Nate Hill stood at the curb of Mott Street in the rain. He was leading a Chinatown Garbage Tour, but he was also hard at work. Hill’s hands, luminous in blue plastic gloves, were halfway visible as they probed a crate of animal guts.
“I’m looking for the black gold,” he said, and grinned.
There were a dozen people clustered around Hill, and most of them were wondering what this “black gold” was.
“It’s bubbly, it’s this black bubbly stuff. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s the greatest—that’s why I call it the black gold.”
One questioner persisted. But what was it, exactly? Which part?
Hill shook his head and laughed. “I don’t know which part it is,” he admitted. “It could be the, uh—” he was distracted from his speculation by a shout from the sidewalk. Amanda, one of Hill’s most ardent fans, had found something. Amanda had brought her own gloves from home, and they were red.
“Nate!” she yelled, but he was already there, looking over her shoulder.
“Ohhh, yeah.” Hill sounded proud and announced, “those are intestines.”
Nate Hill’s website clams he is the “Greatest Artist of All Time.” More specifically, he is “an artist who makes new animals from dead animal parts.” Hill is a rogue taxidermist. He began practicing taxidermy as a college student in 1999, after falling for “a really really sexy Asian girl named Rebekah.” As it happened, Rebekah was a budding taxidermist herself; through her “connect” at a local pet store, “she was stapling parts of animals together,” Hill remembered. He tried to impress her by cutting up an opossum he found by the side of the road. He sewed the animal’s tail to its hand and gave it to Rebekah as a present. She might have been impressed, but not enough to date him. Hill moved to New York a year later with a vocation instead of a girlfriend.
Hill was living near his parents in Tallahassee, Florida when he first started collecting road kill and other dead animals. He said, “My father doesn’t really get my work.” Hill thinks that because his father is an obstetrician he should understand his son’s art more than most people do. “I like drawing the parallel that we both bring life into the world. He brings it from living things, and I bring life from dead things.”
Hill said that without financial support from his family, he wouldn’t be able to continue in his more eccentric pursuits. “I kind of think making art for many people is a luxury,” he said. Even with that extra income, he still has a day job. Hill works at a genetics lab at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He is “a fly food chef.” He said that two of his bosses knew what he did with his spare time. “They are amused.”
The night he was looking for “black gold” on Mott Street marked Hill’s sixth Chinatown garbage tour. He began the tours in July and has held one every month since; apparently, it got pretty smelly in August. He announces the events on the community listserv Nonsense NYC and in the free daily AM New York; he said that the number of participants has ranged from one—“a friend”—to 25. On a cold, rainy weeknight in mid-January, he managed about 15.
The tour convened on Canal Street; Hill had promised to hold a large sign that said “Chinatown Garbage Tour,” but it proved unnecessary. If Hill’s fatigues and flak helmet didn’t make him conspicuous enough, the cluster of cameras surrounding him did. So far, The New York Times, National Public Radio, New York Magazine, Time Out New York and the magazine The Naughty American, among others, have profiled Hill. Present at the January tour were reporters and photographers from the Associated Press, L Magazine, and, of course, the Brooklyn Rail. There was also one woman with fancy photography equipment who looked confused even as she angled her camera around for better shots.
“What happened?” she kept asking.
“Nothing happened,” said an attendee, finally. “What do you mean?”
“What happened? Is there a complaint?” She was informed that there was neither a complaint nor an event, per se, “it’s just that he’s a taxidermist.” The woman, whose English was limited, did not seem to understand. She was asked which news outlet she represented. “The Chinese newspaper,” she explained, as though it should have been obvious.
Later, when Hill and his girlfriend were told about this exchange, they laughed. She said, “I’ve been on a few of these tours, and it’s really the demographics of people who show up that interest me. Sociologically, it’s a unique thing; sometimes in New York it’s hard to simply talk to people. I go to parties, they’re fun, but then afterwards I realize I didn’t even really have any conversations.”
One earnest young participant named Genevieve explained that she had come on the garbage tour after reading about it in an email from Nonsense NYC. “I like odd things,” she shrugged, and then asked Hill for a pair of gloves so she, too, could get on with her scavenging.
Hill is generally delighted by the attention of the people he calls his “groupies,” even though he acknowledged, “Sometimes talking to these guys makes me feel really normal.” He doesn’t get much actual collecting done during the Chinatown Garbage Tours, but he continues to do them “as a public relations effort.” Hill is advancing the cause of rogue taxidermists everywhere, and there are more of them than might be expected.
Three like-minded friends founded the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists in 2004. MART is now the largest group of its kind, and has more than 30 members in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and France. Hill joined the association in 2005. The members’ activities are diverse; some are licensed taxidermists despite the fact that their less traditional methods incur the ire of most taxidermy professionals. In 2004 Bill Haynes, then the president of the National Taxidermists Association Board of Directors, informed MART, “If you are looking for approval for this so called ‘art,’ I am afraid you have come to the wrong place.”
Hill said he understood the NTA’s objections. “I don’t embalm, I don’t use any chemicals. There’s a specific craft to taxidermy that in my work I don’t need to do. I don’t skin.” Hill submerges the carcasses in rubbing alcohol, which acts as a disinfectant and temporary preservative. Once the specimens are taken out of the alcohol—to exhibit—they will eventually start to rot again, so Hill keeps them in alcohol when not on display.
Before the January garbage tour began, Hill got everyone’s attention by waving one of his creations up in the air. Throughout the night this object functioned like a macabre version of the stereotypical tour guide’s umbrella; in reality, it was an arm, detached from an artificial human being that Hill had spent the last year fabricating. The human was christened “A Dead Animal Man,” or A.D.A.M. A.D.A.M. is life-sized and composed of parts that originally belonged to chickens, conches, cows, crabs, deer, dogs, ducks, eels, fish, lobsters, rabbits, and sharks.
A.D.A.M. was publicly unveiled at an open studio party in late January. In the invitation, Hill promised attendees “a complimentary face mask because this event will smell.” A.D.A.M.’s arm was indeed pungent that night in Chinatown, a neighborhood that is not known for its odor neutrality. After Hill stowed the arm back in his messenger bag, Genevieve wrinkled her nose. “I dissected a lot of baby pigs in bio, and this doesn’t smell like formaldehyde.”
A.D.A.M. does reek, but he is also a sight to behold. His testicles are made out of “chicken breasts cut into ball shapes,” and his penis is part rabbit, part rooster head.
“A rooster, like a cock, get it?” asked Hill, looking around. Everyone nodded. They got it.
A.D.A.M. has been featured prominently in “Chop Chop,” Hill’s monthly YouTube show. Several Chop Chop viewers have commented on the size of the dead animal man’s “package.” Hill admits that A.D.A.M. is remarkably well endowed, but argues that the size is entirely justified. He presumably knows his Bible where in Genesis 1:26, it is written, “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
“If I’m making the first man,” Hill said, “I’m not going to give him a small penis!”
Emma Rebhorn is a writer living on the Lower East Side. Her website is redadmirable.com.