The Brooklyn bizarre: the unseen world of the oddities trade

Greg Johns, owner of Memento Mori Oddities, Collectibles and Antiques, stuffed a puppy for a friend.

The first step is to freeze the corpse to avoid composition, but that is before Johns comes in. Johns removes the skin — including the face — starting with an incision up the belly, gently pulling the dermis away from the animal’s muscular system with his free hand. Once removed salt, disinfectants, and tanning oil is rubbed into the fleshy-side of the hide in stages. Johns then dresses the form, or the plaster cast of the body that the animal’s fur will be secured to.

The “specimen,” as it’s now called, is a dog resting in perpetual slumber. There’s also an accompanying cat. They belonged to Johns’ friend, who thought he wanted to keep his pets around the house, after he found them dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. But he was unsettled by the ghoulishness of it all, as many people are, so Johns took back his fuzzy statues to resell.

Johns says, “The product has been slow to move,” Despite what he considers bargain prices of $650 and $550 for the dog (stuffed pets typically start at $1,000,) Johns has been unable to find a buyer for more than a year. The taxidermy market in Loveland, Ohio – on the outskirts of Cincinnati, where Johns is based – centers on hunting trophies rather than the macabre, he says.

He’s optimistic, however, about the Oddities Flea Market, on April 6 and 7, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Going into its third year, the Oddities is one of the largest showcases of the bizarre, weird and grotesque in the country. It doesn’t just attract taxidermists. Sixty-four vendors, including occult booksellers, osteologists (who study bones,) jewelers, artists, doll-makers, and Wiccan home-spinners – who make bewitching dresses – jockey for customers.

Though it’s not pure competition, for these purveyors of weird artifacts.

“It feels more like home than the events in New England.” It’s more welcoming, and less stressful, even though this is busier,” says Brian Mann, who travelled seven hours from Manchester, New Hampshire to attend with his girlfriend, who was shooting photography for event’s undead themed photo booth.

Ryan and Regina Cohn organized the affair following the bankruptcy of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum in 2014, to reestablish the diffuse though enthusiastic community devoted to the collection and creation of obscure artifacts. Since 2017, the Oddities has served as cornerstone for New York’s network of artists and enthusiasts, and has grown to include a fair at The Globe Theatre in L.A. Cohn is working to produce more fairs throughout the country.

More than a perverse hobby for Cohn, he believes these objects are an often-ignored part of our cultural memory.

“Everyone loves the backstory,” of her baby dolls, says Chris Piazza, artist and purveyor of baby doll heads, as she swiped an attendee’s credit card for a $10.89 purchase. “They came from Germany, dug out from under a bombed toy factory. They’re seconds, the defective products that were thrown into a slagheap.” She says she bought them decades ago for a sculpture project that never got off the ground, and now, “They’ve been resurrected twice.”

Introduced to the fair by a friend, Piazza notes that reputations in this cultural network are staked in one’s commitment to the weird.

“If I wasn’t here today, I’d be in my studio working to get here next time,” said Michael Nicholas Wolf, sculptor and practitioner of the “dark arts” – a play on the magical term, to describe his gothic sculptures – while arranging a tableau of tribal masks under a blood red LED. He was one of many vendors who noted that the Cohns are selective about who’s accepted to vend. It’s unknown how the decisions are made, though people are quick to point out Cohn seeks a healthy mix of fresh-blood and veteran talent.

Mr. Cohn personally invited Johns to attend, after the taxidermist secured four preserved baboons for the actor Neil Patrick Harris. According to Johns, who heard it from Cohn when the business arrangements were being finalized, the celebrity had requested the specimens from Cohn after watching an episode of Oddities, a television show on the Discovery Channel Cohn stars in. Johns says he’s cultivated a reputation for pushing the limits of taxidermy, including collecting human fetuses.

There are, however, certain lines he and others will not cross. Many taxidermists at the fair chose not to display human remains, because, as collector and supplier Wilder Duncan says, “though it’s legal now, it still skeeves people out.”

Beyond the borders of the law, lies poaching, and therein lies a legal and ethical grey area. And while scarcity is the primary price setting mechanism within the industry, there is an unspoken agreement not to deal in endangered animals.

There’s buzz that undercover federal agents are walking around the fair. “At larger events [dedicated to taxidermy or hunting,] they often come in uniform,” says Johns, looking for migratory birds or monkey furs.

Even if the animals haven’t been illegally poached, the Bureau of Land Management will confiscate the remains of endangered or protected species. Including pieces that were inherited, or that were legal at the time of purchase.

“It comes down to proof. Unless you’re willing to do forensics on it, you can’t prove whether it’s vintage or inherited. Or if you find something on the ground, how do you prove it died of natural causes and not trapped,” Jennifer Manfredi, a Brooklyn based taxidermist, working at Johns’ booth, says.

She says she has friends with mounted lions’ heads, which could land them with a hefty penalty if found – as all big cats are protected. Although, because of the hidden nature of the trade, the obscure interest in the subject, and limited government oversight, policing it is challenging and it usually comes down to one’s morals.

“I’ve worked the past couple Oddities. They’re chill. Laidback,” says Spenser Granese, bartender at the Brooklyn Bazaar, referring to the vendors at the event. “The only thing I don’t like is the stuffed puppy. You shouldn’t stuff a puppy.”

Although a number of people come to inquire about the dog, and are happy about the bargain price, Johns refuses the sale unless they’re willing to pay for the cat, too.

“They were together in life,” he says. “I want them together in death.”

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