If your life is more sippy cups than cocktails, you may not have noticed that tiki culture is back on the rise. What was once down to a few Trader Vic’s restaurants and Disney World’s Enchanted Tiki Room is now festivals and a complete fandom. At the intersection of tiki and geekdom, you’ll find Jonathan Chaffin and Horror in Clay, purveyor of Cthulhu-themed (and other horror-based) clay tiki mugs.
I first met Chaffin at Con Carolinas a few years ago and look forward to seeing him and his wares again at Dragon Con next week, where Horror in Clay has been accepted into the Comics and Pop Artist Alley show. (And where there’s conveniently also a Trader Vic’s.) You can find him there in booth 109 or on the Tiki Pop Phenomenon panel, but first get a preview in this interview, including information about Horror in Clay’s Dragon Con exclusive.
GeekMom: How did Horror in Clay get started? What was your first creation, and what was the inspiration?
Jonathan Chaffin: One night, after reading Lovecraft, while pondering what coasters and mug I would design if I had my own horror-themed tiki bar, I dreamed of a pair of burning orange squid eyes, and snaky tentacles holding a burning orange fogcutter mug. I’m entirely serious.
When my daughter was born, I was working an 11 a.m.-8 p.m. shift, while wife and daughter were on more of an 8 a.m.-5 p.m. schedule, meaning I had time to fill at the end of the day. Rather than binge-watch Firefly again, I looked around at all the horror and tiki kitsch collection around me and thought, If this was a tiki bar, what would the mugs look like? The coasters? The swizzle sticks?
My brain decided that a great overlap between horror and the Oceanic/Polynesian regions would be dread Cthulhu, asleep in deep R’lyeh. Even better, “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft includes reference to a statue of Cthulhu… why not make that a tiki mug? Everything in my Pickman’s Cove Collection, including the Cthulhu tiki mug, came out of that. Since then I’ve been rolling along adding new collections: the Innsmouth Fogcutter collection, the Cask of Amontillado Barrel tiki mug collection, and the new Rue Morgue Dreadful Ape collection.
Horror In Clay exists at the nexus of tiki bars/Polynesian pop, travel, pop culture, horror, and literature, which are pretty much my lifetime favorite things. I’m attending my 18th Dragon Con this year. As a child, I traveled to the Caribbean a lot because my mom was a travel agent for a while, so beaches and cocktails and theme restaurants were a big part of my childhood too. As a collector of just about everything, my living spaces, studio, and office cubicle are heavily adorned with 8×10 autographed pictures, figurines, statues of tikis, tiki mugs, advertisements for movies, signs… you name it.
GM: How do your creations get made, from the idea process through the sculpting?
JC: I often have an idea and a rough sketch, maybe an idea for a companion piece or two I want to develop. After that, it depends slightly on the collection. Usually, I start with a piece of literature I love (or, in the case of the Dark Lantern mug I did for Netherworld Haunted House’s 20th anniversary, with research into their extensive mythology). I read everything I can about the setting, the author, the story, related stories, etc. If I know people there, I’ll talk to them about how they feel walking around.
I love puzzles and try and seed inter-related puzzles throughout the physical mug and the related collection–ciphers on a mug that can be broken using a key on something else, symbolic literary references, cryptograms, Morse code, etc., all linking together to form a meta-narrative about the mug. Once I have all the elements I want to incorporate into the design, I’ll create increasingly refined turnaround images.
Turnaround images will be refined until I either take them to a digital sculptor to have a master 3D-modeled and then output or have a master sculpt made. Those sculpts will then be used to produce my mugs.
GM: You have a special exclusive for Dragon Con attendees?
JC: I have a couple of special things for Dragon Con!
The biggest will be a glaze variant of the Cthulhu tiki mug, the Hyperborean glaze. The mug is stark white with blue details. This will probably be the only show this mug makes it to; there were fewer than 300 made. I’ll probably have 150 at the show.
I also have a very limited number of Gilman House bar towels. (These are companion pieces for our Innsmouth Fogcutter tiki mug, and I have only 20 to sell). We will also have cocktail and ottoman trays featuring some of the maps supporting our mugs.
The biggest thing I have going right now, aside from preparing like mad for Dragon Con, is the impending launch (hopefully 8/27) of the Rue Morgue Dreadful Ape collection! This murderous monkey mug and attendant collection will most likely debut on Kickstarter; please subscribe to the Horror In Clay newsletter for a shot at the early bird levels.
GM: What’s your favorite drink to put in a Horror in Clay mug?
JC: Each mug comes with a specially designed cocktail, put together with love by an appropriate bartender. The “Cthulhu Waits Dreaming” and the “Fortunato’s Mistake” are two of my favorites to make from our cocktail book, although, honestly, I often enjoy a “Dark and Stormy” out of our mugs.
One of the fun things about tiki mugs for me is that there is often an experience associated with them; the right mug in the right bar with the right cocktail all transcends the sum of its parts. When I can track down a mug with a signature recipe I usually HAVE to track it down to try it.