Twenty-first century traveling punks get a home on the web.
Of all the subsets of punk the most universally reviled, yet generally least understood, is the crust punk. This fairly modern development is most aesthetically related to the late 70s-early 80s Peace Punk movement but can trace its philosophical genealogy at least as far back as the mid-1800s to hobos. You've seen 'em because they're in every city and, seemingly, most college towns. Of course, not all crusties—and I'm using this term with added elasticity here—travel, and even those that do will stop for a while. Like any society they're held together by a loose sense of identity and values but also run the gamut between desperation and privilege, education and ignorance, supremely skilled and utterly useless, and total scumbags and total sweethearts. And now they've got a digital home of their own.
I met DJ Pommerville about a year ago just as he was gearing up to leave Athens, GA. He'd been in town three years at that point and was singing in this hardcore band named Gripe. That was the longest he'd stayed anywhere since hitting the road from the rural California coast a dozen years ago. While settled down temporarily, though, he started Look At This Fucking Oogle—an obvious play on similarly named Tumblr themes—as a joke. Over 150 pages of photos later it's still pretty damn funny but has taken on this weird life of its own whereby it's pretty equal parts society page, town crier, and obituary page. It's full of inside jokes and missing person alerts, tributes and trouble, and warnings and welcomes. It's Larry Clark's Tulsa reborn via self-documentation and crowd participation. And it's huge, too. LATFO stickers are starting to appear all over the USA (photos of which are winding up on LATFO.com, 'natch) and no one seems more amazed than Pommerville. Speaking on the phone from his current city of Philadelphia, PA, where he's cooking for a living and bedding down in a local squat, Pommerville was gracious and accommodating while I dug into his head regarding all this stuff. The conversation was hilarious and heartbreakingly sad. Welcome to oogleville, indeed.
VICE: So how did the term “oogle” come about? The best I can tell is it's an insult that can also be used as a term of affection.
DJ Pommervile: Yeah, exactly. When I was a kid you could only use that as a hurtful word. You wouldn't call your friends that at all. You wouldn't call anyone that. [If you said] “That person is a fuckin' oogle” those were fighting words. And now, you just throw it out there. It's almost like “faggot” or something. It's still a bad word but for a lot of people it's lost its meaning and it's just another word. I think it's just lost its power. And because of LATFO it's everywhere now. I mean, at first that stood for “Look At This Person Who Obviously Sucks” but now it's friends, family...everybody's on there. It's a joke now, pretty much.
Do you know where the word came from?
No, I was playing with the idea of making that the theme of the movie (Note: Pommerville's been filming a documentary-style movie on and off for several months) you know, finding the source of the word. I've talked with some people and nobody knows where it came from. It's just always been there, pretty much.
Man, LATFO has really taken off. It's kind of incredible.
I am so surprised. It's crazy. I started it as a joke with my homie and it fuckin' blew up.
As it's progressed, though, there's some stuff on there that's really serious. Like memorials to people who have passed away, friends looking for old friends...there's just a personal touch to it. Whereas “Look At This Fucking Hipster” is all just anonymous photographs of people just being stupid and nobody knew who they were but on LATFO it's like there's a story behind every picture...
It's definitely way more personal. People lose their dogs and are like, “Will you post this?” or “Hey, my friend is missing. Can you please post a picture in case anyone has seen her?” There's a community service part to it to, you know?
It's just really distinguished itself. You know people outside of that scene kind of always see the crusty, train hopper kids as being something like Luddites. It's hard for people to imagine them being on the Internet or having iPhones and taking pictures because they never look like they have any money or any connection with anybody. So I've been looking at it a couple of ways: That there's still kids in every scene that are privileged enough to have access to technology but also that technology's reach is so broad that it's accessible to everybody.
There's definitely a little bit of both. I mean, yeah it's so accessible now... like you find an iPhone on the ground and know how to hack it, you have a phone.
LATFO's gone beyond being a joke. People seem to depend on it now. They know if they need to get the word out about something they can send it to you and thousands of people will see it. I feel like I became aware of it fairly early on but even then there were already like eight pages of photos.
When we started it we Googled like five pictures of “sleeping punks” or “drunk punks” and posted those but everything since then has been all user-submitted. It blows my mind. I'll put pictures up there of my friends because I like taking pictures but it's really all people sending stuff in. I don't really do anything. All I really do is get a beer and “publish," “delete," “publish.”
But that's still important because you've got the desire and will to keep up with it. You know how many projects people start? Even people with a really stable lifestyle...they can't even keep their projects together. You're on the road traveling and manage to keep this going when there's nothing secure in your situation.
I update from my phone sometimes and there's no Internet at the squat. I've got some friends with Internet. But it's the future. There's computers everywhere. I can log in anywhere at all and update it. And it's fun for me, too. I'm behind the scenes and I get to see all the pictures and everything [before they're posted].
Is there anything that you won't put up?
Yeah. Sometimes there's nude photos and someone [will get in touch] and say “Oh, that was my ex-boyfriend [that took that]. Would you please take it down?” And my policy is anything you don't want on there I'll take down. I'm not an asshole. If anyone ever sees anything there [they don't want up] just email me and I'll take it down. But, yeah, that and just general shit talking. There's a few pictures [people have sent me] and they'll send photos with comments like “This guy's an asshole. He ripped me off...” and I used to publish those sometimes but now I don't because that's only one side of a story. There might be another dynamic that nobody knows about so I'm not gonna put this person's shit out there where everyone can read it. A lot of times I'll delete the comments and publish the picture if it's a funny picture. LATFO is not for talking shit about people. If anything it's for making fun of your friends.
Where did you grow up?
Goleta, California. Like the central coast of California.
That's where Ebullition Records is from.
Yeah, that was one of the only cool things Goleta ever had. Goleta is so small it just happened to have a lot of punks there when I was growing up.
How long would you say you've been in “the scene”? Not necessarily the crusty scene but when did you get into punk?
When I was 15 I heard Dead Kennedys and I was like, “Oh my God. What is this angel music?” and it changed my life right then. I had been into country and hip-hop but then heard Dead Kennedys and there you go. Changed my life at 15. I'm 31 now.
What's your education like? High school? College?
I dropped out in 9th grade. I went to a few different high schools but, yeah, I dropped out in 9th grade.
When did you start living nomadically?
When I was 16 my parents kicked me out because they thought I was smoking pot. And they'd never done any drugs or anything so they were all like, “Oh my god! My son's on drugs!” But it was just pot. So they kicked me out. I lived with my grandparents for a little bit, then with my uncle for a little bit, then moved in with this girl and her mom. Then I found out about traveling. My friend Ian would go up to San Francisco and come back and tell me stories about hanging out on rooftops and shooting heroin and fucking with the police and everything. It was just like, “God, you can do that?" Cause I thought I was just like some homeless person until I moved in with my uncle. I didn't know there was a whole community or scene of people who just traveled. So he taught me about that and I was just like, “Well, shit. That's what I wanna do then.” I don't have to live in a house and work. I can travel and work when I want.
So you've been on the road ever since.
Off and on, yeah. I've spent years in a row just being on the streets but also years in a row being in a house.
How much experience would you say you have riding trains?
How much experience? Well, I started when I was 18. Somebody taught me how, you know? So, 12, 13 years I guess. I was never that good at it but I did it.
I don't think people realize how dangerous it is. Not just the physical risk of a train itself but the danger of dealing with railroad police, too. They don't fuck around.
In my experience all they do is [say] “Get out of my train yard,” really. I mean, if you're a drunken idiot they're gonna treat you like shit but if you're like, “Man, I'm sorry. This is how I get around. I ride trains. No disrespect,” then they'll just run your name for warrants and then say “Get out of my train yard.” The bad stories you hear are probably from people who are being idiots. Just like anything else.
Yeah, see, that's what I'd always heard. That railroad police will pull you off a train, beat you up, and leave you [stranded].
Eh, it's like anything. There are assholes in any [occupation], race, anything. I'm usually polite to everybody so in my experience they've been fine and I'm just like “Sorry, man” and they're like, “Ok, just don't get on my train.”
OK, I can tell you right now I'm way too much of a wimp to ride a train. Like being in an open car with no floor, that would scare the hell out of me.
That's called “riding suicide”—riding things without floors—and that's frowned upon. A lot of people my age, when we ride trains, we ride safe as shit, you know? [If one train has no floors] wait a couple of days [for another one]. It doesn't matter. A lot of new kids are like, “Aw, yeah, I rode this bottomless well standing on a crossbeam” and that's fucking stupid. You're not impressing anybody. That's just dumb.
... and if you fall you're gonna mess it up for a whole lot of people.
Oh, yeah, you're ruining the day for all the people who work on the train, you're gonna be in the paper exposing our scene…
Like unintentionally bringing this secret society to light.
Yeah, and that train's gonna be hot as fuck because someone died on it.
Tell me about the documentary you're making.
Well, since I moved here I haven't been filming all that much. I'm planning on traveling this summer and filming more. I've got a lot of footage so far. What I'm basically trying to do is something documentary style on the traveling stuff and then little skits in between [segments]. You know, like little jokes about our culture, jokes about our scene.
One thing about the whole crusty scene, and I'm using “crusty” as an overarching term, is that to an outsider it really just looks like those “kids that refuse to bathe. They're dirty, kind of glamorizing the hobo lifestyle, eating out of dumpsters...why the hell don't they just go home?” I mean, there's some of that but what people don't realize is that a lot of kids are abused and they're runaways leaving a bad situation. They took to the road not because the road was romantic but because they had to get out.
Oh, yeah. Definitely. There's definitely that. There's a lot of over-privileged people that travel, there's a lot of people that come from shitty families and shitty homes that travel 'cause they want to escape it. We all make this choice in one way or another. It wasn't really forced on too many people. On some? Yeah, it was forced. But mostly it's our decision. It's just... we're hobos. Just like hobos back in the day. It continues. It's the future and we're hobos in the future. We wanna travel. We just can't sit still. I mean, I'll work. I'll get a house for six months at a time, whatever, a year. Athens was the longest I've ever lived in one place and that was three years because I really like it there so much. But, you travel, you work. That’s what you do. You move around. You live life in a different way than most of society.
There's gotta be times, though, when you're traveling and you find yourself without a group and all on your own.
Oh, yeah, I actually prefer that sometimes. You get time to think about everything and what you're doing in life. Also when you panhandle you get to keep all the food and money and [occasional] hotel rooms that people will give you all to yourself. And for a long time I had a dog. For like 13 years so I never felt scared or alone really because I had her. She'd always be there to protect me.
Yeah, a lot of people always ask, “Why do these people always have a dog with them?”
Oh, yeah, and even The Dog Whisperer said the most well-behaved dogs he's ever seen belonged to homeless people because they—owner and dog—were together 24 hours a day for years and years. So they listen to you. And they get to travel. Wherever you're going, the United States is their backyard. They don't sit in a house and wait for you to get home from work. So they get that bond from constantly being around them. I mean, there's shitty dog owners in the traveling scene just like there's shitty dog owners in regular life. I've seen travelers kick their dogs and people living in a house kick their dogs. It's just people in all walks of life. There's good and bad.
When you find yourself outside of a group, though, and traveling on your own do you feel like the danger increases? Do you feel more vulnerable?
I never did [before] because of the dog. You definitely have more people coming up to you if you're not in a group, crackheads and stuff. Maybe people trying to fuck with you. My view is also jaded, though, because I always had my dog. I never traveled without her until this last year when she got too old to travel. The last time I went out it was weird because she wasn't there. Going to sleep was weird because [before] I could rely on her to bark if someone came up while I was asleep. So, yeah, I felt vulnerable because there was no one looking out for me.
That's gotta be overwhelmingly exhausting after a while. Like sleeping with one eye open all the time...
I remember being younger and sleeping in the alleys of Los Angeles, like in West Hollywood and not giving a shit because I had my dog but without her I definitely find way more secluded places to sleep.
When you're traveling and decide to stop for a few days do you prefer the woods over a city?
Oh, definitely. Definitely the woods. I'm a big fan of fishing so a lot of times I'll just go where I can go fishing and camp in the woods. And I don't have a car or a tent. Just a backpack. So I'll roll out on the ground and get up early before a park ranger comes around and I don't have to pay for a campsite or anything. I love nature so I definitely prefer that.
I was thinking it'd be like that. Cities all come with their own set of hassles.
Oh, yeah, new laws. Some places you can't [even] hold a piece of cardboard [on the street] and some places you can. So you gotta deal with all that shit.
I don't think it's even legal to sit on the sidewalk in San Francisco, is it? (Note: Between 7 am-11 pm, it's not.)
Oh, God, probably not anymore. We would have seven people sitting behind a huge piece of cardboard, hiding our 40s behind it [in San Francisco]. We used to be able to go—I was a junkie for years and years, I've been clean six years now—but we used to just go around the corner and shoot up in San Francisco. We got caught in a dog park bathroom shooting up. A cop came in and was like, “What the fuck are you doing? There's plenty of dark alleys around here just go find one.” I heard they cleaned San Francisco up and got rid of a lot of the homeless people. There was a huge meth epidemic for a while and they got sick of that and threw a lot of people out. I know in Seattle you can't sit on the sidewalk. It's been that way for years and years. Over a decade that I know of. (Note: Seattle's “Sit/Lie” law bans sitting or lying on public sidewalks in downtown Seattle 7am-9pm and was passed in 1993.)
Yeah, that’s true about Seattle. I got hit up by a couple of traveling kids for food in Seattle several years ago and they said the cops had already hassled them for sitting down so they had to keep walking.
Yeah, it's bullshit. There's this shopping center in Seattle and everyone that goes there is like 40 years old and [one time] they went there and sat down like three and four deep on the sidewalk sort of as a little protest. Sort of like, “Oh, you're gonna let us sit on the sidewalk but these fucking people can't just 'cause they're homeless? Why are you gonna let us and not them?”
Well, because they're not ugly and dirty, that's why!
[laughs] Yeah! They don't smell like shit and aren't asking for money.
I had a situation a few weeks ago with some new traveling kids that landed in Athens and came to the club where I work. I think they were only in town for about a day. It was a group of about seven people and four of the guys were pretty cool, one guy was kind of a dick but this one girl was completely whacked out. I don't know what her problem was. She kept giving me all this shit because I wouldn't let her into the club [acting that way] and I had to yell at her. I felt bad but...it was like a microcosm of society! A few were cool, one trying to rip me off and another screaming at me. Like a mini-city came to visit me. There wasn't any scene like this at all in Athens until about 1995 and now it's “known” as this place to come if you're a hopper.
I remember when I moved there and people were like, “Oh, you ride trains? We don't really like train riders.” And I was like, “Oh, really? Well, OK...” But then I met the people that come into Athens and... Athens gets the worst fucking travelers ever! There's a few good ones but where I was staying... I wouldn't even give them money. Athens just gets the worst fucking people for some reason. I feel bad about that because it totally gave our culture a bad name, you know? All anybody [there] sees are the shitty kids that get drunk and scream at you and the next day they don't remember it and they're asking you for money.
I think what you've done with LATFO is pretty special. It's this galvanizing thing that the whole scene knows about and [uses]. They know they can get in touch with you and send you not just funny pictures but things about people that are missing or photos of people who have suddenly passed away. They've got a place to put this stuff [and know it'll get seen]. It's like a meeting place.
It's so fucking weird. I can't believe I'm part of this thing. It's crazy. I was living I Athens when [it started] so I had no idea [how big it was] but now any city I go to people know about it. I'll ask them, “Are you serious? You know about this?” and they'll be like, “Are you fuckin' serious? Everyone knows about it.” It's crazy. I remember going to Ithaca, New York recently and this kid had a funny sign and I asked if I could take a picture of him and he said, “Yeah, just don't put me on LATFO!” And I said, “You know about this?” and he's like, “You're the LATFO guy!?” and I'm like, “Yeah” and he's like, “Oh my God!" His homie was hanging out drinking and got on his cell phone and he's whispering into it, “Guess who I'm hanging out with? The LATFO guy!” And I'm like, “I heard you, dude.” One guy asked me to have sex with his girlfriend one time. He's like “Will you bang my girlfriend?” I'm like, “OK.”
You have indeed become The Crust Lord.
[laughs] I call myself King Of The Oogles.
I'm glad you said that because I was already thinking of calling you that in this piece. It could sound arrogant or hilarious. It's perfectly ambiguous. But the title's gonna be “Welcome To Oogleville.”
Awesome. Population: You. “Welcome To Oogleville,” it's funny that you said that, because that's a thing that people actually write in train yards and under bridges sometimes. [They'll write] “Welcome to Oogleville. Population: You.”
Are you serious?
Yeah, yeah. Totally. It's in the [indecipherable] train yard, it's under bridges in San Luis Obispo, California. I remember seeing that. I wrote it under a bridge in Richmond, Virginia.
So do you have any plans or idea of how long you're gonna stay in Philly?
I've been thinking until around August cause I want to go to Montreal. You can hop a train right here in Philly and ride straight to Montreal and it's a beautiful city. So, probably around August. But I'm not sure because I've got a good spot here in Philly with a job and free rent. So it's perfect for me. I hate paying rent and bills. I think that shit is theft. So I live in a squat and make money cooking and I love that. But I have to travel, too, so I'm thinking going up in August and maybe coming back to Philly if my job will let me do that.
I'd think you'd try to take the winter months off [from traveling] or at least travel south.
I've always been really bad at that. I'm always in the coldest place during winter because I've got a friend there or something and then in California in the summer. I've been traveling backwards my entire fucking time. That's my life pretty much... People tell me all the time they wish they had the courage to do what I do. But it's not courage. It's just what came natural to me. For a lot of us it's just what we do. It's just what we want to do in life. We're not content just staying in the same place forever.
A lot of people get in the lifestyle and they're nomadic. They drink boxed wine and have fun. Get tattooed and make friends. But with LATFO you've created something that shows this obvious desire to leave a record of what's going on. A way of documenting the scene and having a place for people to document their own lives.
Yeah, definitely. And the thing is, I started the website—I bought the domain name—but the idea was from my best friend Stephanie who died last year. And that kind of fucked me up. She came to visit me in Athens and we were hanging out looking at “Look At This fucking Hipster” and she said “You should “Look At This Fucking Oogle!” And I thought that'd be funny. To [have a place to] look at all of our friends. So I started it the next day. A few weeks later there were like 200 fans of it and I was like “Holy shit!” Now it's in the thousands. It's fucking ridiculous. There's close to 3,000 pictures on there. If it hadn't been for Stephanie I'd have never done this. If she hadn't been like, “Hey, you should do this as a joke” [I wouldn't have].
When she was alive I'd be like, “Aw, I started it! Stephanie didn't do shit.” But then she died so now I'm saying this was Stephanie's idea. There would be nothing if it wasn't for her... We'd known each other since we were 17. We'd see each other every few years. We met on the streets in Berkeley panhandling. She was an amazing person.
So it was her idea and now it's your tribute to her.
Oh, definitely. She died last year. Not even a year ago. It's Stephanie's thing. Definitely all about her.
The Facebook picture of the girl holding the “Look At This Fucking Oogle” sign is Stephanie and that will never change... I keep forgetting to renew the domain name. I should go renew it for five years. There might be a time when “LATFO.com” [ the web address] doesn't work but... I've written down the password and sealed it in an envelope for my friends so when I die it'll still continue. It's not going away. As long as there's Internet it's gonna be there. Or until people are sick of it it'll keep going.
That's very sweet of you. Obviously, I didn't know that was the backstory. And it speaks to the desire for both legacy and permanence even in a nomadic culture.
Oh, yeah. In this lifestyle you lose all your friends. I can't even count the number of dead friends I have. People do heroin. They do drugs. They drink. Shit happens. You abuse your body and destroy it and you die. We always have this shadow of death and sadness over our lives. I mean, we're happy and we love what we're doing but there's just so much sadness that comes along with it. It's fucking rock and roll. We live a rock and roll lifestyle and this is what happens.