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The Bone Collector-Ryan Matthew Cohn
IT’S BARELY NOON ON A QUIET STREET IN BROOKLYN. The air is crisp and there is not a footstep to be heard on either side of this historic boulevard lined with century-old houses and brownstones, each edifice cracked and noble in the display of its age, proud. And yet, all that can be seen through each and every window of these grand structures is the same sets of curtains, the identical flat-screen TVs, and row after row of wall de?cor meticulously placed in catalog fashion. The street appears the same as any other in the city—that is, until a door opens, and out walks a figure in a finely tailored bespoke suit with shined shoes and a huge bag of trash under his arm. Suddenly something changes; this is no longer another building along the row, but the home and live-in museum of Ryan Matthew Cohn, whose fascination with the grotesque and enigmatic sets him apart from most collectors in the antique field.
Some might recognize Cohn as the resident bone collector and artifact picker for the Science Channel’s Oddities, a reality series centered around Obscura Antiques & Oddities, a peculiar antique shop in the East Village of Manhattan. Although he is known to the TV-watching public as a dissector of bones and picker of the bizarre, he is also an artist, jeweler, craftsman, and historian with a surprising amount of concealed ink. Collector, however, seems to be the most apt description for Cohn, whose home would probably turn Robert Ripley or P.T. Barnum a pale shade of green with envy.
A unique collection of skulls and artifacts such as Cohn’s does not manifest itself overnight, nor can it be acquired through a single means of instruction. It is the byproduct of a life spent in pursuit of something new blended seamlessly with the arcane. “As kids, we weren’t really allowed inside. Growing up in the nature of upstate New York lends itself to finding things and learning about what’s going on around you—death being one of those things,” says Cohn. As he explains the roots of his obsession with the macabre, Cohn is perched in an overstuffed, turn-of-the-century chair. To his right is a series of antique glass domes, each housing a skeletal anomaly, a medical curiosity, or an artifact imbued with the spirit of the collector. “I was a pretty obsessive-compulsive kid—whether it was skeletons, fish, or baseball cards, I was always collecting something,” he says. “Throughout my life it would constantly change genres, until it finally moved back to the natural history aspect in my 20s, when I got heavily into collecting it, seeking it all over the place. And now I’m really kind of all over the world seeking specific things.”
Cohn’s interest in antiques and artifacts led him to New York City when he was younger. “Right after high school I was working odd jobs at an antique store in Park Slope,” he says. “I was getting bored and was desperate for something new to do. A girl that I was seeing at the time was a bookkeeper for a jeweler.” The jeweler, whom he came to work under, turned out to be Arnold Goldstein, the original jewelry maker for Ralph Lauren. The job “took on every- thing else that I was doing at the time—antiques, fabrication, restoration—it all goes hand in hand.”
This correlation between creating something new that embodies the classic, the old, and the curious ultimately inspired Cohn to create something he could not find: a Beauchene skull. In a practice not seen since the 1800s, Cohn disassembles a human skull and—using a series of wires, brackets, and tiny screws (all handmade, of course)—arranges the component parts to make them appear as if they’ve stopped in midair during an explosion. “My personal aesthetic is antiques,” he explains. “I try to give every piece that I do a real antique feel.”
Antiques are more than just an aesthetic to Cohn; they embody a history, a technique, a story. The ceil- ing of his home is lined with antique lighting from the ’20s and ’30s that he’s rewired and restored. “The fake stuff, that’s easy,” he casually mentions as he looks toward one particular fixture. “That’s why people like it so much. I was buying a blanket at Restoration Hardware, and as it turns out, almost everything in my apartment is being reproduced by them. That’s when you know you’ve got something good.”
As a tattoo collector, Cohn’s interests tend toward the classic. His tattoo collection started with a dragon tattoo he got at 16. “I think I was the first kid in my school to get a tattoo, and it was a big one,” he says. “I’ve been collecting tattoos for a long time. In my 20s a lot of my friends were either starting out or becoming established tattoo artists, so I became the guinea pig, as many youngsters do. I started getting pieces here and there over the years.” Since then he’s traded skulls and antique ephemera for ink from the likes of Hand of Glory’s Craig Rodriguez, Smith Street Tattoo Parlour’s Steve Boltz, and Fun City Tattoo’s Big Steve.
“Tattoo artists have always been good resources not only to buy things from but to sell to as well,” Cohn says. “Skulls, pickled specimens, custom skeletal work, cats, dogs, birds, monkeys, you name it. I like traditional [tattoo work], as long as the artists lend something of themselves to it, like Scott Camp- bell’s take on the swallows,” says Cohn, motioning toward the birds peeking out from the cuffs of his shirt on each hand. “When I got my hands tattooed I realized, ‘This is it, buddy—you’re not going to go to med school or work on Wall Street. You’re gonna be an artist for the rest of your life.’”
As a professional artist, Cohn divides his attention between his osteological displays and his metal craft. In addition to creating custom jewelry, Cohn makes all of the hardware for his displays in his workshop, and many of the stands for his skulls and articulated skeletons are forged to resemble antique lighting and scientific equipment. “I have a store on the Lower East Side called Against Nature. I’m one of four owners, and I do all of the accessories. There’s a team that does all of the suits and custom clothing, and then there’s a dude that does denim and custom jeans—they’re awesome. We were all friends, and when a space opened up we said, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do this.’ I do all of my metal and leather work there. All of my skeletal and medical construction is done here at home.”
Much of Cohn’s free time is still spent combing flea markets, gathering materials and specimens to bring back to life. “Part of the fun for me is going to a place, not knowing if I’m going to find the rare piece that I’ve been looking for or nothing,” he says. “It’s about being aware and striving for something. Most things can be found. It took me six years to get that exploded skull.” He points to a shelf against the far wall of the room. “The one in the middle.”
Sometimes, however, the object of the search simply presents itself. “I was hung over one morn- ing and wandered by this trashy junk store, where I found a table that I’d been looking for for four years.” The table is currently supporting the centerpiece in another room, as the skull of a hippopotamus—which would seem out of place almost anywhere else— makes a beautifully fitting table in this particular room.
As far as his museum-quality collections of bones, pickled and mummified animals, and antique furniture are concerned, Cohn shows no sign of slowing down, but he resists the urge to become the world’s spookiest hoarder. “It’s got- ten to the point where I won’t buy anything without selling something,” he says while perched next to a stuffed coyote and a mummified human hand.
In a house decorated with meticulously arranged human and animal remains, like an Ikea catalog from the netherworld, it would prove difficult for most people to get a peaceful night’s sleep—but Ryan could not feel more at home. “Everything in my house is very much respected; it’s put behind glass, it’s housed,” Cohn says. “They’re dead. They can either be in the ground or they can be in Ryan Matthew’s house … I prefer the latter.”