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Sunnysider wins Acker award for graphic novel on LES legend Clayton Patterson

Julian will soon receive a New York Acker Award for preserving Lower East Side history.
Photo Credit Lindsay Compton, Society of Illustrators
(Left )Clayton Patterson, (Right) Julian Voloj

Feb. 14, 2024 By Kim Brown

In 2005, Sunnysider Julian Voloj received an anonymous phone call from someone who would become an integral part of his life.

At the time, Voloj–who was born in Germany to Colombian parents–was giving walking tours of the Lower East Side. The voice on the other end of the line said, “we have to meet,” and gave an address. 

The caller turned out to be legendary Lower East Side documentarian and artist, Clayton Patterson, a hulking tattooed presence with a ZZ Top beard. 

Fast forward to the present and Voloj, who has lived in Sunnyside since 2005, has curated a graphic novel about the icon, “Clayton. Godfather of Lower East Side Documentary” and is set to receive a New York Acker Award for preserving Lower East Side history. 

“Getting to know Clayton and his story is bigger than I ever realized,” Voloj said.

Throughout the book, sixteen different artists, some established, others new to publishing, chronicle the story of the farm boy from Alberta, Canada who moved to New York City in 1979 and found himself amid a cultural scene that included Basquiat, Keith Haring, Blondie and other icons. 

From that time until the present, Patterson has taken hundreds of thousands of photographs and thousands of hours of videotape, not so much of the famous, but of the gang members, tattoo artists, drag queens, punk rockers and graffiti taggers who made the neighborhood.

“I’m not interested in the famous. The famous doesn’t need me,” Patterson said. “I love sharing the stories of people who are invisible: the outcasts, the people no one cares about. It’s very rewarding.’

Rewarding does not always mean safety. 

There was a shooting across the street from the building on Essex Street the night he and his lifelong partner, artist Elsa Rensaa, moved in. Rather than move away from the city, as many others were doing at the time, they embraced it.   

The couple bought a 100-year-old embroidery machine and began sewing custom baseball caps and clothing that soon became must-have fashion items for celebrities like Keith Haring, Matt Dillon and Mick Jagger. 

They turned the first floor of their building into a Cap Store and art gallery, which held exhibits for nearly 20 years. Patterson also began a “Wall of Fame” photography series of neighborhood subjects in front of his graffiti-covered front door.

“I watched a generation grow up and became an intricate part of their lives. That’s a blessing.”

He not only watched the generation, but influenced them, as well. When Cochise, a Satan’s Sinners gang leader, showed up at his place to cause trouble, Patterson talked him down and wound up changing his life by introducing him to art. 

Throughout the years Patterson worked in the mediums of etching, drawing, sculpture, lithography and photogravure, wrote books chronicling the Lower East Side and started the underground Tattoo Society. He was instrumental in getting the art form legalized in New York City in 1997. 

But perhaps, what Patterson is most well-known for is his footage of the Tompkins Square Riots. Patterson was at the Pyramid Club on August 6th, 1988, videotaping drag queens when the police tried to enforce a new 1 a.m. curfew. Chaotic street fights engulfed the neighborhood and Patterson documented the events.  He refused to hand over the tapes and was subsequently arrested 13 times, beaten, and spent several days in jail. 

The tapes became important evidence of police brutality and eventually the footage, as well as Patterson, appeared on Oprah.

Patterson still lives in the same Essex Street building he moved to more than 40 years ago. Voloj and others are working on converting it into an outsider Lower East Side museum and cultural center. 

“Often with great artists it’s only after they’re gone there is success. It would be nice for him to see a success story,” Voloj said. “And it would be a shame if his place was turned into luxury condominiums.”

The museum would incorporate the Clayton Archive: video, art, photographs, books, newspaper clippings and Lower East Side paraphernalia like graffiti-tagged stickers and heroin bags, each with an individual drug dealer’s stamp. 

The book Voloj curated is the only comprehensive biography of Patterson and incorporates several mediums to reflect the diversity of his experiences. For example, a virtual-reality video of Patterson is activated by pointing a cellphone camera at the cover.  

In addition to “Clayton. Godfather of Lower East Side Documentary” Voloj has written sixteen other graphic novels, many which are about “what we lost in New York becoming corporate and expensive,” he said. 

Other titles include “Basquiat,” “The Joe Shuster Story: The Artist Behind Superman” and “Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker,” about former gang leader Benjy Melendez.

Besides writing graphic novels, Voloj’s life work, like Patterson’s, is documenting and photographing the city. And they have something else in common: both immigrated to draw on and contribute to New York City’s creative life and elevate other artists.

“I have a fascination with his stories,” Voloj said. “Maybe it’s because as an immigrant I’m always looking backward, while New Yorkers are constantly looking forward. And maybe one day the things I photograph will be just as interesting, because they won’t exist anymore.”

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