The residents of downtown Los Angeles who can claim to have wrestled a live alligator are few and far between. Those who have done this and seen the inside of Ozzy Osbourne’s mouth are even more rarefied. Add on a complicated history with Insane Clown Posse and you’ve narrowed the search down to one man: David Tamargo, commonly known as jeweler, grill maker, and artist Alligator Jesus. But it wasn’t always that Cuban-American, Miami-born Tamargo was considered a commonly known figure — and the journey from South Florida preteen in Juggalo makeup to the man designing grillz and jewelry for stars like Madonna, Lil Nas X, and the Kardashians has been a fight, tooth and nail. One worth watching, at that.
Raised on the early internet, like many an alternative preteen exploring all things strange and subversive, Tamargo elbowed his way into the music space by way of Michigan rap, namely the horrorcore ringleader Violent J and his gathering of Juggalos. It was 1994, and while Tamargo’s brother was burying himself in the world of Tupac, Wu-Tang, and the battles between West and East Coast rap, the 12-year-old found solace in the grit of the Midwestern underground movement: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, before mainstream success, and Detroit’s Esham. “Esham influenced ICP, too. He was 8, 9 years old, rapping on cassettes and selling them in school.
Read more: Fan poll: 5 best nü-metal bands of all time
That early hip-hop from Detroit was storybook rap. So while the West side and East side scenes were getting more gangster, the Midwest was developing a storybook style of rapping. Only, with ICP, the story was about being wicked clowns from outer space doing weird shit. The first album [as] Inner City Posse, before it was Insane Clown Posse, was so political. It was about their experiences with anti-racism, and in their music, they’re killing cops that are racist. They’re killing judges.”
With a father who was a college professor, Tamargo had access to the internet early. It was the World Wide Web, late ’90s edition: AOL 1.8 on dial-up. So while other middle schoolers tested the boundaries of barely teenage rebellion, riding bikes after dark and seeking neighborhood adventure, Tamargo taught himself to code and build websites with the first iteration of HTML — all the while obsessively poring over the eclectic and fantastical ICP album art that a classmate had shown him from a loaned cassette. “I started out by making websites for Insane Clown Posse. They had this thing where they would call into a hotline every day and give all the fans the update of what’s going on in their lives. At ages 10, 11, [and] 12, I would call the hotline, hear what Violent J says, and try to transcribe it and put it on my blog. In a roundabout way, that’s how I ended up at the first eight Gathering of the Juggalos, running three booths.”
Selling jewelry to those face paint-smeared clowns, Faygo in hand, would be Tamargo’s first real foray into jewelry, and one of his first jobs — something he did, and continued to do, “out of love” for the community found and fostered by ICP, supplemented by “fixer” work in film production, until both hustles left him with a pile of unpaid invoices and he had to find another way to make it work.
The artist’s own story is one founded on hard work, and a harder network — and the community that’s risen around Tamargo is evident within his showroom, from the collaborations he’s done to the other artists whose work he sells and supports by sharing his space. “In Miami, where I was born and raised, no one gets paid. It’s all favors. In fact, one of the things that pushed me into jewelry and into this world so heavily was working in film. So much of what we do in the artistic community is not for pay. That’s not the reward. In Miami, I was just making the right connections and doing the right favors and building up that bank account of karma, to have it paid out later, which is where we’re at now, where things are starting to finally come to fruition and fall into place for us.”
Perusing the cases of jewelry, the gator-skin textured necklace shaped like a guitar pick, the diamond-encrusted opal rings, I noticed that Bring Me The Horizon were playing softly in the background. “Oli Sykes came by before his show opening for Fall Out Boy. I had just met him, but he ended up staying for six hours, hanging out,” Tamargo explains. “With music these days, I just listen to my friends. If they become a client, I deep dive into the catalog of stuff. I try to get to know them a little better. That’s why I’ve been listening to BMTH’s entire catalog over the last week.”
Tamargo has more stories of that nature, ad infinitum. In a safe, under lock and key, is a vintage T-shirt Björk gifted him, one of her own. And though his career as a celebrity jeweler, grill maker, and at times confidante came to him in recent years, it doesn’t seem to phase him. Humility is key, as is keeping his price points low, regardless of who walks in the door. “The most starstruck I’ve ever been, through it all, is by normal people. Because of other grill makers’ prices, people assume that I’m not accessible, so when someone off the street comes [up] with a really great idea… I tell you now: These kids who are barbacks or work at Best Buy oftentimes have these insanely creative ideas, and they get to express ’em through their jewelry. I make the most wild jewelry pieces for someone, and no one will ever see it.”
However, while Tamargo has taken the crown as one of the world’s top grill makers, he doesn’t consider himself one. “Grillz pay the bills. That’s the easiest way I can put it. It’s how I get that experience, though. What does Jonathan Davis need from me? What experience are we going to have in our conversation that leads to creative thinking together?”
But given Tamargo’s creative journey and analytical, multidisciplinary approach, it doesn’t come as a shock. Before he began making grillz on the couch of a BDSM after-hours club for extra money, he was a fine artist. “I was a photographer my whole life. I had a camera at age 3 or 4. I was very scientific and mathematically minded, and that comes from my parents both being educators — my mom worked in a South Florida elementary school, where we saw the injustice of kids coming from South America and all over to South Florida, taking these standardized tests for fluent English-speaking students. There’s no Spanish or ESOL level of it, and schools were suffering. I saw my mom really sacrificing so much to help these kids who were so smart, smarter than the grade level they [were] placed in.” As a result of this struggle, Tamargo was sent off to the magnet school system, and there, submerged in a melting pot of cultures and creative outlets that would prove both formative and inspiring for years to come.
In these magnet schools, Tamargo fell deeper in love with silver gelatin printing and analog photography, submerging himself in the craft through middle and high school. In college, things went south. “I got this really crazy allergy to darkroom chemistry. I could be in the darkroom for 30 minutes, and my hands would ball up, and I couldn’t open my fist unless I ran up into fresh water and got some fresh air. You read about the daguerreotype photographers who would lose limbs and shit… That’s when a college professor suggested that I work with silver in a different way, which was jewelry making.”
His first pieces during that time, experimenting with silver and molds, are astounding, and unsettling. The misshapen, anthropomorphous accessories are molds of human body parts: a wrinkled nipple, a bony wrist, a bracelet representing female genitalia. These disembodied relics call to mind the late Man Ray’s legendary photography and, like much of Tamargo’s work, nod to his cerebral creative and academic interests as much as the streetwise neighborhood subcultures that reared him. “I was looking towards Dali, but using the mold-making material that I had learned from the neighborhood kids that showed us how to make grillz back when I was in the magnet school — the kids that happened to have gold jewelry and gold teeth. I came to find out that those kids were literally mugging people at the mall, breaking and entering into houses to steal jewelry to make grillz.”
Entering the Alligator Jesus showroom and workspace off the streets of DTLA is like entering a DC villain’s lair off the streets of Gotham — soaring ceilings, cement walls, bright white neons. Glass cases line the walls with relics of the pieces he’s made, the people who have “opened wide” and put their trust in him. A pile of molds in the corner read like a list of pop culture’s “who’s who” — Hayley Williams’ gums touch Beyoncé, which graze Naomi Campbell, whose molars rest atop the faceless grins of Doja Cat and Robert Pattinson.
But for Alligator Jesus, it’s about more than show-and-tell or a portfolio of his work, even. It’s about the process, and what happens when two creative minds come together and collaborate. As a result, it’s hard to find a client, celebrity or otherwise, who wouldn’t also call Alligator a friend. “We’re in LA. People do so much surgery and so much shit to look like different people. People get my grillz, and they feel like they’re now themselves. They’ll tell me, ‘I’m able to smile now more than I’d ever done before because I feel comfortable.’ And that’s what I love about what I do. That gives me more value. I’m playing a longer game here than just taking one client’s quick cash and then they’re gone. Everyone comes back.”