TRAMPS! looks at the art movement behind the The New Romantics
Kevin Hegge's new documentary profiles the artists at the heart of the iconic 80s youth culture.
Rising from the nihilistic ashes of the punk movement in the late 1970s, a fresh crowd of flamboyant fashionistas, who would later be christened the New Romantics, began to materialize on the streets of London, England.
My new feature film, TRAMPS! repositions the iconic 80s subculture as an art movement rather than solely a pop-cultural one.
This period in British history was particularly unique because kids could attend art or fashion school for free, and also lived in massive squatted houses with other fledgling artists. In a pre-AIDS era, this way of living provided a lifestyle with very little sense of consequence and resulted in a flourish of art being produced that straddled film, music, art and fashion causing waves around the world that resonate to this day.
Their radical, proto-drag confused the media, who couldn't look away — like a cultural car crash, and soon enough they were brought into homes internationally with the rocket-like rise-to-fame of the likes of Boy George and his band Culture Club.
The idea for the film originates back to my trip to London, England with my first movie back in 2013. Admittedly, I came to the city with a well-developed obsession with UK music, arts and subculture going all the way back to my youth. I was struck by the proximity of these artists who were both central to my preexisting obsessions, and those who permeated the margins of the cultures I had come to love.
I knew straight away that I needed to spend time getting under its skin for my next movie, and it wasn't until a series of coincidences revealed to me what that movie would be, that things started falling into place.
As my research plunged to its depths I realized that I wanted to shift the focus away from megastars and instead shine a light on people like painter Trojan, who had to this point been thrust into the shadows of his partner in crime, performance artist Leigh Bowery. These shadows were also cast by the onslaught of AIDS and rampant drug use, which effectively banished so much of the creative community to obscurity.
I crossed paths with incredible artists like fashion designers BodyMap, jewelry designer and stylist extraordinaire Judy Blame, choreographer Michael Clark and style icons Princess Julia and Scarlett Cannon. I was obsessed with their images, having permeated the pages of revolutionary cultural magazines like I-D and The Face, but seemed to flounder in terms of being celebrated as part of this movement which really was born out of a diversity of art practises, rather than strictly pop music aimed at straight people and dominant culture.
For me, TRAMPS! is a movie about youth culture, the central characters just happen to be more advanced in their years. Of course, night life in London still thrives, and although they seem to be slipping away to the annals of the digitization of gay culture, the East End alternative gay bars still teem with boundary pushing queer artists and festive freaks. DJ's like Princess Julia and Jeffrey Hinton are still very much at the centre of it. They've been at it since the early 80s — Jeffrey Hinton was the resident DJ at Leigh Bowery's nightclub Taboo, which was infamously debaucherous.
People like Julia and Jeffrey are a well of energy and I was eager to dip my bucket in! I wanted to bridge the gap between the archaic divide between so-called "kids these days" and the generations that predated them. I think the adage goes, if you're not interested, you're not interesting. The subjects in my film continue to engage with and produce art in whatever guise that may be — even just dressing up!
Making a documentary can be pretty depleting, especially when you spend years chasing pennies from granting bodies. For me that also extended into a sense of unworthiness — like the project I cared so deeply for didn't have the worth I felt it had. It can also be costly in many other ways, such as a forced unsustainable lifestyle, especially when other filmmakers seem to sail through things like financing and distribution, where I felt I was destined to flounder.
That's why when I would look at the subjects in TRAMPS! I began to see them not as just members of bygone subculture, but instead as a sort of mystical source of inspiration. To be an artist is to be a survivalist, resilience is at its centre, and so the narrative of the movie began to develop around those themes. Because I needed to hear it, I assumed others like me would also benefit from their secrets. What was the source of that resilience? How do they survive? How will I continue to make art and survive?
The New Romantics were essentially living what we are now seeing in what is sometimes referred to as the precariat generation; those whose income and employment are entirely insecure today. While working small jobs in friends shops, and a variety of other side gigs, trying to survive while making this movie — this fear-filled existence became central in my life and the narrative of the movie as well. Very dramatic I know, but these are undeniably dramatic times.
I hoped the answer, and inspiration to continue down this path existed somewhere in their story. This was the inspiration I needed to grow as a filmmaker and as a person, and so TRAMPS! was born.
I wanted to find some tenderness in a community that was so well-known for its aesthetic alone, and through this concept and cliché of the "artists struggle" I feel we really did find a lot of heart in that. It wasn't until the movie was invited to play BFI Flare, and I stood on the stage at two sold out screenings that I realized that pursuit I so desperately needed to continue, truly did manifest in this documentary. I'm so excited to be able to share that with anyone and everyone who may continue to be in that position.
Ultimately, TRAMPS! is an allegorical gesture to artists of any generation trying to navigate how to produce work in an aggressively capitalist political economy. It happens to take place in London, but I hope it speaks to artists everywhere.
TRAMPS! screens in Toronto at the Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival on Tuesday, May 31. It is available to stream across Ontario from May 26 to June 5.