Punks With Soul: A Window Into NOLA’s Gutter Punk Culture
Sep 21 2021

Punks With Soul: A Window Into NOLA’s Gutter Punk Culture

By: Grant Varner

So what ever happened to the punks? You remember. Those angsty 20-somethings with the spiked hair and leather-studded jackets—shrouded by the aroma of cheap cigarettes and parental disappointment that dominated the underground rock scene of the 70s. Well, odds are they're in your own backyard…as a matter of fact, so is the rest of the New Orleans Underworld.

[Grant Varner]
[Grant Varner]

Imagine. You're exploring an abandoned nursing home on the Westbank. You stroll through dark hallways, past the black-mold ridden drywall with your iPhone flashlight as your guide; the battery at a convenient 8%. The adrenaline you picked up at the door compels you to peer inside one of the vacant rooms where elderly patients once spent the back nine of their days. You find nothing but garbage and cultish graffiti like "666," "Satan Lives," etc. Shrugging it off, you venture outside to an overgrown courtyard, admiring intricate paintings covering the brick wall. Wait! You've almost stumbled into a small wire structure on the ground, seeing a fishing reel, some bracelet charms, Christmas tinsel, and…a vertebrae. Non-human, assuming…not five feet away is a wooden shrine with paganistic looking symbols painted all over.

Suddenly, you hear voices bleeding from the next courtyard over. On edge, with a dash of intrigue, you emerge into a large decaying room exposed to the sky. In the center sits a seven-foot tower of empty Twisty Tea cans. "Twisty Tower," the sign reads. You accept this cult is on some serious dope. Still, you follow the voices into the courtyard where you creep around the corner prepared for anything. Cult members? Tweakers? Ghosts? No. You're looking at a camp of greasy looking 20-somethings with mohawks and dreads, smoking cigarettes over a barbeque. Truly, the chillest looking "cultists" you've ever seen.

This was my first encounter with the "gutter punks" and what I would soon come to discover was just the tip of the iceberg.

After several months, I submitted to my curiosity and visited the home again, but the occupants departed. I continued the hunt at the Market Street Power Plant where I found another makeshift camp occupied by a warm and welcoming woman known as "Mama." I introduced myself and explained my quest. First, Mama tells me everything about the gutter punks. Unlike most homeless transients, they CHOOSE the lifestyle. "They're runaways," she began. "Most gutter punks are teenage to early 20s people who don't work, revolve around drugs, and getting one over on anyone they can." The nursing home sculptures? "It's them expressing their...habit," Mama explained. "Most people living these lives are addicted to one thing or another. When you are addicted to something, you have to put that energy from the addiction into something. If you don't, you go insane."

"Interesting," I mused. "So for them it's these sculptures(?)"

"It might be what they're seeing in their head because of whatever they're doing," Mama said. It's a good way to get rid of their demons. I've seen a lot of gutter punks who do amazing work, but don't do anything with it. I'll show you for example."

We get up, and Mama leads me into her place—a beautifully appointed room, roughly the size of a garage, with art written all over the walls and illuminated by purple ceiling lights. I notice an impressive makeshift kitchen adorned with Cajun spices, sauces, and random dining accessories. Mama raises the lid of a crockpot to reveal a steak cooking, which looks absolutely as wonderful as it smells. Guarding all of Mama's personal belongings sits a kitten being nursed back to health.

[Grant Varner]
[Grant Varner]

"There's one thing written here that you'd love to believe is true, which, unfortunately, is not."

Mama removes a poster from the wall, revealing a passage written in sharpie:

Dropped Out of Society & Discovered Another

Secret Society Living Within These Walls

You'll Never Be Able to Fully

Understand This Type of Community

Lest you Lose Everything Material in Life

And Give yourself To Strangers To Feel Love

Is to SHARE a Meal or Better

To Feel Love is to share your

DRUGS Among Each other

That IS What We Believe IN. . .

IS the Elevation of

OUR CONSCIOUSNESS

"If most people lived by that in these kinds of communities, it would be amazing, but, unfortunately, they're in it for themselves," Mama said. "I haven't had bad experiences with them (the gutter punks). They respect me because I respect them."

[Grant Varner]

"Where do other branches of the community call home?" I asked.

[Grant Varner]

"All over. There's the Navy Base and Laney Boggs, which is reportedly haunted," Mama said.

"Is this place haunted?" I ask.

"The people who live here say they see shadow people. Just wandering spirits. They aren't harmful and don't judge. Everyone who lives this kind of life is lost in one way or another. They come here because they don't fit anywhere else. When you judge, you're perceiving things about people that aren't true. You never know what someone's going through."

Now Loki, aka "The Princess of Jackson Square," a friend of Mama's, chimes in to offer a bit of Underworld history. We leave Mama and hike to the roof for the most amazing New Orleans sunset I've ever seen. "Gutter punks are culture group subsets like Dirty Kids, Crusty Kids, and Schwily Kids" she said. "In 2014, folks were released from Angola (prison) and migrated into Jackson Square. 'The Pirates' (Loki's 'subset') teach the girls around here that there's no reason to sell your ass. We can scrap, wash cars, or something. No gangsters in any city would tell them something like that."

After letting this soak in, I decide it's time to leave as it got dark and other residents grow rowdy. I thank Mama and Loki for their time with a pack of cigarettes and we parted ways.

As I drove home that night, Mama's words echoed through my head. She was absolutely right. To us, these individuals might seem like they failed society, but what if society failed them? My preconceived notions towards this facet of the city's soul were challenged. As the reader, perhaps your own notions may be challenged too. Instead of quickly dismissing such characters, rather ask yourself, "What have I been through that they haven't?" "In what ways has the world been kinder to me than it has to them?" "What are my own addictions/demons?" "How do I channel my own struggles?" "What am I running from?"

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