“I’ve always been interested in trying to subvert internet culture, particularly considering what social media has become,” says Matt Atkatz, the obsessive mind behind Instagram account @90sartschool. Starting just under a year ago, the crowdsourced photo project and archive lives on Instagram, seeking to breathe a second life into the hedonistic days of art schools in the ’90s – cigs, booze and all.
Last year, when pandemic-induced boredom meant there was plenty of time to reminisce, namely about studying at Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-’90s, 46-year old Atkatz started sifting through mountains of old photos. Suddenly, it felt like the right time to execute an idea that had been swirling around his brain for years.
The submissions-led account was born, and soon after, old RISD students started sending their old snaps to Atkatz in droves. “I always felt like no one would be interested, because there was that obstacle of asking people to dig up photos, scan them and find negatives,” he says. “It felt like too much bullshit to ask people to do, but then the pandemic happened, and phones are actually really good scanners!”
Now, @90sartschool counts over 32,000 followers. One popular snap shows a dilapidated bathroom in Fort Thunder, a warehouse in Providence, Rhode Island, which once functioned both as a commune and beating heart of the area’s underground music and art scenes. In it, the walls are covered floor to ceiling with vibrant collages, photographs and drunken scribbles. Comments from wistful users who once partied there include: “I peed in that sink” and “I was too busy having my brain explode to take photos”.
Other images are mostly captioned with each subject’s first name, capturing anything from sweaty nights out and grungy polaroids to album cover-worthy group shots, smudged make-up and dodgy dorm room set-ups. “These photos were just sitting untouched before,” Atkatz points out. “Now, something that was maybe seen by two people over 25 years ago is being enjoyed by thousands. That’s a really fun feedback loop, and people often find themselves and their friends. One time someone was like, ‘Is that you, mum?!’”
Now a creative director based in Florida, Atkatz spent his childhood in Queens, New York. These days, he credits his own art school education as giving him a purpose in life. “I was a freak as a kid,” he says. “By the early ’90s, I got pretty deep into the New York City club scene. I showed up to art school wearing enormous Liquid Sky jeans and six inch platform boots. People called me Raver Matt.
“Art school was the original safe space,” he continues. “I know I’m a cis white guy, but we were freaks of all different flavours there: weirdos, punks, goths, ravers, skaters, hippies, nerds, druggies. There was a sudden realisation of going from being an outsider to fitting in.” Almost by osmosis, Atkatz absorbed the intensely creative and competitive environment at RISD. Little did he know that it would lay the groundwork for what would one day become @90sartschool.
As the account has grown, so has the breadth of submissions, which are now coming in thick and fast from different corners of the US. The playful irony of showcasing them via Instagram isn’t lost on Atkatz, either. “In the ’90s, the internet had this amazing promise of being a kick-ass, free place,” he says. “Sadly now it’s kind of been locked down, platformised and turned into this corporate business.
“Instead of overstyled, filtered influencers hocking energy drinks, it feels nice to post pictures of cool kids from ages ago. I wanted to fuck with Instagram a bit – not Zuckerberg, but the way you use the tool, leveraging it by putting old photos together with modern technology. They jump out in your feed like retro artefacts.”
As a result, @90sartschool has become a digital time machine of sorts, a small snapshot of what being young looked like at the turn of the century. Beyond the nostalgia of it all, it’s most important to Atkatz that these memories are preserved for him and his peers. Meanwhile, young people get to lean into the anthropological side of what a vintage knees-up looked like.
Now that submissions are getting more diverse – and in some cases a bit too risqué for prudish Instagram – Atkatz hopes to one day collate them into a book or exhibition. In the immediate future, though, he’s got an artist collab series up his sleeve. “In a weird way, these were more innocent photos,” he says, “and I don’t mean that in the traditional sense. I mean that we sell ourselves to the world now. Back then, these photos would just disappear… Until now. Bring them out!”
Click here to send your submissions in to @90sartschool!