Ger Tysk makes woodworking look effortless. As wood chips and splinters fly, sticking to her shirt and rebounding off her plastic safety goggles, her face remains as still and calm as water. Her arms move back and forth, the wooden block in her hands an extension of her limbs, pushing it through the saw and flipping it over to push again in one fluid motion.
Tysk is in her garage in the middle of Arlington, Mass., where she has banished her car in favor of a workshop. Floor to ceiling, the walls are covered with shelves and hooks sporting saws, wrenches and blades of all sizes. A pile of wood blocks and dowels sits in one corner, a dedicated station for spray-painting in the other. A bandsaw, router, lathe and two tables with half-finished projects clutter the room.
The spread on the tables is impressive: a Keyblade from Kingdom Hearts, what looks like an unfinished sword hilt, the beginning of what will become an 8-foot collapsible spear. The latter is what Tysk is working on now, recreating a weapon originally rendered in polygons with wood, plastic and paint.
"The props are the best part," Tysk says with a grin as she flicks a switch and the saw roars back to life.
Human Angle: Cosplaying the Part
All work and all play
In 2003, Tysk joined the Air Force to get away from her parents.
Her brother became a doctor. But Tysk, struggling to embrace her Asian-American identity in the suffocating heat of Texas and parental demand, rebelled. She wanted to do something with her life that wasn't "the Asian stereotype of 'doctor, lawyer, engineer.'" So she enlisted and flew to Japan, spending the next three years between the bustling metropolis of Tokyo and the cold and snowy northern prefecture of Aomori.
Somewhere in the bustle of Air Force bases, maintaining planes, Tysk found the person she wanted to be.
"I went to Japan for purely selfish reasons," she says. "I had family there and I was trying to get better at Japanese. It ended up one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Tysk was going through what she believes a lot of Asian-Americans in their 20s experience, struggling to marry their Eastern and Western dualities. Living in Japan, Tysk came to understand both influences more fully. She left Japan feeling more Asian and more American.
Tysk returned to the States after three years in the Air Force, then packed up her car and moved to Boston to do research for her in-progress novel about whaling in the early 20th century. In the spring of 2008, a friend begged Tysk to accompany her to Anime Boston, one of the largest Japanese media fan conventions in the American Northeast. Tysk agreed.
She attended, dressed to the nines as Tifa Lockheart from Final Fantasy 7.
When the last stitch was run and her wig was in place, Tysk knew this was blossoming into something bigger. She enjoyed the creative process of costuming and liked the way she felt wearing her finished work. Curiosity led to practice, with Tysk making a handful more costumes over the following months. And somewhere down the line, practice led to a hobby, and that hobby led to love. Tysk became a cosplayer. Her passion is always on: when she's playing new games or watching new media, she finds herself subconsciously scrutinizing characters' clothing, searching for her next project.
"I find that the more I cosplay, whenever I play a new game or watch a new show, the first thing I look for is characters who I think I can cosplay," she says. "I look at their outfits and I'm like, 'How can I do this wig?' or 'That person's shoes would be really hard.' I don't even really think about it when I'm doing it. I just do it."
Tysk hates sewing; she taught herself to do it because she wanted to make costumes, but it's still her least favorite part of the process. She wanted to do more than just sew costumes.
Tysk believes that the things a character carries are what make them who they are and distinguish them from similar characters. This is her way of going the extra mile. Other cosplayers might go for creating flashier costumes, maybe adding more expensive trim and using satin instead of cotton. But for Tysk, her big guns had to be just that — big guns. (Or swords.)
So she saved all her spare cash and bought a bandsaw and a lathe.
She makes it look effortless, loading a raw wood block on her lathe, locking it in place with the ease with which you or I would flip a light switch. Here, amidst the whirring, potentially dangerous machinery, covered in wood shavings, she is at ease. She doesn't paint her fingernails because the polish would only get destroyed by her tools, she says.
The lathe sputters to life, and Tysk, gracefully wielding a chisel, begins carving the wood. She stops every few seconds to peek at a reference photo loaded on her phone. She moves the chisel up and down the length of the wood, whittling down its width. Wood shavings gather in the wrinkles of her clothing. She doesn't so much as flinch.
With the lathe still turning, she marks measurements on the wood with a pencil, then grinds the piece down further to make a handhold for the user. Soon she will start wrapping the wood with leather strips in a latticework pattern, then spray-paint it red. She takes a second to look around, searching her garage for the next tool she will need.
A lot of the machinery in her workshop was purchased specifically for cosplay, Tysk says. Prop-making is her main source of income. She also runs a one-woman photography business, but the photo shoots she books (which typically feature a single cosplayer and run on average between an hour or two) bring in only $15 each. By comparison, for her largest props she can make as much as $500 apiece.
The first time Tysk worked with wood was to ramp up the unique-factor of one of her own costumes. Cid Highwind from the Square Enix classic Final Fantasy 7 is not an uncommon character to find in the cosplay wild; his outfit is simple, the character is iconic among JRPG fans and the game itself is one of the most popular of all time. Tysk wanted to dress up as Cid, and was determined to make herself stand out from other Cid cosplayers. So she suited up, grabbed some wood and paint and clay, and made herself the character's trademark spear.
Once she knew she could successfully make props, she decided to share her new skills by making weapons for her friends. Over the span of a few months, she shaped hunks of wood and plastic into daggers, swords, claws and even a realistic chainsaw.
"I just did stuff," she says. "I looked at pictures of other props and of objects I wanted my props to look like, and I just did it. I went out and bought all the materials and experimented until I was happy with what I had."
Tysk had been working as a librarian at MIT, making props in her spare time. Weekdays after work she would go home, make dinner and immediately get to work sanding or painting. Sometimes she would spend her lunch breaks in a back room of the library, building prop prototypes from dismantled cardboard boxes.
Tysk met Shane, an MIT physicist with an affinity for crafting lasers and drinking good beer, in 2009. They were married that fall, and the following year she quit her librarian job to make props full time.
Shane has been incredibly supportive of her hobby, she says. She knows she's lucky. And from the way he looks at her, Shane feels the same way.
"I remember the first person to ever email me for a prop," Tysk says. "It was for a sword from a Fire Emblem game. I charged them $100 because I was just starting out and I had no idea if I could make it well. It was a trial by fire."
Tysk's customer was delighted with the prop, toting it to conventions and no doubt attracting the attention they sought with the customized prop. Nearly four years later, Tysk takes regular commissions from people who hear about her craftsmanship through word of mouth or through her Facebook page and DeviantArt profile.
When Tysk began advertising her prop-making services, commissions — the practice of paying others to create customized cosplay items — were just starting to become more prominent. Many seamstresses were taking paid offers to make tailored costumes, but there weren't many prop-makers. These days, a brief search on the internet will turn up several dozen prop-makers — but Tysk's business is still prominent.
Props and weapon replicas, she says, add a heightened level of interest to a costume and make for better photos.
"If I have a character I know I'll be taking pictures of, and I look up all the reference art and they're carrying this weapon, I'll obviously plan poses around the weapon," she says. "But if the cosplayer shows up and they don't have the weapon, it's kind of a let-down. Sometimes the prop defines the character."
Common interest does not always mean common cause. Competition between cosplayers and heightened tensions surrounding appearances is the norm, especially among women.
"There's a lot of drama," Tysk says. "There's a lot of competition in …" she pauses, sighs, "and I hate to say it, but 'sexiness,' or who has the best face for the character, or who is tall and skinny."
Most video game characters are not rendered with realistic body types (or the laws of physics) in mind, but there are still a wide majority of cosplayers that strive for that perfect likeness — even at the cost of their own well-being.
Tysk herself is very attentive of her health and physique. Running has been a habit since her time in the Air Force, and she tries to hit the gym every other day for weight training. At one point she considered becoming a personal trainer, and is frequently giving her cosplaying friends advice on how to eat right and do proper crunches.
The pressure to be skinny and have perfect "video game girl" dimensions is a problem, she says. Not everyone is a stick with perfect curves, and that shouldn't be a reason to not cosplay. Internet commentary on cosplayers is almost always about their face or weight, Tysk says; it's the first thing most people will look at.
"There will be comments like, 'That person isn't skinny enough!' or 'You're ugly, you just shouldn't cosplay!' It's stupid and if everyone who wasn't skinny or looked a certain way didn't cosplay, no one would cosplay.
"People try to be all-inclusive. But it's there."
Tysk doesn't think any of this is healthy, that the obsession with perfection drags the passion down, especially for those who use the hobby as a means of self-expression. This is especially true for younger cosplayers, as the average age for entering the hobby hovers between high school and college. But being popular on the internet isn't everything, Tysk says.
A movement referred to as "cosplay is not consent" was sparked by an incident at PAX East 2013 during which a gathering of Lara Croft cosplayers were sexually harassed by a member of the media. Crystal Dynamics Community Manager Meagan Marie recounts the event on her personal blog.
"Yesterday a lot of the fears that kept me from speaking out for so long were realized," Marie writes, after describing how she (and many other women) in the video game industry are treated. Marie outlines a tradition of casual sexual harassment that many have come to see as the norm, and which she believes led to the "Lara Croft incident."
While hosting a Tomb Raider cosplay gathering, comprised of eight or so incredibly nice and talented young women, a member of the press asked if he could grab a quick interview. I said he'd need to ask them, not me, and they agreed. He squeezed into the group and posed a question. I couldn't hear what he said over the hubbub of the show floor, but the confused and uncomfortable looks from the ladies indicated that it wasn't what they expected, to say the least ... his subsequent response escalated matters quickly and clearly illustrated that this ran much deeper than a poor attempt at humor. He proceeded to tell me that "I was one of those oversensitive feminists" and that "the girls were dressing sexy, so they were asking for it." Yes, he pulled the "cosplay is consent" card.
From there, the sentiment snowballed into an uproar among the community, with a dedicated group setting up a website and Facebook page. But that, Tysk says, is where things got out of hand.
Marie's public statements morphed into something less helpful and more catty. "Cosplay is not consent" became "cosplay is not rape." Many cosplayers, mostly female, began to label any approach from men as a type of harassment. Hackles were raised, and among the hype and drama there were other cosplayers who said they liked the attention — and the "cosplay is not consent" outcry was ruining their experience.
Tysk believes the people behind the movement to end rampant sexual harassment had their hearts in the right place. But at the same time, the idea of what is and is not consent can apply just about anywhere.
"You can say that about anything," she says, and the mounting frustration in her voice is almost tangible. "Wearing a dress is not consent. Being a woman is not consent. Or walking down the street in your town is not consent."
Tysk calls the movement an "appropriating of the nerd culture," with many well-meaning samaritans taking the movement a bit too far. But she is in full agreement that, whether you're in full-body armor or a tiny battle bikini, wearing a costume doesn't mean open season on sexual advances.
"It defeats the purpose of cosplay. It's about putting on a costume because you like the character."
Tysk notes that the cosplay community is subject to dramatic fads. At this time the "cosplay is not consent" movement is "all but dead," and attentions have been turned to other matters. Right now, she says, it's a debate over whether or not photographers should be paid for cosplay photo shoots.
"Some people say it's not fair to charge because they spent so much money on the costume." Tysk rolls her eyes, sighs and grins.
A year ago, Tysk decided to quit cosplay.
"I was really depressed, I didn't like what the community had become," she says. "You have to be the prettiest or thinnest or have the nicest body, or have the best costume, and if you don't people say you should just go home.
"I'm never going to have these things or be super skinny or have gigantic boobs. I'm just this five-foot-three muscular Asian girl. I can only be Chun Li. And I don't play Street Fighter, and I don't want to do Chun Li."
On the brink of dumping her hobby, Tysk found comfort in photography. Learning new techniques and putting what she learned to the test, especially when photographing her friends, had become the most enjoyable part of the cosplay experience. She was making fewer and fewer new costumes, and the thought of going to conventions made her weary.
Like her woodworking skills, Tysk picked up the fundamentals of the photography trade in the field, learning as she went by setting up photo shoots with other cosplayers.
"I enjoy taking photos of cosplayers and I enjoy being the cosplayer people take photos of, because not only does it make me appreciate the cosplayers who pose for me, but I also get to see what works and what doesn't, like a certain expression or pose," she says.
Photo shoots, Tysk says, are a record that you made something and that it worked — or didn't work, in some cases. They're intrinsic to the hobby and a major part of the community. Photos are posted to Facebook and forums to show off projects, are used to enter cosplay craftsmanship contests and can even be used to attract paid commissions.
And when your cosplay career sunsets, you'll still have your photos.
"I was enjoying myself more with photography, but things were getting really stressful there, too," she says, adding that setting up photo shoots was becoming as stressful as sewing a costume. "I thought, I'm never going to be the greatest photographer, and I will never be a famous cosplayer, I should just quit."
Instead, she decided to make a different book.
Her book would be a showcase of the cosplayers she met at conventions and include stories of why they participate in the hobby. It wasn't some "grand, artistic epiphany," she says. Tysk simply found a large folder of forgotten photos on her computer, and thought that maybe they'd make a good book. She looked for books like what she imagined and found none. So she launched a crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo.
Tysk asked for $20,000 and got $3,000 through Indiegogo, with an additional $2,700 coming in through a second fundraiser. This was enough to fund her travel, room and board for a year to attend various conventions throughout the United States. Printing the book will cost $15,000 — she's saved that up already herself. In the past year she's been to California, Minnesota, Maryland, Texas, New York and around her native Boston. Later this summer, she'll attend DragonCon 2013 in Georgia. Wherever she goes, she says, feedback for her project has been favorable.
Breaking All The Rules: Cosplay and the Art of Self-Expression will be published in October, she hopes, as a labor of love for a community that has brought her such joy.
The people Tysk features in her book are "ordinary," she says: students, waitresses, engineers, retail managers and people who are unemployed. Wives, fathers, teenage girls and young men — these people take their love of the characters they portray to a level that is "extraordinary."
"I hope it can promote understanding and start dialogues between people, no matter how diverse their backgrounds," reads her project's mission statement. "When asked, 'Why do you cosplay?' I hope someone can flip through the pages of this book and point to the cosplayers describing in their own words how cosplay has profoundly changed them and made their world a better place."
"When I talk to people in interviews and ask why they cosplay, they have to really think about it," Tysk says. "Some say they cosplay because it's who they are, it's their identity. Some say it's because they're artistic and then think this is the best way for them to do art. Some do watercolors, they ... do cosplay."
As cosplay becomes more well known, it becomes easier for cosplayers to find references and talk to others who have made the same costume or used a similar technique. It's easier to find prosthetic elf ears and long, purple fiber wigs. More companies that make anime or develop games are producing official jewelry and other costume items worn by the characters in their media — making it easier for those without Tysk's woodworking skills to have the right accessories.
"More people have heard of it, so it's not just, 'Oh, you're a nerd in the closet in your parents' basement dressing up,'" she says.
But while the exposure is a good thing for people who take cosplay seriously, the heightened scrutiny comes with a cost. As more and more cosplayers compete to recreate the same costumes and props, there is added pressure to look perfect and flawless. More cosplayers are trying to go pro, like Jessica Nigri of Lollipop Chainsaw fame, and are exhausting themselves physically and monetarily to get there. Tysk thinks the competition will drive more people to tone down their participation or quit entirely.
"A majority of cosplayers right now are in their mid-20s and have spent the last three or four years being obsessed with it," Tysk says. "They think, 'I'm never gonna be as famous as this other big famous cosplayer.' They're spending a ton of money, when they could be getting a job or going back to school. And [now] they're realizing that."
Tysk believes the added attention that comes with publicity, spanning everything from praise over craftsmanship to sexual harassment, will bend and shape the community in the years to come. More people will leave the circle, but more will also enter it, inspired by the works of those that came before.
"Cosplay is growing up. And the community needs to decide where it wants to go."
Production on Tysk's book will end this fall, as she travels to her last convention and finishes compiling the photos and interviews. She'll send Breaking All the Rules off to print, and then she'll stop bringing her photography equipment to conventions.
"I want to focus on other things, but I do want to keep cosplaying — just not as much," Tysk says. Her whaling novel, The Sea God At Sunrise, was self-published this past winter, and now she's researching for her second one.
"I've done all I want to do with cosplay." But she's smiling as she says it. "I'll still make stuff, but not for work. I just want to hang out and have fun with my friends."
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone, Charlie Hall
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis
Video: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors, Pat McGowan
Music: Robot Science