On Mardi Gras morning in 2012, a 20 foot tall, 2500 pound Trojan horse appeared in the intersection of Royal and Franklin in front of Mimi's. It's head neighed while a steampunk-clad warrior fired a cannon of purple smoke above a crowd of costumed revelers. The Trojan horse, made by a little known group called the Krewe of Ragnarok, was a force, seemingly on the wrong side of Canal Street. It was surprising, flamboyant, and unreal, everything that Mardi Gras celebrates, but it was also handmade and hand-pushed. This too was Mardi Gras, not the Mardi Gras of St. Charles Avenue, but a spirit that rolls back further, when wooden floats were dragged through the French Quarter, routes were unscripted, and plastic beads were not coveted.
Krewe of Ragnarok, Krewe du Vieux, Krewe Delusion, Chewbacchus, and other groups provide an experience to both participants and audiences that is alternative to those of super krewes. Each produces a different creative output, but they're all threaded together by key qualities: inclusivity, collective creativity through workshops, handmade pieces, and more eco-friendly practices.
The Krewe of Ragnarok is especially antithetical to the super krewe model. Membership and dues are kept low. Krewe members have a direct hand in making everything. The float, like the throws, is handmade and pushed along an unplanned route, making it hard to find on Mardi Gras day.
The Krewe's leader, Porter, who prefers his real name kept private, calls Ragnarok a 'rogue krewe.'
"The main parades have to follow set routes. They have to wear certain things," Porter says. "We can stop where we want. We can go where want."
The krewe formed in 2010 when a group of friends built a Viking ship.The next year they constructed the steam-punk horse atop a steel frame. In 2013, they renovated the horse with salvaged materials to decorate it with a hybrid Diade Los Muertos-pale horse theme. Armor was cut from espresso cans; skin fitted with canvas drop cloth; murals made from beads; and chains and bones fashioned from reformed PVC pipe. Everything was done by hand in Porter's yard.
The most traditional and prominent alternative krewe today is Krewe du Vieux. It started in 1978 as an art parade by the Krewe of Clones, according to Ray 'Plaine' Kern. He saw the Klones march in the early 80's, and in 1983 he started a sub-krewe, the Krewe of Crude.
"All that imagination, creativity, craziness in the streets.I wanted to be part of it," says Kern, who captained Krewe du Vieux for 13 years.
"In 1987 the Krewe of Clones changed their route to uptown and raised dues from $15 to $300 to get rid of the rabble and riff-raff," Kern says, "not knowing that the rabble and riff-raff was the heart of it." Krewe du Vieux was established in response.
"We didn't want to become respectable," Kern says."We didn't want anything to do with that.They wanted to have too much creative control."
Krewe du Vieux is divided into about twenty sub-krewes responsible for their own floats, costumes, and throws.The floats are mule-drawn to honor traditional French Quarter Mardi Gras parades.
"Everything's handmade," Kern says, "We have a structure, but it's very loose.We very rarely tell people what to do."
The theme is 'Where the Vile Things Are,' but when the krewes roll on Feb. 15, their floats will range the spectrum of the krewe's 'holy trinity of satire:' politics, religion, and sex.
Super krewes interact emphatically with crowds, but Krewe du Vieux elicits a more direct exchange since it is essentially a marching club, a feature other alternative krewes share.
"Instead of having members who ride on top of the floats and are elevated above the people throwing trinkets, we're on the ground at the same level as the people," Kern says."That's the beautiful thing about it, the energy that occurs when you hand someone a throw; it's the energy of exchange that makes the connection with another human being out there special. And it doesn't hurt that you're dressed like a fool."
"Because of what we've done you can see all these other groups popping up, too," Kern says.
For the last six years, Krewe du Vieux has been followed in route by a similarly spirited, unaffiliated marching club, Krewe Delusion. Renee Heinlein, a founding member, says Krewe Delusion was created as a place for upstart grassroots krewes to gather and encourage residents and transplants to participate in a parade.
"We protect and project New Orleans culture through inclusion and infusion," Heinlein says.
For both krewes, switching from beads to hand-crafted throws was intentional.
It began to be environmental for us ten years ago," says Krewe du Vieux captain Lee Mullikin. "There were some critical pieces of video that came out about how those beads were made. We just realized the irony of throwing the same crap over and over again. We wanted to be unique and green."
The Krewe du Vieux models all the things that make it alternative except inclusivity. It has capped membership at 1,000 members for the last eight years.
"Because of popularity, we've had to limit our membership, not by choice, but by necessity," says Kern.
The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus represents the most inclusive Mardi Gras krewe in New Orleans.
The krewe was founded by Space Commander Ryan Ballard and his friends in 2010. Ballard, a puppeteer, left New Orleans for Colorado when his home flooded after Katrina. When he came back, he wanted to be a part of Mardi Gras more directly.
"There's all these nerds with all these costumes that need a way to participate," Ballard says. "We thought let's bring the fandom to Mardi Gras."
Dues were set at $42 and membership remains open to everyone.
"Our impetus is accessibility," says Brett Powers, one of three krewe overlords."If Chewbacchus had a coat of arms it would be 'open to all', but in Latin."
This year Ballard, expects about 20 sub-krewes and 750 memb
The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus
"I don't want to cap [membership]. I want to keep it open forever and keep the dues the same," says Ballard.
This year the krewe will parade Feb. 22 in the Marigny and Bywater area. The 2014 parade will have a barship enterprise to represent the Star Trek theme, 'The Wrath of Khan-ival,' along with a king cake baby flying saucer, the millennium falcon, and a 'top secret project' currently being welded at Ballard's 'secret moonbase.' Everything they make is human or electric-powered.
While Chewbacchus is one of the biggest walking parades, others range in size. The smallest is 'Tit Rex,' which uses shoebox floats and also rolls Feb. 22.
"The size of the parade is small. The floats are small. The throws are small. The themes are small themes," says Tit Rex founding member Janine Hayes. This year's theme is 'Wee the People.'
Other alternative parades vary in structure, secrecy, and size, including Krewe of Eris, Krew of Barkus, Krewe of Beyonce, Box of Wine, Red Beans and Rice Krewe, and Krewe of Cork, among many others known and unknown. On Mardi Gras day, several krewes, Mardi Gras Indians, and social groups will criss-cross the city like friendly tribes in DIY spirit, all part of what Kern calls the holiday's 'organic energy,' whether it's uptown, the Marigny, or another neighborhood.
It's more personal.You create your costumes.You create your devices. "It's a whole different way to party," Powers says. "It doesn't make one way right or wrong. It's what you like."
This year the Krewe of Ragnarok won't have a horse.They deconstructed it on a gray afternoon in November. But across the yard from the horse's steel frame was something new: the undercarriage of a passenger van, a new project. Porter forecasts the return of the big float in 2015 and wonders if other ambitious do-it-yourselfers will join in perspiration and spirit, not just in the Bywater, but even further downtown, bridging the physical differences between alternative and super krewes.
"Mardi Gras is about getting involved," Porter says. "Trying in some way to be on the forefront of something new. Build your own, ride your own, push your own. It would be great if five years from now there was a giant parade of handmade floats rolling down Canal Street, all conglomerated for no reason except that passionate people made them."