Walking around Metrocenter in an Insane Clown Posse shirt, I hear the sound every few minutes. Kids I don't know, teenagers with tilted ballcaps, most of them not wearing ICP shirts but all greeting my 28-year-old ass with the universal call of the Juggalo, just for wearing something I bought at Hot Topic 10 minutes earlier.
In case you're unaware, Juggalos are fans of ICP, a Detroit-bred rap duo with KISS-like face-paint and ludicrously profane lyrics. The band has a massive underground following, particularly in their native Midwest, as well as Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Metrocenter is one of Phoenix's two main Juggalo hangouts; the other being the Monstar Shop at Camelback Road and 35th Avenue. Mall security, shopkeepers, and other kids revile Juggalos, and it's easy to see why: They're grubby, self-proclaimed white trash with lip rings, baggy black jeans, chain wallets, and dirty goatees. Many are un- or under-employed. They smoke poorly constructed rollies to the stub and yell curse words at passing cars.
In the interest of full disclosure, this was not my first time wearing an ICP shirt. And the last time was not done with a detached air of superiority. The last time I wore one was 10 years ago, in Ohio, where I'm from — and it was not a big deal. We went to shows, wearing the shirts and face-paint, carrying the distinctive three liters of Faygo soda that Juggalos drink. The concerts were fantastic: violent, sexually depraved rhymes rapped over dumpy beats, with a bunch of sketchy dudes moshing and heavily tattooed girls — usually a little sloppy in the face — flashing. At age 17, who wouldn't love it?
I never would've imagined such activities getting me photographed by a gang task force, but that's just what happens to some Juggalos in Arizona.
Donna Monahan is a Juggalo but says she is not a member of a gang, though authorities have sometimes said otherwise. Monahan, 28, with two kids, works at the Monstar Shop (the store specializes in clothing bearing the hatchetman logo of ICP's Psychopathic Records and also serves as a recording studio, concert venue, and gathering place for Juggalos not in the mallrat scene). One night a few years back, she was leaving a party in Tucson when she got pulled over for not signaling a turn. The cop quickly told her he was more interested in the red hachetman logo on her back window. They took her picture for inclusion in a gang registry.
"He thought I was in a gang — those were the first words out of his mouth," she says. "He said a hatchetman on your car was just as bad as a sticker that said Crips or Bloods. It's stupid. I'm not going to say Juggalos never do anything wrong. There are idiots who do, and I'm probably friends with some of them . . . But a gang?"
Yet the gang myth persists in law enforcement and the news media. In June, the East Valley Tribune, my employer at the time, ran a story about Juggalos under the headline, "Gang, residents clash at Mesa meeting." Two months later, the Trib ran a bigger story, this one on the cover. A blaring headline asked: "Fans or gang? Meet the Juggalos." Despite the interrogative headline, not one of the half-dozen law enforcement officers quoted said they personally think Juggalos are a gang. Yet they have a category in the state's gang registry.
Lieutenant Charlie Consolian of the Phoenix Police Department's Gang Enforcement Unit says he knows that not all Juggalos are criminal street-gang members, but that some do meet the definition under Arizona law. Statewide, about 180 Juggalos are in the gang database, he says, because they committed a crime. Recently, the city had a spate of robberies at 32nd Street and Thomas Road committed by people calling themselves Juggalos, he says.
"When they commit felonies as a group of Juggalos — or to further the Juggalo name — then it's an issue for us," he says. "But we're not going to go down the street and stop someone with an ICP sticker on their car . . . Some of them are just people who follow Insane Clown Posse."
Partly, of course, such misunderstandings are the Juggalos' fault. Not only are they, shall we say, socioeconomically and socially underprivileged, they embrace the outcast label zealously.
Standing outside the mall, I see why they get hassled. They wave sarcastically to cops, stand in a group of 15 near a tagged wall, playfully wrestle — the sort of teenage hoodlum behavior that'll get you bounced from any respectable place of business. Then there's the fact that they insist they're "family" and wear, stick, or tattoo the hatchetman anyplace they can.
Joe "DieNasty" Mercado, 28, owns Monstar Shop, and started following ICP with 1997's The Great Milenko, ICP's first album to get mainstream attention after it was shelved by Hollywood Records hours after its initial release and, for my money, their best album by far. Mercado, who records with a face-painted rap group called Darkside Immortals (perhaps the scariest thing about the whole Juggalo phenomenon is how many shitty imitators there are around the country), says he's not a member of a gang and stays away from the mallrat scene, where it's easy to get in trouble.
"I try to stay away from the police, man," he tells me. "They ain't nothing but problems when it comes to them thinking we're in a gang. There's a lot of rights that get taken, especially when the gang task force gets involved."
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Yet, for a lot of Juggalos, gangbanger's the only identity they have, so they embrace it.
"Juggalos, they say, we the scrubs; we the ones that were picked on in school — the majority of us — and it trickled on in to life. We became the scrubs and the hip-hop head became the bullies, and too cool to hang out with us," Mercado says. "We created our own venue, our own spot, just so the Juggalos could come and be who they want to be and be respected for it. Give ourselves some self-respect, some pride."
Hanging out by the bus station at Metrocenter (not at the actual stop, where Juggalos say transit security hassles them), they do seem like a family, though a dysfunctional one. Balls are busted, stories told, song lyrics quoted. Cops roll up, and the kids get quiet. Someone suggests that anyone holding or anyone with an outstanding warrant bounce, but no one moves. The cops pull aside one girl to talk to her, then release her back to the crowd. The afternoon goes on, just a bunch of kids with nothing to do. As I go to leave, one kid says, "Come back tomorrow. We hang out at this church, and there's free pizza."
Free pizza? Sounds like my kind of gang. Woop-woop.