In this series, we explore how different people make ends meet in an age of increasing inequality and job instability, by looking at what they do, how much they make, what the job is like and what their hopes are for the future.
Name: Erik “The Lizardman” Sprague
City: Austin, Texas
Occupation: Sideshow artist/entertainer
How long: 23 years
Goal: Continued financial freedom
Stunts at Parties for Fun
I started playing with fire and teaching myself some stuff through research and imitation in high school when I was around 17 or 18. In college, I got interested in performance art, and at the same time, I was learning more and more about the history of sideshow attractions. In a lot of ways, I was in the right time — the early 1990s — as sideshow was beginning to make a comeback that I’d ultimately play a part in.
In the beginning, I was just doing stunts at parties for fun, or using some of the acts as parts of performance pieces (like hammering a nail with the word “truth” engraved on it into my face — the human blockhead as a student artist). In 1996, I did a bar gig with a band made up of some friends from the rugby club I played with, which led to me doing a solo show at the bar.
While in college I also hit upon the idea of using body-modification procedures (initially tattooing) for a body-based art piece that would explore the idea of what it means to be human, from a linguistic standpoint. After considering several options (mazes, stories, spots, stripes), I settled on the reptilian theme because I liked the look, and it made a good fit with other ideas I had for the future at the time, like my split tongue and teeth, which did come to pass.
I’ve since undergone an estimated 650 to 700 hours of tattooing. I’ve had several piercings. I’ve had five Teflon horns subdermally implanted above each of my eyes to form horned ridges. Four of my teeth have been filed into sharp fangs, and like I said, my tongue has been bifurcated.
Through connections I made in online body modification and performance forums, I began driving down to New York City and elsewhere around the state to perform at everything from eccentric art events to fetish parties and more. Back then, sideshow acts had become so rare that simply being able to do something like swallow a sword would get a great response, regardless of presentation.
Success in a Difficult Industry
For the past 20 years, I’ve been able to simply wait for the phone to ring, and often find myself having to choose between gigs. But that’s in stark contrast to my experiences before some of my bigger media successes, and that of the average sideshow performer (if there is such a thing!). Booking a sideshow can be difficult because very often people have no idea, or worse, the wrong idea about what you’re bringing, and they think that all sideshow is the same.
Since 1999, when I did my first full national tour of the U.S., I’ve spent eight to 10 months per year away from home. Currently, I try to keep it closer to eight months, but it’s hard to turn down good offers. How often I perform depends on the type of gig: Working festivals overseas, I’m often doing a traditional grind, which can mean as many as 18 shows in a day (each show approximately 20 minutes), but in the States I’m more likely to do be doing one show (45 to 90 minutes) an evening, going city to city.
Resting Around Halloween
There was a time when Halloween was a big time of year for me, but I’ve largely outgrown the gigs — what was a dream come true in my 20s would be a very bad deal today in my 40s. While the summer tends to be the busiest season, anyone who manages to make it as a full-time sideshow performer has to find work the rest of the year as well — it’s one of the reasons there are so few of us who make it solely as performers.
Making Money — and Accounting for It
Sideshow performing is the sort of business where sometimes you net more from a $20,000 gross than from a $100,000 gross. My worst year I barely broke even; my best year was just shy of six figures — most of them fell more toward the middle.
Like almost all performers, I generate income not just from performances but from merchandise and other means, but their value all derives from performing. So I’d say that I only earn income from performing and have supported myself on that income, which has varied wildly since 2000. For the years prior to that, I was a part-time bartender in addition to performing.
My income has been able to sustain me, and through careful management, helped my wife and me become debt-free. The unpredictability of future bookings means that accounting becomes essential to survival.
In terms of business expenses, travel accounts for the largest portion. I spend over $12,000 per year on airline tickets, followed by accommodations, etc. My wife (a nurse) and I have been debt-free since 2013 — after she finished school, we focused on paying off our loans and mortgage. We own our car that she uses for work, I have a motorcycle to get around and I use rental cars for business.
Making It as a Sideshow Star
Sideshow is an atypical business full of abnormal characters! I’ve done quite well, but I’m very much the exception. The overwhelming majority of modern performers cannot make a living solely off performance because, while sideshow has made an incredible return to mainstream culture in the last couple decades, the increased demand has been primarily for what I’d call entry-level gigs, which simply can’t and don’t offer sufficient wages with only seasonal availability (meaning around Halloween).
Statistically, you probably have a better chance of being an NFL walk-on than making a full-time living as a sideshow performer. There are a lot of part-time and seasonal performers because, frankly, that’s a lot easier than getting out there year-round without the safety net of a “normal job.” No judgment: It’s a sensible decision from a financial standpoint. For me, the pros are doing what I enjoy and working for myself, while the cons are that even a job you love is still a job sometimes.