Walt Cassidy has dispensed of his antennae hairdo and shaved brows to make way for his more mature self, a self who is the head of his own eponymous studio wherein he produces jewellery, sculpture, photography and drawing. This being said, one is able to transport to Walt’s ‘90s world of creativity, clubbing and hand-made clothing in his much-anticipated book, New York: Club Kids (published by Damiani).
His collaboration with Opening Ceremony for whom he had a hand in designing a collection that recalls the iconic club kid aesthetic is reminiscent of the way in which the club kids are very much a thing of the past, and yet live on in today’s cultural climate in many forms. I had the pleasure of asking Cassidy a few questions about the nature of creativity and his life that is a ‘singular masterwork’.
You’ve said before that “It’s important to know when to destroy the things you’ve created.” Why then did you decide to write New York: Club Kids? Don't get me wrong, I’m very glad you did!
I’ve come to understand and accept that my experience within the club kids informs a much broader narrative beyond my personal journey. Within my own evolution, Waltpaper was destroyed and reimagined through many other identity and gender expressions, all of which are continually in flux. Waltpaper is the seed at the center of my being. Waltpaper was not a character that I created and stepped into like an actor, but instead represents my essential self, the truth of my soul. If we acknowledge the concept of an ‘inner child’, I would say that Waltpaper is my liberated inner child.
What do you mean by 'destroyed and reimagined'?
When I use the term ‘destroyed’, in my mind, I am referencing an agrarian approach to life and creativity. I see my life and work as an orchard that seasonally moves through various cycles of life. Ideas are planted, cultivated, harvested and then decompose. Once energy and comprehension begin to coagulate around an idea, it’s essentially the beginning of its death. It’s a blossom before falling back into the embrace of the soil that birthed it. My creative energy has always been ignited by experiences that are unfamiliar to me. Once I gain an understanding or sense of completion with an idea, it’s already begun the process of decomposing to provide nutrients for new growth. The responsibility of the artist is to assassinate the familiar to make room for the new.
Nostalgia can be a slippery slope, which is why I hesitated to do a book for so long. People often become imprisoned by the past, especially within nightlife culture. I came to understand this in the club kid days when I studied the Warhol superstars. Many of them seemed to never allow themselves to evolve beyond the short period that they were involved in the Factory and with Warhol. I didn’t want to follow that model.
So what made you make this book?
My purpose and motivation in doing the book were purely archival. I came to believe that it was my duty to open up our history from an insider’s perspective, preserve it, and share it. People understand that the ‘90s, as the last analogue decade, had a great impact on contemporary culture, but many don’t know exactly how. The book unpacks some of those channels of influence and contextualizes the photography work of that time period in New York City.
What role do you think you and fellow club kids played in influencing art and fashion? I live in Glasgow, and I know that the club kid aesthetic lives on in underground techno raves here.
So much of our contemporary culture revolves around ideas of self-branding and identity as a medium. One can see this in the gender revolution, reality television and the development of the figure of the ‘influencer’. The club kids pushed these concepts on daytime television and in the press thirty years ago, long before they were fully formed and marketable concepts. The very same things that we were discussing on those television shows and in the back offices at Limelight have now become the driving forces within the entertainment and consumer markets. Mobile technology and social media have been constructed around ideas that we, as club kids, were intuitively promoting at the beginning of the ‘90s.
Speaking of inspiration, you collaborated with Opening Ceremony, who hosted the launch for your book and for whom you designed a few garments inspired by your club kid tales. What stories inspired the garments?
For the Opening Ceremony capsule collection, I worked closely with artist Gregory Homs, who is the mastermind behind much of the promotional and branding imagery of the mega-clubs and that time period. We also incorporated the photography works of Tina Paul and Michael Fazakerley. Our focus was on cultivating a selection of iconic moments. We extracted a handful of elemental visuals from the wide-reaching vernacular of the club kids and brought them forward into a contemporary context.
We created a signature club-kid print, which was taken from the first edition of club kid trading cards, and commissioned artist Dolphina Jones to hand draw a new Opening Ceremony logo in homage to her original design for Disco 2000, the flagship club-kid party held at Limelight. There are a number of images from The World included in the capsule, which was the nightclub where the archetype of the club kid really began to coagulate, in large part due to the cover story written by Amy Vishup for New York magazine in 1988. This is when the term ‘club kids’ was first coined.
What was it like living in the Chelsea Hotel, a place that housed a multitude of artistic legends, like Robert Mapplethorpe, Nico, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin and Madonna? Was it full as full to the brim with youthful creativity as I imagine?
The Chelsea Hotel was timeless. In the ‘90s, it still housed people like Patti Smith, Viva, Herbert Hunke, Dee Dee Ramone and many others. It was a more mature crowd living there. I wouldn’t say it was evocative of youthful energy at that time. It conveyed and preserved a sense of elaborate bohemian history. When we moved in, we were definitely the ‘kids’, and I think we kept many of the elders entertained with our antics.
Yourself and other club kids of the era describe the closeness you experienced as a family. I relish this sentiment as I too have found my own family outside of my ‘real’ one, a family that is more real and loving than anything I’d experienced. How do you feel that your chosen family shaped you? Where do you think you’d be without them?
For queer kids or any marginalized individual, our chosen families are extremely important. Being protected within the womb of the club kids and the mega-clubs allowed me a safe space to explore my creativity without needing to be in constant defense mode. I was someone who was attacked physically and verbally constantly while growing up… When I arrived in NYC, I felt like a bird that had been released from its cage. Instead of being attacked, I was celebrated for my identity expression.
My biological family was severely fractured, and while my parents were amazing individuals, they were not able to create a stable home environment for their children. There was constant conflict, and as a result, I spent most of my early youth alone. When I fell in with the club kids, it was the first time that I had a group of people that I could depend on. I no longer felt isolated and alone in the world.
What was your favourite club kid look that you hot-glued to life?
I like them all for different reasons. The merit of my later looks generally revolved around my use of makeup, which I became passionate about as I got a little involved with fashion and modeling. The early days, when I was still a teenager with the antennae hair, like the image on the cover of the book, hold a particular charm for me. I was still quite innocent at that moment. From 1988 to 1993, the club kid format was pure and autonomous.
After 1993, things like rave culture, deconstruction, heroin chic and the supermodels swayed the club kid perspective and our visual output. Instead of shaving our heads and using hot glue and industrial supplies, we opted for a more editorial-friendly style and began responding directly to the fashion industry. This would have been around the time of Club USA, which I detail in the book as the beginning of the end for the club kids.
It is often hard for artists to detach themselves from their art, but you and your family made yourselves into the artworks. I can imagine that this sometimes would be quite hard, as wearing your art on your sleeve in such a way could inspire criticism from others. Did you ever struggle with this form of creativity that is so intrinsic to self-identity?
Anyone that does public work has to adapt to being criticized, especially today with all the Internet trolls hiding anonymously behind laptops. As an artist, you have to be willing to put your neck on the chopping block every time you release new work. Because many of us club kids grew up in environments where we were constantly attacked and humiliated, we developed thick skins. No one ever gave us permission to do what we did, we forced our way into the public consciousness through our own self-belief and will. We carried a tremendous amount of courage, and I hope that is what people take away from my book and the club kid narrative.
As I said before, you and your elected family made yourselves into works of art. How then did you feel once you removed the makeup and platforms?
This is where club kids tend to be a bit different from drag queens and other performance-based identities. We appeared just as freaky in the day as we did at nighttime. Most of us lived together communally and did not work daytime jobs unless it was at the club offices during the day. A drag queen can usually take off their wigs, unglue their eyebrows and wash off the geish to look like a ‘normal, everyday’ guy. We had no eyebrows, oddly shaved heads with scattered patches of dayglow hair, metal jewellery piercing every part of our body, facial and body tattoos… Today’s equivalent would perhaps be the gang kids that tattoo their faces. We looked like aliens walking the street, even if we were wearing a t-shirt and jeans. We were too freaky to hide. Being a club kid was a lifestyle; it wasn’t something that could be washed off. If you were able to wash it off, then you weren’t fully committed.
You’re now the head of your own eponymous studio, how does this compare to when you were given your first studio when you were 19 in the NYC Club Building?
I’ve learned in maturity that everything I was meant to do in this lifetime, I’ve been doing from the beginning. My life is a singular masterwork. The objects that I create as an artist are residue of that central human journey. I see my life as a stone that has been placed in a tumbler. It’s the same stone, it just gets shinier and shinier over time with each experience that I pass through. The further that I evolve in life, the closer I get to the beginning. It’s one of the funny riddles of our existence.
Do you ever have the urge to go full ‘Waltpaper’, paint on your eyebrows and over-line your lips like back in the day? Or is this a persona that you have left in the past?
The thing about Waltpaper, which I mentioned before, is that it was never an identity that I put on as a costume or as armor. Some people approach creating looks to hide themselves, which is a perfectly valid expression, but that was never my goal. I created my identity to serve as a microscope that could reveal and amplify all the truths that I carried at the root of my soul. My intention was always to tell the truth. In interviews, I used to say that if I could turn my skin inside out, Waltpaper would appear. I was externalizing my interior experience. I still adhere to that practice.
When I got into lifting weights in my thirties, it was the same motivation, but instead of using makeup and clothes, I used the flesh as a medium. As I am entering the closing years of my forties, I have begun to consider my age and mortality. Both of my parents have passed, along with a number of friends. I find myself considering what the end of this life will look like for me. This was another big motivation for doing the book. I wanted to make sure that my life, the lives of my peers, and the experience of New York City in the '90s could not be erased. With New York: Club Kids, I feel that I have been successful in my mission.