Hobo with a costume

A dark sense of humour and a zeal for the post-apocalyptic inspire Jason Johnson’s work.

Jason Johnson sits in his studio surrounded by dangling mannequin parts, suits of armour, a bizarre assortment of masks and animal fur. Strange plastic dolls, dressed in leather and endowed with robotic arms, gas masks, skeleton limbs and anatomically correct genitalia stare menacingly at their creator as he works. Hobo with a Shotgun's costume designer bears resemblance to a mad scientist, transforming scavenged materials and other people's junk into living characters.

Johnson's costumes betray his dark sense of humour and are inspired by '80s children's shows, such as Jem, Heman, Transformers and The A-Team. His recent costumes include the demonic bounty hunters and the teenage bicycle gang featured in the Hobo with a Shotgun feature, the murderous tree in Treevenge (2008) and a suicidal, job-hunting, teenage alligator who discovers skateboarding in Eisener's short Andy The Handy Alligator (2007). He's designed costumes for the art world too, dressing mannequins in the window of EyeLevel Gallery as a post-apocalyptic family. "They are people who wear cloaks and who secretly have suits of armour and they're eating stray kittens and barbecuing dumpster doughnuts."

Johnson spent his teen years making flame throwers, catapults, crossbows and suits of armour. "I got in a lot of trouble for it," he recalls. "Teenagers think, 'Maybe I'm a bad person,'" he says. "Maybe you're just different. Maybe you should make art." Or "maybe you're just twisted enough that you should work for Jason Eisener."

Johnson's partnership with Hobo director Eisener began by chance. They met when Eisener was filming behind the scenes footage of Pink Velvet Burlesque Troop. Johnson was indulging his fetish for strange costumes by performing with the troupe. One of his most elaborate acts involved him seductively peeling off a sabre-toothed tiger costume to reveal a gory flesh suit. Next, he danced provocatively with intestines that oozed fake blood. The culmination of the performance involved Johnson ripping off his flesh suit to reveal a business suit.

When Eisener first visited Johnson's studio, he recalls, "It was like I just stepped into this portal into my childhood." Eisener instantly fell in love with the darkly nostalgic '80s feel of Johnson's "street samurai" costume, which fuses together an unlikely combination of salvaged materials. "I just wanted to geek out with him. He was totally in tune with my artistic inspirations."

Johnson designed and created costumes for Hobo's macabre bounty hunters, Grinder and Rip. The demonic duo ride motorcycles and live in a crypt with a tentacled beast. Johnson created Rip's costume from old hockey gear, a World War II Belgium helmet and a car bumper which he converted into a face mask with a springy jaw. The clunky, cartoon-like Grinder follows behind Rip, finishing off victims while wearing a rusty deep sea diving suit and a spiked helmet.

The key to Johnson's success at creating believable characters lies in his attention to detail. He personalized his bounty hunters' costumes with tiny pendants, badges and cryptic symbols and went to great extremes to make them look appropriately aged. He'd place his costumes on the road and jump on them so that the concrete tore the plastic. "I beat them with chains or sprayed them with WD-40 and lit them on fire," he says with a mischievous glint in his eye. "Never in any post-apocalyptic movies have I ever seen have characters been this crazy."

Matthieu Comeau contributed to this story.

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