Photography by Austen Risolvato, Joshua Cobos & Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
Text by Dora Moutot
If you take a walk through California’s Disneyland in Anaheim, you’ll notice groups of people with tattooed arms, wearing studded patch waistcoats. Take another look at their waistcoats and you’ll notice that the patches and badges of their waistcoats, as well as that of their tattoos, are to the glory of Disney characters. Here we are, face to face with a patch of Minnie and a tattoo of Walt Disney’s head! Who are these Disney gangs?
They hang out together in Disneyland, as if they were loitering at a train station or in the local park. They’re easily spotted because they hang out in groups and always wear the name of their gang on their waistcoats.
There are around thirty of these gangs at the Disneyland in Anaheim. The Tomorrowland rebels, Walt’s Misfits, Hitchhikers, Main St Elite, Wonderlanders, Mickey’s Empire, Triton’s Mermaids, Hidden Mickeys, Mickey’s pink ladies… Each gang has its’ own name, as well as its own logo. Some have identified the name of their gang with their favourite ride; for others, it’s more a matter of their favourite characters. But the Neverlanders are at the origin of this movement. They are said to be the first group to have shown themselves off in such a way. Meanwhile, the Main Street Elite are the largest and most visible group.
AN ALTERNATIVE TAKE ON DISNEY
These gangs have clearly borrowed certain aesthetic traits from other subcultures, such as rockabilly, punk, biker, and gothic. Many members of these gangs are actually involved in other scenes, where they dress in an unconventional style. Just one look at the visuals of the Main Street Elite gang is enough to make the link: there you’ll find the likes of a Mickey Mouse covered in old-school tattoos and a graphic identity borrowed from the psychobilly, garage or punk communities.
Michael Stout, a barber in Los Angeles and co-founder of the Main Street Elite, explains the phenomenon: “We started the Main Street Elite with the intention of bringing people together for their common love—some would say obsession—with Disney and the Disney parks,” he says. “Being heavily tattooed and having somewhat of an ‘alternative’ image compared to the average Disney-goer, it was hard for us to mesh with the families you usually see at the park. So we decided we’ll make our own Disney family, seeking out the rest of the Disney fanatics who were left with no one to go to the park with.”
Nowadays, many subcultures seem to have developed a particular appreciation for the Disney universe. A big gothic gathering notably takes place every year in a park, as reported by Vice Magazine. On the Internet, this same “Disney Punk” has become especially popular in the past two years. These two Tumblr blogs provide plenty of evidence: disney-goes-punk.tumblr.com or disneyandtattoos.tumblr.com. Here you’ll see Disney princes and princesses reinterpreted in tattooed and pierced versions.
But alternative cultures haven’t always been welcome in Disneyland. In the Sixties and Seventies, Disneyland battled with hippies and anarchists, who would hang around in the park. Hundreds of “long-haired” ones began gathering on Tom Sawyer’s Island, blocking the entrance to the park for the average visitor. The police was even forced to intervene on two occasions due to the outbreak of fights and the park was forced to shut earlier than scheduled. In the nineties, teenage punks also started hanging out in the park. “Teenagers in Mohawks, dog collars and anarchy patches crowding Tomorrowland”, reads the Los Angeles Times back in 1997.
DISNEY AS RELIGION
But contrarily to what we might be inclined to think, these Disney gangs aren’t out to wreak chaos. Quite the contrary. For these gangs, Disney is akin to a real religion, a strange kind of cult worshipping Mickey as a divinity, an institution with its own rules, worthy of celebration on a daily basis. “Weapons are being replaced by stuffed animals and stashes of amphetamine are being replaced by lunch boxes with the effigy of Dingo”, deciphers MademoiZelle magazine. “Instead of getting involved in homicides, candidates are forced to take the Space Mountain ride several times in a row until they faint”, jokes Vice Magazine.
They don’t wage war, they create magic. These social clubs are a new generation of hardcore Disney fans emerging from social networks such as Instagram and Facebook. But they also do the same activities that most Disney fans do, such as watching films together, knowing the theme songs off by heart, as well as trading Disney objects and attending the D23 exhibition – the annual convention of the most intense Disney fans. But above all, they hang around together in packs on a regular basis at the park. No need to tell you that they all obviously have an unlimited access membership card to Disneyland, which they consider to be their second home.
“That’s what I expect of the Wonderlanders,” says Macready, the founder of the gang. “If you see trash, pick it up. If you see a family that’s having trouble—a mom taking a picture of a dad with kids, and then the dad taking a picture of the mom and kids — help them out.” They also make use of these occasions for charity fund-raising.
HOW TO JOIN A GANG
These clubs are mostly made of fans aged from 2 to 63 years old. Grandparents, parents, teenagers, and kids. Age is no limitation, neither is gender, race or sexual preference. In order to become part of a gang, there is only one requirement: to be in love with the Disney universe and to attend the meetings organised at the park. Recruitment happens initially on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but with the rise of these gangs’ popularity and visibility, preference is now given to face-to-face recruitment.
“During the last round of approvals in December, we had one guy who had waited seven months,” says Goetz, the leader of Black Death Crew. “He never complained. That’s the kind of people we want.”
Many anti-Disney gang accounts have also appeared on Twitter and Instagram, such as “stopmakingscs” and “nomorescs”. Some Disney fans don’t like the rebellious and subcultural aspect of these groups. Upon occasion, families visiting the park get worried that these gangs might be violent.
“We are fortunate to have guests who share such a strong affinity for the Disneyland Resort,” says Disneyland spokesperson Kevin Rafferty Jr. when asked about the groups.