At one time in his life, Eagles worked as a professional thief. Hearing the story, I’m reminded of Bruce Wayne slumming it in Batman Begins, learning the dark side for the sake of gaining knowledge for the light.
He lounges against a long black counter in his sunlit kitchen. Lean and somewhat bedraggled, clothed in a black t-shirt and faded jeans. A fresh coffee sits to the side. He picks it up occasionally while speaking, but his hands, for the most part, are busy gesticulating.
‘[Working as a thief] you’re always in a state of paranoia. While it’s a 9-to-5 job, you’re always worried that you’re going to get caught, that something is going to go wrong. In a way, it’s like being a police officer – you never switch off.
It wasn’t anything glamorous.. Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor or sneaking through mansions stealing jewellery. It was nothing like that. Most of my work was in item retrieval. For example: a couple breaks up, the guy won’t return a necklace which belonged to the girl’s grandmother. She would hire me to retrieve and return that necklace. It’s essentially about risk management: because it’s an illegal job there’s a lot of observation and planning. You want to reduce the amount of risk required to get the job done.’
How did you become involved? Was it simply a situation where you were having a chat with someone one day and they asked ‘Could you do this for me?
‘Well, not exactly. I’d been stealing things for a while. I was a thief for 13 years, 6 of those I was working for others.
The first thing I stole was a pen. And the one time I was caught by police, I stole the policemen’s pen. It was a fountain pen.. big surprise from me, being an artist.
I was forging documents for people at first. As an artist I had decent handwriting so it worked. Then they might ask: ‘Oh, well, if you happen to be good at stealing stuff, could you retrieve this for me?’ Because it was something that I was doing anyway, I had no problem with it.
I never took anything that someone needed. It would be just the cream from the top – the little thing that no-one notices, that no-one cares about, the things you would never miss. Two dollars worth. You do that en masse.. it pays really well.’
Last time we spoke you elaborated on your philosophy, and your ideals, designing a new country as a teenager.. How did you reconcile that interest and drive towards making a new ethical world with being a thief?
‘Well I wasn’t a thief because I needed to be. When it comes to doing something illegal, there are basically two types of people: those who do it because they need to..and those who do it for psychological reasons.
[Those who turn to criminal activity are often suffering] under the government crackdowns we have on welfare, the hunt for “dole bludgers”, and [other unhelpful government interference] making it harder for people to get work. This forces more people to be unemployed, putting them in increasingly difficult circumstances, so they turn to other means to support themselves. The actions of our government effectively increase crime when they leave people with no other choice.
Then there are those who are doing not because they need to, but for psychological reasons.
As a child I began to live two lives. There was the person I presented myself as to keep my parents happy, where I was everything that they wanted me to be, and then I had my life.
The first time I wanted to run away from home, I was 4. I knew that there was no way I could support myself, the government wouldn’t let be on my own, and the only other option was to live with a different family, which could have been worse anyway, so I stayed. I developed an attitude of independence and self-reliance. I knew that I had to generate my own income, but there was no way anyone was going to hire me when I was that young.
But, being a thief grew more out of that thrill of doing something you know you shouldn’t be. It made me aware that I was alive. To be inside someone’s house, right around the corner from where the owner is standing, two feet away, getting in and getting out with no-one ever knowing you were there, that adrenaline rush.. I don’t think I slept that night. It became a way for me to form my own identity, proving to myself that I was no-one’s slave, that I could be me, and developing my own understanding of who I was.
You could say that yes, I was a parasite, living from the property of other people but within that, I was also being generous. Like Robin Hood, I was shifting items [between owners], and would never take something that people needed.
I developed rules – no stealing from friends and family, never take something that someone needed, and I also developed an understanding of property. Items don’t have a view that they belong to you – that teaspoon..
[Charlie gestures to a discarded teaspoon on the counter]
‘I claim it as my teaspoon, but it’s not, that’s just my view of the teaspoon. A teaspoon is an inanimate object, it doesn’t care. The same thing applies to all of our stuff – we don’t really own anything. The only thing we own in our life is our decision to be alive, or not.’
I presented the same argument in college. Someone might argue, “No, that’s my laptop.” No, you can call it that, but your possession of it is simply a social agreement.
‘When you claim something as your own people agree with that because it’s simply easier to agree with you, than to debate with you.
I came to realise that it was similar to the hacker’s mindset of breaking into computers simply to share information, because they believe in the freedom of ideas. If I have an idea, it would be selfish of me to keep it to myself if others can benefit from it. It’s the same principle, applied to property. In some tribal cultures, they don’t have an idea of theft, everything belongs to the tribe, to the community. A person uses it for a time, but then it’s returned for the community to use.
So in a back to front kind of way, I developed a community-minded mindset like that. I didn’t break anything – to me, if I broke into someone’s house and they arrived home screaming “I’ve been robbed!”, then I haven’t done my job. Because I would plan most of the jobs, I would also observe the results. So often, I would steal something and then watch how that would affect them. In some cases, I would steal something that someone needed, realise it, and then return it. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen. In some cases, by removing an item from a person’s life, I’d improve their life. So in a sense, I was mindful that there was respect for other people.
It probably sounds like I’m making excuses, trying to say that thieves are better people. Don’t get me wrong, I was a bad guy, but my point is that it changed the way I viewed the world, in comparison with the way that society told me things should be. I was basically testing my own views, ideals, and morals, leading me on the path of: What is right? What is wrong? What should change? By developing my own ideas, I wasn’t a sheep. It helped that my mother was a journalist, and questioned me on everything, but this was just another part of developing an idea of how the world could be.’
I can relate to that. Growing up, I was never a thief, but from the age of 8 or maybe younger I began to question the world. On the one hand, my mother always raised me to question everything, to question everyone, to never blindly accept the word or authority of anyone, or accept things simply because someone suggested “that’s the way it should be” or something like that.
I also saw the hypocrisies of society, the two-faced bullies of the world, contradictions in religion, the imperfections in our systems.. I thought: there’s got to be a better way.
I made the philosophical decision to simply dump all of it. Rather than just go along with some bullshit that everyone else was happy to go along with, I decided to search out the truth for myself, and form my own morality. And so I did. But taking it to an extreme! I did in some cases, whatever I wanted to, on a full-blown path of deciding my own ethics for myself because the code of the world simply wasn’t good enough.
If the world couldn’t live by it’s own standards or respect me by them, why should I follow the leader?
‘Yeah, that’s basically what I was getting at. In my father’s case, he was very much a capitalist, a businessman chasing after money. While what he did was legal, he probably caused far more damage to people than I ever did as a thief.
I did some quite vigilante-type stuff as well.. for example, somebody was a bully at school, beating up kids or whatever. They came back to their room to find their room gutted – like there was simply nothing in it, not a speck of dust. Vacuumed. I shifted everything.. just to make a point. Being a thief was probably the thing I’ve been best at in my life. People look at my artwork and say “Oh, you have amazing artwork, blah blah blah..” but my being a thief was my greatest success.’