Its skin, withered and brown, resembles some half human, half fish mutation. Snarling teeth protrude from wrinkled lips as its shimmering brown hair dances in the wind.
Instantly a half dozen beachgoers surround the bizarre being at Ben T. Davis Beach. In
disbelief, they snap photos with cameras
and cell phones.
“What is it? Is it real?” the crowd whispers.
“Don’t you think she’s beautiful?” he asks.
You may have seen one of Cabana’s creations in the checkout line at your local grocery store. From 2002 to 2003, they graced covers of the Weekly World News six times with headlines such as, “Merman caught in South Pacific” and “Fish has human face.”
His name appears in the urban legend section of About.com, where he is dubbed a “celebrated taxidermy artist.”
Recently a Cabana piece made it onto the Tonight Show with Jay Leno during the “Stuff we found on eBay” segment. His work can also be seen on the walls of the tattoo parlor in the TLC network’s popular show Miami Ink.
But Cabana’s neighbors, near Hillsborough and Armenia avenues, might be surprised to learn the creepy mermaids are born in his garage.
In 2006, a few of them turned up in the Mexican newspaper La I. The paper reported that photos of what appeared to be dead mermaids found offshore were concerning local authorities. A few days passed before the paper realized they were just pictures of Cabana’s work.
His story starts on eBay, as many tales these days do.
Cabana was hooked.
“Something clicked and I knew I wanted to do it myself,” he said.
So for the past seven years, the 45-year-old bachelor has made the mermaids his signature work.
It’s about art, yes, but it’s also what Cabana believes: Mermaids could have been real at one time. It is more likely, he says, that humans evolved from the sea than from apes.
Sincere, not sultry
Science aside, Cabana’s struggle is to turn his work into respected art.
He has participated in only one exhibition, “Stalking the Chimera,” a cryptozoology-themed show in 2006 at Flight 19 gallery near downtown.
“I had heard the legend of him through carnival people, and a couple of other people mentioned how he makes these sea monsters,” the gallery’s program director Joe Griffith said last week. “I think he’s right up there with everything I’ve seen in terms of skill level.”
Cabana’s style of art has been used in sideshow carnivals since the 18th century, with the most famous being P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid. The piece is believed to have been created around 1810 by a Japanese fisherman.
Cabana said his mermaids are different, composed primarily from fish remains that he collects from a market across the bay in Redington Shores.
He won’t reveal his techniques, explaining only that he typically starts with a human skeleton replica or animal and fish bones, and molds the mermaid with whatever parts and skins he gets from the market.
Occasionally he’ll use baboon skin and parts, as they come with small humanlike hands and miniature skulls. A vendor in Africa sells him the parts, he says.
The result is frightening, yet angelic, similar to something from the 1950s science fiction film Creature From the Black Lagoon, but far from Disney’s red-headed beauty Ariel or Weeki Wachee’s gorgeous live mermaids.
Why make them so sinister, so scary?
“If I was doing beautiful mermaids, it would be cheesy,” he said. “My goal isn’t to make toys or dolls.”
Once he has finished a piece, Cabana creates a brief story and sells it on eBay or his Web site (www.thefeejeemermaid.com).
According to one Cabana tale:
While exploring desolate areas of Fort De Soto Beach at the southern end of St. Petersburg, here in Florida, I came upon a rather startling discovery. Before me lay what at first appeared to be a very large strange fish. Shocked and amazed, I realized I had found another mermaid or sea monster.
He doesn’t necessarily see this as lying, though. “I’m not trying to fool people,” he said. “It’s not what I do. Most of the time these stories are part of my art.”
Admirers, many who come across Cabana mermaids by way of the Internet, send e-mails and letters from the Philippines, France, South America, he said.
Some e-mails are outlandish, like the guy who wants to make his own mermaid by splicing fish and human genes. Most tend to ask just one thing:
Are mermaids real?
Cabana’s reply is something like, “My mermaids are real in the sense that they are made from real fish skins, fins and teeth.”
Real or fake, the mermaids will cost you. The nearly 5-foot creation Marina, the one he positioned on a recent day at Ben T. Davis, costs about $10,000 — although Cabana is always willing to negotiate.
Also on sale last week were Sea Faerie, a 16-inch winged-mermaid wall hanging for $3,000, and Human Fish, a humanlike head with fang teeth and a fish body for $2,000.
Guess what I saw?
Back at the beach, onlookers gawk at the thing in the water.
A man from San Francisco, wasting time before heading to the airport, sees Cabana put the mermaid by the shore and decides to inspect.
He pulls out his camera to take a video. He’ll show it to his kids and post it on YouTube. Cabana asks him to label the footage, Mermaid Found, but to avoid using Cabana’s name. He likes to remain mysterious (he wouldn’t even allow his picture to be taken for this story).
Nearby, a woman from Buffalo, N.Y., abandons the spot where she had been sunning. She shakes her head and leans in for a closer look.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” she says.
A man from California, a woman from New York: Two people on opposite ends of the country who’ll go home and tell others about that thing they saw on a beach in Tampa.
The tale of Juan Cabana and the Fiji mermaids lives on.