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October 23, 2020

Last of a Dying Breed: A Conversation with Martinez Brothers Taxidermists

Three generations of the Martinez family take part in the family taxidermy business, a profession which demands a singular skill set, mixing art with science, beauty with morbidity.

For 50 years the Martinez Brothers Taxidermy shop has sat on the corner of Oltorf St. and Lamar Blvd., its weather beaten sign an icon of old Austin.

“We need one that’s more suitable for the new Sunset Boulevard,” says Alex Martinez  Jr. as he gazes out the window onto the busy intersection.

His father, Alex Martinez Sr., opened the shop in the mid-1970s, when the area was populated, not with bars and boutiques but critters from the creek out back.

“People think taxidermists are the reason we’re running out of wildlife, but our job is to preserve nature,” says Alex Sr. “The way this city has grown in the last 70 years, we’ve wiped out a lot of their habitat.”

Currently there are three generations of Martinez’s taking part in the family business, a profession which demands a one-of-a-kind skill set, mixing art with science, beauty with morbidity. Alex Sr. first learned the craft as a young man, and in turn, trained his sons as they were growing up. Now Alex Jr. is teaching his own three young boys.

This lineage, however, is on the brink of extinction.

“A lot of taxidermists these days don’t know how to do anything from scratch,” says Junior. “We’re one of the last.”

Alex Martinez Jr behind the counter of his family taxidermy shop in Austin.
Alex Martinez Jr behind the counter of his family’s taxidermy shop in South Austin. “A lot of taxidermists these days don’t know how to do anything from scratch,” he says. Photo by Cody Bjornson

As hunting, fishing, and even exotic-game ranches have become big business (there are reportedly more tigers in Texas than in the wild), taxidermy has had to adapt in order to keep up with the growing demand. The artistry and mastery of the old method, which involved making high-quality paper mannikins, has been replaced by a modern approach which uses latex molds. And most customers, Junior explains, are unable to tell the difference between “paper and poly.”

Only ten percent of Martinez Brothers mounts are made the old way, mainly from Senior’s repeat clients who are willing to pay a premium. And the old way also came with a lifetime guarantee which included a shampoo and oil touch-up every ten years.



“Paper materials are double the cost of poly(urethane), but they still look great on the wall 30 years later,” says Junior.

Today’s taxidermists are more likely to use mass-produced molds purchased from warehouses; a more cost-effective and less time-consuming approach which requires little overall skill or training. Even the Martinez Brothers now primarily use polyurethane.

Junior is professionally wedged between his father’s paper and today’s poly. “When making mannikins the old way, I can still sculpt all the characteristics into that mount: the thickness of the animal’s muscles, the details of its eye lashes, the eyelids, even the hair.”

While Alex Martinez Jr. uses mass-produced molds in much of his taxidermy practice, he still sculpts the characteristics into of a particular mount. Photo by Cody Bjornson
While Alex Martinez Jr. uses mass-produced molds in much of his taxidermy practice, he still sculpts the characteristics into of a particular mount. Photo by Cody Bjornson

“Anybody who understands art can appreciate this,” he explains. “My father got out at the perfect time. It would have been heartbreaking for him to switch.”

Taxidermy seems somewhat mysterious — a macabre world akin to running a funeral home for pets. It is certainly a profession which is misunderstood.

“People think we’re morticians,” Senior tells me. “But morticians bury everything. We have to show everything.”

So I ask Senior to explain exactly what goes into the process of showing.

“It takes quite a bit of effort to duplicate Mother Nature. I was trained to do all facets of taxidermy from start to finish. There’s tanning, the skill of using a knife — taxidermists have to keep their knives razor sharp — learning how to use a sharpening steel to maintain an edge. You’re cutting fresh flesh and also pickled flesh, and pickled flesh requires an extremely sharp edge.

“But then there’s learning how to sculpt, how to make molds, and how to mix Grumbacher paints, which are artist oils. The supplies we used were the best money could buy. And our tanning method guaranteed the job (animal) for life.”

Alex Martinez Sr. has a gentle demeanor, a polite thoughtfulness when he speaks and a slight quiver in his left hand. A native Austinite, he ran the taxidermy shop until ten years ago, when he was forced to retire because of health problems.

“I started suffering the effects of Agent Orange contamination,” he says.

Alex Martinez Sr. and Alex Martin Jr. A Martinez Brothers deer head mount still hangs in the Smithsonian. Photo by Barbara Purcell
Alex Martinez Sr. and Alex Martin Jr. Photo by Barbara Purcell

Martinez served in the U.S. Marines in Vietnam, as an amphibious tractor crew chief on a battalion landing team. He took part in 13 different operations. The day before he shipped home, he was sent on a recon run to check for enemy entrenchment. The following morning, en route to Danang, he heard on the helicopter radio that the patrol he had taken out the day before had been hit. Martinez had explicitly instructed the squad not to follow that same trail, but they didn’t listen.

“If only those soldiers had been trained a little bit more in fighting Native American style, we wouldn’t have had so many casualties. You must stop, observe, and proceed cautiously: always looking for anything that’s different in your surroundings, like a deer does.”

As a young man, Martinez was taught hunting by Native Americans in what he calls Old Mexico (“Mexicans are Native Americans, too,” he says) honing his skills while developing a deep respect for nature.

“It was always the excuse I’d use with my wife,” he chuckles. “I’d have to go hunting to study the animals in the wild; just sit there and observe, everything from quail to deer, learning all the native Texas animals.”

Those instincts run deep for Martinez Sr. who recently took an at-home DNA test and learned he is 69 percent Native American. “I was definitely born with it, being able to walk around in the woods and get close to animals in the wild,” he says.

Photo by Cody Bjornson
“People think taxidermists are the reason we’re running out of wildlife, but our job is to preserve nature,” says Alex Martinez Sr. Photo by Cody Bjornson

As a youngster, he was curious about dead birds, how to preserve their beauty and put them back into their natural form. He once found a small pamphlet within a comic book, and followed its instructions on how to preserve skin.

Martinez Sr. began working for a taxidermist as a teenager. “The owner went through as many as 10 apprentices who wanted to learn, but they found themselves not able to sculpt, not able to tolerate the fresh animals, being exposed to fleas, all the things that wild game has.”

When Martinez Sr. returned from Vietnam, his jobs were waiting for him. Piled up, in fact. Working 10 to 12 hours each day in the shop helped him put the war behind him, and get back to life.

“When I hit the bed every night, I’d go right to sleep which was a blessing.” Martinez Sr. was proud of having served, but cracks soon began to surface. He built rock pillars and walls around his first house, bunker-like, in case of an attack. (He did the same in his second house, too.) “I was always taught that Marines don’t suffer from PTSD.”

Photo by Cody Bjornson
Deer skins soak as part of the tanning process. Photo by Cody Bjornson

Taxidermy requires a Zen-like concentration, which allowed him to stay focused and excel in his work. After almost six years of extensive training, Martinez was considered a master taxidermist. Sometime in his early 30s, he purchased the business from his boss, moved it into the space next door, and hung up his sign. All nine Martinez Brothers worked in the shop at one time or another, creating custom pieces for hunters, dignitaries, even presidents (both Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy used his services, and a Martinez Brothers deer head mount still hangs in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.)

“I should have been a plastic surgeon,” he half jokes. “It pays a lot more.”

Taxidermy requires meticulous precision and a trained eye. The skinning skills alone are very difficult, he explains, especially when getting around the eyes and mouth, inside the ears. Repairing tears and bullet holes are no easy task either: making careful incisions, cutting out scars, suturing it all back together.

He tells me a story about his daughter splitting her chin open as a little girl. Having worked alongside a medic in Vietnam (“I’d seen lots of big bullet holes, lots of blown-off limbs”), he asked to sit and watch the doctor sew her up. To his surprise the doctor’s sutures weren’t nearly as neat as his own technique.

“At the shop, we’d call a big suture like that a gorilla stitch,” he laughs. “As in the animal, not the warfare.”

Every taxidermist has his own way of developing the techniques he’s been taught, Senior explains, his own style just like an artist. So much so that Senior once recognized his own Martinez mount on a hunting program on TV. “At one time I could tell you who mounted what deer head in Texas by the work itself. It’s a signature.”

I ask him what makes his work stand out. “Mine are a lot closer to what you see out in the woods,” he says.

He flips through a book and points to a photo of a deer mount which is his, a Boone and Crockett whitetail. Several pages later, he shows me another taxidermist’s work. “So, you tell me, is it an art form? Which one looks more natural?” Senior is right. The other deer looks as if it’s had too much botox.

In this online era of DIY, it is no surprise that the artistry of taxidermy has been switched out for easy-to-use kits and factory-made molds. The soup-to-nuts master craftsmanship Martinez Brothers were once known for is an expensive investment bordering on the obsolete. There’s the meticulous painterly details of getting a duck’s beak just right, or the art of capturing the true palette of a strutting turkey head. Then there’s the rough stuff: handling large carcasses, skinning and quartering, de-fleshing every square inch.

Xavier Anaya is a young 20-something whose been working at the shop for a few months now, mostly tanning hides. Junior often encourages his understudies to develop one specific interest in taxidermy: birds, skulls, fish, tanning, etc. “It’s very difficult to learn everything, like I did,” he tells me. “Better to learn one thing and learn it well.”

[soliloquy id=”12220″]
 

Alex Martinez Sr. is fourth generation in the lineage of Jonas Brothers (no, not them), the gold standard of taxidermy, brought from Europe to America by Coloman Jonas in the early 1900s. Originally from Hungary, Jonas set up shop in Denver (and later, New York and Seattle), as his brothers joined the business in subsequent years. Senior’s former boss was taught by a taxidermist who had apprenticed with Jonas in Denver, a direct line to the most prestigious artisans in the trade. There is something poetic about this white European model of Old World master craftsmanship now mixed with Martinez’s mestizo heritage, a marriage of tradition and possibility born out of the American West.

I ask Alex Sr. what he would like his legacy to be, and he pauses for a long while. “To preserve the beauty of native animals. At the rate we’re going, everything is going to be extinct. Modern man will knock down everything.”

A father and son come by to pick up an order, a deer head mounted in the original Martinez manner, a paper mount. They leave the shop almost as quickly as they came in. “The father doesn’t understand, let alone his son,” says Junior. “It’s only Senior’s old customers who know what they have.”

When Senior was first starting out, hunting permits cost less than 50 bucks and mounts came in three different prices: $35, $45, $55 for a small, medium, or large. Today, the average cost is $600, $700, $800. A signature Martinez paper mount is double that. Depending on the size of the ranch, deer leases are now $5,000 to $20,000. It’s big bucks for hunting bucks and a lot of hunters would just as soon pay for poly than paper.

“Anybody can do poly: they tag ‘em, bag ‘em, freeze ‘em, and ship ‘em to a fur dresser, a fancy word for tannery. Even the tannery has someone on staff to de-flesh and flip. It’s all outsourced,” Junior explains.

Mike Trevino is a tattoo artist who does a little side hustle at Martinez Brothers, painting tiny details like tear ducts and fish scales, touching up bullet holes and bruises on shot-up snakes. “When it comes to taxidermy, wildlife being the medium, Mike is a true artist,” says Junior. Trevino nods enthusiastically as we watch Alex’s understudy Anaya pull flesh from a deer.

Xavier Anaya is an apprentice at Martinez Brothers Taxidermists. Photo by Cody Bjornson
Xavier Anaya is an apprentice at Martinez Brothers Taxidermy. Photo by Cody Bjornson

We are standing in the space where much of the work gets done: part art studio, part auto-body shop. Furs soak in buckets of preservatives (something less toxic than formaldehyde, I’m told), while flies bounce off our foreheads as we chat. Knives and tools are as bountiful as antlers and skins. The deer head Xavier is working on has a few live ticks crawling out from it.

I wonder out loud if there are any Martinez sisters. “My younger sister worked for me for ten years,” says Alex Jr. “She knows how to skin, like Xavier is doing. She did all my cosmetics. The antlers, skulls, rugs, and furs. She even learned how to do the birds. Women are better at avian taxidermy.”

I ask Junior if that’s because we have smaller hands. “Because women have gentle hands,” he says.

Anaya is paring out the deer’s brains when a young couple walks in looking for the vintage store Uptown Cheapskate. It’s a common occurrence — the wrong kind of customer coming into the shop in search of second-hand clothing. Trevino recently painted a giant mural on the side of the Martinez Brothers building which blazes onto the busy intersection. It’s arguably some of the best ad space in the entire city. “I’m subleasing it for extra income, part of which goes to Senior’s retirement,” says Junior.

I ask Trevino if it’s more difficult to work on skin or canvas as an artist. “Canvas is everywhere,” he tells me, pointing to the shop door. “Right there — just take it off the hinges.”

I scan the brightly colored building wall, a mustard yellow celebration of some second-hand store, in stark contrast to the old black-and-white Martinez Brothers sign hanging on by a thread. The beat-up plaque exudes a certain energy of old Austin that no amount of new development can ever replace. It represents the old way of doing things, the right way, the Martinez’s might argue. Even if it’s going extinct.

Photo by Cody Bjornson
Martinez Brothers Taxidermy has been at the same South Austin location since the mid-1970s Photo by Cody Bjornson

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Cody Bjornson is an Austin-based photographer and Geography graduate from the University of Texas. He spends his time chronicling trips around the state and documenting his travels.



Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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