Dropping In On The Demented Utopia Of The Gathering Of The Juggalos

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I have infinite shortcomings as a Juggalette, but here are my two main ones: I can't say "titties" with a straight face, even when my face is covered with clown makeup. And I do not have any desire ever to show my own titties to crowds of ravenous young men I do not know. Many women at the 12th annual Gathering of the Juggalos (though not, by any stretch, all of them) are content both to refer to their breasts as "titties" and to show those titties to crowds of ravenous young men they do not know. At times, the reveal involves a monetary exchange. "Suck my titty for a dollar" is a popular hustle, and one girl offers her titties for any purchase of multiple dollar shots from her bottle of tequila. But in general, no money is required. As I walk through a tent area in the early evening, an excited Juggalo runs up to a group of guys in front of us. He has a can of beer in each hand, a cigarette on his lip, and some news: "We've got three Juggalettes giving free hand jobs in a tent up here!"

* * *

The face paint was my editor A.J.'s idea.

Since its beginnings at a Michigan expo center in 2000, the Gathering of the Juggalos—hosted each year by Psychopathic Records, the record company owned by Joseph "Violent J" Bruce and Joseph "Shaggy 2 Dope" Utsler of the Insane Clown Posse—has featured a very particular kind of violence and rage that has been well-documented in the press. Last year, Camille Dodero of the Village Voice penned the best and most detailed account to ever come out of the festival. So for the 2011 version, at Cave-in-Rock, Ill., I was supposed to go undercover: paint my face like a demented clown and (accompanied by Bucky Turco, as my photographer-slash-bodyguard) wander around an unpoliced campground among more than 20,000 people who rally around a symbol called the Hatchetman and who, at any given hour, may or may not be on hallucinogenic drugs.

I asked Dodero, via email, what she thought of the project:

Hey Emma,

Well, you might pull it off, but I'd advise against it… there's a lot of misogyny that occurs at the Gathering. You will get asked to "show your tits" quite often, dudes call girls bitches, and Juggalos often chant, loudly, "OOOOOH AREOLA." If you're pretending to be a Juggalette, there'd be an expectation that you'd be down with that and it could get you into trouble if you aren't…

I mean, everybody seems to have forgotten that they literally threw diapers at Tila Tequila (I was onstage and got hit with rocks) and chased her off the stage into her trailer like an angry mob, and then threw rocks at her trailer and tried to tip it. The only time in my life I was more afraid was in Africa when there was an elephant standing in front of my car at a national park without staff for miles.

The scene is a little scary… there is one ambulance for 10,000 people. Another Brooklyn dude [who went] Tweeted: "The Gathering of the Juggalos is the scariest place in America besides jail." He wasn't entirely wrong.

My two cents. Really not trying to scare you, just being honest.


* * *

In the early afternoon on Friday, I grudgingly apply the face paint in a room at the Holiday Inn in Metropolis, Ill. I haven't tried it on my own before, and I have to keep looking back at my reference design and then washing off blotches and reapplying. After a serious discussion, Bucky and I decide it's best to drop the beard-style mouth outline and go for an evil clown smile instead. I put on a tank top and a new pair of aqua jean shorts I'd bought at the Atlantic Center Target in Brooklyn for the occasion, and I wear a backward stenciled trucker hat. I won't admit it to myself until later on, but I have a rather specific aesthetic in mind here.

I shouldn't feel like an astronaut, as I prepare to spend a long Friday orbiting the Gathering, but I do. I listen primarily to hip hop music, and I've been going to hip hop shows since I was 14 or 15. I've been subjected to "a lot of misogyny" in a concert space before, and I've also been called a bitch (not that I've responded to it well). So ICP's ostensibly alarming tone and content borrows from a form I'm comfortable with, and the lineup tonight includes the Kottonmouth Kings, whom I've seen perform live before, as well as Ice Cube and Lil Jon.

Before leaving New York, I listened to a few ICP albums and had found the simple rhymes nonsensical to the point of hilarity. One song, "Bitches," used the phrase "buff my fucking pickle" as a utility rhyme for the word "tickle." This, I thought, was very silly, very lame. The mythology behind ICP's music provides room for a lot of narrative freedom. Because none of it is "real," Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope can essentially say whatever rhymes with the previous line and get away with it. On the song "I Want My Shit," J describes walking "across enemy lines with a MAC-10" in the Civil War, and Shaggy interrupts him: "Well, at least make this shit sound real, man, damn!"

But on the flight to Nashville, en route to Illinois, I turned on the ICP album The Great Milenko, and the music did not sound right. In fact, it sounded horrifying; it did not sound like music at all. The tracks were off-pitch and had distorted, heavy bass lines, and there was what sounded like whispered gibberish over every song. I listened through four tracks before I thought to adjust the cord to the headphones. This time, the words and the beats came through clearly: What is a Juggalo?/He just don't care/He might try to put a weave/In his nut hair/Cuz he could give a fuck less/What a bitch thinks/He tell her that her butt stinks/And all that.

Some of the lyrics made it into my notebook, next to the comment, "I have no idea what the fuck I am doing."

* * *

Cave-in-Rock is a town of about 400 in Hardin County. There is not much there except for a big old cave on the banks of the Ohio River and a private ranch and campground called Hogrock. Before Cave-in-Rock became home to the Gathering of the Juggalos, it had its own sordid past: outlaws more or less controlled the land here from the 1790s and into the 1890s. To get there, Bucky and I drive down country roads where strangers wave at passing cars—even if the driver resembles a demon clown—and find our way to a left turn that quickly turns into gravel. After a few miles, we arrive in a field on Hogrock. It's quiet.

As I step out of the car, I catch a glance of my absurd white-and-black makeup, and I am hit with the sudden, paralyzing fear that no one else at the Gathering will have painted his or her face.

Bucky and I walk through the first tent colony—the land of the "Lost Ninja Clan," according to the Gathering's guidebook. There are tents on every available inch that is not covered in gravel, and where there are not tents, there are picnic chairs arranged in semicircles, coolers, canopies, parked cars, and empty beer cans and soda bottles. The first people we see are a couple of twenty-somethings sitting in front of their tent, watching the early-afternoon foot traffic pass by. The guy is holding a sign that says "$3.50 You Can Play with My DICK (NO HOMO)," and she is smoking a Marlboro. Many people seem to just be waking. I peek into the women's showers and am warned by a volunteer with a container of Clorox to stay away from the stall at the trailer's far left. "Someone decided to take a real big dump in there," she explains.

We're late arrivals, and I feel self-conscious. I point out to Bucky that nobody is wearing the goddamn face paint, goddammit. It's early for that, for the campers. But my fellow crowd members don't take it as a faux pas. There is an implicit assumption that I know things: The clown makeup, which I'd hoped would allow me to fade into the backdrop, actually makes me feel responsible—as if I should both possess and understand the very psyche of the Juggalo and the Juggalette.

Face paint does not work that particular wonder.

It occurs to me that this is precisely how I felt in the ninth grade, when I grew about 10 inches in a year and my limbs perpetually behaved like dueling angle rulers. My awkwardness at the Gathering, I realize early on, has less to do with the fact that I am a woman and more to do with the fact that I was once a ninth-grade jock who got good grades, and now I am a blogger living in Brooklyn. Hip hop—and sports, and good grades—was for me part of the escape plan from my hometown in Vermont.

ICP's version of hip hop—politically anti-racist, but very white and non-urban—is the escape plan for the kids who don't ever leave. The Gathering is an annual diversion. Of any of the things Juggalos hold dear, this is the one I might be able to understand now.

On the other hand, I never sat with Juggalos in the high school cafeteria.

I admit my misgivings to Bucky later in the day. "Sounds kinda bitchy," he informs me.

* * *

But it also definitely has to do with the titties.

The Gathering of the Juggalos is not called the Gathering of the Juggalos and also the Juggalettes for a reason. It is not just predominantly male; it is teeming with males. The men are desperate for Faygo (a Detroit soda brand and the Juggalos' nonalcoholic beverage of choice), Jell-O shots, and cheap cans of beer; they are desperate for Gathering Girlfriends for a four-day tent romance; they are desperate to assert that they only like vaginas ("No homo!" was almost as consistent a call as the ubiquitous "Woop woop!" that Juggalos use to communicate joy, agreement, camaraderie, hellos, goodbyes, or nothing at all); most of all, though, the men are desperate for titties.

But titties must be brokered. Sex at the Gathering, I quickly learn, is inherently linked to the festival's flourishing drug commerce in part because so many hookups seem to be fueled by the goods, and in part because so much of the sex is used as a rival hustle.

For the most part, the supply meets the Juggalos' demands, and most are not overly particular about what's on display. If the public display of titties is inherently offensive to you, then there is no hope for you at the Gathering. But there is also a very basic egalitarianism to the practice there. The Juggalos do not care if the boobs are lopsided or saggy or small or fake; they only care that they are there.

In mid-afternoon, a possibly pregnant, definitely semi-conscious Juggalette stops in her tracks after considering a request and then slowly, methodically, lifts up her shirt. She's forgotten, though, that she has two shirts on, plus a bikini top. So she slowly, methodically, lifts up her other shirt, and then each cup of her bikini, from which she slowly removes her breasts, one after the other. None of the men jeer. Perhaps they are all very stoned. "Yeah!" they say, hoisting Busch Light cans into the air. "All right!" She smiles sheepishly and continues on her way without bothering to cover herself. The entire exchange takes about 60 seconds.

One Juggalo, an immense man with a red beard and a slightly lazy eye, parks himself on the side of the infamous Drug Bridge (more on that later) with a multipurpose cardboard sign: On one side, he offers "Got Neden?" stickers for sale; on the other, he's written, "Its my birthday show me your tits." In the corner, somebody has penned, "Baby mama Approved."

After turning him down ("You know you want to," he suggests), I lean against the guardrail between him and a girl who hollers, "Fetuses! We got fetuses!" She's wearing a plastic baby fetus on a chain around her neck. The birthday boy's response rate is impressive. Another Juggalo joins in on his cause, yelling out, "Juggalette, Juggalette," in a rhythmic tone. Sometimes he even says, "Excuse me." Many women—but not all—pass by with apologetic smiles. Some are legitimately impressed that his baby mama has approved this titty-showing mission for him.

"I already am!" says a girl wearing nothing but booty shorts, sneakers, and fishnet covers on her forearms. Showing her titties, she means. "But I'll shake my butt for you." She stops in the middle of the bridge, juts out her narrow backside, and gyrates, glancing over her shoulder to catch the Juggalos' reactions. Woop woop! goes the bridge.

"My next goal is to get motorboated," says the beaming birthday boy.

* * *

In the early evening, Bucky and I sit at some picnic tables, sipping lemonade next to a half-conscious kid who has just tried to eat the funnel cake stand's sample plate. ("That's been sittin' there a while!" the cashier had told him. "You can have it, but we're makin' you a fresh one.") His girlfriend and a few others are talking about the Gathering's impact on their finances. Tickets went up $25 this year, from $150 to $175, and gas has only gotten more expensive. One of the younger guys says he had to go back on a month's salary just to make it.

"That's why I hate these motherfucking rules to being a Juggalo," says an older black man who only minutes before was vomiting into a trash can. "Like you're not one if you don't make it to the Gathering. It's bullshit. This whole thing is deeper than the music for me." The others nod in agreement.

When they leave, the man comes over to talk with Bucky and me. He introduces himself as "Yellow B" and asks if I am Hawaiian, and then if I am a model. "Your teeth are straight; that's how I know," he explains, grinning playfully. When we stand to go, he holds his hands up at his chest in a nearly illegible twist. I make it out, but after too long of a delay: It's a "W" and a "C." Wicked Clown. "Cool, yeah," I say, dumbly.

* * *

Brian Raftery profiled Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope for Wired and attended the Gathering last summer. A.J. solicited some advice from him before I departed. At night, Raftery warned, "things get weirder." Then there was the

drug bridge, which is really skeevy, day and night. She shouldn't go there unaccompanied... Though it's definitely where she'll find the real crazies.

The Drug Bridge is for drugs. It does not really exist to support the Gathering's titty commerce—although close to midnight, a girl begins renting out her cleavage as a surface for cocaine. But the same basic rules apply: The goods come in every form imaginable, and the quality seems to matter less than the fact that it is available at all. The only difference between the titty trade and the drug trade at the Gathering Of The Juggalos is that the drug supply is apparently limitless.

The Drug Bridge is not much of a bridge at all; it is just a stretch of the Hogrock access road that happens to span a dried out creek bed. Some Juggalos avoid it completely, but during the Gathering's waking hours (which I'm told can stretch between noon and two in the afternoon and five or six in the morning), the single lane is still so full that it is sometimes difficult to pass through. Sellers hawk their goods like newsboys. Two days into the festival, they all seem to know each other by name. They set up picnic chairs along the guardrail and beach umbrellas to protect product and skin from the sun. Portable scales are loaded up wherever there is a flat surface. Some of them are just here to sustain their own habits. ("Help a ninja get high," pleads the lone bong salesman, whose last remaining piece is now up for a bargain $80. "I'm broke. I need to get high.") The more serious ones have brought megaphones to better attract customers and to protect their voices for four full days of hollering.

"Why does everyone sound the same on these stupid-ass megaphones? Has anyone noticed that?" a seller who looks like he might carry 120 pounds on a 6-2 frame says into his own device. He has green bandannas tied around his head and his neck, and approximately seven teeth. After a few seconds' contemplation, he answers his own question. "You wanna know why? It's because we all spend every damn day going, 'Woop woop!'"

The crowd on the bridge is not completely in tune with his message. "Woop woop!" they respond, because they have to, and for a moment, it drowns out the constant calls for "ACID, MOLLY, COCAINE. PEEEEER-COCET."

If you believe what you hear on the Drug Bridge, then every product available is The Best Product In The Entire Damn Country And I Can Personally Vouch For That, Ninja. That means, if my tally is correct, that the Gathering is host to the best roxy, oxy, LSD, mushshrooms, hash oil, hash, weed, Special K, cocaine, meth, mescaline, ecstasy/molly, opium, morphine, Vicodin, and Percocet in the country, and they are free to sell it all without penalty. As Dodero noted in the Voice last year, the small local police force has no presence on the private land, and the guidebook explains that Psychopathic Records' security personnel "are not here to restrict you."

For skeptical buyers, there are always other options, but I never see any confrontations among the sellers. They know each other by now. They talk shit so casually and playfully it's like they're on a playground basketball court, instead of slinging narcotics above a dry creek bed in Middle America.

Somehow, there is respect and order amid the general chaos. I watch a guy who promises that his product is "the best yayo in the country" help convince a potential customer to spring for another dealer's mushrooms. The shrooms are packaged by the eighth and carefully sealed. "I'm telling you, those are the best mushrooms at the Gathering that I've done so far. They're fine mushrooms."

One woman, stocking up on supplies for her own mushroom trip, buys a gram of weed off a dreadlocked white guy late at night. She is short on cash, so she offers him a painkiller. "I don't do pills," he says, but still trusts her to come back with cash later on. "Family," she reminds him.

Late night, a younger guy with a blond buzz-cut stalks up and down the bridge soliciting donations for a "Jeffrey." They have the mescaline and the dope, he announces, but they are holding out for some coke and Vicodin.

Firecrackers go off at random, momentarily droning out the peddling and the megaphones. A friendly Juggalo offers Bucky and me a hit from his bowl, then says casually, "There might be opium in there, just so y'all know." The smoke has a sweeter flavor to it, but it's harsh on my throat. I get kind of stoned and idly blow bubbles with my gum. A Juggalette sticks out her tongue and asks if she can pop it for me. I pretend not to hear her.

Just before 11 p.m., someone sprints up to one end of the bridge and heaves a five-pound bag of flour slashed open at the side into the crowd for no apparent reason. In the air, the flour seems to float on the billows of smoke overhead before settling. A few idle dealers toss the bag around a couple more times before someone kicks it into the dry ravine below us, which is already coated in a layer of beer cans, empty liquor and Faygo bottles, dead lighters, condom boxes, empty plastic baggies, defunct glow sticks, and used jello shot containers.

* * *

I can never really be a Juggalette. With some half-assed clown makeup, I am accepted, but I am not a ninjette, and I will never be a member of the Family.

I'm more of a tragicomic photo-bomber, posing in pictures as if I were at the beach on Labor Day weekend and not in front of a graffiti wall at the "Most Controversial Music Festival in the World," wearing demented clown makeup. I look and feel like a total asshole.

The only point at which I feel comfortable, at ease—just another anonymous painted face in the crowd—is during the Ice Cube set, which is electric. It's the livest hip hop show—especially for an aging rapper-turned-Disney family movie actor like Cube—I've been to in a long time. The crowd passes blunts, beverages, glow sticks. Faygo flies overhead. In the middle of "Check Yo Self," a tall beanpole of a Juggalo standing in front of me and Bucky turns and offers a gallon jug of neon green liquid. I cheers him with a can of beer instead. When the song ends, he suddenly turns and reaches out to hug us both. "Family," he says.

* * *

For dinner, we eat burritos under a tent next to a woman from Kentucky. She's here with her husband, who has been an ICP fan since even before they met over 13 years ago, and he has gone off to hear the Kottonmouth Kings' set. Her cousin is supposed to be camping with them, but she hasn't seen him since they arrived two days ago. She says she's sure he's fine. Her shirt has a purple heart stenciled onto the middle, and she looks very sad. (A few days later, police will confirm that the dead body of a 24-year-old Juggalo from Tennessee had turned up in the Ohio River, and I will worry for my tentmate.)

There is a girl in brilliant purple and pink face paint at the table next to us. We'd seen her buying mushrooms on the bridge a few hours ago, and now she is sitting silently with a friend, alternately examining and gnawing on a chicken leg. I realize that she is tripping very, very hard.

"It's quite the … experience, huh?" the woman from Kentucky says. She sounds as overwhelmed as I am. She's not wearing face paint. I ask if it feels like she's been here a week.

"Nah," she says, gesturing at something. "Sure is nice to get away from all that."

When it is my turn to leave the Gathering, a grown man barks at me. It is a guttural noise, raspy and forceful, and when I glance over my shoulder he is staring at me, his head cocked to the side, his skin caked in an impeccable Shaggy 2 Dope-style face paint pattern. I nod back at him, because a real Juggalette would, at the very least, acknowledge a bark. It is finally time to leave.

At the last hill before the car, I look back at eight distant spotlights emerging from the tree line. When I arrived some 12 hours ago, my greasepaint had even lines. Now, my eyes are red with exhaustion, my hair is stiff with corn syrup, and my clown makeup is dripping down my neck in a mixture of black cherry Faygo and sweat. I cannot wait to wash my face.

I do not make for a good Juggalette. I know this by now. I am, actually, a truly awful Juggalette, and that is why I lasted about 12 hours pretending to be one. The incredible thing about the Gathering is that this fact did not matter. This is a testament to the Juggalos' general openness and understanding, and to the basic power of greasepaint. No one cared why I was there. Everyone assumed that everyone else had a good enough reason.

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Photography by Bucky Turco for Animal New York.