Behind the beautiful and macabre art of Tyler Thrasher

Crystallized skull

Tyler Thrasher

‘I crystallize dead s**t.’

Tyler Thrasher is taking taxidermy to the next level.

Though not a taxidermist himself, the 22-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma, native is taking found cicadas and animal skulls and using chemistry to grow crystals on them. His art walks the line between the macabre and the beautiful with ease, and the art world is taking note.

Thrasher’s journey to this point in his art career began in high school when he started taking advanced chemistry. He told the Daily Dot that he was inspired to study chemistry after his friends suggested he wouldn’t do well.

“I just kind of did it because I had a lot of friends who told me I couldn’t do it and I did it just to prove them wrong,” Thrasher said. “I accidentally fell in love with chemistry; it gave me a new perspective on the world. You don’t usually think of the world as being made up of trillions and trillions and trillions of pieces.”

Around the same time, Thrasher also became interested in art. But he wouldn’t decide to combine his two passions for some time. In fact, after high school Thrasher forgot about chemistry for a bit. Initially, he thought he’d pursue animation. His fascination with Japanese anime led him to Japan, but he quickly learned that most anime is actually animated in South Korea. Nonetheless, he pressed on with his animation studies at Missouri State University.

But once he got close to actually considering animation for a career, he started to get cold feet. It’s difficult to make it in animation these days, he said, and most people who want to work on projects have to be willing to pick up and move around the country for several months at a time. There are few stable jobs in animation fields these days, Thrasher said.

“I don’t want to be working on anyone else’s story or art,” Thrasher said.

Around this time he got into caving, and his current artistic style started to come into focus.

“I spent a lot of time exploring underground caves and caverns and found my love of nature. I started incorporating natural things into my work, I did a lot of drawing of insects and animals,” Thrasher said. “I started illustrating and painting crystals, and then I refound my fascination with crystalline structures and my love of chemistry.”

Thrasher’s true eureka moment occurred in a store: A rock covered in brilliant blue crystals caught his eyes. The label said the crystals were chalcanthite and were lab-grown. Thrasher said he suddenly remembered that he had learned to grow crystals in his chemistry classes in high school. Soon after, he experimented by attempting to grow crystals on cicada shells.

“It’s a very weird fulltime job,” Thrasher said. “Whenever someone asks me what I do, I can’t just tell them, ‘I crystallize dead shit.’”

Thrasher thinks of himself as an artist and even something of an alchemist. But he doesn’t quite see himself as a true scientist yet. For that, he would need a laboratory and access to a wider selection of chemicals. Right now he buys some of his chemicals from international sellers on Ebay. Others he gets at regular brick-and-mortar stores.

Harnessing social media

Thrasher’s never been much for social media, he told the Daily Dot. But a friend of his convinced him to start Instagram and Facebook pages to promote his work. It wasn’t until he reached out via Facebook to artist and illustrator, J.A.W. Cooper, that he started to gain notoriety.

Cooper’s work is similar in some ways. It mixes natural elements with macabre themes. Soon after he reached out to her on Facebook, she posted about his artwork to her own social media accounts and the followers started pouring in.

“If you want your stuff to get noticed, you have to kind of appeal to bigger people because at some point your friends and family don’t cut it anymore,” Thrasher said.

Now, about a year after he started crystallizing, he’s up to well over 23,000 followers on Instagram.


Refining the art

Initially when Thrasher began to crystalize things, the end-product formed pretty randomly. He says there’s still some randomness in the process. After all, he can’t completely control precisely where every small crystal will form. But he can grow some crystals and glue them to particular areas to seed larger stones while crystallizing the entire piece. He can also shrink them by dissolving them using a paintbrush dipped in solvent (such as boiling hot water.)

He says that if he can get the funding and a place for it, he would be interested in crystallizing an entire tree, or perhaps a skeleton.

But in the meantime, Thrasher will continue caving, watching anime, and acting as a dungeon master in Dungeons and Dragons.

Photo by Tyler Thrasher

Cynthia McKelvey

Cynthia McKelvey

Cynthia McKelvey covered the health and science for the Daily Dot until 2017. She earned a graduate degree in science communication from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2014. Her work has appeared in Gizmodo, Scientific American Mind, and Mic.com.