The topic of unaffordable housing and the rapid, unwanted changes persistent within many of our most culturally rich cities has become a redundant and tiring conversation.
It’s the any major city U.S.A. story, where the headlines regularly read “Housing Crisis.” Occupants of many of these cities continue to be pushed further out of the core and into more suburban areas or often out of the city altogether. While options for individuals faced with these unfortunate scenarios is limited, perhaps unconventional solutions should be adopted. Consider the idea of squatting to fill all those vacant properties that are currently serving no purpose. It’s an extreme approach and obviously not for all, but existence in a rent-free world sounds ideal, right?
While Swampy is best known for his iconic images of an unidentifiable skull-tusked creature that adorn various surfaces in North American cities, on railcars and obscure places everywhere in between, his real talent lies behind a camera with the North American landscape in his sight. Through his years of aimlessly zigzagging across the country photographing, Swampy had to become well-versed in the tactical art of squatting, which is the subject matter of his newest publication Your House is My House, co-published by The Flopbox and SFAQ Projects. This limited edition, full color, and oversized newsprint zine will be comprised of new photographs from the artist’s squatting experiences, along with drawings, ephemera and mixed media. Perhaps Your House is My House can serve as a reference point or source of inspiration for potential squatting aspirations? We caught up with the elusive artist in an insightful interview that gives some context and reveals some tricks of the trade.
Tell me about the first time you officially squatted a house for permanent residence.
When the housing market crashed around 2008 things got pretty wild in California. It seemed like every other house was being foreclosed on in the East Bay, even out in the hills and the suburbs. I moved into a foreclosure in West Oakland with some friends first. Back then we just biked around looking for houses with unkempt lawns and mail overflowing from the mailbox. We got really sophisticated about it all later on but yeah, at the first house we did a lot of stuff wrong. Looking back it’s kind of amazing it survived as long as it did.
What did you guys do wrong?
Someone told the neighbors we were squatting which, in my experience, doesn’t bring you anything but grief. On top of the neighbors resenting us for getting for free what they had to pay for, the neighborhood bum took advantage of our situation and our kindness by showing up at all hours of the night. One time he was really high and tried to force his way in through the front door. We told him to get lost. He yelled “I’m gonna smash on you!” and threw his shoe through our living room window. Traveling strangers would stop by saying they heard about our house and needed a place to crash. One guy from New Orleans showed up late at night, pissed on our couch in his sleep and disappeared before anyone woke up.
Ha ha. What advice for success would you give to a first time squatter?
Don’t tell anyone you’re squatting!
When you were in Tokyo last year you squatted a spot in the woods. That place looked huge! What was the story with that location?
My friends and I spent like $30 each to take a bus out to a lake in rural northern Japan. When we got there it was pouring and, feeling pretty depressed about our decision to buy the bus tickets, we hid from the rain under one of the first overhangs we came across. It looked like a hotel lobby through the clear glass doors we were loitering in front of but something about it made it seem vacant. I think a few leaves had slid under the front doors, I can’t remember. We walked the perimeter of the building and realized it was a lot bigger than we had thought. The hotel was 3 stories tall and curved back into the forest behind the front facade. We found a broken window into one of the first story hotel rooms and climbed in. The hotel had been in operation until about 3 years prior to us finding it. All of the rooms were set up with toothbrushes and ice buckets and soap and everything. It looked like they didn’t take a single thing when they closed shop. The gift shop was still stocked with plastic wrapped boxes of moldy candy made in the region as well as posters, postcards and magnets. The kitchen was full of dishes and food and worker uniforms. The karaoke room had a projector, PA system, microphones and bottles of alcohol. We spent that first day investigating every square inch of the hotel and collected candles, bottles of water, souvenirs and flashlights and picked a room on the top floor to call home.
Can you tell me a little about the house in the Your House is My House zine that has a tombstone painted over it. That place was in Oakland, right? Did someone die in there?
Yeah that was in Oakland. An older woman died there and nobody found her body for 7 years. She was a hoarder and I guess her relatives were too lazy to clean up the house. When they finally did they found her skeleton in the upstairs bedroom still wearing clothes.
Woah. How did you find that house and eventually end of living there?
I was squatting a house on the same street and would pass by it all the time. Eventually I just showed up with a weed whacker and told the neighbors a family friend purchased it and I was going to clean it up. It was probably one of the most destroyed houses I had ever tried to fix up. All of the windows were broken, the stairs to the second floor had collapsed, the first floor was full of mold, there was a hole in the roof that went right into the upstairs bedroom and in the same room was a huge dark spot where her body had decomposed on the hardwood floor for 7 years. It was too crazy and I decided to keep it as a backup and pursue a different house. Eventually months later, while I was out for the day, OPD kicked in the back door of another house I was sleeping in. That’s when I decided to move into Dead Body House. The first time I slept there was Halloween night, incidentally.
Do you recall the first zine that made a lasting impression or inspired you to make your own? What was the first one you made?
I remember in high school I went to a book fair that used to happen in San Francisco every spring. Distros paid for table space to display and sell their books and zines but in another room there was a knee-high ledge where unknown individuals decided to drop off stacks of free zines. Some of these stacks were guides on things such as evasive driving techniques, how to bypassing alarm systems and other sketchy reading such as the Unabomber’s manifesto. They were the kind of zines that the makers probably wore gloves while folding and stapling to obscure their fingerprints. I think seeing all of that made me realize how much freedom there is in making zines. I think I made an anti-civilization zine when I was in high school.
Yeah, those were the types of zines I was first exposed to as well: anti-establishment, anarchist-styled zines. What do you hope viewers will take away from Your House is My House?
People in urban areas across the country are feeling the pressure of crappy rent prices getting crappier. Landlords in the city are giddy. It’s kinda bleak. I hope this zine provides a refreshing perspective.
You have an impressive collection of analog electronics and a more than healthy mixtape cassette collection. What’s the allure for you in making mixtapes and for the Your House is My House zine, what kind of atmosphere were you trying to devise?
Yeah, I like finding old electronics in junk shops for making art and music with. I slow down most of the music I listen to; I like how it sounds slow. The easiest way to do it is on a tape player with a variable speed knob so I end up listening to and making a lot of cassette tapes just for myself. I played a tape I made as part of my In My Room installation a few years ago and people asked about the music so eventually I decided to make a limited release. For the Your House Is My House mixtape I wanted people to get a taste of the uneasy feeling of hiding alone in an abandoned house hoping nobody has called the cops yet; the joy of getting away with it, the anger towards realtors and investors gobbling up foreclosures before you can crack them, the humor of paying your rent in the currency of stress and the beauty of doing whatever you want.
Your House is My House co-published with SFAQ Projects will be released at the LA Art Book Fair on February 12, 2016 and will be available online soon after. A limited edition will be offered with an accompanying mixtape, each hand recorded, constructed and signed by the artist. The Flopbox will also be releasing a very limited edition of Swampy’s pennants.
*Interview by Austin McManus