By KEVIN HOOVER
To say that the respective fans of horror and tattooing seemingly run in the same circles would be an understatement. It is, after all, why every major horror convention hosts a tattoo exhibition with artists from around the world showcasing their talents. A familiar face at many of those shows is Shaun Kama, a vet of the skin-and-ink trade for better than two decades. Shaun draws inspiration from artists the likes of Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), Bernie Wrightson (co-creator of the Swamp Thing), and Norman Rockwell – names that left a mark on him from an early age. His style – a Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss mash-up that manifests as a masterful rendition best explained as “creepy cute” – has earned him the mantle of “The King of Halloween Tattoos.” Recently, he realized a long-held dream of producing a coloring book of original artwork. Titled “Cemetery Picnic”, it was released in collaboration with independent publisher Blood Bound Books and has developed a fast following among genre fans.
For over 20 years, you’ve been inking your own twist on horror imagery into the flesh of others. In doing so, you’ve amassed a cult following of fans comprised of both gorehound and world-famous celebrity alike. Pull back the curtain and let us know what the formative years of a young Shaun Kama looked like.
Being of the generation of latchkey kids, I was always on the search for new and interesting ways to keep myself entertained. Born a natural introvert lends itself well to being an anomaly of sorts, so I would often lean towards the activities where I could be the master of my domain. I discovered early on that I enjoyed drawing, and I harbored a fondness for the strange and bizarre. Specifically, I remember being inspired by the artwork on a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Anything visual – book covers, VHS tapes – always caught my attention, and seeing this cover, with imagery of these human/sea creature hybrids, both terrified and enamored me. When I was young, I was an outsider. That’s very difficult for a kid. But as you get older, you begin to realize that being different is cool, and being on the fringe is even cooler.
So you were captivated by the macabre and otherworldly. Is that what led you into tattooing?
I’m a very audio-visual focused person and have been ever since I was a child. This led me into one direction initially – that of music. While growing up, I did whatever I could to support my love for performing, and that meant working various jobs. At one point, I had a friend that worked for a tattoo shop, but eventually he decided to move on to something else. Knowing that I could draw and that I was doing everything in my power to avoid working for “the man” while still being able to indulge my passion for music, he asked if I wanted his old job, so I took him up on the offer.
The owner of the shop was a great tattooist, but he wasn’t much of an artist, something that’s not as uncommon as it may seem. He could lay lines and ink, but he was usually just working from a pattern. When people find out you can draw, you’re often asked to design logos, create artwork for jackets, etc.. In this case, I started creating art for the shop owner. That led to my apprenticeship in tattooing.
Who are some of your influences, artistic and otherwise?
Aside from my parents, one of the biggest influences on my life and my art was a guy named Seven. I first met him when I was about 18 or 19 years old, growing up in Orange County. The guy was a Rasta, and he taught me a great deal about color theory and blending colors. There were also several teachers back in school that were instrumental in helping build my self-confidence: art teachers, history teachers, even a ceramics teacher.
Horror is obviously a huge part of my life, so I’m drawn to many genre books and films. King, Barker, and Lovecraft are all favorites. As far as imagery, I was always a fan of MAD magazine and its many artists, as well as other releases by EC Comics. Tim Burton is another, and specifically his Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories. I’ve also enjoyed different album covers over the years, with Meat Loaf and Molly Hatchet being two standouts. When I was younger, every week I would take the latest issue of TV Guide and circle all the shows that seemed interesting to me. A particular favorite was Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. That one really caught my eye due to it combining the elements of mystery and sci-fi with the painting device used to introduce each story.
For over a decade, indie publisher Blood Bound Books has been releasing some of the most extreme, envelope-pushing horror in the literary market. How did your relationship begin?
Pretty early on in my tattooing career, I decided that mainstream wasn’t for me. I was into horror culture, and it only made sense that when trying to get my name out there, horror conventions seemed a more appropriate route than traditional tattoo shows. It was at Mad Monster Party that I first met Marc Ciccarone, co-owner and founder of Blood Bound Books. I tattooed him there: my own take on the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
For a long time, I’d wanted to create a book. I’d been working on artwork for another project and had invested about 100 hours into it. That project never materialized, but the stuff that I was drawing was too special to never see the light of day. Having already built a relationship with Marc over the years, I more or less just approached him and said, “Hey, what do you think about releasing a coloring book together?” I already had the artwork, so a coloring book seemed a natural fit. Marc was on-board and it didn’t take very long for us to hammer out all the details. The whole process was smooth and straightforward, and Blood Bound Books has been a fantastic partner in the whole venture.
“As you get older, you begin to realize that being different is cool, and being on the fringe is even cooler.” -Shaun Kama
At first impressions, the concept of a tattoo artist releasing a coloring book through a partnership with one of indie horror’s most revered publishers may seem unusual. But a peek inside unearths something so much more. Simply put, this isn’t just another coloring book. What makes “Cemetery Picnic” different?
As an artist, I’m always engaged by graphical depictions of ideas. When discussing physical media such as a book, the cover is the first thing that needs to grab your attention. To be brutally honest, I find that most coloring books have boring, bland covers. Starting at the literal beginning, it was important to have a cover that was cool and enticing. It was also equally important that, even though this is a horror-themed piece of work, it not be aggressive or off-putting to any age group. Creepy is a huge niche nowadays, much larger than ever before. And as much as I love the gory and scary stuff, the idea was to make a book that still embodied creepy, but was also cute. You won’t find subversive images in the pages of “Cemetery Picnic,” and that was by design. I wanted this to appeal and be accessible to everyone age 3 up through adulthood.
Another aspect that makes us different is that this isn’t just a bunch of blank images waiting to be colored in. “Cemetery Picnic” features some of my original poetry with an introduction to a character I call The Beecher, alongside a running narrative of Pumpkin Kid, whose idea it was to have a picnic in the cemetery in the first place. Eventually, I’d like to write and create more books, potentially even expanding upon the elements found within this book.
Helping kids see that “different is ok” is important to you, isn’t it?
It is. Being a bit of a loner and aberration while growing up put me in a place where creating art and monsters provided a true sense of tranquility. A sanctuary where I could personally never be afraid. A womb, so to speak.
From the outset, we wanted to be able to take this book into schools and engage with children. Marc’s day job is that of a schoolteacher, and he has a great affinity for helping his students build their confidence and discover their self-worth. Our plan with “Cemetery Picnic” is to help kids see that it’s ok to be an individual, to look the way you want to look and carve out your own path through life. That’s why Pumpkin Kid chooses to hang out in a cemetery and host a picnic amongst all the bugs and creepy crawlies that live there. “Cemetery Picnic”s purpose far exceeds being a means to develop an ancillary income.
Are you pleased with the way the book turned out, and what has the feedback been like so far?
Absolutely. I’ve very happy with the end product, and the feedback has only been positive. We were originally slated to launch at Texas Frightmare Weekend back in May, but due to that event being postponed we went ahead and launched it. Many of my friends in music and tattooing have received copies alongside the orders we’re getting online, and everyone has been very receptive.
Author, illustrator, tattoo artist: What’s next for Shaun Kama?
I’ll continue to tattoo, of course. I intend to stay involved in art, music, and tattooing for as long as I’m physically capable of doing so. I enjoy doing commissions, especially when it gives me a chance to work in a medium that forces me to grow as an artist, such as painting with oils. I also currently host a YouTube show called Kreepy Kama. Although I’m an introvert at heart, I’ve taught myself how to be an extrovert, and on my show I primarily interview musicians. We discuss horror, monster movies, books, and while we always get back around to talking about their music, we do it in a way that I’m not hitting them with the same tired, played out interview questions they’ve been asked a million times before.
As I’ve mentioned, I’d also like to continue writing and creating books. Maybe that means more coloring books or graphical novels, but the process behind creating “Cemetery Picnic” was something I enjoyed so much that I plan to keep doing it. And if I can help some kid along the way realize that normal is whatever one wants it to be, then that’s pretty cool, too.