Berlin Portraits

La JohnJoseph on Fascist Symbols in Berlin’s Fetish Scene

An Interview for the Berlin Portrait Series on The Needle. By Joseph Pearson.

La JohnJoseph by Attila Kenyeres. Make-up Sarah Hartgen. Used with Permission

What is your name?

La JohnJoseph


Where are you from and where else have you lived?

I was born in Liverpool, and have since lived in California, London, and New York, as well as spending extended periods of time in Istanbul and Athens, which are two of my favourite cities in the world.


When did you first move to Berlin?

I visited quite frequently when I was still at Central St Martins, but only made the move full-time in 2010.


Why did you come here?

My beloved friend the artist Stevie Hanley had been living in Berlin for a few years already, and in visiting him I met other genius people like the writer Travis Jeppesen, the painter Sophie Iremonger, the photographer Iwajla Klinke, the musician Mary Ocher, and the great globetrotting raconteur Tom Masters. None of them had day jobs, they were on the whole all broke as fuck, and would spend their days in the studio and their nights getting into high-level mischief. I mean honestly, the situations we got into seem incomprehensible now. I’m not talking about identikit partying, like spending 72 hours in a k-hole at Buttons (no shade, Buttons is fun). The atmosphere I loved when I arrived in Berlin came out of an unfakeable combination of poverty, boredom, insatiable libido, and the constant desire to one-up each other. And it was strangely genteel. During one dinner party, a strange mood arose and everyone started stripping naked, and smeared each other in mashed potato. Why this happened I don’t know, but it seemed totally par for the course at the time. (On another occasion Stevie and Sophie went to Rose’s bar wearing only neon pink stilettos and came back with a couple of new guys to fuck).

I couldn’t quite believe that this enclave actually existed. In London all of the artists I knew were climbing over each other to get a job with the BBC, but in Berlin I found what you might call career bohemians. They weren’t people waiting to get cast in a sitcom or a vodka commercial because that just wasn’t going to happen, they’d all sort of committed themselves to doing what they wanted with their lives and were ready to face the consequences.


Why did you leave Berlin?

I lived in Berlin full time until 2014, and since then I’ve been a part time Berliner, usually coming to town every other month for two or three weeks. I left because the project I’d been focused on for most of the time I’d been living in Berlin was beginning to make me quite unhappy. I’d developed the long-term alter ego of Alexander Geist, my “identical twin brother”, as a sort of Roberta Breitmore or Sophie Calle-inspired performative investigation of identity. Alexander was (to me at least) quite clearly a parody of a certain form of masculinity, he was this suave, glam-pop star who sang in a Bowie-esque croon about sex changes and bisexual threeways. I mean, clearly I was taking the piss. But as these things go the persona and the project took on a life of their own and people started recognising me (or rather, him) at the gym or at Berghain, and it made me incredibly uncomfortable.

On one hand I didn’t want to dismiss people who genuinely liked the music I’d made as Alexander Geist, I didn’t want to be rude, but I definitely did want to be left alone. It just happened more and more often, and I felt overly scrutinised. I’d hear exaggerated gossip from friends about things that people had seen me do, or say (some quite personal) and it freaked me out. Especially as it wasn’t me, it was performance persona. I began to feel a little trapped by it. I started spending more time in London and focused on writing for theatre, projects which were more clearly defined, and much less ambiguous about where the “I” ended and the character began. I wanted space from Geist without killing him off I suppose. Of course being recognised is a sign of success I guess, but then I’ve always worked in the medium of self-sabotage!


Do you miss Berlin?

I love Berlin, I’m always so happy to be here, I spend more of my time here than anywhere besides London. In an ideal world I’d split my time 50/50 between the two, but that’s quite a logistical headache – you never quite know where your Reinigungsmilch is.


What is something you like about the city?

The boys. And the music. So many of the artists I love are based in Berlin – Easter, Mary Ocher, Molly Nilsson, Bendik Giske, Romy Haag, and Dubais. Of course I love how incongruous the city still is too, how on any given night you might share a stage with an old DDR Schlager singer, or a femme rapper in from Brooklyn.


What is something you’d like to change about Berlin?

The attitude towards time keeping. If you’re five or ten minutes late in London or New York it’s just about permissible, any more and it’s game over. In Berlin though, you agree to hang out at 2pm on Tuesday, and the person you’re meeting might not turn up until breakfast time on Thursday, and it’s no big deal. But maybe I’m just too uptight? Probably.


Where do you go in the city for pleasure?

Karstadt. When I was singing in “Gianni” at Deutsche Oper, my Mother and sister came to visit and I was showing them around town. On the last day of their stay we went to over to Karstadt for a party which my friend Greta was throwing. Greta is a bassist and played with Debbie Harry and Jayne County, she’s the real deal, so all of her friends are old time rock’n’rollers. She had decided to celebrate her one year in Berlin anniversary on the cafe terrace at Karstadt, everyone was drinking the €1.99 Sekt and eating Brezels. It was quite a scene, my Mother and my sister, and all of these old punks, amongst the regular Karstadt crowd of Turkish coffee drinkers and the Omas with their Hühnerfrikassee. I swear that place is perfect for every gathering. I’m obsessed, I even wrote about it in my old column for Dandy Dicks.


Where do you go in the city for work?

Karstadt, obviously. I try to schedule all of my meetings in the cafe there, and if I’m writing I find it an incredibly productive environment. The coffee is awful, but the music is great – where else are you guaranteed to hear “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia back to back with “Free Your Mind” by En Vogue?


Where do you go to cheer yourself up?

Can I say Karstadt again? No? Oh alright. like Cafe Rix,  I go there to doodle. Though I do wish they hadn’t put those new chandeliers in. I miss the old ceiling fans, they made the place look like Sam’s bar from Casablanca.


Where do you go to turn off?

I haven’t turned off since 1998, it’s physically impossible for me to at this point. If I need to relax I watch Dangerous Liaisons and read The Economist, simultaneously.


Where do you go where you can think?

I walk to think, I particularly like walking between friends, from Neükolln into Treptower Park.


Do you feel like a ‘Berliner’? Why or why not?

I don’t think my Turkish is good enough to really be a Berliner. If anything I’m a citizen of the world, which is an identity I am clinging to if only as a fuck-you to Theresa May, who uses the term as though it were an invective.


Tell us a little about the photograph of yourself in this blog post…

This picture is an outtake from a shoot I did with my friend Sarah Hartgens, for my new theatre piece “A Generous Lover”. Sarah always art directs and does make-up when I shoot in Berlin. It’s actually shot in her apartment, and I’m wearing her Bill Blass 1960s hot pink jacket as a dress. Our friend Attila Kenyeres shot the image, we spent a long day together trying things out, and experimenting. Attila did the hair too, so it was a very collaborative session all told.


You are speaking out about fascist symbolism in Berlin’s fetish culture. Could you tell us about that?

The last project I worked on in Berlin was the video for a track called “Far Worse” which I made as Alexander Geist, with my friend Ben Jackson. It’s a bombastic ballad that becomes a gabber banger, it’s definitely one of the best tracks I’ve ever made. We shot the video with Fritz Schiffers, who has a really intense lo-fi aesthetic which fuses fashion and fine art.

Most of the footage came from Folsom Street Fayre, the big fetish event that happens in Schönenberg in September. When the video was edited together with studio shots of Ben and me covered in vaseline and wasps we thought it looked pretty fucking great, and were all ready to release it. That was until our booking agent pointed out that it was studded with Far-Right and neo-Nazi symbols, of which we were totally ignorant. It was so mortifying because we’d been showing people this video, talking about where to premiere it, and had no idea that we were basically telegraphing these Far-Right codes.

There were close-up shots of dudes tying their white bootlaces in specific ways that signal their belief in racial purity; it was insane. That was really a chilling moment, especially in the context of the rise of the AfD in Germany. Ben and I took the video and re-edited it (and in doing so had to hold back the release so that the video came out much later than the track) which we felt was the least we could do. But still, we were complicit in our ignorance, as we chose those images because we thought they were cool, we were somehow drawn to them and were ready to circulate them wider, with no understanding of what we were flagging.

My first experiences of Folsom were in hippy-dippy San Francisco, where it was all space cakes and safe-space spanking, so I was probably quite naive in thinking of this kink fest as some sort of queer utopia. But generally, seeing the prevalence of this neo-skinhead chic across Berlin creeps me out. Everyone has a buzz cut and a bomber jacket, if it wasn’t so tactless you’d even say it was camp (in the way Rosenberg talks about camp).

I guess people, especially queer ex-pats, think they’re reclaiming or re-appropriating an aesthetic which is traditionally associated with anti-gay and anti-immigrant sentiment, and some how repurposing it. On an intellectual level perhaps there’s something interesting going on, but let’s be real – can we ever really think about contemporary fashion as intellectual? And day to day, on the streets, when faced with the resurgence of this look, are people really thinking “Wow – what a clever reworking of neo-Nazi sartorial codes?” I’m not convinced they are. More so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this style is so ubiquitous at the same time that Far-Right political parties are gaining more and more traction. As the nefarious Breitbart put it, “Politics is downstream of culture”.



Do take a look at Alexander Geist x Ben Jackson’s video of “Far Worse”, now with the fascist iconography removed:



About The Berlin Portrait Series on The Needle

The Needle, one of Berlin’s most-read blogs, is beginning of a series of portraits of Berliners. The Berliners included, however, were not born here. They are all transplants: people who have come from somewhere else to make the German capital their home. We also interview people who have a meaningful connection to the city, but have since moved on. We aim for diversity: to claim the city for internationals (and those from diverse places and backgrounds in Germany) who make Berlin a better and more vibrant place to live.

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Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.