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The Call of the Wild: Inside the HYAENA GALLERY

Horror is often defined as an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. It repulses people, causes nightmares, and even disturbs them…yet there are those of us who are drawn to it. We see the movies, we read the books, and we devour the culture. Or better yet, we help create it. Horror has a presence. From tattoos to t-shirts to Halloween, the genre has become far more than just ghost stories around the campfire. It’s become an art form and Bill Shafer has recognized this. In fact, he opened the Hyaena Gallery to celebrate it – and what a gallery it is! Some of the most twisted and outrageous art adorn these walls, but what’s most impressive is how imaginative and affective the pieces are. They are truly must-sees and in some cases, must-haves. Bill’s been kind enough to walk us through his vision and share some memorable moments in the gallery’s history. We’ve picked his brains and here’s what he had to say.

Bill Shafer

The Hyaena Gallery seems to pride itself on dark, lowbrow, underground, and outsider art. To you, is that what a hyena represents? Or is there another story behind the name?
The hyena in an incredibly misunderstood, often maligned animal. Most people view them only as scavengers, overlooking the fact that they are very intelligent, skilled hunters as well. In the wild one hyena alone has a difficult chance at survival. A clan of hyenas, however, is a much stronger entity. They work together to ensure the entire group survives. Hyenas are honestly fascinating. If you dig a bit deeper into the folklore, you’ll find hyenas at the origins of werewolf mythology, too. African lore has them depicted as the trickster, or fool, a chaotic entity who sets the world on the correct path.

It’s the perfect archetype for Hyaena as a gallery, really. Early on I wrote “We are the scavengers of culture,” and “Together we can take down the largest of beasts.” I think both phrases still apply in terms of what I try to do with the gallery.


What made you decide to start a gallery like this?

I’ve been collecting art since I was barely out of Junior High school. Traditional art galleries, though, had always seemed so beyond my reach as a collector. When I discovered LowBrow art, the atmosphere around that scene was better but there still was no place that catered specifically to my interests. I think that darker art, art that makes you uncomfortable, is important and necessary. When I came to LA no gallery would show dark art unless (a) the artist was already a huge name with a great sales record, or (b) it was October. Can you imagine an entire group of insanely talented artists being told that their artwork was only relevant for one month of the year during Halloween?!? So, I figured it was up to me to create the art gallery that I wanted to see in existence, a place where I could promote the artists that I enjoyed. I wanted to prove that these artists were indeed worthwhile all year round, and not just relegated to the kid’s table until trick or treating time. And it’s not all dark at Hyaena, but it is all stuff I truly do love. Instead of following trends like so many other places, I wanted the gallery to be based solely upon my taste as a curator. I think that instills trust on the part of the collector, knowing that I believe in the artists on my walls.


How long has it been up and running?

We’ve been an infected pimple on the art world’s ass for just over 8 years now.


Who are some of your favorite artists (dead or alive)?

That’s such a loaded question for a gallery owner. Look at the roster of artists I show at the gallery. They are all favorites. Crystal Barbre, Christopher Ulrich, Steven Johnson Leyba, Chet Zar, Gidget Gein, Harold Fox, Stanislav…I could just rattle names off all day. And if you came to my house you would see most of them on my walls there as well. For non-contemporary artists, there’s Albrecht Durer, Vaughn Bode, Basquiat HR Giger, Beksinski, Frazetta, and on and on and on…


Has there ever been a piece of art that has been too provocative to display?

I’ve never really encountered that situation, and I get do asked that often. I’ve certainly rejected artwork that some would call provocative, but it was never because I was afraid to display it; more so it was based on the merits (or lack thereof) of the work itself. When an artist tries to create something truly shocking, it usually fails due to the contrived nature of the effort. The most outrageous results happen naturally as a projection of the artist’s subconscious.

At Hyaena, I’ve exhibited Stu Mead several times now. He’s one of my favorite artists, and also one that most galleries in the states would be hesitant to show. His subject matter can be alarming or offensive to some, and I have definitely had issues arise from people who tried to have Hyaena closed down because of the art. In a case like that, you have to stand by your guns and your initial belief in the importance of the work.

I don’t shy away from controversy, but I also don’t actively pursue it. I’ve been selling art from convicted serial killers since day one. Some people dig it, some don’t. Like I mentioned before, I really just show art that I love. If someone finds it too provocative, well, that’s in their own filthy little minds. They should look inwards first before leaving their safe environment and venturing out among the public.


Recently, Hyaena hosted a John Carpenter tribute. Does the gallery have a history of tribute shows?

We don’t do too many tribute shows here. It’s a weird balance I try to achieve with what we exhibit. Some galleries do nothing but tribute shows and they are very successful. I think a constant barrage of similar pop culture porno kind of cheapens the experience, and then you have no opportunity to do anything really meaningful with your shows. If everything is just a celebration of stuff that people already love, when is there time to branch out and discover something new to inspire you?

When we do a tribute exhibit at Hyaena, it really is sincere. I want it to be something special for the gallery, for the fans who come, and for the person whom we are paying homage to. The first one we did was Charlie Sheen, back when he was at his peak of his “Winning” insanity/genius. That was probably the most fun exhibit we’ve ever done. Charlie loved it. He came with a small film crew and made a ten minute piece where he talked to all of the art for us to play at the opening reception. We’ve done tributes to Guillermo Del Toro, and Wes Craven as well. Guillermo has been a huge supporter of the gallery over the years and it was a small way for us to say thank you. It was the same with Wes Craven. If you watch Scream 4, there are traces of Hyaena throughout the film and he has been nothing but generous and supportive to Hyaena artists. Carpenter was more of a wild card. I reached out to him because his films have been a huge inspiration to me and I knew that most of the artists I work with felt the same. I think he was overwhelmed and genuinely impressed with what we put together. The fact that all of them were kind enough to come to the gallery, participate with the exhibits and sign posters for us…it means the world and shows the mutual circle of support that helps a community like this grow.


What have been some of your favorite pieces that have come through? If the right piece came through it seems like it would be tempting to snatch it up. Assuming you have first dibs, have you ever bought something before it was to be displayed?

There are way too many favorites to list and new pieces come in almost daily. I mentioned Gidget Gein earlier. He was the original bass player for Marilyn Manson. He wrote a lot of the early songs and was responsible for shaping their style as well. Hyaena was his art gallery and I represented his work until he passed away in 2008. He was a brilliant cat. I miss him every day. There are pieces of his I have in the gallery (and at home) that literally stop me in my tracks; honest, powerful pieces about addiction, fame, and society’s viciousness. They hit me every time I see them in the best of ways.

It’s a blessing and a curse owning a gallery and also being a collector. I do get first pick and it’s hard not to go crazy at times. You have to remind yourself that it kind of defeats the purpose of a gallery if you don’t give the other collectors a chance. Plus, I’d definitely go broke if I didn’t show some restraint. That being said, there are definitely several Harold Fox paintings that have gone immediately into the “sold” column…you can’t be good all the time.


Do you ever have to travel to obtain rare pieces or do most the artists come to you?

Thanks to the wonders of the post office and modern Internet technology I don’t have to go too far to acquire the pieces we sell. The weirdest excursion I’ve had was last year over the Labor Day weekend. I drove to the desert to meet with a sports memorabilia dealer. This was a friend of OJ Simpson’s who was with OJ when he was arrested in Vegas for trying to rob another memorabilia dealer. Coincidentally, he was also the person who set up the meeting with OJ and the dealer, tape recorded the entire get together, and used that recording to testify against the Juice. Because of him, OJ was charged with numerous felonies, including armed robbery and kidnapping, and finally landed in prison. Well, this man had a whole case of signed/numbered “I Want to Tell You” books – books that OJ had written to raise money for his defense during the murder trial and, even more coincidentally, part of what OJ was trying to steal that night in Vegas. I left with the books and some really great stories of how OJ had this guy shitting his pants, on his knees with a gun to his head.
To your knowledge, has Hyaena shown any haunted pieces of works? Would that be a deal breaker?

Ha! That is in no way, shape or form, a deal breaker. I’m totally intrigued by the paranormal and the possibility of haunted items. I had a John Wayne Gacy painting of Pogo the Clown in a cemetery that freaked everyone out. People always said it gave them bad vibes, but I never felt one way or the other about it. The painting eventually sold to this collector in Washington. About two weeks later, I get a call asking if he can return it. He claimed he was hearing noises and hadn’t been able to sleep since he brought the painting home. It came back to the gallery and then found a new home elsewhere with no reported issues. Carl, who owns the California Institute of Abnormal Arts here in Burbank supposedly has a haunted painting in the club. It was stolen and then returned with a note of apology. I’ve asked to buy it from him but he isn’t letting it go.


Lastly, what’s in store for Hyaena?

This year’s been really amazing so far and we’ve got a lot of killer events on the horizon. Stanislav is our current exhibit. He’s an artist from Ukraine who was born with cerebral palsy and a degenerative eye disease. You have to see his work to believe it…powerful, emotive, raw, and primal. It’s his first solo exhibit in the USA and he’s being championed by some heavies in the dark art world. Guillermo Del Toro is going to help us introduce Mexican artist, Rodrigo Orozco, to the states in October. There might even be another tribute exhibit in the works for someone very special. Other than that, Hyaena hosts a constant calendar of live art events, pop-up exhibits, and even live music from time to time. The goal is to keep building the creative community and to always push forward.


Thanks Bill! If you’re ever in the Burbank area, do yourself a favor and drop  in to experience all that Hyaena has to offer. 1928 W. Olive Ave. Burbank, CA 2448.  In the meantime, you can check it out online:

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Social agitator raised on an unhealthy diet of punk rock, horror movies, and black humor. You've been warned.