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Minding His Beeswax: A Day in the Life of an Artist at Madame Tussauds 

Wednesday, Aug 3 2016

I wish Robin Williams a happy birthday, in person, even though he died nearly two years ago.

Technically, it's his wax likeness, smiling impishly in the lobby of Madame Tussauds, not far away from a seated Mark Zuckerberg. I'm waiting for Shane Izykowski, the wax museum's lead studio artist, who's got some retouching to do on Peter Dinklage after having made his rounds at 7:30 that morning to determine whose likeness took a beating from the tourists gleefully posing for selfies with celebrity simulacra. Dinklage requires a lot of work, Izykowski says, and not just because his statue is a relatively new addition. The 4-foot-5 actor stands closer to children's heights than most others do, and they tend to make a beeline for him even if they aren't old enough to know who Tyrion Lannister is.

A relatively recent transplant from Pennsylvania with a thriving practice apart from his daily duties, Izykowski represents that rarest of breeds: a working artist who moved into San Francisco instead of out of it. (He and his girlfriend, an illustrator and storyboard artist, maintain a joint studio space through Artspan in a Mid-Market building that's slated for eventual demolition.)

Disclosure's "Help Me Lose My Mind" plays at a high volume as Izykowski wheels his cart out of the elevator, slaloming past Anne Hathaway and parking it near Neil Patrick Harris. He's part of a team of three, and while they don't usually work on the floor, he's got an easy approach with curious onlookers. Izykowski is "all about interaction," he says.

"We mainly do repair work," Izykowski says. "I spend two-and-a-half hours every morning on maintenance. Anything from touching up some paint, fixing hair, fixing costumes and wardrobes, and fixing the props we put out with them."

Madame Tussauds lets people handle the sculptures for selfies and to receive hugs and kisses, and although I can easily envision boisterous moppets knocking over Leonardo Di Caprio and crushing his pretty-boy nose, Izykowski is a little reluctant to get into too much detail about the damage people can do. Even a fingernail can leave an impression, as the heads and hands are wax after all — specifically, a certain ratio of beeswax and Japan wax, derived from sumac berries. (The bodies are made of fiberglass.)

But he's more than eager to talk about the work, which is like a combination of stagehand, plastic surgeon, and — owing to the need to introduce blemishes and imperfections instead of covering them up — reverse makeup artist.

"On a typical day, we have scratches," Izykowski says. "If we get something more extensive, then we use Bondo," the automotive body filler.

He won't say outright if he has a favorite, either, but expresses a lot of admiration for the Bob Marley figure. Since each wax likeness originates in a central studio in London that handles hair, wardrobe, and props, it's the job of the individual attractions — of which there are 23 worldwide — to keep them lifelike in perpetuity. It's difficult, because no one's skin is flawless, and no one's skin looks like a flat surface. The blotches and imperfections are a composite of layers of "squiggles and dots," Izykowski says.

A father-and-daughter duo approach, unsure if our setup is legitimate or if we're up to no good, but Izykowski's calm demeanor seems to assuage them. (Seeing things from their skeptical point of view, I imagine thieves dressing as paint-splattered techs to execute an art heist in plain sight.)

The father and daughter move on, and Izykowski continues: "Typically what we really want to do is treat them like the celebrity. We make sure that they're looking their best at all times."

Although nobody acts like a diva, the technique is difficult, he says. "When I first started, I kind of had to unlearn what I've learned over a span of time painting with oil."

Painting isn't the only medium he's worked in, either. He rose to his current position after putting his special-effects makeup skills to use at The San Francisco Dungeon, the adjacent haunted house involving real actors who play parts based on figures from San Francisco history (and which has the same parent company, Merlin Entertainments, as Madame Tussauds). Apart from transforming people into zombies and ghouls, he's been a photographer and muralist. Working with people's eyeballs trained on the back of his head — to say nothing of the twinkling facsimiles of celebrity eyeballs staring at him — is not new to Izykowski, who routinely paints live and once worked in a retouching studio where anxious clients "watched over my shoulder the whole time I worked on their family heirloom photo."

In other words, he works all the time. But it's not entirely serious: Izykowski participated in The Murray Invitational at Public Works last month, submitting paintings of his dog and his cat with Bill Murray faces. Surprisingly, the actor does not have a wax figure at Madame Tussauds, although the cast members of the Ghostbusters reboot do, in New York. In spite of that, it doesn't take a lot to envision the wry star of Groundhog Day sitting behind Izykowski as the latter worked on his wax replica after a long day of hugs and abuse, trying and failing to distract him with world-weary spitballs.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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