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Takeshi Yamada attended the Secret Science Club's recent Great Autumnal Taxidermy Get-Together at Union Hall wearing a tuxedo, a beret, and a pound of Mardi Gras beadsnearly the same outfit he wears when trawling Coney Island Creek for animal carcasses.
"Old tuxedos and suits are cheaper than blue jeans," says Yamada, hefting a long-handled fishing net over his shoulder as he trudges through the tall weeds, which hide homeless tent encampments along the creek's banks. "And they look better."
To keep his suits looking their best, Yamada hangs them in the shower of his humble Coney Island home. It pays off. Yamada looked like a star at the Union Hall competition, where he was awarded the title of grand champion. Never mind that the title was of his own choosing.
"Takeshi wanted to be called grand champion, so we called him grand champion," explains Robert Marbury, one of the founders of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermy (MART). He presided over the recent taxidermy contest as well as the accompanying master class and game feed. "It's pretty rare that someone like Takeshi, with such a full cosmology, just falls into your lap. And Takeshi's cosmos is very, very full."
Born out of the mythos of Coney Island, Yamada's present-day cosmos includes several six-foot-long Mongolian death worms; a pair of Fiji mermaids; a two-headed baby; a hairy trout; a seven-fingered hand; fossilized fairies; jackalope stew; a five-foot-long bloodsucking chupacabra; a 16th-century homunculus; a legion of samurai warriors trapped in the bodies of horseshoe crabs; a tiny marsh dragon; a coven of freakishly large, nuclear-radiated stag beetles from Bikini Atoll; and a furry mer-bunny, all of which are brought to life using old bones, shells, resin, origami, and bits and pieces of refuse, both inorganic and fleshy.
"In the East, abnormalities are not seen as shocking," explains Yamada as he slogs through a deep, soggy thicket behind a baseball field. "The freakish is not a bad thing. It can represent the mystery of the universe. An expression of divinity. A blessing."
He felt a bit differently when a tiny, horn-like tumor began to grow out of his finger after he moved to Coney Island.
"Shazam!" exclaims Yamada, as he often does. "I was like jackalope!"
Yamada was treated for the growth, but the cosmic joke was not lost on him.
"Dreamland once captured the imagination of the entire world," says Yamada, poking through a pile of partially burnt garbage under a canopy of dripping trees near Gravesend Bay. "Coney Island was bigger than Disney World. It was the Hollywood of the time. This was the center of the pleasure principle and the place where monsters were born. Then, it burnt down and everyone just forgot."
As a fortification against the modern weakness for remembering, Yamada has created a line of Coney Islandbrand soup cans promising jackalope, spiny bullfrog, hairy trout, nekomata, and Fiji alligator flesh. The Osaka native also paints canvaseslike the epic 4 x 6 foot Battle for Coney Islandwhich draws on the mythological nature of his new home. But mostly Yamada builds "gaffs," fanciful and fearsome "artifacts" that are a far cry from the messy, slapdash sideshow attractions of P.T. Barnum and his ilk.
Over the years, Yamada's work has been shown everywhere from the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, where his Mardi Gras paintings earned him a key to the city, to the Coney Island public library, where a 15-month-long exhibition is under way.
"On the midway, these are called gaffs; in galleries, they might be called art; in movies, special effects," says Yamada, adding a moldering baseball to the slimy fish skeleton already in his sack. "It doesn't matter. It is just what I do. There is no emotion or ego in it."
But there is preparation. When not searching the seashore, Yamada studies zoology and anatomy as well as history. No dragon skeleton in Yamada's collection will ever possess wings and front legs ("That just wouldn't happen in nature!") nor would its tail be too short to provide proper balance. His hairy trout, rather than being made of fur, possesses thousands of individual hairs glued down by hand. And the giant radiated stag beetles, fashioned from numerous horseshoe crab parts, are precise enough to make an entomologist drool.
While the perfect hairy trout is not everybody's idea of the Mona LisaYamada has actually painted a two-headed version featuring his own faceto some, it's close.
"It's worth holding an event just to meet somebody like this," explains Marbury.
At the Union Hall event, curiosity seekers laughed along with MART's explanation of Union Hall's own "Rump Ape," a monkey-faced gaff created by stretching a deer hind over a mannequin head and adding eyes. (Traditionally, the deer anus is used as the monkey's mouth, but in uptight taxidermy parlance, the anus is referred to as a "vent.") The contest itself drew rare taxidermy, such as an anteater called a pangolin, as well as more prosaic fare, such as a poorly treated chicken and a set of dog testes floating in a jar. Classic crypto- taxidermy such as the wolperdingthe German predecessor of the jackalope, made by combining a black pheasant and a rabbit with hornsstood alongside Nate Hill's disturbing "puppy-fish-snake" chimera and A.V. Jones's sidesplitting crash test pigeon on a plaque. Still, Yamada stood outand not solely because his mer-bunny, a seafaring rabbit-seal puppet, started sniffing women inappropriately.
"The first thing that strikes you about Takeshi is that he is very committed to his art," says Marbury. "He takes it really seriously. The second thing is, he's a character."
Mer-bunny misbehavior aside, Yamada's artful Fiji mermaid garnered a squirrel-skull trophy, mounted on a refrigerator magnet, and a full membership to MART. While the night's trophies and titles were mostly delivered for laughslike the "You're Friggin' Nuts" squirrel scrotum awardthe invitation from MART was not proffered lightly.
"We could tell from the very first e-mail that he was going to be a very active member," says Marbury. "He's like the Great Gazoo. He just appeared out of nowhere and began telling us how it was going to be."