Here’s an argument for letting kids play with their food. As an adult, Robert “Kato” DeStefan sits hunched over in his subterranean workshop, right in the manicured-lawn center of South Massapequa, giving birth to wondrous monsters created out of morticians’ wax, gelatin, cotton wadding and latex. As a teenager, he recalls, “I started out screwing around with my own face, playing around with tissue, oatmeal, morticians’ wax and Rice Krispies— trying to get weird textures.”
DeStefan succeeded. After a day at his workshop benches, he sequesters himself in his underground studio and darkroom, setting up vignettes, photographing and developing carefully posed formal portraits of his creations. The result: His lyrical black-and-white prints have the arcane, formaldehyde-laced aura of 19th century funeral parlor memento mori or daguerreotypes of graveyard hauntings. Like a sci-fi time bleed, one century layers onto another, leaving each infused with the vapors of the other.
“I’m Rosemaree’s baby!” Kato cackles gleefully. He’s right: Rosemaree Ellerbie, a.k.a. Cookie, always had her dark-haired tot Kato snuggled by her side on the sofa as they watched scary flicks. “My first memory,” says Kato, “is of watching Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things late at night. Mom always drilled it into my head that the movies weren’t real. I accepted it, but I don’t think she did— they still frighten her.”
It’s Kato’s productivity that’s scary. Working through Steve Johnson’s XFX Inc. studio in California, Kato has contributed to Pet Semetary II, Freaked, Suburban Commando, The Temp and Stephen King’s Innocent Blood.
His packed but immaculate basement digs are a gore-core wet dream: Bookcases are filled with art tomes and literature. Heartbreakingly lovely portraits of microcephalics vie for wall space with autographed nude portraits of scream sirens, a signed photo of cult hero film-maker John Waters and a Franklin Mint dedication plaque for the U.S.S. Enterprise. An art noveau candlestick (“a gift from a relationship gone bad”) holds deep purple candles sunken in molten puddles.
A glass tank in Kato’s bedroom holds the requisite pet rat, a plump cutie that loves to gnaw on fingernails. Kato tickles him affectionately and kisses him on the forehead. Back in the tank, said rodent nods off, feet up in the air, looking like a furry zeppelin with toothpick legs.
As the scent of incense wafts through the air and Rob Zombie and Sea Monster play in the background, Kato, a friend of mine named Billy and I move into the workroom, where Kato displays a body cast of O.J., a naked torso of a cute girl and various pus-riddled creatures and skulls.
As Kato shows us a carefully crafted vinyl Klingon uniform that Cookie stitched for a recent Halloween costume, his bubbly mom, as if on cue, bounces down the stairway. “My entire life for two months was making that costume,” she says. “I guess if I had been more familiar with the show, it would have been easier.” All dolled up and perfumed, Cookie is on her way to a 4:30 Mass. She’s a title searcher who prays for her clients.
“I pray for everything!” she says, giggling. “The only way a house becomes a home is the love inside. My father accepted everyone, loved everyone.”
Cookie looks at her watch, gives Billy (whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer this week) a big hug and kiss and asks, “What’s your mom’s name? I’ll pray for her.” As she disappears upstairs, she adds, “Remember to tell your mom— soy milk and vitamin C.”
All the support from his mom aside, the world that Kato liked was a tough one to break into. He worked himself into the field from the cold, dead ground up. As a youngster, he frequented the Hicksville Magic Shop for supplies and leaned on Dick Smith’s Do-it-Yourself Monster Make-Up Book, which he calls “the best book for beginners.”
“I started out as a grunt, for $50 a day,” Kato recalls. “In my first assignment I was given a half-globe of resin that I had to sand and polish. It took three days. There’s a lotta weird stuff that goes on at many shops— people sabotage your work so that it won’t come out. Next, I went on to seaming and patching— you pull a foam latex piece out of a mold and trim it. I worked my way up to runner in three weeks— your job is to run around and get supplies for the shop. I was too good at this job and they wanted to keep there. Don’t be too good at the job or you’ll stay there! ” Kato chortles. “Still making $50 a day,” he adds. “Finally I worked my way up to making molds, sculpting. Getting my hands dirty.
“But at 25 I moved back to Long Island in 1992 to finish my photography degree at Nassau Community College, did menial work at Ikea and Suncoast Video. Made some teeth and models for a small studio in Long Island City called Direct Effects. They couldn’t pay much, but they treated me good.”
Hollywood, he says, “became to seem like a dream, but photography seemed attainable.” For that, he has to thank Susan Kravitz, his photography professor at NCC, for bringing out his love of the genre.
Now he’s been to Hollywood and back, lensed nudie pics of Linnea Quigley, been featured in Fangoria and Outlaw Biker mags. He describes his current work simply. “I do make-ups and put them into my photos,” he says. “You get to play God— create this whole world within the photograph and populate it with your own creatures.”