Welcome to the Juggle

Who are the Juggalos, and why are they always hanging out down by the river?

Mathew Williams considers himself a Juggalo and likes to hang out by the Truckee River in downtown Reno.

Mathew Williams considers himself a Juggalo and likes to hang out by the Truckee River in downtown Reno.

photo by amy beck

If you’ve been downtown to the Truckee River this summer, attending any of Artown’s events at Juggalo—I mean Wingfield—Park, then you’ve come in contact with them, or, at the very least, eyed them suspiciously.

The Juggalos have become something of a staple of the bustling area surrounding popular summertime hangouts like Sierra Tap House and Java Jungle. The Juggalo river rats, as they’re commonly called, go hand-in-hand with the nice weather and roaring river. You don’t get one without the other.

If familiar with the area, you tend not to cast them a second glance—unless they happen to be raising a particularly obnoxious, raucous roar at the moment you go to sip your latte.

But those new to the location—or perhaps even seasoned downtowners—may not know the meaning of a Juggalo or the lifestyle it infers.

From sheer curiosity, and a desire to better understand the lifestyle, I decided to spend some time among the Juggalo river rats.

How do they define their identity? Why do they choose it? And who are they, really, beyond the stereotype?

A Juggalo, in short, is a fan of the hardcore hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse, or ICP. The group has an avid, some might say obsessive, following that basically centers on being an outcast—and teaming up with fellow ICP fans for acceptance.

ICP themselves outline the definition of a Juggalo in the song “What is a Juggalo?” which is a highly enlightening listen. For a sneak peek, here are some of the lyrics: “What is a Juggalo?/ Well, he ain’t a phony/ He’ll walk up and bust a nut in your macaroni.”

As for downtown Reno’s own cluster of Juggalos, they get the extra “river rat” tag because many of them either frequently congregate, or even live, on the river. While they’re there all year, the summer tends to bring large numbers out of the woodwork.

Modern family

Heading down to the West Street Plaza’s circular Juggalo stomping grounds on a recent Friday afternoon, I spotted a posse perched down by the river steps. Unsure of how to approach them, the task was less intimidating when I saw two lone members off to the side.

“This might seem like a random question,” I said as I walked up, “but do either of you listen to ICP?”

“Fuck, yeah, we listen to ICP,” came the enthusiastic response.

With the floodgates open, I began my inquiry into the mystery of a Juggalo river rat.

Their names are Kurt Smith and Mathew Williams. Smith is 21 years old, and Williams is 20. Although they’re cousins, Smith and Williams’ physical similarities lie only in their Juggalo pride tattoos and styling. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, and tanned Smith, who says he got his looks from his family’s Native American genes, chooses to sport around his neck a large pendant of the Hatchet Man, the official logo for Psychopathic Records, the label founded by ICP. Williams, with his pale skin and light buzz-cut hair, matches this with a tattoo, as well as various other ink, which are all related to being a Juggalo in some way, including the “FGRM” scribbled across the four fingers of his left hand, signifying “Fuck Gangs, Represent Myself.” The tattoo is meant to show the difference between Juggalos, who have an individual identity in the family, as opposed to gang members who supposedly aren’t allowed such a luxury.

It’s a common misconception about their lifestyle. Despite the fact that most Juggalos hang out in large numbers, they’re not a gang—they prefer the term “family.”

“We don’t represent any certain color; we don’t represent any certain race,” explains Williams, twisting his baseball cap around backwards as he speaks. “You can be Mexican, black, white. Dude, you can be orange, you can be fuckin’ green for all we care. You’re all welcome. It’s a family thing as long as you got respect.”

And like family, they watch out for one another. Living day and night on the river, they band together not only out of a shared love of ICP, but also out of survival and safety in numbers.

“You protect it like it’s your blood family,” says Williams.

And like family, the Juggalo tag allows them to feel like they belong somewhere. For many of the kids, the river acts as a place for them to feel acceptance for the first time in their lives.

“A lot of us came together because growing up, we were the outcasts,” says Williams. “We didn’t have any friends. I didn’t have one friend until I was in seventh grade, and it just happened to be Juggalos.”

The Juggalo river rat family is extensive and constantly shifting members. It consists of mostly homeless teens and young adults, many of whom have already spent years on the river. They come and go, depending on jail time and the constant urge to move. They’re travelers. But they often find their way back to the comfort and familiarity of the river.

“They always come back,” confirms the red-suspender clad Smith. “Reno is a black hole. And they always come back here to this spot.”

The river wild

What is it about Wingfield Park and the Truckee River that acts like a magnet—prime time to insert classic ICP lyrics: “fucking magnets, how do they work?”—for the Juggalos? Smith and Williams don’t really know, but they have a theory.

“This is the heart of downtown, it’s somewhere to hang out and go swimmin’,” says Williams. “We bathe and float down it.”

But never fear, they refrain from using it as a toilet. The Juggalos leave that dirty work for other river dwellers.

“Other than the bums shittin’ in it—that’s the cleanest water there is!” says Smith. “But they usually do that downriver more, where there’s less people.”

Both Smith and Williams have been calling the river home off and on for the last three years. While Smith currently says he’s stationed there fulltime, Williams is staying in a motel with his sister, but he plans to be back down by the water soon.

The lifestyle may not be what they’ve always known—Smith says he was once a yoga instructor before getting busted for marijuana, and Williams has worked on and off in construction—but they don’t see an out anytime soon.

“With the way that my life’s going to go, and the way that my dad’s life went, I really have nowhere I can go,” says Smith. “I’m kinda stuck in a fuckin’ hard spot.”

As for future goals, Smith says he would like one day to teach yoga again, and Williams plans to eventually go back into construction.

“I’m a carpenter,” Williams says. “I’ve been doin’ it since I was a little kid with my family, but I got into drugs. I got into treatment, and I’m doin’ better now.”

Drugs and a history of mental illness are partially to blame for the homeless aspect of Williams’ and Smith’s current lifestyles. Williams says he has ADHD and is schizophrenic, while Smith claims to be legally insane.

At the end of the day, it’s the Juggalo family that keeps them going. Whether or not outsiders agree with the lifestyle, perhaps it comes down to as simple a thing as everyone must belong somewhere—so why not the river?

“When you come down here and you’re havin’ a bad day, somebody’s goin’ to try to cheer you up,” says Williams. “’Cause no one likes to see you have a bad day. Most times it’s like, ‘Hey, don’t kill yourself. Here, smoke a bowl, drink a little bit.’”

And for some, that’s what family’s all about.