As a skateboarder exploring the streets you meet tons of different types of people that you probably wouldn’t get to hang out with otherwise. We’ve all got our favorite stories and nutjobs we’ve met at a skate spot or on our way to one. Out in Portland, I met a crustpunk named Tats when I was trying to buy some weed. I wish I was wearing a gas mask throughout this conversation because if there’s one thing I know about crustpunks it’s that they smell like a mix of swamp ass, alcohol and sweat.
Swampass aside, crustpunks like Tats travel the country by hitchhiking, hopping trains, and asking people for “spange” (spare change), and that makes for some pretty entertaining anecdotes.
I was able to score an interview by buying Tats a few beers and a pack of Marlboro 27s, and between his drunken slurs, he was able to let me know what the life of a crustie is really like. If you were ever curious, listen up.
DISCLAIMER: The photos featured below are not of Tats. Tats said if his photo was shown, the government would be able to find out who he is and come after him. As an alternative, we scrounged St. Marks Place and Tompkins Square Park in search of surrogate crusties to give you a sense of who we were talkin’ to.
What is a crust punk?
It depends on how someone defines it. Like some kids are housie punks, they live in houses and work and shit. They define themselves as crusties because of the music they listen to, like Discharge and shit. They all wear studs and patches, whatever. Some kids are travelers. But travelers will only consider people they meet on the road crusties. Even someone who goes to college can be a crustie. It depends on who you ask, but I think whoever calls themselves a crustie could be a crustie. Even a hippie could be a fucking crustie.
You ever been to Tompkins Square Park? Have you ever been down Dope Fiend Alley? That’s the feel. That’s a crustie. All night on St. Marks Place down to the Astor Place cube. I’ve been doing this since I was 15. Anyway, people that are on the road are crusties because of the lifestyle and politics, not because of music so much. You can also tell who’s a crustie because you can smell us from a mile away.
So it’s sort of a political thing, too?
In some cases, yeah. But I know other people who don’t give a fuck about that and say they’re liberals. Fuck all that. The whole system is wrong and that’s what turned me onto the anarchist ideology.
How do crust punks rebel against the government?
Ask me when was the last time I paid taxes.
…When was the last time you paid taxes?
2010, man. I haven’t owned anything taxable since and they will never know my income.
What’s the deal with the smell? Is that a defining factor?
A gutter punk smells and a crustie smells. That’s why they’re similar. A gutter punk is just a more alcoholic version of a crustie. A crustie is a garbage head. They’re going to shoot dope, smell like shit. See, I smell but I’m not a fucking slob. You wouldn’t consider me a slob.
Why did you leave NYC to come out to Portland?
My time was up in New York. In LA you’ll be walking down the block doing nothing and someone will try to pull a piece [gun] on you, and gutter punks from the South are kind of fucking racist. They say n*gger like every other sentence. If you asked a different fucking train hopper kid from the South to do this interview, they would call you a yuppie fucking n*gger and shit on you for capitalism. Portland is the opposite of New York. If you’re spanging, people in Portland won’t be dicks.
One time, I was sitting by the waterfront in Portland, drinking a half gallon with six other dirty kids and someone came up to us with some cans of food and gave us $5 each so we could get on the train. The person didn’t even care that we had a half gallon and an empty liter. He was from a church and just wanted to do something nice and make sure we were okay. So we had money, food and didn’t get busted for drinking.
In New York City though, if you’re drinking a half gallon on the street, nobody is handing you money. That’s just not going to happen. In New York people are like, “It’s hard out here. I worked for this money. I’m not giving it to you.”
When you’re asking for change, do you hold up a sign?
If I’m in the middle of the city I don’t fly a sign. If I have a guitar or instrument, I just busk with no sign. It’s illegal to fly a sign in certain places, so I usually just sit next to a cup. I only fly a sign if I have no other option or if I’m in front of a Wal-Mart or something. I try to write something that’s sort of a joke.
I was sitting on a rock in front of a Wal-Mart in Glendale, Arizona and my friend and I were taking turns holding the sign. We were flying “Traveling, broke and hungry” and we weren’t making any kick downs. Then at one point, I flipped the sign over and wrote, “This rock is really uncomfortable” and we made over $100 almost immediately.
When I was traveling West, I would always fly a sign that said “Going back to Cali.” It got me rides, it got me money and it got me weed. Every time there was a black kid driving by they would give me a few bucks or weed. The black kids always give you weed. It sounds like a stereotype but it’s the truth, and not going to lie, all stereotypes come from a bit of truth, as fucked up as that sounds.
“Every time there was a black kid driving by they would give me a few bucks or weed.”
What does a crustie’s house look like?
Never fucking ask about a squat, that shit is dangerous. I don’t have one now, but every so often one pops up and I’ll crash there with my crew. People all wanna live here now and that means old shacks and shit are done. Rich people fucked everything up here.
How many people stay at a squat?
15 at least! If you crack your own spot [find your own spot to live] and make it your own, then it’s like 4 people. Then their friends come and it’s 15 people, and then their friends, and a lot of fucking dogs. When you crack your own squat, you crack it for you and your homies, not to blow it up. You have to be smart. I’ll crack my squat and let my road dog [homie] crash there, and his friends or whatever. I don’t know about everyone else, but when I was traveling and I cracked a squat, it was only me and my fucking best friends and that was it. And even my best friends would tell their friends to fuck off. I don’t ever bring someone I don’t know to my squat. I don’t want the cops in my space.
Normally, when I’m the one who busted down the door and nailed it back up so only I can get in and out, it’s my squat and you listen to me. And that’s the thing with gutter punks and crusties, they know that if someone else cracked the squat, you respect it. If you tell them to get out, they kick rocks and leave.
What’s the best way to make a DIY mattress?
I have a sleeping pad, but if you crack a squat and there is a mattress, first off that means someone else cracked it before you, and second, don’t fucking sleep on that mattress. It’s probably full of bugs. You throw that shit out the window, man.
Do most crusties use a sleeping pad?
Some people do, some people don’t. Some fucking older army vet called sleeping pads “pussy pads” because if you had a sleeping pad in Vietnam you were a pussy. Well, fuck him because I want something to fucking sleep on, man.
I got a sleeping pad kicked down to me in Denver. Some guy with a yoga mat walked by and I was fucking with him and asked him to spare a yoga mat to sleep on. The guy told me he had one back at his crib and that he’d bring it back to me. I didn’t think he’d come back, but like an hour later the fucking dude shows up with a brand new yoga mat, unused.
So, how’d you get all the way to Portland from New York?
I got lucky and met a chick with some money. We both came out here on a Greyhound Bus, but she left me after a week of being out here. She’s probably back in New York now with her job and her parents.
Do you look down on people who have jobs?
Nah, I just don’t want people telling me what to do all day when I can make enough coin selling and shit. Jobs aren’t my thing and it’s another way to be tracked. Fuck that.
“A lot of people don’t know that about travelers, but they’re alcoholics.”
Have you ever had a bad run in with a trucker?
Nah, truckers are rad and the ones I’ve met all have amphetamines to share.
No sex acts needed?
I’m not that kind of fucking guy. Come on.
Do you ever bum rides on trains?
Every once in awhile, but if I was tired or exhausted, I would fly a sign to get enough money for a Greyhound Bus. Only if I’m exhausted or detoxing or something. But it’s mainly thumbing [hitchhiking] and freighting [train hopping].
Is detoxing common on the road?
It is when you hit this every single fucking day [lifts beer and chugs]. Pretty much every single gutter punk is an alcoholic and they need this shit to wake the fuck up.
So when you’re on the road, how do you get your alcohol?
You spange so you can wake up and drink. Then you get well and the day goes on. A lot of people don’t know that about travelers, but they’re alcoholics.
Do you have a phone or Internet or anything?
I’ve got my friend’s library card so when I wanna go online I can go there, or if I have a phone somewhere with WiFi is cool. Right now I’m phoneless though. I got drunk and threw it into the river.
How do you watch porn if you have to be at the library or public WiFi space?
It’s tricky, that’s all I’ll say.
How does a weed man not have a phone?
Well you came up to me looking for weed, right? [Laughs] It’s easier in Portland than in NY to sell. Everyone wants stuff that’s cheaper than the dispensary stuff.
Crust punks are always associated with dogs, why is that?
Everyone needs a friend. Someone to cuddle with and love and a companion on the road. I’m not going to lie, a lot of us have them as emotional support. But a lot of crusties use their dogs to make money and get sympathy from people and that’s it. A lot of them are for money and money only. Or accessories.
My friend, Friday raised a dog named Riley and the cops put that dog down, for fucking barking at them. I don’t want to talk about that, it’s close to our hearts.
How often are cops involved in the life of a crustie?
I was walking down the sidewalk in Tempe, Arizona and cops came up to me and asked what I was doing while they were arresting someone else. I was like, “Nothing,” and they told me to stop. I was like, “Fuck off. I know my rights,” and I kept walking. Then, woop woop, they pulled up behind me and cuffed me up. I asked what the fuck I did wrong. The sheriff just looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Trespassing, I guess.” I was like, “Are you just making this up?” He said, “ Yeah, you don’t have any rights. You’re a fucking bum.”
Then I got arrested in Austin. I was sleeping under a bridge and woke up to cuffs being put on my wrist. I asked what the fuck was happening and they said, “You’re being arrested for sleeping in public.” If I was a college student sleeping on a bench, they would’ve just woken me up. I was pissed. They sent my dad a ticket and shit.