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Club Kids, Celebrity, And Decadence: An Interview With Walt Cassidy

New York Club Kids: By Waltpaper available from all good booksellers

Walt Cassidy is the author of New York Club Kids: By Waltpaper, a deluxe book of images and recollections of the rebellious, creative, excessive, and uber fashion-conscious club culture of the early nineties. Most especially, the large format, 375-page book includes photographs of the personalities that defined the scene (from DJ Keoki to Julie Jewels), celebrity hangers-on, fashion, art, and occasional butt cheeks. In other words, it contains something for every true decadent. (We thought you’d like to learn more.)

You might know the Brooklyn-based Cassidy from his contemporary art (murals, jewelry, and sclpture) but during the Club Kids days he went by the nom de guerre Waltpaper (hence the title of the book). We caught up with him recently and asked him about the scene that he describes as “Post-Warhol and Pre-Kardashian” and what it means to him now.

Photograph by SKID Waltpaper at Nocturnal Oddities Exhibition at Willow Gallery, 1992. Copyright SKID. All Rights Reserved.

ORTTU:

How did you get involved with the Club Kids? And what was your first impression of them?

Walt Cassidy:

I first came in contact with the Club Kids as a teenage art student attending School of Visual Arts in NYC.  I was given my first nightclub job by a drag queen named Linda Simpson, who was a photographer and editor for My Comrade zine.  I did paintings for the VIP room of a club called BUILDING, where I was given my first art studio in the attic of the club.  I became friendly with the Club Kids there and became more and more involved.  Having been a bit of a loner most of my life, I felt that I finally found my tribe of creatives where I fit in perfectly.

The Club Kids were a group of young creatives and party promoters that reigned over the mega clubs from 1988 through the decade of the 90’s.  We used identity, gender and aggressive self branding to create a name for ourselves within nightlife and popular media.  We were frequently featured on daytime talk shows, and laid the groundwork for contemporary influencer culture.

ORTTU:

So, you were already painting when you came into contact with them. In your book New York Club Kids: By Walt Paper, you mention that your focus was always very much on the artistic aspect of the scene. And you include some images from a group exhibition at the Willow Gallery in New York City, with you seated on top of a pedestal with paint on it, as if you are part of the exhibit. Can you tell me more about your artwork during that time, how it was expressed, and why it was important to you and to the Club Kids?

Walt Cassidy:

The Club Kids were an expansive group and each personality had their own unique talents that contributed to the overall impact of the group.  I was a painter and illustrator with a history of activism.  The exhibition at Willow Gallery was called “Nocturnal Oddities” and featured many of the Club Kids on display as live art objects alongside other artworks created by nightlife-based artists.  It was very exciting for me, as a young artist, because it was my first exhibition in a proper NYC gallery.  I would later stage my own gallery within Limelight called The Little Paper Gallery and created a gorilla art collective called Blueprint, which added an art installation element to the already established concept of Outlaw Parties.

ORTTU:

What inspired you, and other Club Kids, during that time?

Walt Cassidy:

As a young artist, I was deeply inspired by other New York artists who utilized nightlife as a platform for artistic expression.  People like Jean Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring were impactful role models for me.

The Club Kids were greatly influenced by the Warhol Superstars. I often say that the Club Kids are Post-Warhol and Pre-Kardashian.  We were the bridge between those two cultural markers of time.

ORTTU:

Yes, and celebrities, such as Bjork, Leigh Bowery, and Chloe Sevigny, were hanging out with Club Kids at the time. What's your recollection of celebrities who came to party with you in NYC? Were they a significant part of the scene? Or was the core always these young, creative kids who (at that point) weren't really known for anything outside of the scene? And what did it mean to you that these celebrities were showing up?

Photograph by SKID Waltpaper at Nocturnal Oddities Exhibition at Willow Gallery, 1992. Copyright SKID. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Cassidy:

There’s always a celebrity element to NYC nightlife. Celebrities utilize nightclubs to find creative inspiration, network and stay tuned into cutting edge culture. Celebrities are sometimes born out of nightlife, like with Chloe Sevigny, who emerged from the Club Kid and rave scene.

I’ve never been particularly impressed by celebrity, on its own.  I am drawn to other artists, so if someone is an artist, who happens to be a celebrity, then there is a greater chance I might feel a connection to them. Bjork is a great example. She was just another creative hanging out and connecting with us. She never positioned herself as a celebrity.

Nightclubs, at their best, are an axis through which many different people, from different walks of life and different disciplines, intersect and play off of each other.  

ORTTU:

Celebrities aside, then, who were your favorite Club Kids?

Walt Cassidy:

There was an inner circle to the Club Kids, and I was closest with that group. Many of us lived together communally in Club Kid houses and places like the Chelsea Hotel and Hotel 17.

I formed early bonds with Desi Monster, Christopher Comp, Pebbles, Lil Keni, DJ Whillyem, Astro Erle, Jennytalia, and Chloe Sevigny. Later on I would get involved with the House of Field, through my friendship with Jojo Americo, who became a big brother mentor figure for me. I also became very close with the Club Kid turned designer, Zaldy Goco, when I moved into the Chelsea Hotel.

ORTTU:

What was that scene like, away from the nightclubs?

Walt Cassidy:

We were very much a family.  We spent our days and nights together.  We lived, worked, and played together.  For me, coming from a very broken family, it was my only real experience of what it was like to have a family.  I cherish that experience and those times.

ORTTU:

And you went through a lot together, sometimes quite publicly. You and other Club Kids appeared on the Geraldo TV show, to a mixed response, and several in the scene appeared in magazines such as New York, Greek Max and High Times as well as The Detroit News. What, do you think, was the broader cultural impact on the Club Kids scene? Why were TV shows and magazines interested in these kids who were partying all night and dressing a little crazy?

Walt Cassidy:

Audiences tuned in to witness the escapist fantasy of young kids breaking free from mundane suburban life to become celebrities of Manhattan nightlife.  The Club Kids became superheroes to queer kids across rural America.  Many of the seeds of today’s popular culture were impacted by the Club Kids; things like the gender revolution, the reality experience and the use of identity and self branding within Influencer culture.

ORTTU:

For you, what was the highpoint of the Club Kids?

Walt Cassidy:

The high point was finding a family of like-minded creative individuals.

Photograph by Misa Martin Waltpaper & Lil Keni on Chelsea Hotel balcony, 1994. Copyright Misa Martin. All Rights Reserved.

ORTTU:

And what were the low points?

Walt Cassidy:

Nightlife and street culture are often threaded with brutality.  For every sparkling experience, there is a tragedy to match.  This duality between light and dark, is what gives the experience impact.  It’s excitement paired with danger, and it comes at a price.  The bill always comes in the end, even if it feels like a free ride. 

As Club Kids, we navigated addiction, overdoses, a ferocious political turf war, and we eventually found ourselves canceled.  We were even ahead of our time in terms of cancel culture, and that fallout was quite challenging to overcome.

ORTTU:

Facing all of that, how do you think the scene changed you, for better or worse, and what lessons or inspiration do you take from it today?

Walt Cassidy:

I was very fortunate to be groomed by a long line of incredible mentors that I came in contact with through nightlife.  Each one of those relationships offered a range of fodder and guidance for personal evolution.  Through it all, the principles that I have come to value most are authenticity and creativity.  I’ve found that if I embrace those two things, I have everything I need to navigate any obstacle in life.

ORTTU:

And what can we outsiders learn from the Club Kids phenomenon?

Walt Cassidy:

The legacy of the Club Kids is best articulated by a Matthew Arnold quote that I was raised with and opens my book: “Resolve to be thyself; and know, that he who finds himself, loses his misery.”

ORTTU:

Perfect. Walt, thanks so much for speaking with us.

 

New York Club Kids: By Waltpaper is available from all major booksellers. And you can find out more about Walt, his life, and his current creative work at his studio website here.



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