My Juggalo Journey
Before 2017, I had never given Insane Clown Posse (ICP) much thought. Sure, I’d heard they were a rap band out of Detroit known for being the “worst band in the world,” and I knew their fans were called Juggalos, but that's about it. I had a general sense that Juggalos were badasses – something about carrying hatchets and being fiercely protective of one another.
Then a coincidence of timing led me to attend an ICP event, and I met some Juggalos and Juggalettes (including ICP founders Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope), and I found myself attending Juggalo events in 8 different cities over the next couple of years.
“What is a Juggalo? He drinks like a fish, and then he starts huggin’ people, like a drunk bitch. Next thing, he's pickin’ fights with his best friends, then he starts with the huggin' again.” – What Is a Juggalo, Insane Clown Posse
Badasses? Hardly. More the touchy-feely type, in my experience, as quick to hug as they are to swear. Projecting an "I don't give a fuck" attitude is a core tenet of Juggalo philosophy, but the dirty secret is that most Juggalos do care very much, and every ICP show or gathering of Juggalos ends with emotional chants of "FAM-I-LY, FAM-I-LY!" At Juggalo Weekend in Las Vegas, the bathroom attendant told my wife “this crowd doesn’t tip, but they’re cleaner and politer than most crowds we get here.”
Sure, there are angry and hateful Juggalos, just like there are angry and hateful fans of the Seattle Seahawks or the Rolling Stones. But I’d feel safer passed out in a Juggalo crowd than either of those crowds. I might wake up with a penis drawn on my forehead, but there’s a damn good chance my wallet would still be in my pocket, and if it were cold I’d probably have a jacket or something draped over me. They're like that.
Gathering Of The Juggalos 2018 – Legend Valley, Ohio: I was about a mile from the parking lot when the sky opened and a classic Midwestern thunderstorm let loose. As I raced back to the shelter of my truck, arms wrapped around my expensive camera to try to protect it, a woman darted out of a tent through the downpour to offer me a plastic trash bag to protect my camera. Too late, as it turned out: my telephoto lens (Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8 VR II) required a few hundred dollars in repair before I could use it again. A small price to pay for the amazing shots I got that day.
This post is a recap of the Juggalo events I attended between September 2017 and February 2020. Whoop whoop!
Washington, DC – September 16, 2017. After seeing firsthand the sparse crowds at the Trump inauguration, as well as the massive turnout for the Women's March the day after, I was tempted to attend the "Mother Of All Rallies" when Trump started promoting it. He had been butthurt all year about the accurate coverage of his inauguration, and MOAR was going to be his "proof" that he could draw a big crowd in DC.
And then, a month before MOAR, I saw some trash talk on Twitter: a Juggalo warning the Proud Boys that "our family carries hatchets not mace." And I realized that there would be not one but two groups of freaky looking Americans on the National Mall on the final summer weekend of the year. A street photographer's dream! I bought plane tickets right away.
The streets around the Capitol area were shut down that day, so I caught the DC Metro into town from Aunt Marsha's apartment over in Virginia. I walked up the steps from the McPherson Square stop sporting my brand-new Juggalo March t-shirt, and as soon as I reached the sidewalk a big tattooed guy greeted me with a "whoop whoop!" (Being new to the scene, I smiled but didn't return the greeting.)
My first stop was the MOAR event, in a big grassy field east of the Washington Monument near the American History Museum. I wandered around and snapped a few photos, and then a perky middle-aged blond woman bedecked in red, white, and blue approached me with "Hey, we reached out to your people, and you're all welcome to join us, we're all Americans here!"
It took me a moment to realize that by "my people" she meant Juggalos, because of my t-shirt. "Oh thanks," I replied, "I'll head over there and see what's up, maybe see you later."
I walked west past the Washington Monument, past groups of old men hanging out at the WW II Memorial, and toward a group of workers assembling a stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Las Vegas, NV – February 16-17, 2018. After having an amazing time at my first Juggalo event, I talked Megan into joining me for Juggalo Weekend in Las Vegas a few weeks later.
Seattle, WA – March 26, 2018. ICP came to me this time, with a show in Seattle. Megan was out of town on a business trip, so I flew solo.
After a long wait in a slow-moving line outside Studio Seven, I was ready for a drink and a good time. I'd driven past this heavy metal venue in Seattle's SODO district for years, but this was my first time inside.
I was surprised to see almost no line at the bar, and quickly learned the reason: they were only serving non-alcoholic drinks. Studio Seven's liquor license had been temporarily suspended pending an investigation into a fatal shooting at a hip-hop show the month before. In the Washinton State Liquor and Cannabis Board's statement regarding the suspension, they noted that "In coming to this decision the Board also considered a November 2017 disorderly conduct incident requiring 28 police officers to quell."
In other words, Studio Seven was the perfect venue for an Insane Clown Posse show.
I had a VIP ticket, which entitled me to attend a meet and greet with ICP before the show and then join them on stage for Faygo Armageddon at the end of the show. Waiting in the long line for the meet & greet, I overheard a tall muscular man ahead of me tell his friends that he'd be skipping Faygo Armageddon because "I'm 33 now, too old for that shit." Minutes later, I was hanging out with Shaggy and J, looking forward to my first Faygo Armageddon a few weeks before my 60th birthday.
After a couple of local bands got the crowd warmed up, ICP took the stage. I'd been to two of their shows in recent months and knew what to expect: high energy from the beginning, with the crazed crowd as much a part of the performance as the guys in the spotlights.
The mosh pit was bedlam, with Juggalos crowd-surfing to the stage and then being tossed back into the crowd by beefy security guards. Others climbed the lighting rigs next to the stage and dove into the crowd. Compared to the ICP shows I'd seen so far, this one felt wild and dangerous. The unchained version.
I was taking pictures and having a blast. When I squeezed in down by the stage to get some closeups, bracing myself against the surging crowd, Shaggy came over and sprayed a bottle of Faygo all around me, but not directly on my camera. A pro.
I retreated to a stairway above the pit, and while I was shooting from there Shaggy launched a half-empty 2-liter that hit me in the right shoulder so hard it spun me around, but I managed to hang on to my camera.
Through it all, I was listening for the song that would signal time to go out the front door and around to the alley entrance to get on stage. I knew their songs now, and when Tilt-a-Whirl came on I rushed out the door with my VIP pass. There were already dozens of people ahead of me, so I had to squeeze onto the back corner of the stage. Lesson learned: to get a good spot at the front of the stage for Faygo Armageddon, you have to anticipate the signal and be in line before it happens.
The dense crowd was in a frenzy, with hundreds of gallons of Faygo flying through the air, and the stage was slippery. I thought I was going to get pushed off the stage a couple of times, and clung to others for dear life. Other times, I was the one holding others as they teetered at the back edge of the stage. A Faygo bottle hit me in the head and my glasses went flying. Before I could recover them, multiple footsteps crushed them beyond repair. Lesson learned: don't bring glasses to Faygo Armageddon!
Studio Seven closed down permanently a few weeks later, and the site is now an apartment building.
Legend Valley, OH – July 18-21, 2018. Having dipped my toes in Juggalo waters a few times, I was ready to hit the big time: the legendary annual Gathering Of The Juggalos. in 2018 it took place on a site outside Legend Valley, Ohio, where thousands of Juggalos camped in tents and participated in non-stop entertainment and group activities around the clock.
I booked a room at the nearest dive motel as soon as the dates and location were announced. We drove from Seattle, dropping the dogs off in Montana with a friend. (Although there were a few dogs there, the Gathering is definitely not a dog-safe venue.)
We picked up my Juggalo friend Jiggy at the bus stop in Chicago and gave him a ride for the last 400 miles. Along the way we stopped at a grocery store in rural Indiana and bought them out of all the Faygo they had in stock, because that's what you do when you're headed to the Gathering.
I shot thousands of photos, and posted over a hundred of them in the blog post Gathering of the Juggalos 2018. I'll also post a few faves here.
Being in the middle of Faygo Armageddon at the Gathering is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. The crowd density and energy level is similar to countless rock shows, but there's a true camaraderie among Juggalos. It's dangerous, to be sure (one guy had his foot crushed badly at this one), but it feels like everyone is together. Chants of FAM-I-LY break out in waves, and after several Faygo Armageddons I've never seen a single moment of anger or negativity in the crowd. Faygo Armageddon at the Gathering is the most intense of all, an explosion of pure joy to cap a week of non-stop craziness.
Vancouver, BC – August 16, 2018. ICP started a tour the week after the Gathering, and I drove up to Vancouver to see their show on August 16. It turned out that they had a major fiasco crossing the border, because some members of the crew had outstanding warrants they hadn't told anyone about and couldn't leave the US.
Hundreds of fans waited along Granville Street for hours while ICP was dealing with the border crossing. There were rumors of what was causing the delay, but nobody knew for sure.
At the meet & greet, J seemed quiet and depressed. But on stage, he put on the usual high-energy show from beginning to end. The show started over two hours late, with no opening band, and Violent J started the show by apologizing for the sound because their main sound guy wasn't there. Honesty, it didn't sound bad to me, and in any event nobody goes to an ICP show to be dazzled by audiophile details.
Sacramento, CA – October 22, 2018. After getting so close to the action so many times, for this show I decided to just enjoy things from afar.
That plan backfired at first – I had a massive telephoto lens on instead of the usual stubby inconspicuous wide-angle, and security wouldn't let me in with a "pro camera" since I didn't have a press pass. But then I saw Big Mike, one of ICP's bouncers. I had given Mike some cool shots of him in Faygo Armageddon at the Gathering two weeks before, and he vouched for me and managed to get me a last-minute press pass so I could take my camera in. Thanks, Mike!
There was a balcony at the back of the room with a few tables and wait service, and Megan managed to score one of those tables while I was dealing with the press pass issue. So the telephoto shots below are from above the crowd at that vantage point, a perspective I'd never had for an ICP show before.
New Orleans, LA – February 16-17, 2019. This show is the one I remember the least, because we drank all day in the French Quarter before the show. It was also my first show with no DSLR photos, because of a policy at the venue, House Of Blues. They took away my memory card to let me in with the DSLR, otherwise I couldn't have gone in at all. (Note to self for future reference: when attending a show at House of Blues, put a cheap memory card in the camera and hide a good one in your wallet.)
Seattle, WA – May 20, 2019. Another show I didn't photograph with a DSLR, although this time that was intentional. My friend Tom was in town and had never seen ICP before, so I hung with him and soaked up the show rather than getting geared up and diving into the full immersion photo experience.
This time, they played at El Corazon, a longtime punk and metal venue next to I-5 downtown. El Corazon is the place Pearl Jam played their first show in 1990, although back then it was called the Off Ramp and Pearl Jam was called Mookie Blaylock. It's been a rough and tumble nightclub ever since, the logical place for ICP to play downtown.
Los Angeles, CA – February 21-22, 2020. After two shows in a row of not taking many photos and not doing Faygo Armageddon, I was ready to cut loose at Juggalo Weekend 2020. This one took place in Los Angeles, on an outdoor stage at Pershing Square.
I won't bother to post photos here because I already published a Juggalo Weekend 2020 blog post with many photos and details from that show. We had a wonderful time. I wore face paint, for the first time ever.
It's been a wild ride, and things changed abruptly after that Juggalo Weekend show in Los Angeles. Just one week later, we were touring houses in Butte, Montana. That same day, the first US coronavirus case was reported in the Seattle area. Within a few weeks we were living in Montana, and as of the end of 2020 Juggalo Weekend is still the last time I flew anywhere and the last time I was in a group of people.
ICP was one of the first major acts to cancel all of their 2020 events due to the pandemic. Having gotten to know them, I wasn't the least bit surprised. The Juggalo family truly feels like a family, and as Shaggy and J said in the official statement regarding the cancellation of the 2020 Gathering Of The Juggalos, “The bottom line is that we REFUSE to risk even ONE Juggalo life by hosting a Gathering during these troubling times ... Without you, tell me where the fuck we’d be?”
ICP will be back, and I'm looking forward to attending another Gathering some day. But like so many things this year, my Juggalo journey is on hold. It was nice to have time this holiday season to pull together this long recap of my foray into an amazing American subculture, and I'll end with a few thoughts on what I've learned.
I am a Juggalo. Being a Juggalo is simply a state of mind: if you treat other Juggalos like family, you're one too. Many Juggalos are obsessed with the trivia of ICP's music, but that's not a requirement any more than wearing face paint (most Juggalos don't) or anything else. If you're down with the clown, you're a Juggalo, even if you don't know it or actively deny it.
The word community gets bandied about a lot these days, especially in large corporations, and has pretty much lost all meaning in common usage. There are people who speak eloquently about their concern for "the homeless community," for example, but somehow manage to live near thousands of homeless people without ever meeting or hanging out with any of them.
Juggalos are a true community in the old-fashioned sense of the word. There are Juggalo groups supporting causes ranging from helping one another fight addiction to helping feed the poor to suicide hotlines and much more.
You can find scholarly research showing that identifying as a Juggalo correlates to increased probability of drug use or mental disorders. The correlation is true, but misses the point entirely. Juggalos proudly self-identify as the community for "scrubs, losers, and misfits." If you feel like you don't fit in and have no community, Juggalos will accept you as you are. Being a Juggalo doesn't make you do meth, but if you do meth and feel like nobody loves you or cares, Juggalos will embrace you as part of the Family.
Juggalos also have a reputation for being uneducated, because uneducated people are accepted by the Family. But there are also Juggalos who are highly educated. I know Juggalos with a grade-school education, and Juggalos with advanced degrees who work as engineers or doctors.
The music ain't about the music. In 2003, the music magazine Blender, which billed itself as the ultimate guide to music, labeled Insane Clown Posse "the worst band of any musical genre." Six years later, while ICP’s sales were soaring, Blender went out of business. Four years after that, GQ writer Rob Tannenbaum chose the more carefully qualified label “worst rappers of all time,” and years later ICP’s popularity is at an all-time high and Tannenbaum’s article has apparently been deleted from GQ’s web site.
Juggalos get some important things from ICP's music that they crave and don't get from other sources. ICP's music says that it's OK to have bitter hatred and violent fantasies about racists, pedophiles, and other scum, and many of the songs are essentially dreams of a fair world where bad people get what they deserve. Check out the disturbing lyrics to Halls of Illusions for a typical example.
One ICP song in particular has become a lightning rod for Juggalo bashing: Miracles, a song with lines such as "pure magic is the birth of my kids" that opens with these laugh-inducing lyrics:
If magic is all we've ever known
Then it's easy to miss what really goes on
But I've seen miracles in every way
And I see miracles every day
Oceans spanning beyond my sight
And a million stars way above 'em at night
We don't have to be high to look in the sky
And know that's a miracle opened wide
Look at the mountains, trees, the seven seas
And everything chilling underwater, please!
Critics including The Guardian and Neil De Grasse Tyson have slammed that song as framing "ignorance as a virtue." The verse that really irks them is the one about magnets:
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don't wanna talk to a scientist
Y'all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed
Solar eclipse, and vicious weather
Fifteen thousand Juggalos together
And I love my mom, for giving me this
Time on this planet, taking nothing for granted
Sure, I get that the disrespect for scientists would get under Neil's skin, but it's a fucking song about appreciating the world and taking nothing for granted and being grateful for it all! And honestly, the notion that the average Neil De Grasse Tyson fan is any more capable of describing exactly how magnets work that the average ICP fan is laughable. The difference is that the NDGT fan will pretend to know something about the topic, and the ICP fan will just shrug and say "Fucking magnets, how do they work?"
Some humans suck, and Juggalos are human. Juggalos, like all other groups, have some assholes in their midst. Racism is extremely taboo among Juggalos, but sexism is still a problem in my opinion. There are some well-known Juggalos who are consistently sexist – I won't name them, but their names and faces are conspicuously absent from my album of Gathering photos, because I don't want to do anything that gives them any attention.
I bought a "trans juggalettes are juggalettes" t-shirt at an ICP event, and have worn it a few times. Some Juggalos say "cool shirt" and others look uncomfortable. So yeah, Juggalos aren't perfect, and some have more work to do than others. Just like any other large group of people.
Am I glad I wandered down to the Lincoln Memorial that sunny day in 2017 and met Jiggy and all the rest? Hell yeah. Do I recommend anyone else dive into Juggalo culture? Hell no – I have no opinion what you should or shouldn't do. I'll just note that most people seem to become more opinionated and less open to new experiences as they grow older, and in my view you have a choice. You can embrace new experiences without any need to understand or explain them, or you can stick to your lane and avoid everything you find scary or uncomfortable or unexplainable. You get to choose.
I'll let Violent J wrap up this long post. From the final verse of Miracles:
Miracles each and everywhere you look
And nobody has to stay where they put
This world is yours, for you to explore
It's nothing but miracles beyond your door
The Dark Carnival is your invitation
To witness that without explanation
Take a look at this fine creation
And enjoy it better with appreciation