When I told my wife I wanted to go to Gathering of the Juggalos, she had one simple request: “You have to get your face painted, and you have to send pics.” Or is that two requests? Either way, since I do pretty much everything my wife tells me to, I had a mission to accomplish at my first Gathering.
I had no desire to go “undercover” or anything like that. It’s been done and besides, I’m pretty sure I would be the world’s least convincing Juggalo. I can’t even fist-bump with conviction. But my wife, I realized, had just given me an ironclad excuse to clown up. If anyone gave me shit for being an obviously fake Juggalo, I could just tell them my lady had insisted.
Once I got to the Gathering, however, I started to have my doubts. For one thing, contrary to popular belief, very few Juggalos walk around in clown makeup all the time. Even at the Gathering, most save their face paint for the main event, which is Insane Clown Posse’s closing-night set. For another thing, although Juggalos are generally pretty nice people, if they think you’re making fun of them, they will kick your ass. And it was pretty easy for me to picture them misinterpreting the intentions of a dorky, 47-year-old music journalist looking to get painted up at his first Gathering. The media haven't exactly been kind to Juggalos over the years and I had no desire to continue that tradition.
But several people I talked to over the course of the festival seemed to think it was a great idea. “You should definitely fuckin’ do it,” said a bearded Juggalo named Ozzie, brandishing a wizard staff taller than he was. His friend, a straight-edge wrestler called Scruffy, concurred. “Just go for it,” he said. “You’ll have a great time.” (Scruffy, however, hasn't worn the clown paint since he was a kid. Growing up in Indiana, "My and my friends used to do our makeup and go to to the mall," he recalled, somewhat wistfully. "Just to mess with people.")
This is how, on the final night of the Gathering, at around 9:30 p.m., I find myself sitting next to a pizza vendor with my eyes closed while a makeup artist from Boston named Stake ("Yes, that's my real name") paints me up.
Stake is a professional face and body painter, with a portfolio full of naked women painstakingly done up to resemble statues, church windows and cans of beer. He’s done stage makeup for Behemoth and several other metal bands whose names, between his thick Boston accent and the booming bass from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s mainstage set, I can’t quite make out.
When I first approach Stake, he's doing one-half of a guy’s face to resemble a cartoon zombie, skin peeled away to reveal bone and musculature underneath. He follows that up by making his Juggalette companion, Lilith, look like she's got two halves of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope's faces sewn together over hers (his own makeup is similar). Clearly the man knows what he's doing.
I, however, do not. When he asks what I'm looking for, I tell him my story and say I'll put myself in his capable hands.
"Let's do something Twiztid-like," he proposes.
"Sounds good to me," I reply, not really having any idea what that means.
Twiztid are a Detroit rap duo formerly signed to Insane Clown Posse's Psychopathic Records — now on their own label, Majik Ninja Entertainent — and their style of makeup, as interpreted by Stake, looks kind of like corpse paint as applied in a prison yard. It's nowhere near as impressive as Lilith or bone-and-muscle guy, but it accomplishes the task of making me look like a reasonably convincing Juggalo.
Once Stake is done working his magic, my fellow writer Art and I walk over to watch the rest of Bone Thugs. Along the way, I text a photo to my wife. Her reply simply reads, “Oh. My. God.” So mission accomplished on that front.
I can’t stop smiling under my Twiztid makeup, which is probably ruining the effect. After a few minutes, Art takes off, ostensibly to go in search of more material for our “Overheard at the Gathering” post but probably really because I look like an idiot.
For the next hour or so, I wander around the crowd by the mainstage feeling increasingly awkward and self-conscious. Not that I was expecting Juggalo Nation to fall at my feet in awe of my $10 makeup job, but I was at least hoping for a few nods of approval and maybe even the occasional fist-bump I could unconvincingly return. But I feel just as invisible here in my clown makeup as I did on my first night in my average-joe street clothes. Maybe this whole face-paint thing wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Then Insane Clown Posse take the stage, dousing the crowd in feathers and Faygo as they blast the rap-rock track “Chicken Huntin’,” and any nervousness I may have felt about my face paint melts away. Their set is wildly entertaining, and the crowd is going bonkers. I find myself swept up in the whole thing, raising my middle fingers aloft to “Fuck the World,” chanting along to “What Is a Juggalo?” and dancing wildly to "Down With the Clown."
All around me, fireworks are exploding, nitrous tanks are whooshing, spliffs are being sparked. The girl next to me is dancing so hard that the Coors Light bowling bag she’s using as a purse keeps whacking into my shoulder, but I don’t care. Even when something smacks me in the back of the head — a bottle of Faygo, presumably — I still don’t care. It’s the party to end all parties and nothing is going to deter me from being front and center for the finale, Faygo Armageddon.
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You probably already know that one of ICP’s trademarks is their copious use of Faygo, a discount soft drink made in their hometown of Detroit. What you might not know — I didn’t, anyway — is that at the end of their sets, with the help of a stage-filling army of dancers, crew and VIPs, they launch entire two-liter bottles of the stuff, most of them nearly full, at their audience. The barrage of flying bottles is thrilling and more than a little terrifying — especially when some heavily carbonated diet Faygo gets in your eye, because it stings like a motherfucker and essentially blinds you for a few seconds, right when you most need your vision and reflexes to be operating at their peak. Within seconds, you’re pretty much head-to-toe soaked in the stuff, and the crowd’s four days of Gathering stank is overtaken by the sweet, pungent smell of root beer.
Everyone holds up their hands during ICP’s finale, in a combination of defense and celebration. A few lucky souls manage to catch a flying bottle, but most have to scramble for the ones that bounce off a Juggalo or two and come to rest on the sticky ground. They treat the Faygo like a sacrament, taking a swig before pouring the rest of the bottle’s contents over their own heads. As if to emphasize the quasi-religious nature of this spectacle, ICP accompany it with "Thy Unveiling," the first song in which they openly acknowledged the hidden Christian messages and imagery in their otherwise obnoxious, gory, expletive-laced music.
I left Gathering of the Juggalos sticky, exhausted and still covered in clown makeup. But my appreciation for this weird little subculture now runs a lot deeper than any face paint. I won't be wearing my Juggalo face to the mall anytime soon, and my wife will be happy to hear that I probably won't be bumping The Great Milenko on my way there, either. But the Juggalos are all right with me. Except whichever fucker pegged me in the back of the head with that one Faygo bottle.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Twiztid as still being signed to Psychopathic Records, when in fact they split from that label several year ago. We regret the error.