Everyone in New Orleans knows him as “Duct Tape,” but he was born Joseph Edward Pendergast.
Every time I see him he looks completely different and just the same. He’s an aesthetically ever-changing artist and sideshow clown. I first met him before all the face tattoos, back in Florida when he was 15, painting his eyelashes white and sewing other people’s hair into his own hair.
Now he’s a work of art living the self-employed circus performer’s life in New Orleans. Among the Bywater’s dilapidated buildings, a vibrant deadzone of civilization outside the Marigny just outside the Quarter, on the other side of St. Claude, he practices all day balancing on a plastic green ball, reconfiguring bicycles with a welder and performing death-defying feats of recklessness. But he doesn’t care if he wrecks his shit and twists his spine; he’s immune to pain in the face of an opportunity to entertain.
He keeps his living expenses to a bare minimum, allowing him to focus on his passion: shock performance. I think that’s how the best artists manage to sit comfortably in a chair at a ripe old age, look back and tell stories of sacrifice that brought them personal success. They forego anything beyond the basics to devote as much time as possible to developing their skills.
Walking into his house. I see he has built a stage in the living room….
Eva Avenue: So how many people live here now?
Duct Tape Joe: We have, like, 15 roommates and there’s usually, like, at least 10–15 other people that are hanging around with our roommates, so it gets pretty crazy in here. We do a lot of midnight knife-throwing. It’s pretty awesome. I have a couple friends who come over and throw with me. Do a lot of drinking. Drink a lot. I just said the same thing twice.
I love that.
That’s pretty awesome.
When did you build this stage?
A couple months ago, coming back from tour in the Pacific NW, I broke my foot sleepwalking out of my 10-foot loft and fell and broke some of the toes on my foot. I couldn’t do any performing and I quit my job and was pretty much living on the good graces of everyone around me. I had my power tools to use in the living room—the hangout spot—and I built the stage.
What’s the checkerboard hanging on the wall?
Got the chicken drop board up here, we used to do this thing called Chicken Drop—a bunch of bands playing; my band would play. Had my little buddy Guapo de la Pollo (a chicken). We bring him and sell off squares on a board of 36 squares—it’s the chicken shit bingo board. You pay $3 a square, there’s 36 squares, winner gets $60 and the rest is split between the bands.
That’s a cool way to get everyone paid.
We did the Chicken Drop over at the St. Roch Tavern. We packed the place, people are always having a good time, bands play with us. Then City Hall came around and had to shut us all down—they deliberated over three hours why a chicken had to be in a bar, they just didn’t understand at all.
I remember five dogs running around the St. Roch Tavern. Why can’t they have one chicken?
Well, you’re not supposed to have dogs either. They’re not allowed to have dogs anymore. We lost that one and Chicken Drop got shut down. That’s when I put together my first sideshow show I could work with, and my ukulele assistant Little Jesse, we went on tour.
We’d have girls walk round with tip jars and have people staple money to me.
When did you first start dabbling in sideshows?
I started doing light sideshow stuff with a band I was with in down in Florida called Same Story, Different Patches. It was a pretty good band but we couldn’t really keep it together; there was a lot of drama. So that dissolved and I moved back up to New Orleans and started doing work. Went on tour with Stumps the Clown; he’s a pretty big name. Really fun, really crazy, and the whole time we talked about the circus stuff we had done.
When I got back into town I realized I needed a good street hustle again. I put together a fireshow. I do odd fire things: I eat hot coals and slam my face into fiery hot coals right after spraying them down with lighter fluid, and I do a lot of beds-of-nails stuff that also worked out well with having fire stuff around it. It was called the Frenchman Fire Carnivale.
Was that your idea?
That was pretty much my brainchild, I just hired people to do stuff with me. They were traditional fire performers, poi and fire-breathing. I was doing fire-breathing myself mostly. We’d have girls walk round with tip jars and have people staple money to me.
Do you make a living entirely off performing?
Right now I’m making what little I go on off of performing, which is like nothing. I don’t require much to exist. Once in a while I pick up a job, doing just a little bit to get rent. Rent isn’t too expensive and it leaves me more time to practice the things I need to practice to be better at my performances. And I sit around and read books.
Fucking charming. What else have you designed for your shows?
That Wheel of Fortune (points to a large spinnable device) is something we use between performances during shows. “Step right up folks! Test your luck folks! Test yourself on the Wheel of Fortune! One dollar! One dollar! Win a prize!” The prize was a bunch of stuff I had spray-painted gold in the back yard.
On the last tour, I would put a swing on my hair and this girl would sit on the swing and play on the ukulele and I would play the kazoo behind her and dance. Then I’d take the swing off and she’d grab onto my hair and I’d swing her around in a circle by my hair. That’s when I started eating lightbulbs and nails and beer cans onstage. I’d bite the side off of beer cans and would chew them up and swallow them.
For my mom’s 50th birthday, I got a clown nose tattooed on my face. … I’ll never have to put on another clown nose.
I’d come out, like, “Well, they don’t have a blender at this venue so I’m going to chew it up and spit it in the glass!” I’d hock loogies into it and clear my nose out into it just to make it as nasty as possible, put vinegar with orange juice and chewed up spam and I always put a little booze in there to make it a cocktail and just toss it all back at once. The first few shows I did with it, people would get up and leave and not come back. So I started saying, “For those of you with a weak stomach and not as hardcore as the rest of us, it’s fine if you get up and leave for the next five or six minutes. Nobody will judge you or think you are a pansy.” Because I said that, nobody would get up and leave.
And we’d do fun stuff like bag-of-chips-eating competition—the winner gets a bag of chips!
My current project started as Toxic Flood Waters but now it’s TF Water & Co. Circus Sideshow Band.
I notice you mentioned the first name even though you guys changed it. Did you prefer Toxic Flood Waters?
No, I wanted to switch up to something more circus-y. I got the name for it, when we were just a band, off of something spray-painted on a building during Katrina: a TFW with a circle around it, which means toxic flood waters. I was thinking of PT Barnum and TF Waters kind of sound likes a name, so TF Water Circus Sideshow Band had a ring to it.
What sort of side jobs have you had?
I sometimes cooked in restaurants for the past 16 years or so. I like a lot of culinary stuff. I was making my own hot sauces for a while. I got really into brewing for a few years. At one point I had 100 gallons of wine in my room.
Did you sell them all or drink them all?
After they were done, I quit my job and got wasted for a couple months with a bunch of friends. I also came up with four or five ways to make red-beans-and-rice wine.
That sounds like sake with beans in it.
Yes, pretty much. Rice and beans have a lot of the same make-up so they worked pretty much the same way.
I make knives; had one gallery showing at Mimi’s in the Marigny a couple Decembers ago and it was really good. Used to draw a lot; don’t really draw anymore. And I really like making crazy bicycles, cargo bikes, half shopping cart/half bicycle, the shopping cart between the wheels. I make a lot of funny bikes too. Hang out with a lot of the local bicycle clubs that go out and have fun and throw events. A lot of crazy bicycles and drinking and competitions and tall bike jousting.
One bike club, I think in Texas, they were doing tall-bike jousting and the guy fell off his bike and cracked his skull open and his wife was pregnant at the time, so she had to decide between having a baby to deal with and a complete vegetable for a husband while raising the baby on her own, so they pulled the plug on him. That bike club put a moratorium on bicycle jousting. And no one’s allowed to bicycle joust in their club without helmets now.
[Some time passes.]
For my mom’s 50th birthday, I got a clown nose tattooed on my face.
Oh my god, you’re right! You have a light red tip!
I have to go in to get it colored some more.
But you’re going to have a red nose forever!!!
I’ll never have to put on another clown nose.
You’re in it for life.
Mhmmm…what else am I supposed to do? I’ve been working toward being a clown since forever. It’s all I wanna do, clown around and make cool art and stuff. I don’t really worry too much about money. I just really, really, really get off on performing for people. I’m more elated when performing than when I’m having really good sex. I just feel so complete when I’m done performing.
It’s nice to get paid, but I don’t really mind if I don’t make as much money as some people would if they were doing things for more professional organizations. I get to put it together myself and run it myself so I don’t have to deal with The Man telling me where and when to be.
If someone offered to represent you and get you gigs, would you take it?
Oh yeah! But it’s still nice to organize it myself without a manager, but fuck yeah, a manager would be nice. Wanna be my manager?
Photos by Alison Green.