(Photos from Nikki S. Lee: Projects) Before I was old enough to do anything REALLY fun, I would wake up at 10 AM every Saturday, spike my mohawk, and take the R train down to Astor place to sit on the steps of Trash and Vaudeville. There was always a bunch of other baby-punks hanging around, talking about shows they couldn't get into, and drinking parties that never actually happened.
The days were, for the most part, unremarkable. The cops or shop owners would tell us to move and, occasionally, the odd tourist might give us each a buck to pose for a photo. One Saturday, I was approached by a small, leather-clad Asian woman who claimed she was a "Punk from Japan." She wanted to take a photo with "American Punks to show all her friends." I recall feeling somewhat suspicious. Her accent was so strong it seemed almost cartoonish, and she didn't really have the look down, which was uncharacteristic of Japanese Punk connoisseurs I had seen before.
The Street-Punk uniform donned by Japanese bands such as the Discocks, Spiky Joys, and Tom & Boot Boys was so precise that it made the Casualties look like the Incredible String Band. This self-proclaimed "Punk from Japan" had no patches or band names on her leather jacket; her hair wasn't "spiked" or "charged" but had more of a Robert Smith, 80s, Goth-bouffant vibe and looked like it was dyed purple with Halloween spray-on stuff. I would have written her off as a "new-jack," but she seemed a bit old to be discovering punk. She gave me and my friends a couple dollars each, had her associate take the photo, bowed politely, and left.
Years later, when I was in college, a friend of mine showed me Nikki S. Lee: Projects, a chameleon/guerilla photography book in which the author, "in a series of extraordinary transformations… unfolds a multiplicity of lives and identities documented through the lens of her point-and-shoot camera as she becomes a young punk in the East Village, a Connecticut-based exotic dancer, or a senior citizen picking through thrift stores in Murray Hill."
I opened to a section called, "The Punk Project," and there I was: Age 13, posing across the street from Trash and Vaudeville with Ms. Lee (our Japanese Punk) standing to my right.
My friend who owned the book seemed nettled by my explanation of the circumstances surrounding the photo. It was clear he believed Ms. Lee had truly and flawlessly assimilated herself into the various sub-cultures explored in Projects and inhabited her subjects so successfully that they accepted her as one of their own. My story depicted Lee as something of a fake, employing more of a Sacha Baron Cohenesque (as Borat) method of avoiding scrutiny by feigning an exaggerated exoticism. If she hadn’t acted so incredibly Japanese, my friends and I would have undoubtedly further questioned her Punk authenticity.
Like many of Borat's interviewees, I felt mildly humiliated upon learning of my inclusion in Lee's project. To me, It was as if she was saying, "look at all these dumb-asses I fooled into thinking I was like them;" when, in actuality, I spotted the NARC right off the bat. Whether she looked Punk or not had no influence on my decision to allow her to photograph me. She gave me a couple bones, that's all that mattered.
At the same time, I couldn't help but liken Lee's method to an experimental music project I had worked on the year I saw myself in Ms. Lee’s book. My assignment was to create a composition based on a series random events or noises. I had the uninspired idea to record an hour of ambience in a New York Subway station, assign different tones to the variety of sounds based on the type and length of the sound, and then arrange the resulting tones into a somewhat cohesive musical piece. The thing is, I never got a chance to make it down to the city that week, so I faked it. I used train sounds I found on the internet and clanked some cans around in my basement.
My piece got a pretty shitty response from class and professor alike - not because they were on to me, necessarily, but because the piece sucked. It was boring and sounded awful.
That's the thing. Whether Ms. Lee actually successfully became the Punks she emulated is kind of irrelevant. Nikki S. Lee: Projects is an awesome book. It's really fun to look through and hard to put down. At very least, she is an amazing make-up artist and costume designer with a keen eye for detail. She had a unique idea and turned it into an enjoyable work of art. Does her process really matter?
Ms. Lee doesn’t talk much about her work. And the few times she is quoted, she avoids discussion of her process of social assimilation. Instead, she focuses on her ability to observe and reproduce fashion. After all, she did move to New York to study at FIT. This made me wonder if Lee's Jackal image was, in fact, concocted by observers of her work. Does she simply consider her projects as fashion experiments? And if that’s the case, why did she bother with the accent?
The seedier photos in "Punk Project" depict Lee cuddling up with a junkie Punk (who I knew as "Slug") on a bench in Tompkins Square Park and sitting around an upstairs table at Coney Island High while members of the L.E.S. Stitches snorted coke off a CD case. I deduced from these photos that the "Punk Project" could have taken as little time as a couple hours: Slug was always in the park (which is down the street from Trash and Vaudeville), Damien from The Stitches worked at Trash and, I believe, was playing a show across the street at Coney Island High that very evening. She probably offered Slug a couple bucks (maybe more, he was kinda scary) and was the "girl with the coke" after the L.E.S. Stitches show.
Much of the writing I found on Projects claims that, "Lee always reveals her artistic intent before she joins a group’s gatherings and adopts its practices; an acquaintance then takes the photo." While the former was not true in my personal experience, I could believe that Lee identified herself as an artist in other cases. I mean, that kinda info is hard not to spill when there is cocaine involved. I wonder if she kept the Japanese act going the whole time? Who knows? Maybe she woke up the next morning and truly believed that she had become a Punk. It's not the hardest scene to infiltrate - all I had to do was hang out on St. Marks Place for a couple weekends before I had a gaggle of Punk friends and a band called Social Disease. I am not trying to detract from Lee's artistic integrity or cry phony -- she did something cool, so Kudos -- I am simply stating for the record that I DID NOT GET DUPED. Nobody fools "the Kid" - and I am "The Kid."