Names are great signifiers. They grab your attention, hot brand your brain and tell you all you need to know about the person, place or thing they represent. Names can be consequential too. Saddled with the wrong moniker and you could be doomed. Blessed with the right one and there’s no telling what you can do. It all boils down to one very simple principle: Did you choose your name or did it choose you?
Take Alligator Jesus. Only a fool would dare select such a name for themselves, because only a fool would dare believe they’re worthy of such a compoundly cool equation. On the other hand, the person who had that name thrust upon them would be foolish not to accept the blessing. After all, few people get to be rechristened twice in a lifetime; even fewer are fortunate enough to be rechristened with such a glorious moniker.
And Alligator Jesus is indeed one glorious moniker. Not only does the name evoke both the ancient and the immortal, but it taps into myth and legend, not to mention faith, hope and fear. It also represents strength and inspiration, power and miracle, spanning eons and encompassing legions. If Shakespeare had been considering Lord Byron rather than Macbeth he might say Alligator Jesus was a name full of sound and fury, signifying everything — everything that’s mad, bad and dangerous to know in this wild world of ours.
But what of the cat who’s been chosen to live up to this remarkable name? Who is he and what has he done? More importantly, could he possibly be worthy of such a magnificent moniker?
Well, in a word: Yes. The man called Alligator Jesus does indeed live up to his name. He’s also got one helluva story to tell. So Swagger tracked him down in Los Angeles and let him have at it.
Just who is Alligator Jesus?
I was born David Josef Tamargo. I’m a Cuban American artist who was raised in Miami at the height of the Reagan Drug War, when the city was the U.S. Murder Capital. My father (Joseph Tamargo) is a Miami-Dade College Photography professor, my mother (Mayra Tamargo) is an immigrant elementary school teacher and former runway model, and both made sure I saw a Miami beyond crime statistics. They also both instilled in me a deep sense of curiosity and creativity. Consequently, I’ve been many things over the years, including pro-photographer, music video and short film director, co-creator of the Borscht Film Festival, museum and gallery director, crypto-currency technologist, contemporary artist, and now, more famously, a jeweler to stars, from every constellation.
How long have you been operating under the guise Alligator Jesus?
Since 2008. Before that I was using the name Thug Jesus and regularly performing on stage with Miami legend Otto Von Schirach. Well, that year I was in the midst of a year-long art project called “Feats of Masculinity,” which pitted me up against nature and natural forces. My own kind of Man v. Wild. I had a bunch of bad ideas like wrestling bears and alligators and swimming with sharks, none of which I was remotely trained or qualified to do. Anyway, one day two Miccosukee Indians took me out on an airboat in the Everglades so I could catch and wrestle a very large wild alligator. Well, we got one. But in my opinion, they were just molesting the poor thing. Worse, they planned to kill and eat the creature. When I objected, they told me the only way to save the animal was if I released it myself. Needless to say that didn’t turn out so well. Oh, I freed the alligator alright. But not before it thrashed me about a bit. I ended up severely breaking my wrist. The Miccosukees teased me the whole airboat ride back; said I shouldn’t have acted like some Alligator Jesus. Later that week, right before we performed, Otto placed an alligator mask on my head and addressed me by my new name. I’ve been Alligator Jesus ever since!
What exactly does Alligator Jesus do?
I like to say he’s an Anthropomorphic Shamanistic Spirit conjured by the hypnotic Miami Booty Bass of Otto Von Schirach. I first saw Otto perform in ‘07, opening for 2 Live Crew, and I thought his music was ahead of its time and totally insane. But having a guy just scream into the microphone from behind a laptop was not my idea of a show, so I jumped on stage, pulled up a few bootilicious Miami break dancer babes and added some craziness and hype to the act. We crowd-surfed. We stage-dived. We started mosh pits. It was great! Otto loved it, I loved it, and the crowd loved it. 2 Live Crew apparently loved it too, because they ended up bringing me up on stage alongside the Ying Yang Twins! Later that night Otto was like ‘I don’t know where you came from but you’re not leaving’ and I’ve been the hype man for the Bermuda Triangle Family right that minute. I tell you, without Otto and his menagerie of booty bass craziness, I wouldn’t have found my voice or the confidence to do what I do.
Yes, about what you do, which came first, the bling or the grillz?
Bling for sure. I’ve been making jewelry in some form since 2002; and I started taking courses at Florida International University in 2003. At FIU I studied sculpture and metalsmithing and finally jewelry. I combined all the skills I learned and made some large scale installations as well as wearable art. At first I suffered a lot of hate and trash talk over my work; now I’m applauded for the same style of creations. Go figure.
How (and why) did you decide on being a grillz provider?
That ties directly to my jewelry, but there’s a backstory to my becoming a full-time jeweler. See in 2011 I stumbled upon a Takashi Murakami ring in a Miami Beach pawn shop. Turned out the ring had been stolen from a shoot during the previous Art Basel. So I bought it and then returned it to Murakami. The story made international art news headlines and ended up landing me a job managing an L.A. art gallery.
Anyway, a year or so later I met Murakami at a Blum & Poe Gallery opening. While we were talking, he paid particularly close attention to my Godzilla ring. (He’s probably as big a nerd for Gojira as I am.) He loved it! And he told me that I clearly should be making jewelry for a living. It kind of felt like when you cook a good meal for your friends and they tell you to open a restaurant. His words planted a seed in my head. I started wearing my jewelry when I went out and I was out 7 days/nights a week. And when your friends introduce you as a jeweler people tend to ask if you can make them a grill. Since making teeth impressions is largely the same as making jewelry molds, making grillz came naturally.
I started looking for ways to scale into a business and I discovered the grillz game was dominated by players who were overhyped and unreliable. They also tended to ignore my scene. So I decided to concentrate on getting grillz into the mouths of the freaks and weirdos who I called friends.
Who was your first grillz client?
Me! (laughs) I wanted grillz for myself so I decided to try making myself a pair first. I made some scraggly looking weird fangs with spikes. This must’ve been in 2003. I was still in college. My earliest actual clients were some thugged-out barbers from Monrovia and a few skater chicks from Highland Park. Now it’s everyone from rock and rap stars to Malibu moms to the freaks and geeks in my tribe.
Who have been some of the more renowned Alligator Jesus grill-seekers?
Ghostemane, Ozzy Osbourne, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, $uicide Boy$, Denzel Curry, Insane Clown Posse, Krizz Kaliko, Amber Luke, Ouija Macc, Patrick Mason of SRVD, so many more
And coming up?
I’m doing more pieces for Billie Joe, Poppy and Ghostemane, as well as a few big shots that I can’t talk about.
How would you sum up the Alligator Jesus mindset?
It’s a hustle. But my never-ending hard work attitude has allowed me do what I love for a living. I’m always looking for opportunities to expand the brand and work with artists that have an influence on culture. I don’t want to just be some wack jeweler; I want to make pieces that others look at for years to come and know that it was what helped shaped an era.