Portland has an addition to our roster of talented circus artists: face-tattooed, sword-swallowing, world record-breaking sideshow artist Titano Oddfellow. Oddfellow’s achievements range from highbrow to lowbrow to a mixture and interrogation of the two. Last spring he performed at the Met Opera, for Phelim McDermott’s Coney Island staging of Mozart’s “Cosí Fan Tutte”; in 2015, he lifted a woman with his beard on America’s Got Talent; in 2014, he set eight world records for feats like breaking metal flashlights with his teeth (five flashlights in 31.44 seconds). Oddfellow took a break from record-setting after that. During our interview he said he was “afraid it started to become an ego thing.”
On a balmy evening I met Oddfellow at Baby Doll Pizzeria, so he could enjoy Lone Fir Cemetery at dusk beforehand. Though his face is tattooed and he was wearing a kilt, knee-high leather boots, and Norse toggle earrings, he barely stood out from the neighborhood soccer players and dog walkers. Oddfellow lived in Battle Ground and Kennewick, Washington prior to his sideshow career, but his Portland move, from Pennsylvania this summer, was motivated by both his partner, sideshow performer Theophelia Polidori, and his love of Portland’s trees, crows, and kind, free-spirited people. Since his livelihood depends on his oral hygiene, Oddfellow finds it “fucking wonderful and brilliant” that Portlanders routinely vote against adding fluoride to the water supply. [Editor’s pro-fluoride note: There’s no scientific evidence that the addition of 0.7 milligrams per liter to drinking water is anything but beneficial to the teeth of children who can’t get to the dentist every six months].
Now 46, Oddfellow was reluctant to brag about his achievements, but became animated discussing what his work could mean for other people, especially the tattooed. “It’s amazing that someone with face tattoos got to be on the Metropolitan Opera stage,” he says. “Because—I hate this saying—with face tattoos, they call them ‘life wreckers.’ I think it’s very negative.”
Oddfellow began acquiring tattoos in his 20s. His first was a flash bulldog that he’s since covered with a sleeve. His first cranial tattoo was a devil’s mask on the back on his head, to deter evil spirits from following him. “The image of evil repels evil,” he explains. As he showed his tattoos, which include the Greek god Pan, he stressed that his face tattoos, while reminiscent of Polynesian aesthetic, are self-designed and in no way related to Mori ta moko or Japanese irezumi, for which he holds a great deal of reverence.
Oddfellow’s aesthetic journey has been largely self-invented. The masculine characters he performs on stage—like his version of a Viking-inspired strongman or a tattooless clown named Jenkins the Janitor—are drag-like exaggerations of masculine behavior he has encountered. They juxtapose his own soft, self-aware nature. “I know this sounds esoteric,” he says, “but I draw my inspiration from the universe, in this sense of something bigger than myself. It’s really vague and not good for writing, but I always say ‘The only stars I look to are in the sky.’”
Driven by self-actualization and a desire to break down expectations, the mantra Oddfellow often cites is a simple one: “Mind over matter.” He notes that he can’t prescribe it to strangers. He doesn’t know their stories. But his pursuit of it is what he credits for ending his familial pattern of physical and emotional abuse, lifting 45 pounds through his septum, and recovering from splitting his tongue in half during a failed performance a few years ago.
Like most of his tattoos, Oddfellow’s artistry is less inspired by historical figures or cultural traditions but rather a sense of intuition and personal engagement. He draws his greatest fulfillment from times he felt he changed his audience’s perspective and showed them something new—whether that audience was at an opera, tattoo expo, punk show, sideshow, or a kid’s birthday party.