Freaking Out!

by Bob Staake Copyright 2000 by Bob Staake -- All Rights Reserved

So who can you hang in your living room?

Van Gogh is too pricey. Warhol too enigmatic. O'Keefe? Too flowery. Have you considered Snap Wyatt?

As an artist, Snap Wyatt's canvases are Herculean in scale, his colors bold, his brush work confident. He's even relatively affordable. Yet while others painted the French countryside or seascapes or pastoral vistas, Wyatt was busy painting pinheads.

Indeed, Wyatt's paintings are as politically-incorrect as involuntary sterilization of the I.Q.-challenged, but then his canvases were always intended to shock. His in-your-face art beckons you to behold men with seal flippers, to witness goat women, or pay two bits to see the Turkey Boy. Mix P.T.Barnum with a cup of David Ogilvy, throw in a dash of Jerry Springer, and you'd have Snap Wyatt.

(Left) A Snap Wyatt Canvas: Dash of 'Jerry Springer'?

Wyatt, and a handful of others including Fred Johnson, Jack Cripe and Jack Sigler (now all deceased) , brought art to the carnival midways of the 30's through 60's with their 10' x10' banners that waved outside the circus freak show coaxing passersby to come inside. Originally intended as silent barkers, the huge canvases played to a carnival-goer's most prurient, base instincts and only the ethically strong willed would be able to curb their curiosity and keep from entering the Freak Show tent. If the banners were correct, the tent would behold a bizarre melange of human oddities - from Major Debert Tiniest Man to the 643 pound Sweet Marie, Huey The Pretzel Boy to the Alligator Girl.

Few considered the canvasses of Wyatt and company haute arte at the time theywere painted, yet today the mega-paintings are being bought almost as fast as they'rehung on an art gallery's walls. Hydrocelaphus Baby on the family room wall? Fat Man in the den? Dickie The Penguin Boy above the fireplace mantle? Hey, it's happening.

Growing up during the 50's and 60's in Columbus, Mike Siculan and his brothers would regularly haunt the fun houses and freak shows of the Ohio State Fair, and it's here that Siculan saw his first sideshow banner. "I had to be only 7 or 8", recalls Siculan, "but I thought the banners were magnificent -- just great. Our parents would just drop us of and we'd go see the freak shows."

Then in 1975, Siculan managed to scrape together $400 (which at that time, he says , was "a pretty big piece of change"), and purchase his first freak show banner. The 10' x 10' canvas titled 'Past And Present' boasted not one, but eleven freaks. In the late 70's and early 80's, Siculan and a brother owned a walk through spook house called The Mad House which they pulled to different county fairs around the Midwest, and by hanging around other carnival people, Siculan was able to acquire additional canvases.

"It would have been very difficult acquiring some of this stuff", says Siculan, "unless you were somehow involved directly in the carnival business. But you know, if some of the old timers saw you hauling around your spook house trailer just trying to make a living, they figured you must be alright and they'd deal with you. "

Today, it is Siculan who's doing the dealing. Along with his girlfriend Sarah Ulrich, owner of Looking Glass Antiques, St.Louis shop specializing in 1950's artifacts, the duo have begun selling their freak show banners. Ranging in price from $200 to $1500, the banners have been selling since November of 1994 in a city not known for enthusiastically embracing non-traditional art or counter-culture style.

(Above) Sigler: One of the 'Big 4' Freak Banner Artists

Five months pregnant, Ulrich sits next to an 8' x 10' canvas showing a two headed baby. "The banners", she says, "are selling better than I expected they would", an assessment that the 40-year-old Siculan echoes. "Young professionals in their twenties are buying them", he says, "all the way up to old people. Some of them mix the banners in with their antiques."

"I can sell my banners cheaper in St.Louis", continues Siculan, "than the pricey art galleries can in Chicago. I personally haven't been able to sell a banner for over $1750, although I have heard them going for $2500. I've just done very well selling here and traveling around doing the antique collectible shows." Siculan and Ulrich have even toyed with the idea of opening a bar or coffeehouse in the trendy Del Mar Loop area of St.Louis and bedeck the interior, floor to ceiling, with the gargantuan sideshow banners. They are also scouting St.Louis for a cavernous venue in which to stage a major showing of sideshow banners in the nation.

Brad Fink, the 25-year-old owner of Iron Age Tattoo Studio in University City, a suburb of St.Louis, has bought a number of sideshow banners from Siculan and Ulrich, though he's not sure if he currently owns seven or eight. "The first one I bought", says Fink, "was of a tattooed lady. Then along the way I picked up banners of Blockheads, a Cyclops Baby, A Human Torture Chamber scene, and things like that. For me, the appeal of the banners lie in the fact that I'm too young to have actually seen a freak show. I've only seen them in the movies and stuff. There just aren't that many banners available out there, and that's why you need a good connection like Mike."

And while Fink claims not to have investing on his mind when he purchases a new banner, Siculan points out that a number of factors help determine the price of a freak show canvas. 10' x 10' is the classic, preferred size, but a canvas' unique subject matter will elevate it's price as well. To the freak show banner connoisseur, Seal Boy is probably more preferable to a Fat Girl, and she more desirable than an Amazon Snake Charmer. The rule of thumb? The more physically unique or bizarre the subject matter, the more valuable the banner.

(Below) Bang Bang Sigler's Silver Hammer. Perfect for the Living Room

Yet it is the artist who ultimately inflates a freak show banner's price tag, and in the world of side show art, the big four are Snap Wyatt, Fred Johnson, Jack Sigler and Jack Cripe. All approached their canvases first as sign painters and only secondly as fine artists, yet Wyatt's pieces exude an uncommon aura of bravado, confident spontaneity and vivid showmanship. Studying a Wyatt, it's instantly apparent that he enjoyed painting freaks. Of the four, there's little question why Wyatt's dynamic banners are the most sought after by collectors.

And while prices for Wyatts, Johnsons, Siglers and Cripes are healthy, Siculan doesn't believe they've peaked. Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls, the first major book chronicling the genre of sideshow banners has just been published, and two other books on the subject will be out by year's end. "The books", Siculan points out, "can help escalate banner prices, but I think it depends on whether or not the publishers distribute the books properly. What the books will definitely do is give collectors a better idea of what they want to buy. You know, they'll flip through the pages, see a banner of a Blockhead (a freak who "hammers" nails up his nostrils) and say 'Boy, that would look great in the living room'".

But like Mammy and Pappy Salt and Pepper Shakers, Nazi memorabilia or even the arguably sexist American paintings of the World War II pin-ups, some view freak show banners as equally disgraceful historical ephemera that should neither be sold, nor bought. Siculan and Ulrich have seen more than one person walk into Looking Glass, spy a banner of a two-headed baby, and silently retreat from the store, but it's rare that a shopper verbally expresses their disdain.

"For the most part", says Siculan, "people seem to be pretty open minded about this stuff, there are still people who react negatively to it. Once at a Flea Market, we were displaying a banner that showed a hydrocelaphus (water on the brain) baby. A woman came up and claimed she had a baby that was born that way and asked us to take it down. We said we were sorry if it offended her, but we explained that the thing as painted in the 1950's and was basically folk art." But Siculan and Ulrich didn't take the banner down. "The woman", said Ulrich, "asked us if we didn't think it was tragic that things like that happen to family, but I don't think people born with birth defects want to be thought of as tragic. I mean, is it really sad? It's natural."

Historically accused of exploiting the freak show performer, carnivals have also been known for having little regard for truth in advertising. Game booths on the midway have been rigged, occasionally rides promoted as safe have had a few bolts missing, and even so-called sideshow "freaks" sometimes were anything but. "The purpose of the banners", points out Siculan, "was to shock the passerby into putting their money down, but 95% of the time the banners inaccurately represented what was actually in the tent. I mean, Fred Johnson worked in a little studio and he was never near the midway. He'd get an order to paint the World's Smallest Man and that's what he'd do."

Few patrons, however, took issue with a sideshow promoter whose contents didn't match up to his packaging. A dishonest freak show? Hardly the type of complaint that would cause a country sheriff to flip on his siren and burn rubber. "But I did hear a story once", said Siculan, "about a man and woman who saw this sideshow banner showing a half-naked woman dancing around with a skeleton, so they paid to go in. Soon they came out complaining to the female ticket taker saying 'hey, we didn't see any naked girls in there!'. So the ticket taker lifts her blouse and exposes her breasts to them."

And while the era of political correctness has replaced words like "midget" with "vertically-challenged", or "amputee" with "appendage-deprived", it has all but wiped the sideshow off the American landscape. Once a staple of our pop culture, even Siculan doesn't know of any carnival sideshows currently traveling the United States. And if this has pleased the socially-conscious, it has deeply offended many freak show performers.

(Right) A Wyatt Duo: Stretching The Truth In Advertising

"Most of the performers that I have talked to", says Siculan, "are really mad that they can't make a living the way they'd like to and that everyone else keeps getting into their business. When public opinion dominates their lives, they get really upset. Disney and Six Flags started this whole homogenized amusement park thing and it helped to kill the freak shows."

"Now ", Siculan continues, "carnival promoters don't want to deal with sideshows because they don't want complaints from public action groups who suggest that freak show performers are being exploited, so a lot of the sideshows travel to Mexico or Canada where they aren't hassled."

The extinction of the freak show makes these canvasses even more precious as relics of a bygone era in American pop culture. Certainly, one could easily be offended by the more graphic sideshow banners if they neglected to view, and appreciate them, in their proper historical context. But embraced for their sheer bravado and chutzpah , these primitive images can easily intoxicate even the most jaded the viewer.

Burned, cut into scrap, or simply hauled off to the dump, "a huge amount of this stuff was destroyed, and that's why it rarely turns up", Siculan regretfully says. "No one appreciated it. In fact, back in 1960, Snap Wyatt used to paint sideshow banners for $53 a piece. When a carnival promoter complained about the price, Wyatt would say 'one of these days, these banners will be worth three times what you paid for them'." 

Bob Staake's humorous illustrations and writings have appeared in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, Miami Herald, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times. His new book is entitled, The Complete Guide To Humorous Illustration (North Light). He lives in St.Louis.

Bob Staake Reviews Two Important New Books On Freak Show Banners 

Freak Out reprinted here with permission of Bod Staake.com

 

 

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