino woman in Hawaii.  They had two children.  My Dad’s family were not happy about their son having bi-racial children with an ethnic wife. They never fully accepted my older brother and sister.  

At one point, when my father hit a rough patch, he asked his family for support with the kids, and they turned their back on him.  It created a riff that was never resolved, and I never knew father’s family as a result.

By the time I was born, he had retired from the Navy, divorced his first and second wife, and was going to college and studying Industrial Psychology, Business and Painting.  My earliest childhood memories were created on the campus of the University of Southern California in the 1970′s.

My Dad took me to a lot of cultural festivals.   I was intuitively drawn to Native American culture.  Once, while at one of these festivals, I had to go to the bathroom.  To my great surprise, when I came out of the stall, I looked up and their were five or six giant Native American Indians, in full tribal costume standing in a circle around me.  They appeared to be at least 20 feet tall and dripping in color, feathers, beads and leather.  I was stunned, absolutely breathless with glee and wonder at all the pageantry.

My father was constantly stimulating me to think, imagine and dream. Anything that I had an interest in, he took great passion in cultivating experiences to foster my curiosity.  He nourished my creativity and intelligence to no end.

I was always encouraged to find logic in the abstract.  We would look at the stars together and he would challenge me to name the various constellations.

We would observe the clouds in the sky when driving in the car.  My Dad would ask me “What do you see in the clouds?”  I would detail for him the various subjects and narratives that came to mind as I dissected the billowing shapes.

I was raised on the Matthew Arnold quote, “Resolve to by thyself; and know that he who finds himself, loses his misery.”  My father repeated that over and over to me.

We had a fantastic library of books.  Our address frequently changed, but the library was always the same.  It was an important and focal part of the house.  My Dad loved a den, and the library was always in the den.  There were books on everything, and he never shielded me away from adult subject matter. I was always spoken to as an adult, never as a child. 

Our library included not just books on Darwin, but also nude photography, lots of Picasso, illustrations of faeries, and the fantasy and erotic imagery of Boris Vallejo.  There were books on drugs and psychology.  I was entranced by the sociological studies of hippies on acid that were featured in his psychology textbooks.  

There was one particular book on American History that included photographs of lynchings in the South.  These were the historic documents of racism in America, in all it’s brutality and horror.  I was paralyzed at the sight of these black bodies distorted from abuse and torture, hanging, burned and mangled, with crowds of gleeful white faces, wide eyed and smiling below.

I didn’t have the breadth of language, thought or politics at that age to understand the images, but I felt the horror.  I saw evil.  I saw a bunch of people who all looked the same, destroying an individual who looked different. 

As Junior High School approached, I had grown restless living alone with my Dad.  We had relocated many times until landing on a 200 acre ranch in the Southern most part of Missouri.   

My mother lived in Norfolk Virginia, with my sister, and worked as a bartender in the local gay bars with my Aunt Ernestine.  Puberty drew me to leave my father and go live with her.   I was getting to the age where horses and farm life were not enough, I needed some action and to be around more people.  I was also curious to get to know my mother a little better.

She lived on the “wrong side of the tracks” in a predominantly black neighborhood.  You know, there always seems to be one freaky white kid in every black neighborhood.  Well, I was that kid.

By the time I was 15, I had been fully emerged in punk rock.  I was pierced, wearing my black eyeliner, combat boots and a leather jacket, all topped off by a giant blue black mohawk. 

The school buses didn’t come to our neighborhood.  So everyday, I rode the public bus with the black kids from my area.  It was a bus full of Jheri curls and 1 giant black mohawk.

I never had any friction with the black kids growing up.  My problems started when I got to school, and had to deal with the white kids from the more affluent neighborhoods.

I was taunted every day for the way that I looked by these white guys, but I never ran away from the harassment. My father raised me to believe that I was a completely unique and special person.  I believed that I was worthy of my place in the world, however abrasive a given social situation may be.  The embedding of that Matthew Arnold quote came in handy.

There was one time when I was walking home from school and a big pickup truck full of white guys from my school drove by me.  They began shouting at me.  I impulsively flipped them off.  They immediately stopped the truck, leaped out and came running towards me.  They began punching me in the face repeatedly.

I knew that I didn’t stand a chance defending myself physically against a group of guys, so I played the crazy card.  I asked them to keep hitting me in the face, that I liked it, and I stepped closer to them.  

They didn’t know what to do with that reaction.  I had absorbed their aggression and became a mirror.  They stopped and got back in the truck and drove away.

I carry multiple scars on my face from experiences like this growing up.  

One time while at the local mall, I was falsely accused of shop lifting because of the way that I looked.  The police were called and I was detained. They searched my bag and jacket for a bracelet that I was accused of stealing.  It was no where to be found.  The police said that they should strip search me, but they didn’t want to “get AIDS from a faggot like me”.  Yet again, I was surrounded by white men, taking hits.  This seemed to be a constant.

These are the types of experiences that created a deep mistrust of groups of white people.  

During those high school years, I was exposed to the band Dead Can Dance.  They resonated so deeply with me through their broad range of imagined and ethnographical references.  Lisa Gerrard sang in a language completely of her own making.

I’ve always felt comfortable being submerged in an imaginary world, also of my own creation.  From my earliest memories, I was quite happy to be alone traveling around inside my own head.  So the idea of creating a language unique to one’s own internal experience, made perfect sense to me, and it inspired me to be strong as I continued my solitary journey in life.

The work of Dead Can Dance was tempered with references to tribal cultures from around the world.  There is a stateless quality to their music.  It is everything and nothing at the same time.  That type of paradoxical abstraction fit the parameters of my mind seamlessly.

Having spent so much time alone in my life, in a broken family, without any structures of religion or culture, the one thing I hadn’t experienced was “the group”.  In my young mind, groups resonated as threats, because of the pictures I saw in my father’s books of lynchings and my experiences of being constantly attacked in school.

Even though I was fine being alone all the time, there was a part of me that longed to be involved with a community, that longed for a family experience that I had never had.  The notion of “tribes” had alluded me at different stops on my childhood journey.

Whether it was the Native Americans that surrounded me in the bathroom or the groups of stoned hippies in my Dad’s psych textbooks, I kept getting these hints that maybe, somewhere out in the world, I had my own tribe waiting for me.

My first taste of this possibility, was through punk rock, and the first substantial friendships I made, while in high school, were with a scattering of punk kids around the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area.

Hardcore was an amazing introduction to American tribalism.  It was invigoratingly ritualistic, but there was something missing for me.  It felt like a skeletal structure, without any meat on it.  It lacked tenderness, and it lacked the ethereal.  There were softer and more subtle aspects to my internal experience that punk rock did not address.

I discovered that you could check out records from the public library.  I loved hanging out in the library in Downtown Norfolk.  It felt like a safe zone, where no one would bother me.  It was also a larger version of my Dad’s library. 

It was there where I first discovered Janis Joplin’s records, and first discovered the Blues.  She had all the hardness of what I was experiencing in punk, but it was combined with this deep emotional intelligence and vulnerability.  It penetrated me.

I had never heard sounds that resonated in such perfect pitch with my own experience.  I listen to those records obsessively, over and over again.  Her vocal runs buttered my soul.  She, like Lisa Gerrard, although Janis sang in English, had still managed to create her own language using sound.

I came to understand that these were primal voices.  And I began to believe that I must have one of these voices inside of me too.

If I was going to find this voice, I was probably going to find it through studying tribal culture.  All of my childhood experiences and obsessions turned into puzzle pieces, which began to fit and point me towards Africa.

I needed to get back to the “origins of species” to find my answers, and those origins existed in Africa in the Omo Valley, where the first human remains were discovered.

So when I got to Kent State, I gravitated to the African Studies Department, one, so I could learn about Eastern Africa, and two, because I felt safer being around Black students than Whites students.  I ended up making fantastic white friends too and was pleased to discover that college life was so much more palatable than High School life.  Every one was so much more chilled out.

When I met Ivan, we connected on a very deep level, and we became great friends.  He talked a lot about New York, and seemed to miss his life there.  He told me fantastic stories about the diversity in New York and the vibrance of the club scene.

Around this time, my musical journey had drawn me towards house music.  I was also listening to a lot of the commercial Afro-centric hip hop artists of the time.  Ivan, myself and some friends went on a road trip to check out Chicago one weekend and go clubbing.  This was my first introduction to larger format nightclubs.

After that trip, Ivan suggested that I come visit him in New York when we were on break.  He said that the club scene in New York was something that I should definitely see and experience.  So I went to New York, and that was it.

When I saw the broad range of culture on the street and in the clubs, I knew there was no other place that I could be.  Everything I thought I would find in Africa, I found on the dance floors of nightclubs. It was, in fact, The Global Village. 

I applied and transferred to School of Visual Arts, and in the Fall of 1991, I found myself planted at the Greystone Hotel on West 91st Street, which was partially used as an SVA dorm.

At this point, I began to pass through the looking glass.