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Stepping into Chad Tate’s studio is like entering a comic book supervillain’s lair.
You’re surrounded by the faces of mutants, aliens and fantastic creatures. There’s a “lab” where these colorful creatures come to life, a wall full of plans sketched out on paper and a garage with what looks like The Joker’s hot rod parked in the corner.
But, the only scary thing inside is the amount of talent the sculptor and artist has on display.
Tate’s business, Ex-Treme Kustoms, recently moved out of his home and into a former body shop at the corner of South Main Street and Pipers Gap Road in Galax.
The main part of his business is custom airbrushing and detailing for automotive parts, where he specializes in fantasy and sci-fi designs. The other half is a sculpting and fabricating business geared toward high-end replicas of creatures from films and TV shows like “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who.”
From the small Galax shop, Tate reaches out to the galaxy, with customers all over the planet.
“It’s weird. I’ve become an international artist,” Tate says.
He began airbrushing in 1986 and has honed his skills over the years. His visual arts skills include drawing, painting and sculpting, and Tate says his style is heavily influenced by comic book artists like Jim Lee and Joe Madureira, fantasy painters like Soroyama and classic artists like Rodin, Leonardo DaVinci and Michaelangelo.
Tate was an art teacher at Carroll County High School for several years, then moved to his custom paint and sculpting business full-time about three years ago.
Though no longer in the classroom, Tate still offers encouragement for emerging artists. “The only difference between a student and a professional is confidence. I tried to impart that to my students. A pro just believes they can do it.”
He opened the new shop in September 2013 after gaining a following for his masks online. Customers find him through eBay, where he sells some pieces, and his website and Facebook page.
Now, there’s a waiting list for his work.
Tate says his customers either display the pieces or wear them as part of a complete costume when they go to comic book or sci-fi conventions.
He has sent masks to customers in Australia, Greece, New Zealand, Russia, Italy, France and Spain, as well as to fans in the U.S.
The scariest part of that: “International shipping is a nightmare.”
The masks on display at his studio include classic movie monsters like the Predator and a Gremlin, along with newer characters, aliens like the Ood and The Silence from the popular British sci-fi show “Doctor Who.”
“Who” has been good to Tate, thanks to the 50-year-old show’s resurgence in recent years. Anything related to the show is geek gold.
He was recently commissioned by a fan in Australia to sculpt a replica head with the likeness of “Doctor Who” actor Tom Baker, who played The Doctor in the 1970s and 1980s on the BBC.
“The guy has a mannequin with a complete replica of his costume, and this head will complete it,” Tate says.
A fan in Australia recently sent Tate photos of him and a friend wearing their Ood alien masks and posing with “Doctor Who” props — including the character’s iconic TARDIS time machine — at a science fiction convention.
One of his customers is Paul Bradford, a host of the cable TV show “Ghost Hunters International.” He has two of Tate’s “Doctor Who” masks.
One of his recent commissioned pieces is a facial prosthetic — a makeup appliance attached to the body — that will turn the wearer into a Borg, one of the cybernetic villains from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“I had a cast of the customer’s face, so the appliances would all fit exactly,” Tate said. “And it fit him like a glove.”
The final appliance has parts that look like metal, with wires and hoses running down the neck. It also has a clear lens for the eye and LED lights to make parts of it glow.
To begin a project, Tate sometimes works designs out on paper first, but more often he goes right to his sculpting studio, using his hands and a variety of tools to work mounds of clay into near-perfect replicas of popular monsters and aliens.
“I use Plastilina clay, which doesn’t dry out,” says Tate, as he works detail into an alien face on his sculpting table.
When the detailed clay sculpt is finished, Tate coats it in plaster to make a mold. “I make a two-part mold, so that the mask will come out in two halves, front and back.
Once the mold — made of a plaster called Ultracal 30 — hardens to a consistency like cement, Tate pries it open and cleans out the clay. There’s a lot of pressure at this point, because mold-making destroys the original clay sculpt.
Next, Tate puts the mold back together and pours it full of liquid latex. “When it dries, you just peel it out. You can make dozens of masks with one mold.”
Then, Tate uses his painting skills to bring the piece to life. The finished product is a detailed and authentic replica that can be worn or displayed.
Friends have suggested he audition for the movie make-up reality show “Face Off” on SyFy Channel, but Tate says he’s not interested in the competition or the drama.
Besides, like many artists, he can always see the flaws in his own work.
“I continue to improve, but I’m my own worst critic.”
Automotive painting makes up the majority of Tate’s work, but even that has a fantastical edge.
Parked in front of Tate’s massive work table is his candy apple red Kawasaki Vulcan 1500, a fiery dragon skull emblazoned on the fuel tank.
Also in the garage sits a Ford Mustang GT that Tate has been customizing with a Joker motif. The grinning “clown prince of crime” — as played by Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” — stares menacingly from the airbrushed hood.
The finished car will be a very specific shade of “Joker green,” black, purple and white, Tate said, with the swirling shadows morphing into bats.
He also airbrushed an ultra-detailed “Lord of the Rings” motif on a bike, featuring all of the main characters from the fantasy epic.
Tate just completed a scene of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner for the tailgate of a customer’s pickup truck.
His airbrushing isn’t limited to just cars and T-shirts. He also has an electric guitar he’s working on, decorated with a painting of the main character from the “Crow” movies and comics.
Tate also is known for the elaborate lobby displays he and brother Brad constructed for Twin County Cinema III, promoting movies like “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Godzilla.”
Tate is a huge fan of horror movies and loves to give folks a good scare. For several years, he worked with the Fries Recreation Center to create elaborate haunted house attractions for Halloween.
Last year, he topped that off with a towering “Halloween King” character that menaced passersby and featured lights and a fog machine.
Now, he and some friends are planning a haunt at the old Providence School in Fries, which would be open for more than just the Halloween season.
“The Fries Volunteer Fire Department has [the building] now, and they’re letting us use the back half,” Tate said.
Proceeds from tickets to the haunted house would benefit the fire department.
“I’m working on a mask of my own for that. It’s a mad scientist character.”
In his studio surrounded by muscle machines, odd body parts and blinking lights, it seems “mad scientist” might be the perfect choice for Tate.
• Ex-Treme Kustoms can be found on Facebook and at www.ex-tremekustoms.com/. The studio is located at 101 Pipers Gap Road in Galax, at the corner of South Main Street. Hours are Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call (276) 233-6435.