Volume 75, Number 12 | August 10 - 16, 2005

Artist who was once the center is now on the fringe

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photos by Clayton Patterson
Peter Missing smoking, showing the tattoo of his trademark symbol — seen here upside down — on his forearm.
It’s around 2 a.m. on Saturday night, as he slips up quietly and props his painting against the wall outside Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A.

The man is a slight figure, wearing a trucker cap, smoking.

The painting is in industrial black marker on a piece of clear glass. It’s central image — an upside-down martini glass.

The man pushes up his sleeve to show the same symbol tattooed in blue on his forearm, tapping its different parts while giving a rapid-fire description. “It’s very powerful to turn a symbol upside down,” he says; there are three 7’s below the glass — “that’s better than three 6’s;” the zigzag squatters’ bolt is on the bottom….

In the painting, the D.J. is one eyed — “because they only see half the story.” A U.F.O. is landing above a wind machine — “a good energy source,” he notes.

“I hung out with Basquiat, Warhol,” he says in his sales pitch. “Then they got into drugs and all that. I don’t even drink — I got an ulcer….

“I used to live next to Madonna on Fourth St.,” he adds. “She didn’t like my music. She said, ‘What’s that big loud noise?’”

Thanks, the artist says, pocketing the $20. This should let him sit safely in a restaurant the rest of the night.

“Once the movie comes out, everyone will understand what I’m doing,” he says, before disappearing into the night.

In the 1980s, Peter Missing was an influential figure in the East Village scene. His symbol, the upside-down glass, was graffitied everywhere around the neighborhood, by himself and his followers, and came to signify “anti-gentrification, anti-yuppie, anti-police.” His bands Drunk Driving and Missing Foundation — known for their “metal jams” and Dionysian frenzy — embodied the militant spirit of the times. He, his upside-down glass and his band became icons of East Village anarchy. He was one of the organizers of the protest against the Tompkins Square Park curfew that led to the 1988 riot.

From 1993-2000, he was in Berlin doing industrial and electronic music, then spent a year and a half in Wisconsin, where his wife lives and where he had a gallery. Now 51, he’s been back in Alphabet City for a year and a half and is set to release a new experimental album as part of Surreal Hazard, a two-man group, and a documentary on Missing Foundation. After that he plans to return to Germany. His plane ticket is on standby.

Missing says he doesn’t give interviews. But he recently agreed to one with The Villager at Clayton Patterson’s Outlaw Art Gallery on Essex St.

“People only know me for the logo — they don’t know the music,” he said, as he sat, legs crossed, speaking softly in the gallery. The symbol was written in white on the top of one of his black corduroy loafers. On top of the other was the generic truck mud-flap chick.

“I wanted to replace the peace symbol,” he said.

There’s lots of meaning in his symbol, he said, but the main one is “the party’s over,” as in, over for Western civilization.

In a nutshell, “It’s finished,” he said.

Wasting food, bigger cars, S.U.V.’s, Hummers. We’re using up all our resources, Missing says.

“Maybe it’s a good idea if we get rid of it faster,” he said. “We will have a big party till 2025,” which is the last year in the Mayan calendar, he noted. There may be hope after then to enter the “Light Field,” he said, but, “That’s if we survive the nuclear holocaust…. Only the very few can survive; we go into ‘Mad Max’ or whatever.”

In the meantime, he’s supporting himself by selling his paintings on the street; he claims to have sold 3,000 on Avenue A alone. His canvases are scavenged from the garbage: a piece of wood, a window, a tile, an old LP record. “Everything is recycled,” he notes.

“I’ve had major confrontations with the Police Department,” he said. “They’ve thrown my artwork into the containers…. The police say it’s soliciting. I’m sorry — it’s culture.”

Although art vending is protected by the First Amendment, the police say he must use a regulation-size table and have a tax ID number. He doesn’t agree with paying taxes, though, since he opposes the Iraq war.

“I don’t buy cigarettes for that reason,” he said. “I pick up cigarettes off the ground.”

Another obstacle is that Missing’s art is not to everyone’s taste — especially some of the younger generation, he said.

“Usually, they go like this,” he said, flicking his hand disdainfully. “Or they tell me to get lost or they claim that they’re a Philistine — and they hit that nail on the head.”


Yappies can’t hear

Missing said it’s becoming harder to communicate with people.

“That’s the new name, ‘yappie,’ ” he said, “a yuppie that’s on the cell phone all day. You can’t ask them a question because then you’re rude. There’s no communication. iPod is also taking over.

“The Lower East Side in the 1980s, we had like 100 art galleries,” he recalled. “Now we have like 100 bars and restaurants, which I think is extremely boring. When you had the galleries, there was wine and cheese flowing in the neighborhood. There was a lot more communication and there was community.”

Another change is the gentrification that Missing and others felt they kept at bay a while through their rhetoric, protests and art.
“A lot of people are going out to Brooklyn, but I like it here,” he said. “The only thing that’s bad here is the rents. We hope that all the rents go back to the way it was. It was $170. Now it’s $1,700. It was $200. Now it’s $2,000. They put an ‘O’ on it. We need to take the zero off.”

Missing is paying $160 a month for a place in Kreuzberg, Germany, he shares with a group of electronic musicians. But in the East Village, it’s too expensive for him to rent.

“I decided to go homeless for the summer,” he said. “That’s freedom — and I get more work done….. The cheapest rent I found is $1,000.”

He stays awake at night and rests in the gardens by day. Places he hangs out at night are 7A and Odessa, though the only one that will let him paint inside is a restaurant at Ninth St. and Avenue C. In the winter, he’ll “couch-hop” or crash at apartments of friends who let him stay for cheap.

He said he’s also teaching art in the projects at Eighth St. and Avenue D.

“A lot of famous artists took from that area — Keith Haring, Basquiat. But they never gave back to the kids,” he said. “I’ll go back to those projects and into a courtyard and give a 14-year-old girl a painting for nothing — to keep them from breaking elevators or writing [graffiti] bubble letters or [doing] drugs.”

Police have charged him with trespassing several times on the projects’ grounds.

Missing with a half-completed drawing he was recently doing on a window he found.


Symbolic leader

And he’s still doing his symbol, which he claims is the longest-running graffiti tag in the city.

“REVS claims he’s the king,” Missing said. “But he has to acknowledge I came first.”

Unlike some others, though, he won’t graffiti on cars, churches or buildings.

“I’m too old to write on buildings,” he said.

Missing went outside for a few minutes to collect some tobacco from butts on the sidewalk.

“Damn if I give another dime to the Iraq war — the fiasco,” he muttered, as he came back and rolled a cigarette. “Iraqi babies getting killed….”

Before Pete Missing came to the Lower East Side in 1980, he lived in the Bronx, where he grew up as a middle child of five siblings. He’s Italian and, he said, “one-third Jewish.” “It was an aunt or someone who married into the family,” he explained. His father was a postal worker who delivered to the Empire State Building.

Missing went to Stockton State College in New Jersey — “because it was cheap,” he said — getting his degree in art and psychology. As for why he took psych., he said, “I hear voices — but more because I wanted to learn more about myself.”

In the 1980s Missing was known more for his music. Missing Foundation, along with the Butthole Surfers and Germany’s Einsturzende Neubauten, were the first industrial music bands, according to Missing. He still sees Gibby Haynes of the Surfers.

“He’s here — I hang out with him,” he said.

He got his last name and his band’s name when he was in Hamburg in 1984; The Missing Foundation was the East German police unit that tried to track down those who fled to West Germany.

Performances would see Missing stalk the Tompkins Square bandshell stage, shouting through a megaphone, while 20 Puerto Rican kids with black Missing Foundation T-shirts stood like bodyguards and 20 others pounded on metal objects. Other times, they’d show up for a guerilla concert, playing by the Astor Pl. cube, while chopping up a trunk on fire with axes. Right before the police arrived, they’d vanish, leaving behind a pile of smoldering debris. Or they’d play in a small indoor space, turn out the lights and start pushing people. Their goal was to create panic.


Made Ginsberg howl

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a fan.

“He used to come to all my shows,” Missing said. “He used to always give me his phone number — at least five times — and I’d throw it away. Once he gave me his phone number after we played at Tompkins Square Park and I threw it over my shoulder and he didn’t talk to me for 10 years.”

They were really an outdoor band — and tended not to play more than once indoors anyplace. What happened in 1987 at CBGB was an example why. They threw oil drums that were on fire into the crowd. The show was shut down and police cleared the club. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal has never forgiven Missing for it.

Sometimes Missing set himself on fire.

“I just pour it on and light it,” he said, describing how he’d flame on. As for how he put himself out, he said, “That’s not easy. You’ll see it in the movie. They threw a coat over me.”

In his more recent electronic music, Missing can still be an angry ranter. In his 2000 song “Don’t Step on the Little Tree,” he rails against Giuliani, bars and cell phones, among other things.

Unlike his Missing Foundation days, though, today Missing says he’s learned being violent isn’t the solution. And he’s more into painting now.

“I was more energetic in my 20s. It just kind of fits my age and speed,” he said. “You couldn’t really do painting on the Lower East Side in the ’80s — it was too hectic.”

Missing hopes he gets one of his artworks in a major museum someday.

“So I feel that I have something that’s permanent,” he said. “I’d like it to be in the Museum of Modern Art — because it’s really boring. It’s the worst one.”

In 1989, one of MoMA’s collectors bought seven of his paintings — No Parking signs he’d spray-painted over — at a Westbeth group show for $100 each. Missing has no idea what happened to them. His work wasn’t included in the recent “East Village USA” show either.

But enough of the ’80s, Basquiat and banging on burning metal. Back to more pressing matters at hand.

“I haven’t made a piece of art all day,” Missing announced. “I gotta make a piece of art, sell it and then eat.”


Dark prophet

How did the (literally) fiery, fear-inspiring lead vocalist of Missing Foundation become a homeless artist living hand to mouth on Avenue A? What happened in those 15 years to change him?

“I don’t think he’s changed much,” said Frank Morales, a leader of the squatter movement, who gave Missing his room in the Sixth St. squat in 1990. “He’s still a prophet. I think his message and his vision, as dark as it is, I think it needs to be listened to — that it’s all coming to naught. He was talking about water wars way back when.

“I think the basic answer is Pete’s pretty much the same. But the neighborhood has changed so radically he sort of stands out,” Morales said. “It’s not like the old days, when there’d be crash pads and community kitchens in some of the squats. He’s sort of isolated. I wish there was a place for him. He’s come back to a hyper-gentrified neighborhood, and it’s hard to fit in.”

Morales compared Missing to another artist, Jorge Brandon, who was known as “El Coco Que Habla,” a poet who was such a packrat his apartments invariably became inhabitable.

“But could he sling the lingo. The man was a genius,” Morales recalled. “They were different, but similar in that you didn’t have to be normal. The community supported its artists.”

Like Morales, photographer and gallery owner Clayton Patterson feels artists like Missing are finding themselves increasingly out of place, whether it be because of soaring rents or the “yappie invasion.”

“There’s no place in New York where these people can exist anymore,” Patterson said. “I mean really creative outsider types. There’s no place for them to fit in.”

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