Interview – Horror in Clay

Interview – Horror in Clay

Jonathan M Chaffin – Horror in Clay

In the not so quiet corners of the internet, those with a fetish for all things Lovecraft and Cthulhu gather to discuss the perennial question “… but is it Lovecraftian?!!”

It was in one such corner in 2013 that I came across a company that made Cthulhu mugs. What you need to understand is that this is not just any mug with Cthulhu printed on to it… oh no, these are both engraved and sculpted designs that threaten sanity by merely grasping it, and thus I was introduced to Over the years I came to know the owner – Jonathan M Chaffin – and we have fostered the kind of digital relationship that the internet was made for, which mostly involves saying “Ooo, that looks cool!”

For those who don’t know, Jonathan M. Chaffin is an artist and designer most noted for creating horror-themed tiki mugs, art, and barware. Born in South Carolina, in the United States, in 1978.  Jonathan has resided in Atlanta GA since 1996 with his small family, cat, and hundreds of pagan idols and fiendish relics… and I was lucky enough to sit down with him and find out if he really is trying to invoke the spirit of  R’lyeh.

The Cthulhu tiki

Martin Adil-Smith – For those who are unfamiliar with your work, tell us what you do?

Jonathan Chaffin – I consider myself a story-teller, and a collector.  I have a deep and abiding love for horror-literature, and 5 years ago I started an art series of horror-themed tiki mugs based on stories, authors, and horror tropes I love. For example, my love of Lovecraft and the Call of Cthulhu led me to create a fictional bar called Pickman’s Cove, with its own Cthulhu-inspired tiki mug.  That was my first of 9 mugs and supporting maps, beer mats, swizzles sticks, clothing, and all manner of ephemera. My last mug was set in Paris, was based on Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and took the form of a razor swinging, scarified, orangutan.

The tiki range

MAS -What can you tell us about what you are currently working on?

JC -I love the theater, and I love masks and Halloween. My next mug, anticipated to launch on Kickstarter in February, pays homage to those ideas while also mixing in references and locales from two horror authors I love.  My mugs pay homage to different tropes of tiki mug history, and this one will be no different. I have a list of about 20 projects for the future, and this mug is actually the 4th on my original list (just some other projects got in the way!)  My original list was The Horror In Clay Cthulhu tiki mug, the Innsmouth Fogcutter, the Cask of Amontillado, then…this mug. So hopefully people like it, because I’m very excited to finally get it out of my brain.


MAS -What first led you on this path? Did you go through any other expressive media before arriving at this one?

JC -I have been a graphic designer since 4th grade, when I redrew Garfield cartoons to make a classroom newspaper (this is true…I have one somewhere).  In high school I did newspaper, literary magazine, and tshirt designs.  Since then I’ve designed for just about everything from local bands to international restaurant chains. I got a BFA in Graphic design in 2005.  I love building sets, props, and throwing themed events. I also dearly love theme parks, themed restaurants, and Halloween; that adoration of immersive experiences is what made me fall in love with tiki bars.  When I went to college my dream job was to work for a company called Brainstorm Studios that designs branding and scenic art for haunted houses.  (They still exist and I still love their work).  I tried to tour the building once the one time I was in Denver…it didn’t work out (I was on a 48 hour straight press check and missed their opening hours). To get back to your question, though, I design in just about every medium to greater or lesser extent. I also give presentations on pop culture, horror, and steampunk topics at conventions, which fulfils my desire to write and teach.

MAS -Every artist tends to go through phases of expressing certain themes. What are some of the ideas that you’ve covered in the past, and what are you exploring at the moment?

JC -Most of my work is heavily research based, and pulls in whatever random ideas I’m ingesting at the time, so in a way any tiki mug collection or any project is a time capsule of what I was reading and doing. My Cask of Amontillado barrel reflects a lot of cryptography…I periodically find new ways of hiding messages in art and I’m pretty apt to do that where I can.  I took a trip to the Pacific Northwest a few years ago, designed a whole unreleased mug around that experience.  I’m a big fan of pinup art, and lowbrow artists, and you can definitely see some of that influence. Also, I love larger-than-life personalities you tended to see on local tv in the 70’s and 80’s, or from horror or radio hosts, so especially if you watch promo videos I’ve done for various projects you can see me being various flavours of gleeful capering jackass.


MAS -Do you get any sense of relief through your work? What kind of emotional release is there?

JC -I can finally get the damn idea out of my head. Doesn’t matter what it is, they get stuck in there like a ball of worms…or tentacles….and just loop around. When there are too many on a certain topic I have to work them out or it’s just chaos…I’ll be writing my todo list around the house and putting monsters and fangs and tiki on things. Or I’ll come home saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if we made a mug out of the lantern from a gravedigger” and my wife will say, “Where’s our daughter?” (Not really, but I’ll totally go to the store for two things and come back with only one of some other thing). I get about two weeks of reprieve after finishing shipping a Thing before the next one starts pounding at the gate in the basement of my mind.

Cephalopod Madness

MAS -Who and what inspires you?

JC – The obvious answer is horror authors, particularly short story writers; Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King, Brian Lumley, Robert Lewis Stevenson, HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle…but I really read a ton; Sir Terry Pratchett, R.A. Salvator, Mickey Spillaine, Spider Robinson, Grady Hendrix, Hunter S. Thompson, and Sven Kirsten are some recent reads. I also dearly love the visual arts, particularly lowbrow and surrealism; Dali, Big Toe, Robt. Williams, COOP, Derek, Shag, Joe Coleman, Mark Ryden  and Megan Besmirched are some favs; along with Del Toro, Shylaman, Hitchcock, John Hughes, John Waters, Tarantino, Kubrick, and Spielberg for movies (also Burton and Kevin Smith).   As far as music, Elfman, Williams, Wendy Williams (a Clockwork Orange), Sondheim, and Don Davis for composers, with AC/DC, Guns & Roses, Metallica, Body Count, Eminem, Tori Amos, Regina Spektor, the HorrorPops, GWAR, ICP, Alice Cooper, the Jim Croce, and the Builders and the Butchers on the current playlist.  Sculpturally, anyone who makes toys, haunt props, movie monsters, or big awesome THINGS (the folks at Jelly Koe, Eekum Bookum, Rob Hawes, Red Rocket Farm, Fez-o-rama and  Steamcrow are all super nice).


MAS -What sort of reaction do you get from your nearest family/friends to your work? How does that compare to reaction from fans?

JC -Everone loves tiki; it just means different things to different people.  My family has ceased being surprised – they know me.  Friends and co-workers who find out I design tiki mugs and art always think it’s neat, are usually a little taken aback when they find out I travel and talk on panels about art and pop culture.  Fans are just awesome! I think they are a little taken aback that I’m just some guy you’d pass on the street. I owe some treasured mugs, toys, and wicked hangovers to fans I’ve met and made friends with over the years.

Where monsters dwell…

MAS -What advice would you have for people who are starting out and want to follow a similar path?

JC – Start.  Just start. Throw yourself at the ground and miss. Don’t quit your day-job, but don’t wait for the time to be right. Remember to factor in taxes, and remember to charge like you’re worth it so you can afford to do it. Always be humble.


MAS -What other projects do you have lined up?

JC -Right now I’m working on Christmas and some glaze variants of my mugs.  After the mug in February, I’m working on my first tiki bowl. We just launched (and sold out!) a 56 person Tiki Homebar bus tour in Atlanta, GA called Inuhele, so that’ll be fun. Finally, we also curate a quarterly tiki mug experience box called so I’m putting the finishing touches on art for the Dec box and working on the March box.


MAS -Lastly, bourbon or single malt?

JC -Bourbon, but aged rum for preference.


Jonathan M. Chaffin can be found on…

All photos Stephen Candy Photography

Interview by Martin Adil-Smith

The Horror In Clay