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Just a pound per photo at Camden’s open zoo


“When you’re heading north on the tube, you can always tell who’s getting off at Camden Town,” a British bloke said to me during a recent trip to London, England.
 
“You know, the ones with the blue hair and thousands of piercings,” he said. “The punks, the freaks, the goths — they all file out when you get to Camden.”
 
I followed the so-called freaks from the Undergroud tube station up to the northern neighbourhood, Camden Town. It took me about 20 minutes to get from central London to a more eccentric, slightly grittier, part of the city.
 
In 1791, Earl Camden began developing the area and a bustling market soon sprung up. The market’s focus was traditional crafts, but soon broadened to include a wide variety of goods including antiques and clothing with a scattering of food stalls. It was a unique and pleasant part of London that attracted the finest of folk.
 
That was until the freaks moved in. 
 

Clem

Like the bloke told me, the area is filled with original, somewhat strange, people, and it was so crowded I nearly collide head-on with a black-haired, black-lipsticked goth-girl. I could smell curry simmering in many of the food stalls, and punk gear was on display in nearly every shop.
 
I felt strangely “normal” and not completely out of place since it wasn’t just punks who wandered the streets of Camden. Camera snapping, souvenir shopping tourists were also part of the mix.
 
In the beginning, people living on the fringe of society came to Camden to be with others who were doing the same. In the 1930’s, Camden was home to many Irish immigrants who made raucous and energetic folk music as an outlet because they weren’t necessarily fitting in with their new English neighbours.
 
As a result, Camden became an area where the alternative scene could grow.
 
“I think people were just keen to make their own noise and experience something new,” says Pete Wells, who runs a music video company called Punkervision.
 
He says that vibe continued until Camden became what it is today: the punk capital of the world.
 
 “The seventies was a grim decade for Britain, and a lot of the young people of the time felt disenfranchised. Unemployment and poverty were rife, and prospects for young people were limited,” he says. “So you could argue that the whole punk scene in Camden was a way for them to define their own identities.”
 
Today, you also hear reggae sounds coming from local pubs and Brit-pop that’s trying to mimic what John Lennon used to do.
 
The common thread in Camden has always been sounds and ideas that don’t necessarily mesh with the mainstream. Young people started coming to Camden to forge a new identity, to shock their parents, or impress their friends. And now it is an area where tried-and true punks, young skater kids, and rastafarians can happily walk side-by-side. It has also become a must-see for any tourist in London, including me.<!–page–>
 
I make my way down the main drag to see a group of young punks perched on the bridge, yelling at tourists as they swig back large gulps of lager. Ged sits in the middle of the group. His jeans look like they are falling apart, with more rips and holes than denim material — just the way he likes them. His hair is perfectly positioned into an erect Mohawk and he wears a studded dog collar around his neck.
 
His look is what tourists come here to see.
 

Ged

 “People always want to take my photo. Sometimes they sneak behind me to take my picture and then they run-off. But then I just chase those people because it’s an invasion of my privacy. If you want to take a picture, you come up and ask, and then I will charge you a pound,” he says as he shakes coins in his pocket.
 
For the last four years, Ged has been coming to Camden every Saturday and Sunday to hang with other “skin-heads” to earn some cash. He tells me he’s been homeless for a few years now so the money he makes in Camden helps pay for his drinking problem and hairspray addiction to style his Mohawk.
 
“If you pay me a pound, I will pose for you,” he says to me. “It’s one pound per photo and if you pay me I’ll stick my middle finger up, cross my eyes, and stick my tongue out.”
 
The crazier the better, I guess.
 
Ged keeps his word. He poses for me and then for Dabir Marindi, a man on a business trip from Spain. For the weekend, Marindi asked his wife and 10 year-old son to join him and like many tourists, Buckingham palace, Piccadilly Circus, and Leicester Square are his must-see destinations.
 
But Camden Town was his first stop. “The people are the most interesting thing to see here,” he says with a digital camera hanging from his neck. “It’s like a show here with all of the original people—the punks and the gothic people. I can’t stop taking photos!” <!–page–>
 

Laura

And this is what Laura Taylor has started to hate as she comes to work everyday to sell dress-up attire like tiaras, magic wands, and witch hats at the Camden Market. Laura says many tourists believe she is more than just a customer service agent for the shop. She is also an exhibit.
 
“I just feel like I am in a zoo,” she says, as she moves a bouncy blonde tendril away from her face that is, quite obviously, not her real hair. Her eyebrows are thickly painted black and her platform shoes make her stand almost 6 feet tall.
 
“They come up to me and expect to have my photograph. It’s not a privilege to them but they think it is! I’m not in a zoo and I’m not locked up in a cage for you to look at.”
 
Down the road, Clem solicits people from the crowd to get a tattoo. He moved to London from Germany four years ago as a tattoo artist. With his painted body and pierced face, Camden Town easily became his new home.
 
But as time passes, and more tourists flock to the area, Clem recognizes his role in Camden is changing. He’s now 50 per cent tattoo shop owner and 50 per cent tourist exhibit.
 
“Some people make fun, some make nice comments, and some make stupid comments But they will always ask to take your photo,” he says. “And when they go home to Japan, they will entertain their families by saying, ‘look, those are the freaks we have seen.’”
 
Next to Clem’s tattoo parlour is KFC and across the street is Aldo. Clem says because of the influx of tourists, the punk mecca has turned into a mainstream, capitalistic opportunity. What used to house only shops of goth, punk, and freak attire, now has items for the regular British (or foreign) citizen.
 
And the punks don’t like it.
 
“The punks who originally started bringing up the Camden atmosphere are not here anymore,” Clem tells me. “They are long gone, developing a new punk underground scene somewhere else. Five years ago, no one really knew about Camden, but now you find it in every tourist guide about London. It starts as something really cool, and then it turns into another way to make money.”
 
Until that new, underground scene becomes fully developed, many tourists will gather to see the punks who are left in Camden.
 
And even though they try, British mainstream stores such as Woolworths and Virgin Records will not overshadow the goth gear shops and independent punk music vendors that still have a steady clientele.
 
And Ged continues to make his living off the tourist’s interests in the northern community’s sub-cultures and he sets an example of how freaks and tourists can live together happily in Camden Town.
 
He made a pound off me. Only three more tourists to go until he can buy another bottle of hairspray. 

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