BAD TO THE BONE
For Ryan Matthew Cohn, collecting death artifacts is more than a hobby; it's a living.
From the outside, Ryan Matthew Cohn’s blond-brick townhouse is indistinguishable from the other pleasantly situated residences on this tree-lined street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In pressed jeans and a crisp button-up, he opens the heavy wooden front door, waves me inside, and gives a “mi casa es su casa” gesture while finishing up a phone call with his accountant. Gingerly, I stroll past a curio cabinet displaying a shrunken head with a curved bone piercing its nostril. Next, a mantel occupied by several more heads, their silky hair cascading down prop poles, then a bookshelf housing jarred specimens, many skulls, several mummies, animal skeletons—it’s a scene that might instill Apocalypse Now-style panic among those unfamiliar with Cohn’s line of work. “Sorry about that,” he says, finally off the phone, collapsing gracefully onto a plush brown leather couch opposite an ancient, sweet-looking spotted dog—taxidermied, of course. “Tax time is hell when you’re freelance.”
One can only imagine the kinds of receipts that would need to be saved by a self-employed skull disarticulator, mummy collector, high-end men’s accessories designer, bespoke suit boutique co-owner, and resident bone-picker on the Science Channel’s Oddities—a reality show documenting the day-to-day operations of Obscura, an East Village rarities shop—but one is certain that those receipts are neatly organized within an elegant Victorian-era container.
The show, returning June 8, is now in its fourth season, a shock to Cohn and Obscura owners Mike Zohn and Evan Michelson. “When it started, we figured we’d last for six episodes and then get canned because we honestly thought it was such an obscure thing,” Cohn says. “Now I walk down the street and people say, ‘Hey! You’re the exploded skull guy!’ There’s a good and a bad to that, of course.”
What sets Oddities apart from other basic-cable collecting shows is its lack of redundancy—from balloon swallowers to dental-torture-device obsessives to conjoined-calf taxidermy seekers, no two Obscura customers are alike. And Cohn is the show’s breakout star, no doubt due in part to a particularly endearing vignette that followed him on a date with another bone enthusiast to watch maggots clean a pig carcass. But romantic inklings aside, such activities are all in a day’s work for this lifelong collector of strange artifacts.
The son of an apple farmer and librarian, Cohn was raised near the Catskills in Woodstock, New York, which afforded him plenty of opportunities to explore trails and “find things that bears had chewed up,” he says. “I used to find snake and squirrel skeletons all the time. When your kid starts bringing home animals and placing them under the bed, there’s cause for alarm: ‘Is he going to become a serial killer or a doctor?’” The family’s yearly visits to the American Museum of Natural History were the highlight of his childhood and inspired Cohn to start a science club in second grade. “We collected poisonous mushrooms, animals, flowers, and ferns. My friend Travis’s mom found some of this stuff and called my mom, and that ended our science career.”
Cohn also wore suits to school—“I thought I was Pee-wee Herman,” he says—hinting at a future in fine menswear. After a long apprenticeship with a master silversmith, he opened the Lower East Side atelier Against Nature with friends in 2009. Macabre imagery finds its way into his leather-and-metal pieces, and he sees a natural connection between the intricate work of jewelry-making and disarticulating skulls—an art that is said to have originated with Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings and was popularized in the mid-19th century by French anatomist Claude Beauchene (Cohn sells his osteological preparations at ryanmatthewoddities.com). It’s a career that might create head- aches for a financial adviser and fear among unwitting visitors to Cohn’s apartment, but for him it’s life. “You don’t just come into this obsession,” he says. “It’s something you’re born with—but it’s not an affliction because I love it.”