As a kid, I would consider myself pseudo-punk/punk adjacent. I was into much of the music and I was friends with punk kids, my brother was definitely a punkrock kid and I learned a lot from him and his friends. But I never fully “bought in” because I was in-between worlds. I was a wrestler and a theater nerd but also I liked punk? I didn’t know where to fall, so I sort of just skirted the boundaries. LIMINALITY, folks!
My brother was more of a punk. He had an eclectic taste in music, but I took a lot from his Napster and Kazaa lists. He dyed his hair pink and blue, and his friends had various punk rock aesthetics. There were dope mohawks and skinhead-looking dudes, and patched leather jackets and motorcycle boots. Knowing my brother’s friends did a lot to demystify the aesthetic, because I realized they were just normal kids who happened to like a certain music and believe in a certain politics.
As a young pseudo-punk enjoying kid, I was out-of-touch with the dozens of genres and subgenres that make up punk music and culture. Honestly, it was one thing to me, as it probably is for most square-ass motherfuckers. The kids with mohawks and leather jackets were punks. They were different from goths, which wehar more of at my school. Goths were essentially the kids who liked Insane Clown Posse and made a peaceful transition to other bands. This stuff is complicated, and in this research I uncovered a bunch of terms and concepts that I’ve heard before but knew very little about.
Music IS culture, and the younger you are, the more likely you’ll be influenced by the music you listen to and make. Young people, like pretty much all people, are constantly searching for the validation of group membership, and musical cultures make that possible in a well-defined and meaningful way. Being a human isn’t easy, and if you can find other people who listen to the same stuff, have similar political leanings, and dress similarly, well that makes being human a bit easier. One of the things about punk music and the subculture we are talking about today is that music is quite unimportant to the overall lifestyle and decisions. There are gutter punk bands but that doesn’t mean that listeners must live the lifestyle. You can just like the music and be absent from the culture.
One of my brother’s friends, a crust punk kid who was really smart and led the anti-war club that I was a member of, eventually decided on a gutter punk lifestyle shortly before graduation (I’ll define the difference later). He struggled with addiction, lived in a van, and separated himself from his community and family. I don’t remember if he graduated that year, because his breakdown was so legendary. He went too far down the path of self-exile, claiming everyone was a posuer (popular in our day) and it was heartbreaking.
I think any discussion of gutter punks is complicated, because it isn’t one kind of person or group of people. This is a collection of people loosely defined by their relationship to a type of music but mostly a lifestyle. Let’s do some definitions and history stuff.
Part Two: Defining Gutter Punks
So, gutter punks are often called crust punks in the United States. However, Crust Punk is its own thing.
-Here’s your wikipedia definition: “Crust punk (also known as crust or stenchcore) is a form of music influenced by English punk rock and extreme metal. The style, which evolved in the early 1980s in England, often has songs with dark and pessimistic lyrics that linger on political and social ills. The term "crust" was coined by Hellbastard on their 1986 Ripper Crust demo.”
-Everything about that definition is wonderful, especially the terms “stenchcore” and “Hellbastard”
-Crust Punk music is related to a bunch of other punk genres, including Crack Rock Steady, Grindcore, Crustcore, and Neo Crust. I’m no punk historian, so I’m not going to get mired in the musical details here. But pretty much, Crust punk is a form of anarcho-punk, mixed with metal riffs. The tempos are fast, but just short of thrashcore or grindcore. However, many groups confine themselves to a crawling, sludgy pace. The overall musical sound has been described as being "stripped down". Drumming is typically done at high speed, and lyrics are shrieked or shouted with a bleak, nihilistic, but politically engaged message.
-Many Crust Punk songs examine police, fascism, war, military shit.
-British crust punks had more of a post-apocalyptic aesthetic as opposed to the grungy, hobo-style American gutter punks. This means leather, patches, mohawks, studs, spikes, band patches. According to some crust punks, Mad Max 2 is the most crust punk aesthetic movie ever. This style
-SO, if gutter punks aren’t necessarily crust punks, WHAT ARE THEY?
-Let’s see what our old friend wikipedia has to say, and believe it or not, the definition is pretty ALL OVER THE PLACE: “A gutter punk is a homeless or transient individual who displays a variety of specific lifestyle traits and characteristics that often, but not always, are associated with the punk subculture. Attributes may include unkempt dreadlocks, nose rings, Mohawk hairstyles, and tattooed faces. Gutter punks are sometimes referred to as "crusties", "crusty punks", or "crust punks"; "traveling" or "traveler kids"; "traveling" or "traveler punks", or simply "travelers"; and "punk hobos" or "hobo-punks", among other terms. Some self-identified gutter punks may distinguish themselves from "crusties" or "crust punks" and "travellers", and vice versa; however, there is considerable overlap between the groups, and the terms are often used interchangeably.”
-BUT IT GOES ON: "Oogle", while sometimes used to describe gutter punks in general, is often used by gutter punks themselves to describe members of the subculture whom they perceive as "poseurs" or inauthentic.
-"Scumfuck" or "Scum fuck" may be used, especially among gutter punks, to refer to certain members of the subculture who are perceived as selfish, apathetic, violent, aggressive, overly nihilistic, or overly hedonistic. Scumfucks are often labeled as heavy alcohol and drug users with overtly macho tendencies, and they are generally more apolitical than other members of the gutter punk subculture. The notorious rocker and deeply, deeply disturbed GG Allin was known to use the term to describe himself.
-PEOPLE HAVE BEEN DOING SOME SERIOUS SOCIOLOGICAL RESEARCH ON GUTTER PUNKS!
-Gutter punks travel, often by alternative means, to various cities around the country (and around the world, in fact, there are names for gutter punks in other languages like “punkabbestia” in Italian). These means might include freight hopping and hitchhiking. Gutter punks might squat in abandoned buildings or live on the street.
-Gutter punks usually make their survival money through busking and panhandling, but they are uniformly voluntarily unemployed. And we are gonna talk about that shit, because it’s dope.
-There are a ton of places where gutter punks are known to congregate, including many cities you’d expect like Brooklyn, Asheville, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland OR, New Orleans, Philly, but there are some other surprising ones like Lubbock TX and Madison WI.
-Gutter punk music varies as much as the people who partake in the lifestyle, and there is your traditional hardcore stuff coupled with more Americana and Gypsy Punk styles.
-Gutter punks are likely to partake in the Freegan lifestyle, wherein they try to consume goods for free that are discarded by establishments among other methods. This lifestyle is often a conscious choice in opposition to our destructive consumer culture, though it does serve the purpose of saving a bunch of money.
-I found a great 1996 article titled “Gutter Punks: On the Streets with Portland’s Lost Tribe” from a Portland magazine called Willamette Week. It examines these new creatures called gutter punks. It does a great job of setting the stage at the beginning of the article:
“On any weekday afternoon, they are out in force, spaynging (their word for spare-changing) along the MAX tracks or outside the hip boutiques of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. They have a distinctive look: rings dangling from their ears, lips and noses; tattoos; washed-out dye jobs; scraggly mohawks; black boots. Their clothes are a cacophony of green and black, thrift-store castaways mottled with leather patches or Army surplus fatigues studded with bottle caps. Their faces are smeared with dirt. They have backpacks, bedrolls, skateboards, and sometimes even dogs or cats. They often stink.”
-Pretty intense description there, but you get the idea! Seems like Portlanders weren’t too stoked about the emergence of gutter punks on their streets.
-This is pretty much the response to gutter punks around the country. Gutter punks are viewed as different than standard homeless people because they present the scary dangers of young people, gang fears, drug use, and a general lack of giving a fuck.
-There is also an understanding that gutter punks represent a type of privilege that people forced into homelessness don’t have, which is quite true in many cases. It can’t be said for all gutter punks, because we just don’t know how many of them made conscious choices and how many are fleeing oppressive circumstances, abuse, or are struggling with drug addiction.
-In New Orleans, where there are plenty of gutter punks, locals seem to hate their dirty asses. In a NOLA publication called Uptown Messenger, a tour guide and nurse named Dianne Honore’ discusses her frustration with the particular breed of NOLA gutter punk:
“The gutter punk colonies run along the river, along Decatur Street. The 500 block of Bourbon Street is a gutter-punk haven; basically all over the French Quarter is, she said. “You have to walk over them and their dogs. They carpet the streets,” Honoré said. “There are some streets tour guides avoid altogether. The Faubourgs are overrun with them too.” Last week, while leading a tour of about 20 visitors from Canada, three gutter punks attacked Honoré’s group in Jackson Square. They forced themselves on several of the young students and grabbed them as they tried to escape. They badgered them for PCP and crack. When an adult, an off duty police officer, stepped in to stop the assault, he got into a fight with one of them.”
-Obviously, this sounds pretty terrible. I can only imagine how a local New Orleanian feels when they see their hometown overrun with people who are homeless by choice. It’s a complicated issue for me to understand, because I don’t have a hometown full of aggressive gutter punks.
I found a little goof cartoon listicle from thehardtimes.net with illustrations and descriptions of “The 6 Species of Crust Punk That You Need to Know.” Thehardtimes.net is a punk satire publication, and they have a lot of content making fun of crust punks. This list details these six species as if they were animals you’d see in the wild, which goes along with how many outsiders describe them. According to thehardtimes.net, the six species of Crusties are:
The Hammered Head crust (guy who is always fucked up)
Cookie Cutter Crust (so obsessed with counterculture that they’re predictably “anarchist vegan atheist poets”)
Spiked Crust (covered from head to toe in metal spiked clothing and piercing)
Trustie Crustie (this is your trust fund crust punk who doesn’t have to work because he’s got that shmoney already)
Great White Privilege Crust (an aggressively “PC” rich kid who is ready to challenge any normie but unafraid to examine themselves)
The Leopard Print crust (this is just a person who has leopard print clothing and a mohawk with spots. We’ve seen em).
Part Three: the Gutter Punk Rabbithole and Labor
If you are interested in labor and politics, then you’ll be fascinated by what a brief gutterpunk search will yield.
Immediately, you’ll see the discussion of important concepts like Refusal of Work, New Age Travelling, and squatting.
I want to talk a bit about the Refusal of Work movement, because it’s an incredibly rich subject. I don’t think that ALL gutter punks subscribe to Refusal of Work as a political act, but many do, and many are engaging in a political act simply by refusing to work what we have deemed “normal jobs.”
-Refusal to work is a concept adopted and practiced by many people across the political spectrum.
-It’s nearly impossible for Americans (and MANY in our world) to understand that work as we know it is a social construct. Work and survival are not inextricably linked in nature, but we have decided that they are because we’ve been skillfucked by capitalist messaging.
-Refusal of work has been embraced by Marxists, anarchists, libertarians, Ancient Greeks, and people looking towards a technologically advanced future without need for human labor.
-SO MUCH GREAT PHILOSOPHY HERE!!!
-Bob Black’s 1985 essay “The Abolition of Work,” argues (QUOTE) “that "no-one should ever work", because work—defined as compulsory productive activity enforced by economic or political means—is the source of most of the misery in the world. Black denounces work for its compulsion, and for the forms it takes—as subordination to a boss, as a "job" which turns a potentially enjoyable task into a meaningless chore, for the degradation imposed by systems of work-discipline, and for the large number of work-related deaths and injuries—which Black typifies as "homicide".
-QUOTE: “In 2022, Green Theory & Praxis Journal published a Total Liberation Pathway which involved "an abolition of compulsory work for all beings." Described as a source code to be adapted based on local and changing conditions, the proposal involved reducing humans' workweek to 10 hours and transforming it into voluntary and self-managed hobbies, while freeing animals, ecosystems, plants, minerals, and the planet Earth from exploitation.”
-The stigmatization of those who don’t work is one of the most persistent and destructive things in our society. However, those who “don’t work” are never the idle rich, who have value because of their capital regardless of their production. There’s a NAZI CONNECTION: “In Nazi Germany the so-called, "work-shy" individuals were rounded up and imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps as black triangle prisoners in the so-called "Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich".”
-Diogenes was a Greek Cynic philosopher who lived in the fourth century BCE. He followed in the footsteps of Antisthenes and Socrates, and he lived in a tub in the middle of Athens. He was so awesome. He lived to upset the status quo and call out compulsive work and consumption. He was called a “dog” because people thought he fuckin sucked. “Diogenes made a virtue of poverty. He begged for a living and often slept in a large ceramic jar, or pithos, in the marketplace. He became notorious for his philosophical stunts, such as carrying a lamp during the day, claiming to be looking for a man (often rendered in English as "looking for an honest man"). He criticized Plato, disputed his interpretation of Socrates, and sabotaged his lectures, sometimes distracting listeners by bringing food and eating during the discussions. Diogenes was also noted for having mocked Alexander the Great, both in public and to his face when he visited Corinth in 336 BC.”
-Yo, Diogenes rules.
Listen up, folks. I don’t know where to fall with the whole gutter punk thing! There are things that I can really vibe with and stuff that is pretty upsetting. It’s like people though. There are certainly gutter punks who live in accordance with the whole Diogenes thing. They challenge our notions of consumption and the destruction that our culture causes to the earth and its many inhabitants. However, there are certainly those who ride this wave for a little bit, bring toxic energy into communities that can’t support them and don’t want them (for noble reasons), and then peace out. There are many gutter punks who come from working class and poor backgrounds and many who come from privilege and therefore are something like gutter punk tourists.
-what can we learn from this lifestyle?