5 Things You Learn Professionally Squatting In AWarehouse
When you hear someone talk about "squatters," you probably think of hobos/borderline hobos stinking up a crumbling old house or abandoned grocery store in the middle of some broken chunk of urban sprawl. Usually their ambitions don't extend beyond "keep dry" and "have a nice place to do heroin." But all over the world you'll find a different kind of squatter community, involving hundreds of people -- often artists -- who live their lives outside the direct control of the law. Some of these communities have existed right in the middle of major cities for decades.
Why do they do it? How can they get away with it? We went and visited a couple to find out ...
You've Got To Fight For Your Right To Squat
Let's say you and a bunch of friends want to take over a patch of land that isn't yours and set up your own little community. How would you go about keeping the cops from just arresting everyone and sending in the bulldozers? Set up barricades? Armed guards?
Actually, the answer is art. Allow us to explain.
Just don't ask us to explain the art.
Squatter communities usually involve a bunch of weirdos who spend most of their time making art living rent-free outside the confines of society's laws. There's one in Copenhagen, Denmark, that's been there for almost 45 years, containing about a thousand squatters/artists. There are independent squatter communities in the United States, too -- we visited Slab City, California, last year -- but they tend to exist well off the beaten path. That's because, well, what they're doing is usually illegal as hell. "Squatting" by definition means they didn't pay for the land they're sitting on, and in almost every case lots of people are unhappy about it.
The two anarchist-ish squatter compounds we visited were both in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. The first, Metelkova, has been around for more than 20 years and hosts a shitload of art from renowned painters, sculptors, etc., from around the world:
This used to be a Yugoslavian army guard tower.
And this used to be a literal nightmare.
The second, Social Center Rog, also contains a shitload of art and -- bonus! -- a giant skate park.
No one built it. It just sort of appeared.
Why doesn't the government just come and tear it down? They totally tried.
Metelkova was built over the rotten corpse of an old Yugoslavian military base. As the military pulled out, the area was promised to local artists as a work space by the government. But the government almost immediately decided "fuck that" in lieu of bulldozing the whole thing and selling the land to developers. One of our sources for the article, Natasha, was there when the demolition started. "They brought all these machines, wrecking balls as well ... but by coincidence, someone passed by, saw what was happening, and informed all the other members. People gathered and decided to attack to protect the buildings."
This "attack" took the form of dozens of artists rushing the demolition site and setting up in buildings as they were being torn down. The basic logic was, the government probably won't kill us all for this land. The squatters erected barricades to keep the government out (which obviously wouldn't hold them off for long) and started covering everything with art. "Artists just gathered and started gluing ceramic tiles on the wall. The purpose was to protect the building with art ... then maybe they won't demolish it."
"After all, you never see them bulldoze a spraypainted building, right? Right?!"
OK, so that sounds like about the hippie-dippiest bullshit imaginable. "If we cover the walls with enough art we can melt the government's hard hearts!" It's the kind of plan that could have been dreamed up only by people too high to remember that the government has access to things like tear gas and truncheons.
But it worked.
Like the old saying goes: "The Illuminati-baby humping
a soccer ball sculpture is mightier than the sword."
Next, local artists started donating paintings and sculptures, and the squatters began hosting as many concerts and art shows as possible. "In two months, like 200 different events happened." Natasha's job during all this was to take clippings from newspaper articles about the squat and different events it held. Several Slovenian intellectuals teamed up with an American architect named Kevin Kaufman and produced the Metelkova Development Plan, a detailed blueprint for the future expansion of the squat.
All of this was meant to establish the squat as a legitimate piece of cultural heritage, rather than just a place where young hippie kids got fucked up. And it worked: The government relented, declared Metelkova a cultural heritage site, and pulled back the wrecking balls and the cops.
Having a spider-tank on their side didn't hurt.
After more than a decade in operation, Metelkova inspired another squat -- Social Center Rog -- which began when a bunch of artists started occupying an abandoned communist bike factory. But the Rog had to fight for its existence against a different foe: junkies.
Squatting Means Kicking Out Previous Squatters
"Wait," you're probably thinking, "aren't all of these people junkies?" Shockingly, no. On our second night in the city we attended a "wild" party thrown by the Rog as a fundraiser. The publicly available drugs were beer and wine ... that was about it. Nobody got shitfaced, nobody started fights, and, on the whole, it was considerably tamer than Cracked's annual company Christmas party.
They only had one beer in that fridge, and it belonged to Ganesha.
So folks at the Rog aren't teetotalers, but it's not a drug-soaked den of inequity, either, partly because the residents are dirt poor, but mainly because the first big stumbling block in the Rog's existence was kicking out the dangerous junkies who squatted in the abandoned factory before the artists arrived. One long-time resident told us, "At first it was half artists, half junkies. Some on drugs, some just alcoholics. We kicked out the worst of them until eventually just one old alcoholic was left."
The squatters managed to force out most of them via a concerted campaign of passive-aggression: making them feel unwelcome and ostracized until they packed up their shit and left for another abandoned building. But that one old alcoholic didn't respond to social pressure. "Then he got some woman drunk, and we found her outside in the middle of winter -- she had turned blue."
"They can't attack me if I turn my skin into art!"
The woman nearly died, but the squatters were able to get her medical attention. That near-death gave them the motivation they needed to physically force the last of the former tenants out of the factory. That's the sort of thing you have to do yourself when ...
The Police Stay Out Of It ... For Better Or Worse
Metelkova's international reputation as an art gallery gained squatters a lot of affection within Ljubljana. When the Rog started up, they took advantage of that goodwill. "The police know it would look bad to come in here ... so they don't."
During that giant party we attended, the cops did show up because of a noise complaint, but they were content to stay outside and give the DJ a 40 euro ticket for being too noisy. The Slovenian cops were actually super polite about the whole "loud squatter party" thing. As they wrote out the ticket, a group of around 40 people formed around the three officers, chanting slogans we assume were not positive about The Man and generally getting rowdy. At no point did the cops call for back-up or draw their weapons. But don't misconstrue us: This isn't because Slovenian cops are pacifists. They have riot police who fire tear gas at protesters, just like any country:
The tears just fuel more art.
From our vantage point, it seemed almost like the police were afraid of the squatters. Not that they might get violent, because nobody had any weapons in hand (this being Slovenia, none of them owned guns). The cops clearly did not want to actually enter the Rog and shut down the party because it would've been bad PR.
The negative flipside of this is that the police also aren't willing to enter the squat to arrest people committing actual violent crime. One man we talked to in the Rog was assaulted by a crazed violent teenager and beaten badly with an iron bar. His jaw was broken and his skull was cracked to fuck and back. When he reported this to the police, their response was basically, "He's your problem." Hey, you want to live outside the law, you get your wish.
"Live by the squat, die by the squat."
So, the squatters of the Rog decided to handle the perp themselves. "We dressed up in masks and gloves and showed up in his room in the middle of the night and threw him out. We gathered up all his stuff and tossed it out too." Oh, hey, it's starting to look like there might be an ugly side to the squatter artist life ...
You're Only "Off The Grid" Until You Can Steal Your Way Back Onto It
When the first generation of squatters started squatting in Metelkova, they were living in half-demolished buildings with no water and power in the midst of a European winter. "The circumstances were rather hard. Many ... just left because they could not bear the conditions. There was no electricity. Winter was coming. It was rather hard, and these people were ... adults in the midst of careers. And then other squatters came ... punks and people who wanted to party."
The young punks were spry enough to last a bitter winter. They managed to acquire an old generator to power their concerts and started stealing water from the city. The Rog did the same thing, hijacking a fire hydrant for their own use.
Which isn't to say things are super fancy there, even so.
Once they had the water, the government couldn't take it away from them because then someone might die and it'd technically be their fault. As someone in the Rog told us, "The city installed a meter, and now they foot the bill for our water. At least ... I hope they are paying the bill. I haven't gotten a bill!"
OK, so this entry might make these people sound like the lazy suckers-of-government-teat your Trump-voting uncle assumes every liberal arts major aspires to be. But this is the hard reality of living off the grid. You can reject the evils of governments, corporations, and modern society, but you are still an organism that needs water to not die, as well as heat to stave off the winter and electricity to power your guitar. So there is always a point at which someone in the squat comes up with a brilliant idea to make some cash -- you know, just enough to keep everyone alive. That's when you find out ...
Going Legit Can Kill The Squat
Metelkova has existed -- and grown -- for 20 straight years. They're an official NGO now. Today they're hooked up to the city water and power grid legally ... but that means they have bills. They pay them with profit from concerts and several bars (some of which are operating illegally), which have grown into a sizable revenue stream for Metelkova. "They finance everything; maintaining the building, paying the artists ... not much, but something." Metelkova has actually become successful enough that many folks make significant amounts of money running galleries and holding concerts there. It's gained international recognition at the cost of, ironically, becoming too expensive for the kind of poor punk artists who founded it. Today it's a popular place for rich student hipsters to party and feel cool.
The much-grungier Rog still stays true to its roots: Anyone can show up and make art or play music. But since Metelkova has bills, they can't afford to let just anyone play or set up art: "If a band won't bring in a lot of people, they won't sell enough tickets and the bars won't sell enough beer ... so maybe they don't get to play." And that seems to be the life-cycle of these squats: They start with a bunch of furious, motivated young artists who want to create a place for themselves and their work. Then they get popular, start making money, and turn into boring ol' art galleries just as snooty as their more traditional predecessors. That was clearly a major worry of several of the Rog's "founding" residents. When we first visited, they were willing to give us a brief tour of their facilities ...
Including the fake Dracula castle they were building for an independent horror movie.
But they didn't want to sit down for an interview, and they pointed out several times that "no one is allowed to make money from the art they make here." They warmed up to us eventually and even offered to sit down with us over coffee and explain their viewpoint.
Their coffee table was an old TV.
They all respected what Metelkova, the older squat, had done for squatter's rights in the city. But they didn't like what it had become ("It is in every tourist guide to Europe.") and they all worried that the Rog would get too popular and become another hip concert venue for rich kids from London and Berlin to use as a backdrop for selfies. One resident pointed out that international companies have already started eyeing the Rog as a location to shoot ads. "Garnier Fructis wanted to pay us to film a commercial here."
As you can tell from their non-table TV, they aren't big fans of commercials.
Despite the fact that Garnier put thousands of dollars on the table, and despite the fact that most Rog residents are literal starving artists, they said no. Partly because Garnier tests on animals, they said, and partly because they're straight-up terrified of getting too popular.
But that's just how it goes. Over the years idealism melts away, money starts flowing in, and pretty soon what was once an enclave of the counter-culture becomes a commoditized chunk of the regular culture. In the beginning, Metelkova was host to dozens of squatters: Now just one person lives there full-time. The Rog is currently host to anywhere from eight to a few dozen residents, depending on the time of year. But every year they get a little more established, a little more money trickles in, and, eventually, the Rog will likely find its way into tourist guidebooks and become just another place where rich kids pay to party.
"115 of your friends have checked in here!"
And when that happens, a new generation of young artists who can't afford to pay $50 to see a concert or drink $4 beers at a gallery show will find another abandoned building, fill it with art, thumb their noses at the cops, and the whole cycle will continue on.
Robert Evans runs the Personal Experience section of Cracked, and he has a Twitter.
If Squatter City isn't the kind of place you're looking to live, maybe check out a homeless city? They have a better government. See what else we learned in 5 Horrifying Things You Learn Living In A Homeless Tent City. Or check out 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless if you just want to shun society altogether.
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