Not Just Another Freak Show:


Farewell to the Illustrated Man


''Ladies and gentlemen boys and girls children and elders welcome to the show!''


The time was midnight, the house was half-filled, and the barker's call sounded the same as it has for decades at Coney Island. To the uninitiated, the scene last Thursday night at the Coney Island Sideshow by the Seashore had all the trappings of just another freak show. The escape artist hung out near the emergency exit and Koko the Killer Clown, all 48 inches of him, mingled with Todd Robbins, an ''inside talker,'' who lures passersby into the show. They gabbed about life and death.

Up on stage, between the electric chair and the ''DANGER! LIVE SNAKES!'' box, was a magician's coffin. Empty, it symbolized the reason for this particular spectacle -- a memorial for Michael Wilson, better known as the Illustrated Man, who died in his Chelsea apartment on July 29, after suffering an apparent diabetic seizure. Mr. Wilson, who claimed to have had some 35,000 tattoos, had been a regular Sideshow performer since 1986. His death, at 44, touched many members of the tight-knit carny community.

''Michael was the symbolic modern primitive,'' said Dick Zigun, the Sideshow owner. ''Before every 14-year-old girl in the nation had her tongue pierced, Michael was out there.''

The memorial drew 60 or so people. Many spoke of a kind, quiet professional whose ability to draw passersby rivaled that of any freak in the business. ''He could entice a crowd by just showing an arm,'' said Tera Ball, 33, a musician. ''Sometimes just a finger.''

Mr. Wilson's routine included displaying his tattoos -- his head hidden under a black hood until the end -- followed by a stomach-turning encore: nailing his tongue to a board.

Friends spoke of his love for tattoos -- he got his first at age 13 -- and his distaste for other parts of the job. ''Man, he hated that bed of nails,'' said Indio, the escape artist. Still, he said, Mr. Wilson could withstand more than 400 pounds on his chest while lying on the nails, more by far than any company member.

Roughly 90 percent of Mr. Wilson's body was inked, said Mr. Zigun, including extensive designs on his head and face. ''He moved to New York because he couldn't find anyone on the West Coast who would tattoo his face,'' he said.

As some friends recalled the mystic and mundane of Mr. Wilson's life -- ''He said in his dreams, he had no tattoos.'' ''He snored.'' -- others milled past photos of him with The Original Blockhead and The Human Cigarette Factory. A Russian newspaper clipping read, ''Picture person dies of diabetes.''

Inside the theater, the troupe's shrine to Mr. Wilson included his cutoff jeans shorts (for showing off those delicate designs), and his show stopper: a hammer, a nail and a stubby piece of two-by-four.
Mr. Zigun said Mr. Wilson's ashes were scattered, though not over Coney Island. ''Michael is gone,'' he said, remembering a performer whose act was a part of him. ''He was the ultimate. He could never take it off.''

 Article by Jesse McKinley - NY Times - August 18, 1996

 Photographed at the Coney Island Sideshow by Dan Nicoletta

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