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Artist and filmmaker James Spooner takes a multimedia approach to unpack the cultures that made him.
JAMES SPOONER SPENDS many of his days and nights either tattooing or organizing the book tour for his first book. Before COVID-19 hit, Spooner, whose graphic novel “The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere.” came out this month, was tattooing full time, five days a week. He’d been working on the book for four years and had about half of it done when he had to close shop — a perfect time to polish off his punk magnum opus.
“The High Desert” is the first installment in a series of memoirs, each set at different personal crossroads. Spooner is best known for his seminal 2003 documentary “Afro-Punk” and for co-founding the festival of the same name. In the film, Spooner interviews several Black punks around New York City who, like him, were itching to set a couple things straight. First, that punk intersected more with being Black in America than the mostly white scene would have the rest of society believe. Interviewees in the film talk about the ways that punk music granted them permission to break away from stereotypes, and ingrained in them a lifelong politics of community-based living. They also call out the often-underappreciated contributions of Black punk bands like Bad Brains, Death, and Cholita! The Female Menudo.
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The film highlighted another reality too: the presence of racism within the so-called countercultural scene. Imagine being told to “listen to your own music” by skinheads and the like who refused to face facts: Without Black people there would be no rock and roll — no punk. “Afro-Punk” changed the lives of countless Black folks — they stopped Spooner in the street often, to tell him that watching the film made them feel free to scream, “Those are my people,” and to go find them.
“Afro-Punk” was a coming-of-age story of Black punks in New York, but it was told from their perspectives. “‘The High Desert’ is my story,” Spooner told me recently as we sat in his private tattoo studio. The book is set in Apple Valley, California, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The backdrop is punk lyrics, high winds, and skateboard wheels scraping on concrete, sounds that are interrupted by a disturbing number of instances when Spooner had the N-word hurled at him by white classmates.
Inside the small studio, the natural light of the midafternoon sun blanketed us and the light wood floors. Spooner took a couple breaths and leaned closer to his friend Mark, his canvas for the day. For several hours, he was laser focused. Mark mostly looked outside, trying not to concentrate on the pain in his arm, as Spooner worked on a huge wizard that took up most of his sleeve.
Spooner’s tattoos are mostly black and gray, starting with bold outlines and employing any number of shading techniques, including dot work and whip shading. “Tattooing isn’t too far from what I do with comics,” he said. Spooner went to an arts high school in New York City in the 1990s where illustration wasn’t considered a fine art, but seeing how realistic and beautiful his tattooing is, it’s clear that that pretentious notion was misguided.
Before tattooing, Spooner wasn’t able to save a dime. He was laid off from a low-level production job in 2008, one he got for stability in preparation for the birth of his first daughter, Hollis. A friend of his who was a tattooer helped him get his first gigs. After a couple quick lessons, he was off, asking folks in his Facebook network if they’d let him execute his trials and errors on their skin. The first shop he worked at shared a building with an all-Black women’s barber salon, and the majority of his clients were queer Black lesbians who came to him from next door. Within a year, he was making enough to live on and start saving money.
Over the decades, he has increasingly felt the need to move away from tattooing to further serve himself as an artist. “I enjoy it. I love hanging out with cool people. I just need something else to be fulfilled. Some of it is ego. I didn’t go through the right channels to be well known or make a difference. On the whole, I was busy, but it’s not like I was in tattoo magazines. Tattooing makes a difference in individuals’ lives, which was enough at some point."
Before my studio visit, I had recently met Spooner, who is 46, at the Highland Cafe in East LA’s Highland Park. He is 6-foot-3 and throughout the weekend I visited, wore some combination of a black cap, punk-band T-shirt, and slim-fitting black jeans. He is soft spoken, with kind eyes and a salt-and-pepper goatee. He and his partner, Lisa, and their dog, Rumi, a chocolate labradoodle, have lived in LA going on seven years. For brunch, Spooner, who is a vegan, ordered an open-faced avocado and bean sprouts sandwich with breakfast potatoes and an iced coffee. We sat in the backyard where high-top tables and chairs were shaded with giant umbrellas. Rumi sat eagerly on her haunches and watched Spooner, waiting. “I gave him two potatoes before you got here.” I asked him whether Rumi had been to puppy school, knowing full well the answer. The center of Spooner’s punk ethos is DIY; from cycling to filmmaking to tattooing, writing, and dog training, he has been completely self-taught. To train Rumi, he said, looking at the puppy, he “obsessively watched YouTube videos.” Spooner told Rumi to “lie down” a couple times before he actually did. “He’s not perfect but he’s attentive.”
Spooner was born in 1976 in Jersey City, New Jersey, but his family didn’t stay there long. Before he was a year old, Brooklyn, New York, became his first home. Spooner’s mother, Janet, is white. Once she married Spooner’s father, a St. Lucian professional bodybuilder and former Mr. America, the family’s base was constantly changing. His parents divorced when he was eight and for the rest of his childhood, Spooner’s mom, a special education teacher, became his sole caregiver. “The High Desert” has a classic coming-of-age storyline. It begins when Spooner is 13 and angsting in every frame about the impending first day at yet another new school. Spooner oversees his child narration by breaking the fourth wall, that is, by peppering his pages every handful of frames or so with “black boxes,” containing insights he could have only gained in adulthood. Think: “The Wonder Years” meets “The Boondocks.” “It’s hard to find something bad to say about my mom. Love, however, is not enough for any white woman raising a Black kid on her own. It would be years before I would be able to articulate this, yet my resentment was clear even as a teen,” Spooner writes in the first chapter.
Spooner brings readers along on the punk journey of his younger self, blazing lyrics across the pages; the larger the writing, the louder the volume.
Spooner has said that punk rock raised him. Skateboarding brought him punk rock music. The sprawling desert didn’t offer the counterculture young James craved, mainly because of how white and casually racist it was; he did more hiding than anything else in Apple Valley. Physical distance and a wary mom were the main barriers between Spooner and the freaks he was in search of — many of whom were other people of color. At home, his ability to live freely was superseded by the desire to be liked, but also not get his ass kicked by local kids.
It was in Venice Beach that Spooner came upon what was “unattainable in the desert,” he writes. To his mother, Venice and its “homeless situation” were disgusting. But to her son, the boardwalk and surrounding haunts, among other Black folks, is where he felt less targeted. And besides, it is where, at 13, he bought his first Sex Pistols tape.
“The High Desert” is a memoir for music lovers. Spooner brings readers along on the punk journey of his younger self, blazing lyrics across the pages; the larger the writing, the louder the volume. “Everything was catching up with me and the only thing validating my emotions were these punk songs,” he writes. Bands like the Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, and eventually his middle-school band, the Filth and the Fury, held him at night, screamed for him, mourned with him, and called him to the fringes of society. (“Don’t care what they may say, don’t care what they may do … we got that attitude!” belts Bad Brains’ “Attitude.”) It’s better to be feared than to be imposed upon or be robbed of autonomy. The raw, emotional outlet was just the beginning of Spooner’s love and need for punk.
It wasn’t until a spring break trip to New York City to visit his father that Spooner’s punk future really opened up. Benefitting from his father’s relative negligence, Spooner was dropped off on St. Marks Avenue in the Village, where he had his “magical ‘first time’ moment with New York.” He passed by famed spots like music venue CBGB (which has since shuttered) and the gallery ABC No Rio. He quickly realized that he had his own prejudices to drop to commit himself to the causes at the center of punk: anti-capitalism, intersectionality — essentially, radical politics with zero tolerance for racism, sexism, or homophobia. “It’s more than getting wasted and smashing shit,” says Blanca, one of Spooner’s “High Desert” characters who kickstarts young James’ search for meaning. Blanca takes young James to ABC No Rio, an arts nonprofit run by squatters on the Lower East Side, and tells him to plant himself on the concrete floor, where she plies him with zine upon zine. She looks around and then at James. “We did this ourselves. No money, no promoters, no corporate sponsors. There are do-it-yourself punk collectives in houses all across the country.” Soon after a spate of mentally jarring incidents, Spooner’s mother decided to uproot them one last time — back to New York City. Ten years later, with a sculpting practice and a documentary under his belt, Spooner was there tabling at zine fests, chatting up New Yorkers about DIY.
Spooner, his partner Lisa Nola, dog Rumi, and I spent our last afternoon together at the LA Times Festival of Books on the University of Southern California campus. The “High Desert” book tour will take Spooner (and when possible, Spooner’s older daughter Hollis) to cities across the country. In each one, he will read an excerpt from “The High Desert,” sit for an interview, and finally, of course, punk bands will play. At the book festival, we walked past nearly every booth, and Lisa gave Spooner a pep talk to relax him before he approached the table for Reparations Club, a Black-owned and women-owned bookstore that would be hosting one of his LA book-tour events. Their tote bags, a neon yellow, shone brighter than anything at the festival. Spooner humbled himself before the bookstore’s founder, Jazzi McGilbert, who wore a denim jumpsuit and neon-green crocs.
It was Lisa’s encouragement that pushed Spooner to pursue the graphic novel medium after they’d spent hours swapping life stories early in their relationship. “I just thought it made sense,” she told me, speaking earnestly about her partner’s talent and the blossoming of his dedication to the craft. She introduced him to titles like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” (Bechdel eventually wrote a blurb for “High Desert”), David Small’s “Stitches,” and “Blankets” from Craig Thompson — all memoirs. She believed Spooner had a responsibility to continue the legacy of “Afro-Punk,” which he introduced her to after they’d met. Nola had been present numerous times when people who recognized Spooner came over to where they were sitting or standing and exclaimed that the documentary meant everything to them. Lisa knows how awkward it is for Spooner to promote himself. He is much more comfortable, she says, catching up with friends through tattooing or supporting local artist friends’ projects. Just a couple days prior, as we walked down a main drag on Record Store Day, Spooner’s face lit up when he noticed a very cool friend walk by, and quickly disappeared to embrace them and catch up. “She’s a background singer for Fleetwood Mac,” Lisa told me, smiling. “This happens all the time.”
Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa is a writer based in Brooklyn. She writes about race, gender, art, and politics and has bylines in the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Nation, Artforum, ARTnews, and Artnet, among others.
Photographer Brad Ogbonna splits his time between New York and Los Angeles. He was born and raised in the Twin Cities in Minnesota (where Prince is from).
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