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They Live by Night: Photos of gangsters, prostitutes & drag queens from Tokyo’s red light district

Kabukichō is the red light district in Shinjuku, a commercial and administrative ward in central Tokyo. Apparently Kabukichō took its name from plans to build a kabuki theater in the district sometime in 1940s. This never happened. Instead the area became a busy red light world of nightclubs, hostess clubs and love hotels. It’s estimated there are some 3,000 such enterprises operating in Kabukichō today. At night, the busy neon-lit streets thrive with the curious and the criminal—around a thousand yakuza are said to operate in the area. All this relentless activity gave Kabukichō its nickname as the “Sleepless Town” (眠らない街).

Among the curious drawn to Kabukichō was photographer Watanabe Katsumi (1941-2006). During the 1960s and 1970s, this seemingly quiet and unassuming character prowled the streets camera in hand offering to take pictures of the sharp-suited yakuza, the pimps, the prostitutes and the drag queens who lived and worked in and among this red light district’s narrow streets. Watanabe thought of Kabukichō as his theater and the men and women who posed for him as his actors.

He approached each of his subjects and offered to take their picture.  He took the pictures quickly. But whatever he said to make each individual sufficiently relaxed worked. His photographs captured something unguarded and utterly spontaneous about his subjects. The next night he would return, deliver three prints of each photograph for 200 yen—roughly around a dollar back then. This was how he made his living.

In 1973, the first volume of Watanabe Katsumi’s photographs The Gangs of Kabukichō was published. This book was reissued in 2006, details here.
More after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Girlfriend’: Austere portraiture of spectacular 90s drag queens
03:59 pm


drag queens
Michael James O'Brien

Lady Bunny
Photographer Michael James O’Brien‘s Girlfriend exhibition—now showing at Liverpool’s international photography festival—is an absolutely captivating array of vintage 90’s queer aethetics. While his subjects explode with life (and are ostensibly color people), the drag queens featured in his work have been captured in black and white, in front of nothing but a simple back-drop. This stark, austere composition has become his trademark, an artistic strategy to reveal the both the humanity of the queens alongside of their glamour. He’s been recording drag for 30 years, and his work stands out as a subtle look at a sensational art form.

O’Brien’s work was also featured in Girlfriend: Men, Women, and Drag a 1999 book by former New York Times Magazine style editor Holly Brubach. O’Brien actually took pictures of drag all over the world for the project, and though some are street photography and/or in color, the stark staging of the pictures obviously bear his sensibilities.

Butch Queens in Chanel

Ming Vauze

Billy Beyond and Sister Dimension
More after the jump…

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
The all-drag version of ‘The Facts of Life’

If you’re of “a certain age” (or older), you surely remember and quite possibly even loved the show The Facts of Life, which ran on NBC for quite a while along with its somehow-related show Diff’rent Strokes.

The Oasis, on 298 11th Street in San Francisco, is a cabaret that offers “the best of gay culture and an unforgettable San Francisco nightlife experience in our 6,000 square foot venue.” At Oasis the performers have a healthy sense of pop culture: the venue’s calendar features tributes to Madonna and Beyoncé and elsewhere on the site are references to drag versions of Sex and the City, Friends, and Roseanne.

Starting April 23, and playing most Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays until May 16 is The Facts of Life Live!, which is an all-drag version of the Reagan-era sitcom staple The Facts of Life, which they identify as “the longest running sitcom of the 1980s.” (It ran from 1979 to 1988, which is very impressive.)

The Facts of Life was about four teenage girls who attend “Eastland School,” a boarding school, and Edna Garrett, often called “Mrs. G,” who is the housekeeper of the space where the girls live. (It never really occurred to me before, but the device of the boarding school allowed them to have a “family” sitcom with anyone being related to each other.) To its credit, The Facts of Life was one of the more obviously feminine, not to say feminist, sitcoms of the era and also served as a launching pad for the careers of talents as diverse as Molly Ringwald and George Clooney. Also just like X-Men, it was set in Westchester County, N.Y. (in this case Peekskill, about a fifteen-minute drive from the town in which I grew up).

The Facts of Life Live! is directed by D’Arcy Drollinger, who co-founded Oasis and also plays Blair Warner (original actress: Lisa Welchel). Tamale Ringwald plays Natalie (Mindy Cohn), Daft-nee Gesuntheit plays Jo (Nancy McKeon), and James Arthur M. plays Tootie (Kim Fields). The show consists of two episodes.

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Karen Black fronts L7 and Exene Cervenka reads her conspiracy poetry in ‘Decoupage 2000’

Decoupage! was a fever dream of a public access show cooked up in 1989 by visionary amateur producer Kathe Duba and drag queen Summer Caprice (Craig Roose, if you want to get technical). Envisioning a kitschy 70’s variety show aesthetic, Craig and Kathe scoured thrift stores to furnish elaborate sets—an episode could take as many as twelve hours to set-up, videotape and break-down (those are Cecil B. DeMille terms for public access). The show attracted counterculture legends like “all-American Jewish lesbian folksinger” Phranc and Vaginal Creme Davis (appearing with her “mother,” Susan Tyrrell). Caprice exuded a fun atmosphere of irreverent, arty, DIY weirdness, and the guests really seemed to enjoy themselves. 

I’d argue the “jewel” of the Decoupage series was actually Decoupage 2000: Return of the Goddess—a 1999 retro-futurist sci-fi version of the original show coordinated after a five-year hiatus. Check out cult queen Karen Black singing Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang,” with grunge goddesses L7 for her band! If you didn’t know, Karen Black has a fucking amazing voice, and her chemistry with L7 is golden.

The most compelling segment though, is Exene Cervenka (using her actual surname, “Cervenkova” here) performing a spoken-word piece, “They Must Be Angels.” Themes of alien visitation and abduction, psychic abilities and metaphysical spirituality make the monologue a perfect fit for Decoupage‘s retro-futurism, but as Exene expounds, her tangents become more conspiratorial, and you’re left wondering if work like this was the germ of her eventual Alex Jones-levels of delusion. You can never be sure how someone got from Point A to Point Raving, Vicious Crackpot, but man does this piece feel like a red flag; and still, Exene is magnetic, and the performance is mesmerizing.

I’m unsure of exactly how many episodes of Decoupage! were made in total, but there is a Decoupage! YouTube channel with some great clips.

More after the jump…

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Found photos from Kansas City’s 1960s drag scene
09:59 am


drag queens

Vintage drag is always a treasure, but my excitement over these gorgeous pictures increased exponentially upon learning they come from the Midwest and they were only recently discovered, by total chance. In 2006, an undergrad named Robert Heishman was rummaging through a Kansas City salvage yard in hopes of finding a subject for a documentary class. He came across some slides, discreetly labeled, “Jack’s Slides: Chicago and Kansas City,” and after flipping through some commonplace family photos, he hit drag queen gold and purchased the lot for $2.

Two years later Heishman’s friend Michael Boles found a shoebox of similar pictures, some of which turned out to be from the exact same parties as Heishman’s pictures. They combined their findings into a collection they call, “Private Birthday Party,” which contains over 200 photos from Kansas City’s incredibly vibrant 60s drag subculture. The bar that hosted these events would post a sign that read “Private Birthday Party” to keep the event covert—same-sex dancing was illegal in Kansas City and gay bars experienced regular raids. Knowing these photos were taken in the knowledge that they could have been used as “evidence” makes them all the more lovely a record of frolic.

With the help of writer Emily Henson and the Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America, they hope to identify and contact as many of the performers and party-goers as they can find, and they even believe they are close to uncovering the identity of the photographer.



More after the jump…

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Back to her roots: See RuPaul’s New Wave band, Wee Wee Pole, 1983

RuPaul and Robert Warren, circa 1983, via Robert Warren
As RuPaul’s Drag Race enters its sixth season, hundreds of thousands of viewers are girding their loins, praying their favorite girl will be declared “America’s next drag superstar.” Yes, I am glad to live in a time when drag competitions are a televised sport, and prouder still that RuPaul has earned the mantle of America’s Sweetheart—even we NYC Lady Bunny loyalists can’t resist Ru’s gracious charisma, unflappable good humor, and glamorous demeanor. But RuPaul wasn’t always the ultimate glamazon!

Even before he had given himself much of a makeover, RuPaul was quite the event in the queer New Wave/Punk scene of Atlanta. Below you can see Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul and The U-Hauls making their Atlanta debut in 1983. The interviewer, James Bond, is from The American Music Show, a LOOONG running, legendary super-weird program that’s just too brilliant for anything other than cable access (ask anyone halfway cool from Atlanta about it, they will know about The American Music Show, trust me). But then, RuPaul has always held in the weird and novel in very high esteem:

While channel surfing one night, I came across a local “public access” TV show called “The American Music Show.” Obviously videotaped in someone’s living room once a week, it had a talk show/sketch comedy type format that had no format at all. Hosted by Dick Richards and James Bond and featuring a weird cast of social misfits. It was very politically irreverent, funny, sick, wrong and I loved it. In my gut I knew, I had found my tribe. I immediately wrote a letter to the show explaining how much I loved what they did and that I would love to be a part of it. Two weeks later, I got a call from Paul Burke, saying they got my letter and would love for me to be on the show after the holidays.

By the time of the Atlanta show, Ru had already played New York CIty, but was still anxious to perform for the home crowd. The band is high-energy, dancey, and a little bit nasty (in the good way). Ru himself is (obviously) warm, bubbly, and genuinely excited—a legend in the making.

Below, RuPaul and The U-Hauls introduced onstage by “perpetual write-in candidate for the Lt. Governor of Georgia,” Col. Lonnie Fain:

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Controversial male political figures reimagined as fabulous drag queens
12:45 pm


drag queens

Baricka O'Bisha
Baricka O’Bisha
“Behind every ‘great’ man, there’s a queen.” That’s the insight that “Saint Hoax” hit upon after seeing a drag show for the first time and contemplating the similarly “constructed” nature of drag queens and incredibly powerful political figures:

The recipe for an iconic queen:

1. Flamboyant name
2. Fierce persona
3. Defining outfits
4. Personalized hairdo
5. A trademark feature
6. One hell of a PR team

I then realized that it takes that same exact effort to make a leader.


The text continues: “Like drag queens, political/religious leaders are expected to entertain, perform and occasionally lip-sync a public speech. ... But unlike drag queens, the fame hungry leaders don’t know when to take their costumes off.” 

At the Saint Hoax website you can see the full transformations.
Vladdy Pushin'
Vladdy Pushin’
Madame O' Sane
Madame O’ Sane
Georgia Buchette
Georgia Buchette
Ossie B'
Ossie B’
Hitleria Hysteria
Hitleria Hysteria
Kimmy Jungle
Kimmy Jungle
Queen Abby
Queen Abby
via Lost at E Minor

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The (not so great) Great Dicktator: Saddam-lookalike’s porn film abduction
George Bush & Osama Bin Laden ‘super funny children’s toy’

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment