Meet Sue Moerder, a former tattoo artist and advertising designer who’s now focusing on her true calling — creating skull art.
• On her first skull: “I can’t remember how I got it. You work in Jersey and everybody hunts and has deer skulls and then you’re a tattoo artist and everybody assumes you love skulls.”
• Heading off critics: “Some people look at skulls like they’re evil, or think they’re evil. I always tell them ‘Your brain is sitting in one now, and you seem like you’re OK.’ ”
Growing up in Delaware County, Sue Moerder — who pronounces her last name like murder — knew she was destined to be an artist.
“I never had any choice in the matter,” she said.
But of all the art forms she pursued, from advertising design to tattooing, Moerder never felt truly at home in any of them.
That is, until six years ago, when someone gave her a deer skull. Moerder started small, by decorating the skull with mandalas and lace, but over time, her pieces grew larger to include skulls within skulls, mannequin torsos, and unusual metal objects.
Last year, Moerder closed her tattoo shop in Hammonton, N.J., and in February, she moved to Northern Liberties to pursue her skull art full-time.
“COVID kind of made me realize at 61, I’m not completely happy, and if I’m going to make the move in my life, I better hurry up and do it,” she said. “It’s a big chance I’m taking right now and it’s scary, but it feels like it’s the right place.”
The “right place” is a private studio in her Philly rowhouse, where the front room is illuminated in red light and lined with dozens of sculptures, lamps, and mirrors created with the skulls of various animals, from hedgehogs to horses.
The effect is like a Tim Burton fever dream where the skulls — Frankensteined into entirely new and fantastical creatures ― appear to be on the brink of reanimation.
“People definitely don’t walk in here and act normal,” Moerder said.
And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve had people say stuff like ‘Oh my God, this is how I imagine heaven!’ ... and I’ve had people who don’t always get it, and that’s OK,” she said. “But for once in my life, I’m enjoying living with my art.”
The daughter of a photographer and art teacher, Moerder grew up in Media and attended the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), where she majored in illustration. After graduation, she worked in advertising, both as a freelancer and an art director.
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In 2003, after her friend who was a member of the Wheels of Soul motorcycle club was shot and killed, Moerder started helping out her friend’s wife at his tattoo shop, JR’s Tattoos.
She worked at several shops before opening her own tattoo parlor, Moerder Tattoos, in 2012. During that time, she also took up skull art and turned half of her shop into a gallery to display her work and the work of other local artists.
While Moerder found many aspects of tattooing fulfilling, from covering unwanted scars to acting as an armchair therapist, she also found it stressful.
“If you mess up, it’s a lifetime of somebody carrying around your mistake,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure, even if you know what you’re doing.”
When COVID-19 hit and Moerder was forced to close her shop, she spent her days creating skull art and spending time with her 21-year-old daughter, Mei. She also held online donation drives, where she tattooed herself live on Facebook, to raise money for PPE for essential workers.
That time with herself and her daughter made Moerder realize that if she was ever going to really pursue skull art, “now is the time.”
Moerder, whose friends affectionately refer to her as “The bitch with the bones,” now creates her pieces in her basement workshop, where the shelves are lined with skulls and bins of pelvic bones, platters, and pipes. Her pieces incorporate everything from cheese graters and forks to pressure gauges and keys.
“Everything is a treasure hunt now, wherever I go,” she said.
Moerder gets her skulls — including deer, coyotes, cats, foxes, beavers, minks, hedgehogs, turtles, ostriches, fish, birds, cows, sheep, pigs, and horses — off Etsy and eBay.
“Design-wise in nature, skulls are such an amazing structure,” she said. “When you think of something that’s designed to keep our whole essence pretty much cradled in a safe place, it’s really beautiful.”
Recently, Moerder created a chandelier where she fashioned ostrich and cat skulls to look like they’re hanging bats. Other skulls appear on clocks, mirrors, and mannequin bodies, including a bride with an elk skull and a female torso with a zebra skull that’s on top of a table and saw. It’s a piece Moerder calls Fallen Angel.
“She’s a statement on heroin addiction. She’s chained and bridled and spinning out of control,” Moerder said. “Maybe I’m the only one that gets it, but I felt so strongly at the time and saw so many friends falling to heroin, I had to say something.”
Moerder’s clients include oddity and outsider art collectors; taxidermy and skull aficionados; steampunk and horror fans; and “regular people” who want unique pieces.
After moving to Philly, Moerder started an “Artists of Philly Meet” Facebook group and the “Artists of Philly Pop-Up Co-Op.” Through the co-op, Moerder hopes to partner Philly artists looking for a place to show their work with area businesses who have wall space in need of art.
“I just want to create more opportunities for fellow artists,” she said.
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Those interested in the co-op or in Moerder’s skull art can contact her through her website, suemoerder.com (her studio is not open to the public). Moerder will also share a booth at the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention next month with her friend who creates scary dolls.
And for those wondering just how many skeletons Moerder has in her closet, she’s happy to correct you ...
“They’re not in my closet,” she said. “They’re out of the closet.”
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