Hometowns serve as the setting of our most formative, impressionable early years, so it’s not surprising when they leave an indelible mark on our worldview and interests. It makes sense when such an environment embeds itself into one’s identity, or informs proclivities for years and years to come. Sometimes you can pick up this influence in an artist’s work, as is the case with illustrator and native New Englander Bill Crisafi.
Crisafi was born and raised in Salem, MA, a town made famous for the Salem witch trials in 1692. As a result, the artist has been fascinated by spooky whimsy for most of his life, and he continues to mine themes of magic, folklore, and occultism in his illustration, photography, sculpture, and costume practice. His work is undercut with a hardy dose of dark wit that strikes a uniquely playful, yet macabre tone.
I was especially drawn to Crisafi’s exploration of anthropomorphized glamour toads, so I reached out to learn more about how an artist brews up something special.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Dark, humorous, whimsical.
Why frogs? What is it about frogs specifically that compels you to keep illustrating them?
My work has been exploring various anthropomorphic creatures for quite some time. I have been interested in witches and witchcraft since I was a kid, and toads and frogs have a magical tie to them.
It wasn’t until I started to develop my Babushka Toad character that I drew them a lot more frequently. Once she was brought into the world and a sassy narrative developed, she slowly transformed into my very drag/bimbo frogs.
I like how they look. I think they are really expressive creatures.
What are your main influences?
A lot of my illustration work is autobiographical. I make masks and costumes of my characters, and a lot of the time, a drawing is an idea that I want to bring to life (which doesn’t always get to happen). I love drag and the transformative nature of it: witches and magic, mixed with a pinch of diva sass.
Where do you think you got your dark sense humor?
My dark sense of humor probably comes from my childhood obsession with Halloween and horror movies. I grew up close to Salem, Massachusetts (and was living there before moving to Chicago). Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated with the area’s dark history— which itself is not funny at all, but I think it nurtured that curiosity.
While I’ve made humorous work for a long time, a lot of my older illustrations focused a lot on the technical side of drawing. After the pandemic happened, my work naturally veered in the direction of humor. I’ve always loved making people laugh or smile, so being able to not take things so seriously has been really nice.