SYCAMORE – The American Indian masks are the first thing you are likely to notice when you enter Rick “Spider” Kramer’s tattoo studio.
“These are spirit masks,” said Kramer, owner of Spider Tattooz in Sycamore and creator of the masks. “What I mean by that is, I try to keep the Native American spirit alive because there is so much stuff out there for other community groups, but never for Native Americans.”
The life-sized molded leather masks are adorned with feathers, jewelry, shields and other decorative touches that Kramer says make them the most authentic in the world. Kramer taps into his own American Indian heritage to decorate the masks in a way that is authentic to the various tribes that once inhabited the United States and Canada.
“All of the stuff I use is actual bone beads, turquoise, silver; there is no plastic. I try to keep everything true to its time frame,” Kramer said.
Kramer sat down in his studio with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss his art and his heritage.
MW: How long have you been making Native American masks?
RK: About nine or 10 years. I have them all over the world. I have a website that I sell them on. ...When I do have them here (at his tattoo studio) I sell them off the walls.
MW: How did you start making them?
RK: We were up at Wisconsin Dells one time at a place called Out of the Woods. They have a lot of Native American stuff and that’s why my wife and I went there. They had some (masks) that were a smaller version, probably about half the size of what I do. It was kind of cool except it had glitter paint on it. It didn’t really mean anything. I looked at it and said, “You know what? That could be done so much better.’”
MW: How do you make the masks?
RK: There isn’t a place you can just go and buy face frames and sculpt the leather around it. I haven’t sculpted since high school, but I had to sculpt the blanks that I use for molding the leather. I use four different profiles (for different American Indian nations).
MW: How many have you made?
RK: The last count I looked at, I was in the 500s.
MW: Tell me about your heritage.
RK: We are part of the Menomonee nation through my mother. My great-great grandfather married a Menomonee woman. He was a Canadian-French trader. My grandfather grew up off the reservation in a place called Duck Creek, Wis. because they thought it would be safer for him off the reservation. If you were a half-breed, you’d get the same treatment that most of the minorities get today.
MW: How long have you been studying American Indian history?
RK: I was always interested in it, and that’s why I tattoo a lot of Native American artwork. This just got me more in tune with where we come from, and what we really are.
MW: Are the masks your original designs, or do you reproduce authentic tribal masks?
RK: The face painting is strictly out of history. I have a lot of books on Native American paint, (showing) what they painted their bodies with and what each paint job means because there is face paint for war, and there is face paint for certain ceremonies.
MW: Where do you get the feathers and ornaments?
RK: The feathers are actually turkey feathers that I airbrush to look like eagle feathers.
MW: How long does it take to make a mask?
RK: Some of them take quite a while because you have to hand-do all the jewelry to scale. The bigger ones probably take a week to complete. It depends on how much jewelry I use, and how long it takes to dry the leather. The humidity slows everything down. Then I paint everything by hand. …I’ve got them in Greece, I’ve got them in India; two of them are at a museum in Greece.
MW: Tell me about your cleansing ceremony.
RK: Before the masks are sold I have a sageing ceremony, which is a cleansing ceremony. So if by any chance I brought anything spiritual to this piece, it should be a calm spirit and not a mean spirit. I use sage and feather fans, and there are certain chants that you either do or you listen to. When you get them you can actually smell the sage in the package.
MW: Are your masks made by request only, or do you sell them from your inventory?
RK: It’s hard to keep them in inventory. ...Pretty much, you find one (you like) and I’ll make it. I actually have people send me pictures of a certain Indian, and I’ll put it together according to that photograph. I’ll use a lot of Edward Curtis photographs (for reference).
MW: Are any of your masks on public display in DeKalb County?
RK: Just here.
MW: What masks would reflect the tribal populations of DeKalb County?
RK: The Plains Indian. My family is part Menomonee Indian. So the Blackfoot, the Iroquois, the Sauk families, they would have all have different facial features than what you find in the Southwest. The smaller face without the higher cheekbones is what you’d have seen.
MW: Have you had a surge in interest in Black Hawk masks since the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup?
RK: You see that blank spot on the wall? I actually did a version of that (Black Hawk) with the Blackhawk (team) markings. It had all the feathers that were colored, the actual Blackhawks face paint that you see, plus the crossed tomahawks and a shield. That hung on my wall for I think five days and it was gone.
MW: Would you make another mask just like that if someone wanted it?
RK: Sure, and each one has a story card on it that tells the date, who they are, and a little bit of history - if they were chiefs, or what they were known for.
MW: Do you object to American Indians’ names and images being used to promote sports teams?
RK: That doesn’t really bother me as long as it’s in a positive light. For me, if people see stuff like that, at least they’ll know we were here.
MW: Do you sell a lot of masks to people who have gotten in touch with their American Indian roots, or do more people just like the look of the masks?
RK: Some people click with the artwork right away, and some people buy them because their home is decorated in a Southwest theme and it’s a good focal point.
MW: What is the price range of the masks?
RK: Anywhere from $65 up to $1,200.