Dying art still lives on Metropolitan Avenue
by Kerry Murtha
Nov 06, 2019 | 10489 views | 0 0 comments | 578 578 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and 71st Street, nestled among a nail salon and a vacuum cleaner repair shop, is a small unassuming storefront that hawks wares of a different nature. Stuffed creatures, including an eight-foot brown bear, a South African penguin and a pair of love birds, are among the items displayed for sale in the two large plate glass windows, all courtesy of New York City’s last remaining taxidermist John Youngaitis.

Youngaitis, the 65-year-old owner of Cypress Hills Taxidermy, is carrying on the legacy of his father Victor, who opened the business in 1958 on Jamaica Avenue in East New York.

He began an apprenticeship with his father when he was eight years old, working after school and during summers.

“I remember skinning my first animal that year,” he recalled with a sense of accomplishment. “That’s how you start; the mounting is the more difficult part.”

When the elder Youngaitis passed away six years ago, the family-owned storefront was sold and John relocated the business to 71-01 Metropolitan Avenue.

“It wasn’t easy finding another location,” he said. “A lot of landlords were a little creeped out.”

Taxidermy began in Europe more than 400 years ago as a way to preserve specimens collected by explorers. Later it allowed scientists to study three-dimensional representations of exotic animals. Eventually the craft became a means for hunters to collect trophies.

Indeed, taxidermists of the late 19th century were as common as barbers and butchers, and while the practice declined, it never died out.

During the 1960s and 70s, there was at least one taxidermist in each of the five boroughs, but today, only John Youngaitis remains. Balding, with a coiffed white beard, lively blue eyes and tattooed arms - including one deer head design, of course - Youngaitis’s fervor for his craft has not waned.

“Putting animals back together is my passion, recreating them in real-life poses tells a story,” he said. “There’s diversity in it too. It would be boring if I worked on deer after deer.”

Youngaitis spends approximately ten hours a day in his two-room storefront, accompanied only by his talkative African grey parrot. There, he works with animal skins that once coated a variety of critters indigenous to North America; chipmunks, foxes, raccoons and birds are of the smaller variety, while deer, bears and, most recently, a moose are among the larger.

Smaller animals can be skinned at the shop, but larger game hunted for meat must first be butchered. Youngaitis said he is left with the skin, skull and feet, which he assembles on a wood-framed mount. Glass eyes and teeth, either cut from the skull or artificially made, are later added.

The costs and waiting times vary according to the size of the animal, he noted. For example, birds are often mounted in one day at a price of $100. Bears, deer and moose can run up to $1,000 and take a year to complete, depending upon how late in the hunting season they arrive at his store.

Hunting still accounts for 80 percent of his business, but the game has slightly changed. Youngaitis said his father would typically take in 80 deer in the months of September through December, compared to his current 30. However, a recently extended bear-hunting season has bolstered his intake of the black and brown variety, from two or three in prior years to eight last year.

Youngaitis said he sometimes works with pet owners, but insisted he’ll no longer mount cats and dogs - after being stiffed, if you will - one too many times.

“These owners come in when they’re grief stricken, but by the time I’m done they’ve either moved on with a new pet or it’s too emotional for them to see their beloved stuffed,” he said. As a result, they never come back.

But Youngaitis has found other ways to bump business during the off-season, like selling taxidermy mounts he finds at estate sales and renting his own pieces for various venues. To that end, six of his animals, including the eight-foot brown bear, have been hired in the past by Saks Fifth Avenue for their Christmas window display.

More recently, Youngaitis’s shop was closed for two weeks to film an episode of the psychological thriller series “Mr. Robot.” The episode aired on USA Network in October.

The media’s interest is reflective of a taxidermy renaissance of sorts. Of late, a young crop of female practitioners around the country, as well as abroad, are spearheading a resurgence of the age-old craft but with a new spin.

Larry Blomquist, publisher of the national taxidermy trade magazine Breakthrough and a taxidermist himself for 60 years in Hammond, Louisiana, said he’s seen an uptick in interest, particularly among women.

“There have been more women than ever before interested in taxidermy,” he said, “but they are making it a hip and trendy art form.”

Contrary to traditionalists, this new crop of craftspeople classify themselves as “ethical” taxidermists. They acquire animals that have died natural deaths, transforming them into artistic creations that depart from the way they looked when they were alive.

Amber Maykut, founder of Brooklyn Taxidermy and a follower of the more current practice, decided five years ago to leave her corporate job at an educational website company to pursue her interest in taxidermy. She showed up at the store of New York’s only taxidermist John Youngaitis.

“I went to his shop every day and asked him questions about the craft,” says Maykut. She later began working with another traditional taxidermist in New Jersey, but more recently opened her own shop, where she creates artistic pieces that she characterizes as “kitschy with a sense of humor.”

Among her creations are a baby chick dressed as the Pokémon character Pikachu and a pair of bear cubs with human faces. She fills custom orders, some from celebrities, and conducts classes in her Greenpoint space to teach others her artistic techniques.

Youngaitis said he is not interested in practicing the newest art form. “I’m a purist,” he declared.

The stalwart said he is currently compiling a book about his experiences, complete with cartoons, pictures and his most humorous stories.

One includes a family who traveled from the Bronx with their deceased 40-year-old pet parrot. The extended family squeezed into the small storefront with a package wrapped in several plastic bags. Youngaitis unwrapped the first, the second and finally the third, only to find a package of hot dogs. The distraught family members realized they took the wrong bag from the freezer.

They soon returned with the bird and weeks later, when they came to pick up their immortalized pet, Youngaitis presented them with a mounted hot dog adorned with feathers. “We all got a laugh out of it,” said Youngaitis. “This job can be a lot of fun.”
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