Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Sitting in his booth, Stavros saw a chance to one-up the competition. Convention-goers were stopping by with other vendors' fangs slipping off their teeth, asking him for help. "I would tighten their fangs, and I saw an opportunity," Stavros says. "So I did my due diligence, and now I believe I am the only fangsmith who has a tightening kit."
A fangsmith is exactly what it sounds like. Perhaps a dozen craftspeople around the country specialize in forming artificial fangs, which customers wear for Halloween, for cosplay, or because it's Tuesday and they're going to Starbucks. "I would never have expected fangs to be as big as they've become," Stavros says. "They are a form of self-expression, like a piercing or a tattoo. They release who you believe yourself to be."
Stavros--like Dracula--goes by one name. Unlike Dracula, he uses his baptismal name, bestowed when he joined the Christian Orthodox Church in 2002. (In Greek, "stavros" means "cross-bearer," which seems counterintuitive for a guy in the vamp game.) His business, Kaos Kustom Fangs, produces several thousand fang sets a year. They range in price from $69.98 (classic pointy canines) to $475.98 (the full-mouth ferocity of Michael Corvin, a character in the film series Underworld).
Halloween accounts for a third of the company's revenue. Since mid-August, Stavros has been working 13- to 20-hour days building pointy pearlies onto molds made from customers' teeth. Place an order and he'll send you a kit for taking the impression. Stavros crafts all the fangs himself, by hand, although Krys Kaos, his business and romantic partner, is learning the trade. They operate alone, except for seasonal help, in Hoffmantown, a neighborhood of bookstores, jewelry makers, and other small shops in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
About 30 percent of Kaos's business, virtually all of it conducted online, is custom, for clients looking for something special. The rest is based on classic models--curved for vampires, straight for werewolves--and styles derived from popular culture. There's a sexiness to the True Blood model, for example, the fangs' simple elegance set off by glossy lips. By contrast, fans of the TV series Teen Wolf get mouths bristling with stalactites and stalagmites.
"It is very character-driven," Stavros says. "On the conference circuit, people love their movies. They love their TV."
Brittany Morgan, a hairstylist in Chicago, has ordered four pairs of custom fangs from Kaos over three years. She has worn them everywhere, including to work. "I've always been into vampires and thought their fangs were so pretty that I got my own," she says. "Mine were a bit smaller, not so prominent. So people are like, 'Wait, do you have fangs?'"
In addition to her everyday fangs, Morgan has "my fancy fangs, which are a little more curved and pointy." As for Stavros, she says, "he is super easy to work with and he's always so excited to make something new for me."
A tour through the arts
Stavros grew up in southern Maryland, where his mother worked as a computer programmer and his father was out of work on disability. Father and son bonded over scary movies showcased on Creature Feature, presided over by Washington, D.C., horror host Count Gore de Vol. "I grew up on the Christopher Lee Dracula films, Vincent Price, The Mummy with Boris Karloff, The Wolfman with Lon Chaney," Stavros says. "Every time there was a change--from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray--I would go out and buy the silent version of Phantom of the Opera in the new format."
In his 20s, Stavros worked as a carpet installer while trying to launch a music career. His band played clubs in Baltimore. He also performed his own poems in coffee houses and acted in independent films. At 30, he decided to abandon carpets and light out for the desert, enrolling at the University of New Mexico.
After graduation, Stavros created Poetry Television, a collage of "video poems" (cinematic interpretations of verse) that ran on public-access channels across the country. Next he turned to documentary filmmaking. But after making three films in three years, Stavros grew disenchanted with the communal process and switched to an art form that offered more control: writing.
Of course, Stavros would write about vampires. His obsession with the night creatures was born in a dream he'd had in the early '90s. "It was a vampiric character hovering over my face," he says. "It said nothing. It did nothing. But I woke up with all these fervid thoughts and questions."
For the next 15 years, Stavros researched vampires: their mythology, their history, and the possibility that their bad behavior might have scientific roots. He discovered references to vampirism extending back almost to the birth of language in every country except Indonesia.
"In all the books and movies, people try to make vampires magical, demonic, mystical," Stavros says. He wanted to honor the myth but write about vampires stripped of the supernatural. He reimagined them as hybrids of humans and a kind of blood parasite. He released Blood Junky, the first volume of a four-volume series, in 2010 through his own publishing company, Crazy Duck Press. Over the next four years, he sold thousands of copies of the "One Blood" series at horror, sci-fi, and comic-book conventions. To build out the brand, he designed T-shirts, buttons, and stickers with slogans like "BMRH" ("bite me really hard") and graphics of "anything I could squeeze visually out of the books."
At the conventions Stavros met several fangsmiths. In 2011, he shared a booth and expenses with one. "He made a lot more money than me," Stavros says. "What I learned was that I was working way too hard trying to sell a book."
Stavros studied his fangsmith partner's "in-the-mouth" process of applying a chemical compound directly to teeth. He thought he could do better. Another fangsmith friend deployed the "full dental" approach: taking a mouth impression in alginate and turning it into a mold, and then building fangs onto it. The fangs themselves are dental acrylic, the material used by dentists for bridges.
In the summer of 2012, Stavros flew his friend from New Jersey to Albuquerque and underwent four days of intensive training. By August, he was back on the convention circuit, this time with teeth.
Bites and sips
Stavros co-created several of his earliest models--including his first top-and-bottom combinations--with a customer who wanted them for cosplay. He still sells one of those designs, which is called "Hollie" for its inspiration. Other products, like the single and double Snake Bites, which curve back gracefully to a vicious point, also began as custom jobs. "A lot of it just comes from working with clients and fulfilling their ideas," Stavros says.
Some fangs are stomach-turning. Zombie versions, for example, are both jagged and rotting; and Battle Orc tusks curl aggressively snoutward. However the most popular models (besides classic vampire and werewolf versions) are the borderline adorable kitten and cat fangs.
Dracula, famously, never drinks ... wine. Stavros's side gig is the Vampyre Tea Company, comprising several blends of his own creation. He launched that business in 2012, and now his product is available in local tea and coffeehouses, as well as through some shops in Georgia and the Boutique de Vampyre in New Orleans.
Fangs and tea have not distracted Stavros from his first love: the creative arts. While he's not writing books, he and Krys Kaos are making short films in which she stars as the company's vamp-ish face. On Halloween, Stavros says, they plan to launch a vlog about "horror culture, vampirism, the universe, strangeness." And they are working on a penny dreadful about her character.
With events like Comic-Con, Monsterpalooza, and Mad Monster Party attracting ever-larger crowds, Stavros sees no reason fangsmithing won't pay his bills for this life--and the next. "People go year after year dressed like their favorite characters," he says. "They support artists who are creating new work. It is a huge thing.
"There is a life's blood there."