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Walt Cassidy’s New York Club Kids by Waltpaper_1
Adolfo Gallela, Christopher Buckle and Girlina, 1995. Copyright Adolfo Gallela. All Rights Reserved.

Club kid Walt Cassidy on his epic visual love letter to 90s NYC nightlife

The artist and writer fills the gaps of the neverending nights of New York City’s legendary club kids

376 pages of raw affection in images and writing could only be a sign of true love. In his new book, New York Club Kids by Waltpaper, Walt Cassidy (aka Waltpaper back in his Club Kid days) assembled a highly attractive – impossible to ignore – diary where he recalls the intensity of those neverending nights when the sun signalled the end of the antics. Currently, the former Club Kid lives in Brooklyn as a writer and multimedia artist. Back then, Cassidy and his fellow Club Kid squad played an instrumental role in influencing art and fashion.

Nightlife journalist and fellow party reveller Michael Musto once described this larger than life family in so few words: “They are terminally superficial, have dubious aesthetic values, and are master manipulators, exploiters and thank God, partiers.” Accurate.

But Cassidy also tries to capture that sentiment in his new tome: the ups and downs, the sturm und drang of being in this close-knit relationship: familial and otherwise. Speaking to me early morning from New York City, Cassidy confesses that, “I didn’t want to whitewash anything in the book. I wanted there to be real talk because I felt like that was the service I could offer. Just like everyone else, we were a family, and we were confronted with some really challenging obstacles. We made good decisions. We made bad decisions. I wanted to humanise the experience because I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t understand.”

“The few stories that have come out about that time period have sort of made it also into this tragic cartoon... I felt this responsibility to come through and offer some of those details” – Walt Cassidy

As he was embedded in the trenches of 90s New York City’s club culture, Cassidy could tell the story of that scene in a way that few people could have done it. After all, as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20 and in the past 20+ years since that era, Cassidy has come to see clarity: “One of the reasons I did the book is that I felt that I had a unique perspective of being inside the experience as opposed to being a journalist or an observer who’s outside of the experience. I go into a lot of detail about how we made our looks, and what that lifestyle of working in a night club and being a personality in downtown New York at that time was like. I go into our home life because all of us lived together in communal houses at the time. So I go into personal experiences which were the more tender parts,” he says.

He also wanted to communicate the narrative right when the media – in the past – got the general storytelling and fuller picture wrong. There were hype and hoopla focussed on the harrowing details of one particular incident, and this didn’t exactly sum up club kid culture in its entirety.

Towards the end of the club kid reign, things came to a sobering halt when Michael Alig, one of the leading forces in the scene, and Robert D. “Freeze” Riggs, were arrested for the murder of fellow club kid, Andre “Angel” Melendez. Alig and Melendez disputed over drugs and money. The authorities were more interested in using this crime as a way to bring down former club commander and Alig’s boss, Peter Gatien, who owned mega venues like Tunnel, Limelight, and Palladium – known for their open drug use. Instead, the feds nailed Gatien for tax evasion in 1999 and his empire thereafter crumbled. The events leading to the club kids’ demise made it to the big screen in 2003 with the film Party Monster starring Macaulay Culkin in a fictionalised account of Alig.

Cassidy worked as the assistant to Alig and admits, “The few stories that have come out about that time period have sort of made it also into this tragic cartoon. They oversimplified it in a way that the National Enquirer would do. A lot of the humanity, tenderness, creativity, and the cultural impact all of the nuance kind of got lost. So I felt this responsibility to come through and offer some of those details.”

New York Club Kids takes a deep dive not only into that time period – attempting to encapsulate the realness of being in those cramped, earsplitting, sweaty spaces – but also into the hive mind. What motivated this inner circle, and how did they adopt a method to their madness? According to Cassidy, it’s not that different from today’s youth culture of self-branding, fluidity, and identity.

“I realised that a lot of the topics that we’re interested in today, like the gender revolution, influencing, self-branding, reality TV: these were all things that were heavily rooted in the Club Kid scene,” Cassidy says. 

The Club Kids, however, used other media to communicate. Instead of Instagram, they took it to the small screen. He adds, “When you look at the daytime talk shows, this concept that we were going on TV and saying, ‘We don’t really do anything. We’re just fabulous. Like our personalities and our identities are enough for us to demand that you pay attention to us.’ We also understood the idea that our identity and lifestyle could be a commodity which was kind of new. And that was a concept that the club kids were forward-thinking and pushing through.”

Of course, the lives of these early influencers featured more than just navel-gazing. All that stems from the moments before, during, and after the hours spent at the clubs with preparation taking at least three hours before stepping foot in a venue. Cassidy reveals that mood through his insider documentation and close connections to photographers who were present, complemented by his poignant verbal insights.

The photos featured in the book depict a rich, layered story with New York City as the setting: the bold fashion, the memorable makeup details, the promotional fare-like flyers and posters, and the celebrities, such as Björk and Chloë Sevigny who made cameo appearances. Cassidy clarifies more about the curation: “I wanted to see motion and light and movement. So I really tried to pull in photographers that brought their own vision and sense of space and occupancy because I do think that’s something that has been lost with digital technology and mobile technology is these gathering places. When you look at the images of the spaces and you just see walls of people, bodies all together – this idea of a giant space being occupied and everybody being engaged and present in that space. I wanted that to come through in the photography and I think we did achieve that.”

That creative spirit from those times feels palpable in the book. In fact, that exuberance never really died even when the Club Kids disbanded. Those same aspects are still alive today in other forms. And Cassidy is here for it.

“The reality is, when you take the elemental components of the club kids: youth, fashion, spaces, community, energy: that always comes back. With that, you always have a conservative faction that comes in and wipes it out. It’s a constant ebb and flow and we’ve been stuck in this sort of conservative period. I anticipate that there’s going to be a breaking out of that. I see that already when I look at Generation Z and a lot of stuff that they’re putting out, and a lot of the voices that are coming through social media. That energy is easy to recognise. It’s exciting,” he says.

You can now find Cassidy as an artist at the helm of his own eponymous studio which produces jewellery, sculpture, photography, and drawing. But those formative years as Waltpaper have shaped him into today’s Walt Cassidy and that love for the Club Kids has never been lost. This book stands as a testament to that strong bond and affinity. Imagine arriving in a metropolis as a teen, and finding that clique that embraces you for your sexual orientation, creative expression in fashion and beauty, and your ability to be the fantastic, magical being that you are. And there you have Cassidy’s version of New York Club Kids – with their faults, fabulousness, and all.