The back room is where they cut open the dead animals, and the front room is where they sell them. They choose the creatures carefully, dealing only in what is legal and authentic. Working as their ancestors would, they make sure to use every part of the animal.
They are not butchers.
They are not burly men mounting the spoils of a hunting expedition on plaques for a man cave.
They’re hipsters, 20- and 30-somethings with art backgrounds and thick-rimmed glasses and — “I hate the H-word,” one of them says.
“I mean, it’s really getting to be a slur, because it’s so broad. Like, what does that mean?” the 27-year-old Greg Hatem continues, standing in his Baltimore storefront. “There are all kinds of people doing what we do.”
What they do — and in this case, what they sell — is “rogue taxidermy.”
The idea is to take the taxidermy skills used to make a standard deer mount and apply them in unconventional ways. The result is meant to be art: a three-headed turkey-cat, a mouse with the coloring of the Pokemon character Pikachu, or a squirrel with a crab’s body, to name a few.
“There’s very much a subculture quality to the people involved,” says Robert Marbury, whose book on rogue taxidermy is set to be published in October. “They don’t identify with, sort of, society in general.”
Call it hipster or call it art, rogue taxidermy’s popularity in New York and London is making its way to other urban locations in the United States, where young and creative people have taken to reinventing the centuries-old process of removing and rearranging the skin of a dead animal.
Rogue taxidermy is about a decade old. The New York Times wrote about Marbury and his fellow rogue taxidermy pioneers in 2005, calling their work “absurdly gory” and “aggressively weird.” Marbury thought his run of cool might be over that year, with national media attention and, tragically, a few plastic versions of animal mounts being sold at Urban Outfitters. But a post-recession surge of do-it-yourself enthusiasm has launched rogue taxidermy onto Etsy, Pinterest and Instagram. There are goat heads turned into wedding hairpieces, mice with mohawks and leather jackets, and deer with golden Gucci symbols for antlers.
Bazaar, the oddities shop in Baltimore that Hatem owns with partner Brian Henry, regularly hosts taxidermy classes. A recent session sold out in less than 20 minutes. Although the instructors typically come from New York, the students — mostly 20- to 35-year-old women — come from Washington and Baltimore.
In a class on making a winged guinea pig, taxidermy novice Miranda Beck was thrilled to find an opportunity for formal instruction after years of trying to figure it out herself. She added the flying guinea pig, which she named Clarence, to a collection that included her first piece of taxidermy, a fox named Zelda. The 37-year-old aesthetician has since mummified a friend’s ferret, taxidermied a mole to dress him like Hamlet and started a small business selling Christmas ornaments made of deer bones. She works on her dining room table.
All of this is aboveboard, according to the Bazaar proprietors, because Beck and others are careful to get their animals through legal means. . Most small animals, such as mice, rabbits and guinea pigs, can easily be bought online from sites selling the animals (shipped with dry ice) for snake food.
Larger animals are often purchased from hunters or people whose pets die of natural causes, like Beck’s ferret. There’s also an affinity for roadkill among the artists, but most states regulate such activity so people don’t go hunting with their cars. After a story about Bazaar ran in the Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources sent rangers to sure everything was legal.
“When you start dealing with animals, you have to look at the laws in your state,” Marbury says. “Say you found a pet dog [on the road] that you want to make look like a robot with a TV embedded in it. There’s an ethical and legal challenge there.”
To the dismay of the people who choose to navigate those challenges for the sake of their art, others have started “faking” rogue taxidermy by simply modifying traditional or antique taxidermy instead of skinning and reforming the animals themselves.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” says Shasta Donegan of Leesburg, Va., who sells taxidermy on Etsy. “It’s like rogue taxidermy is not even rogue anymore.”
The popularity of such work has driven Donegan to pursue traditional taxidermy — just making the animals look like animals, nothing pink, no extra wings — where she feels her skills are better appreciated. The other traditional taxidermists haven’t quite accepted the creative talents of the rogues.
Danny Waters, president of the Virginia Taxidermists Association, says that while taxidermy is indeed an art, this all seems “a little extreme.”
“Say, like, you have a picture, and there’s all different kinds of pictures,” Waters explains. “Some of it you might consider art. And some of it you might consider trash.”
But at Bazaar, such “trash” sells, enough so that both of the shop’s owners were able to quit their second jobs in May. They’ve expanded their taxidermy offerings to include taxidermy jewelry (muskrat jaw necklace) and wet specimens (organs, body parts and whole animals preserved in jars). The items sit among other oddities that attract customers to the 500-square-foot shop, including a wreath made out of human hair, gas masks and a coffin exhumed from a crime scene. And in homage to the roots of their rogue success, there are a variety of traditional antique taxidermy pieces around the room. The one that is not for sale is Hatem’s first taxidermy purchase: a blue wildebeest head named Stanley.
The brute Stanley is mounted above the cash register, his horns almost touching the ceiling. He is wearing a mini sombrero, but he knows he is not actually “rogue,” they say, because he didn’t start out with the sombrero.
“He acquired that later in life,” Hatem says. “Well. Later in death.”