The ’90z – 2003 (cont.)
Fighting for tattoos and weed in the Combat Zone
Nowadays when someone calls themselves a “libertarian,” what they actually mean is “anti-semitic conspiracy theorist.” As etymological developments go, this one’s particularly unfortunate. During Prince W.’s first term, libertarianism meant a healthy distrust of authority and an opposition to superfluous laws. Basically, when someone called themselves a “libertarian,” they were really more of a “stoner” sort. The early Dig never declared itself ideologically aligned in any official capacity, but they sure did publish a lot of articles about weed.
Glowing green the proper way
GRAHAM WILSON (sales manager): We “mostly wrote about weed.” That was a bit of criticism that I think was a bit overblown, but there were certain things we harped on, and marijuana prohibition was one. In 1999, tattoos were illegal in Massachusetts, and we harped on that shit constantly. Also gay marriage, gay rights—all these things that back in ’99—weren’t making mainstream media. I’m not saying the Phoenix wasn’t covering all that, but because we had a smaller book, the editorial we did kind of stood out more.
BENNETT (music editor): At the time, tattoos were illegal in Massachusetts. Not to have, but to administer. The parallel street behind the Kingston Street building in Chinatown—literally, almost directly behind the Weekly Dig office—there was a tattoo artist who lived there. He had a studio set up in his loft, and not only did he tattoo there, but he had it set up so other tattoo artists from other parts of New England and even some New York guys came through there. I actually left work a couple times to go get tattooed.
CRAIG KAPILOW (associate editor): Joe was particularly passionate about legalizing marijuana and passing tattoo legalization, and that’s probably the biggest piece of his legacy from the Dig. It was a really proud moment when the tattooing ban was lifted in 2000.
JOE BONNI (EiC): I was minimally involved in the tattoo legalization movement. That was mostly tattoo artists. I gave it a voice when I could. I helped organize based on what I knew from the marijuana movement, but they did most of the work. And now I know tattooists who are on PTAs instead of working in the underground, and that changes your local dialogue. That’s the kind of movement I was interested in. If you can incorporate more people into a community, then you turn all these marginalized voices into a constant and accepted component of democratic discourses, like your PTA.
MATT KING (classifieds manager): I started out doing regular advertising, and then classifieds, trying to beef up the ad section. I was looking at the Phoenix and they had all this adult stuff. I said, “Hey [publisher] Jeff [Lawrence], why don’t we have an adult section?” He said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you do that?” So I started doing that, and kind of got carried away for a while.
BONNI: Jeff and I had constantly evolving opinions on this. Literally, prostitutes and their pimps came in and paid Matt King on the spot, and that was a great cash flow scenario, because a lot of advertisers didn’t pay bills on time and the biggest payers often paid in 30 or 60-day cycles that didn’t match our bills. The Phoenix had already established escort ads as a monster money maker for indie press in Boston, so we followed that and that led to some ladies showing up at parties. We were in the Combat Zone for fuck’s sake.
KING: Jeff was pretty good at getting people to do events. Sometimes you have an event and nobody goes. These were all well-attended, good parties. That’s what I think about when I think about the early days of the Dig, and that’s the reason why I was willing to do such a shit job calling up prostitutes all day, hitting them up for money. The culture was there, there was crazy music playing every day, there was stuff to do at night. You couldn’t smoke a cigarette at your desk, but you could smoke weed if you wanted.
BONNI: Our office was shared for a while by a guy named Trey Helliwell, who was tragically murdered in 2001. He had a management company, and he would throw these huge parties—one fuckin‘ drink parties, like cosmos, all fuckin‘ night. But he would also bring up absinthe that he and his crew made down in New Orleans. I learned how to drink absinthe the proper way, over sugar.
JEFF LAWRENCE (publisher): It was psychotropic. It was insane. Shit glowed. Literally glowed green. Would change anybody’s disposition.
BONNI: Local bands would play, and there’d be hundreds of people there, and … I mean, the Phoenix couldn’t pull this off. They could rent out Lansdowne Street and bring in the biggest bands on earth, but having a couple local bands with a couple hundred people who loved the scene, wanted to hang out, drink some absinthe, and we’ve got this big warehouse space … y’know?
LAWRENCE: I remember Trey at the end of a party made an announcement to the rest of us, saying, “Like, so, I had four pounds of weed stuffed in cowboy boots. And they’re gone.” We looked everywhere in the loft. And he was like, “Y’know what? Fuck it.” Then we did the afterparty at J.J. Foley’s on Kingston Street, and I went back to the loft. It’s like 3:30 or 4 in the morning, and I’m mopping. I move the table, and there are the fucking cowboy boots. I remember calling Trey and he was like, “That’s cool.” I was like, “I just found four pounds of your fucking weed, and that’s all you can say?” He says, “Yeah, I wrote it off.”
In the next episode: Berklee College of Music’s internship program cuts ties with the Dig under undetermined circumstances, the Kingston Street era comes to an abrupt conclusion, and way too many Dig staffers see their editor’s bare bum bum.
Barry Thompson lives next to a highway in the Allston/Brighton vicinity. He has written for a whole bunch of places, enjoys caffeine, and appreciates a good, hearty anxiety attack every now and again.