Punks in Paradise

When the Vans Warped Tour comes to town, St. Petersburg loses its reputation as a retirement haven as punk metal fans, rarely seen, come out.

Published June 24, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Crowd surfers kicked the pale tattooed arms lifting their bodies toward the stage.

Moshers threw elbows while shoving each other in frenzied dance.

A safe distance from the sea of flailing arms and legs, Tom Nassey, 16, of Clearwater bobbed his head to his favorite political band, Anti-Flag.

The punk rockers opened their set at the Vans Warped Tour on Friday at Vinoy Park by yelling to the crowd of mostly teens to "raise your middle fingers high in the air."

The screaming, sweaty fans did.

At the same time, a short stretch of road away inside the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club, candidates for the office of state attorney general were speaking at an annual press convention.

It was quiet, and air-conditioned.

Nassey, whose Iron Maiden shirt matched his dyed, jet-black locks, was asked what he would tell those politicians if he could speak to them.

His reply: "Open your mind."

That's what Kevin Lyman, 45, the founder of the Warped Tour, said he's tried to do in every city since 1995.

It's worked in the four years since his tour first stopped in St. Petersburg instead of Tampa's Sun Dome.

"I think there was a little bit of tension at first, with people seeing us as punk rockers invading their town," Lyman said. "But I think they've realized we're not bad people."

Still, it's tough to be a punk-hardcore-metal fan in the Tampa Bay area.

While the scene is growing, a favored Tampa rock venue, The Masquerade, shut down in February, leaving behind only Jannus Landing in downtown St. Petersburg.

And the city has yet to catch up with the popularity of its alternative rock scene, said James Russell, 35, an on-air personality with the local alternative rock station 105.9 FM.

"The crowds are getting younger and bigger, but there aren't any more venues," Russell said.

The city's punk-hardcore-metal scene is thriving, but it's hardly seen, and rarely embraced, said an 18-year-old who calls herself Ophelia Pain.

"We don't walk around and show that we're here, but we are here," Pain said. "It's just that this is known as the retirement capital, and the kids don't come out much. Stuff like this is the only time we all get together."

Pain is a model in St. Petersburg with nose and lip piercings and tattoos across her shoulders that resemble leopard spots. She also works at the Hot Topic punk apparel store in the Tyrone Square Mall.

Most at the show looked like her customers: thick black eyeliner on boys and girls, piercings, tattoos, studded belts, shaggy mod haircuts and shirts with dry humor like, "You looked better on MySpace."

But they didn't all fit the anti-establishment stereotype. Many stopped to draw their handprint on a white cloth for soldiers overseas, writing things like, "We love you."

Some younger fans drew fake tattoos on their arms with Sharpies and puffed on cigarettes. Others stopped at a Truth.org van to win prizes from the antismoking campaign.

Fans in the Tampa Bay area are "nicer and calmer" than at other Florida stops, Lyman said, so much so that he left the show for several hours to catch and then throw back barracuda in Clearwater.

He could never leave a show in Orlando or Pompano, where fans seem to "want to just get wasted," he said. About 200 people are treated each year at the St. Petersburg show for dehydration or minor injuries from mosh pits or the skate ramp.

Before leaving her Englewood home at 8 a.m. for Vinoy Park, Morgan White, 16, slicked up the front half of her shoulder-length brown hair into a faux Mohawk.

It was her second year at the tour. She wants to move from her town, which is "full old people," she said.

Where to?

St. Petersburg, she said, adding: "I want somewhere bigger, that's got more people like me."