Erik Sprague was born as a human baby in 1972, but is better known to Riot Fest participants as The Lizardman from the Hellzapoppin’ Circus Sideshow Revue. The Lizardman is one of the most recognizable freaks on the sideshow circuit today, thanks to his head-to-toe tattoo of green scales, bifurcated reptilian tongue and subdermal implants where his eyebrows once were. Not to mention the subsequent promotion he’s received from such media portals as The Daily Show, The Tyra Banks Show, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, concert tours such as the original Lollapalooza (with the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow) and the Jägermeister Music Tour with Slayer… and his own globetrotting band, Lizard Skynyrd.
I sat down with Mr. Lizardman during Riot Fest to find out about the man behind the scales.
RIOT FEST: State your name for the record.
THE LIZARDMAN: My name is The Lizardman!
RF: Do you have a middle name?
LM: The space between the two words.
[Backstage security guard breaks protocol to hug Mr. Lizardman, then takes a selfie with him.]
LM: That is probably the best example of what being The Lizardman is like—you got it in the first minute of the interview.
RF: Selfie central?
LM: Yeah, I’m essentially a living photo op.
RF: You’re a people person, it seems.
LM: I’m at work. When I’m at work, I’m a people person. When people ask, “Why’d you do that, you wanted to get attention?” I’m like “I want attention when I have something to say, and that’s when I’m on stage.” When I’m performing, I need your undivided attention, and I’ll go crazy if you don’t give it to me. I’ll do whatever I have to do to make you focus on me.
When I’m not on stage, I don’t mind being completely overlooked. I get enough attention up there.
RF: Tell the people what you do on stage.
LM: Here at Riot Fest, being part of the festival is being a part of an ensemble cast. I’m doing things like talking a high-wire act, making announcements at the gate, and that sort of thing. My personal show as a solo act is a modern-day sideshow with a comedic slant. I don’t go too much for gross-out. The stuff I’m doing is already gross and extreme enough.
RF: What kind of stuff?
LM: Sword swallowing, pumping my stomach, getting set on fire, a bed of nails—I have a giant corkscrew I twist through my skull, I pound nails into my face and drills through my body. The stuff is pretty extreme, and I think it’s a bigger challenge to make people laugh than to just gross them out.
RF: It’s a good fit here at Riot Fest, because we’re all about the funny.
LM: People are laughing. No one comes out of it like a horror movie, they come out of it smiling and happy.
RF: Where are you from?
LM: I live in Austin, Texas, but I grew up mainly in upstate New York. I come from a military family. I’m an Army brat. I was born in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, right after my dad got drafted in Vietnam. After that, we lived in a couple places in Colorado, but by the time I was getting into elementary school, we were in Clinton County, New York, on the border of Quebec. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. There’s a lot of dairy farms and a lot of prisons.
RF: When did you start all…this? [points at lizard-like body]
LM: I actually started work on my body in about late ’93, early ’94. Prior to that, I spent approximately three years working out the concept. Most people get a tattoo and add to it, I actually conceived my body art as a performance piece when I was studying art in school. I designed it as a concept piece, then I ultimately wanted to try and do it.
RF: Do you ever have to get it touched up?
LM: No, I’ve been lucky that the artists that worked on me—we’re up to five or six—have all been really good and done solid work.
RF: How’d you pull that tongue thing off?
LM: Twenty years ago, in 1997, I invented a surgical procedure to split the tongue. I’m technically the second person to split their tongue, the first using different methods. [The first person] used what is called the “tie-off method,” which is kind of a brutal ritual that took her over a week. It’s not the sort of thing that anyone is actually going to ever mimick. She did the long hard way. I did it the “20 minutes in the doctor’s office” way.
RF: Have you done it for other people?
LM: I don’t actually split the tongue. I came up with the procedure, contacted an oral surgeon, convinced him that it was a good idea to try it on me.
RF: How long did it take to convince him?
LM: It wasn’t a hard sell! It was 1997, the internet was not what it is now—I literally used the Yellow Pages. I picked the doctor at the top of the list. I called his office and had a plan going in. I was going to ask about tongue lengthening. He said “Oh yeah, I’ll do that for you.” Then I said, “What about something less traditional?” We ended up talking about the phone, and I got him to the point where he said if I came to his office and did a consultation, he wouldn’t make his decision until he talked to me more. That meeting went really well. I was very lucky to find a very skilled and open minded surgeon right away. Like a lot of things in my life, good luck.
RF: What is going on in your head? [points to his mutant peapod-y eyebrows]
LM: I have subdermal Teflon implants on my skull. Most modern implants are silicone, because you can make a smaller incision and compress them to get them through. Mine are earlier ones from the ‘90s, because I was kind of being a guinea pig. You have to make a fuller incision down to the bone. A surgical elevator is used to separate your flesh from your skull to create a pocket in which the pieces are pushed in and then you sew the incision after it. They were done first, the tattoos go over it to cover the scars and you make sure it matches better.
RF: How does society handle your lizardification?
LM: I have a general philosophy that I want to be treated as an individual, so I try and treat everyone else as an individual. It depends on where I am culturally. Different cultures react differently. There’s a big difference from before you are on TV to after you are on TV. When I first started getting the work done and it became public, I would get a lot more people prone to pull back.
Once I had appeared on shows like Ripley’s Believe it or Not, there’s a thing in American culture where once you’ve been on TV, it’s ok. They are mean to weirdos they don’t know, they’re very nice to weirdos they’ve seen. They worship a TV. It’s not “Hey, why are you green?,” it’s “Hey, it’s the dude from Ripley’s!” I’ve done Ripley’s for years, and they have a statue of me in all of their museums. People coming into the festival are like “Oh! My kid loves you! He’s got the book and seen the statue!” They show me pictures of them with the statue. I see my other friends who are heavily modified that aren’t performers get treated differently than me because folks recognize me from what I’ve done.
RF: How’d you hook up with Hellzapoppin’?
LM: In 2004, Bryce [“The Govna” Graves, leader of Hellzapoppin], was brought on to Brothers Grimm to help run and operate that sideshow. He booked me as a guest performer for a run they had for a Halloween show in Dallas. Ever since then, I would jump on and off [as part of an] ensemble cast. [Since Bryce started Hellzapoppin’ in 2008] I’ve been on and off. It’s been 13 years now that we’ve known each other.
RF: You live in Austin, which is known for accepting everyone.
LM: Keep Austin Weird!
RF: Is that why you went there?
LM: No, I went there for the first time on tour. I was part of the Jim Rose Circus and we were opening up for Godsmack. When we got to Austin, [I was filling in for a performer] and had a really good time. I ended up meeting the woman who would become my wife, and like a lot of men, I ended up where my wife wanted to be. She was born and raised there, that’s where home base is.
RF: Happy wife, happy life?
RF: That even crosses over into the lizard kingdom.
LM: People are always like “How does it work with you always being on tour?” I’m like “That’s how it’s always been for us.” We met, hooked up one night after a show, I left to go to the next city and do another show, but we liked each other enough to stay in contact that when I found myself off the road. I had been living in my car between tours. It was an easy thing to say, “Okay, I’ll go spend some time with you.” That worked out well and it keeps building and building. We’ve been together 18 years and married for 14.
RF: Mazel tov! Do you have any war stories of being in a bad situation because of how you look?
LM: I think I came in at the right time, because I’ve only had a few truly bad encounters. The thing is that I think the freak scene is doing well because I’m doing well. It’s tiny. Ultimately, one of the theories of what killed the golden age of the circus sideshow is it became too ubiquitous. You see it with celebrities now. If you see them in the press all the time, people get mad at them just for that. They’re sick of you. You have to kind of save this stuff to make it special and to keep it rare enough. While it’s very small and it’s hard to get going and to make a living in, if you can get to the point where you [are making a living], it’s absolutely fantastic. I get to be me for a living!
RF: You love it! Would you ever do anything else?
LM: No, no. I mean, everything else that I love feeds into what I’m doing right now. I love writing, I like performing, I like stand up. In terms of what sideshow is, it’s a lot more open than a lot of genres of entertainment. We can make anything sideshow! If you give me something that’s just a little bit unusual, we can turn it into a sideshow act.
RF: How accurate is American Horror Story: Freak Show?
LM: Completely inaccurate. Not even close. I actually lost that part to Mat Fraser! They were talking to him and me—it actually worked out great for me because I took a two-month run in London. That’s normally when I would get to see him. He was shooting and we were over there doing the show. Mat is actually a classically trained actor. He’s done Shakespeare. He’s great.
I don’t judge it in terms of the sideshow, freak show aspect. I judge it as a TV show.
RF: What’s next for The Lizardman?
LM: Right now I’m doing what I have been doing for the last 20 years, which is finding gigs that look like they’re fun and profitable, and take them as they come.
RF: What advice would you give to aspiring young lizard people?
LM: The number one rule for anyone wanting to do body modification is think about it. Do you really want to do this? That’s the whole thing. Why this works for me is because I’m completely committed to it. I’ve seen people burn out. I see people burn out all the time and get sick of what they’ve done. Unfortunately, you don’t turn back from this. If you aren’t committed to this, wait a bit longer. Some people come up to me and say “When I turn 18, I’m going to get covered just like you!” I didn’t get a tattoo until I was 21. I spent a long time thinking about it. I guarantee you that if you get covered really fast, you’re going to change your mind about some stuff.
RF: What are your favorite bands?
LM: Number one—Slayer. I grew up in the ’80s. Getting to tour with them and having them be really nice to me was just fantastic. Corey Taylor—I’ve done things with Stone Sour and Slipknot. Both tours are some of the best times I’ve had in my life.