BY KEVIN CZERWINSKI
Don’t try to pin down Rod Christiansen.
The Brooklyn resident is an artist, an actor, a singer and an Uber driver. But, if you’re trying to shoehorn him into one particular category, it will be a bit difficult. The best way to view Christiansen is as a Renaissance Man, an oft-used term bordering on cliché – but one that is apropos when discussing the man behind Kard Killer creations, one of the hottest brands in the burgeoning card-art field.
Christiansen’s work on Killer Kards is innovative, imaginative and bit out there. However, the ideas that spring from that vivid imagination – such as a skeletal Ronald Acuna, Jr. or Darth Mantle – bring baseball, and other sports, to life in a way that makes his pieces more genuine works of art than just an altered trading card.
“It can be said that I am a card artist but I don’t only produce card art,” said Christiansen, 45, who also creates one-of-a-kind hats and other apparel. “I work on bigger pieces that involve cards. I take new concepts and I am constantly trying to evolve to another place. I never settle on one thing. I spend time with new concepts and when I feel exhausted with those in my head, I move on. Now I am working on bigger pieces.
“Customer feedback dictates what I do. I use cards and put them into whatever I do and gear that toward the hobby’s collectors. My cards are a standard size and that makes it easier for a [card] collector to insert it into their collection. It’s a sneaky way for me to say you collect art as well. If you go to a card show now, there are usually tables where card artists are selling their work. The more that happens, the more it becomes normal. You grab the traditional collector and turn them into an art collector. That’s one of the big goals for me.”
The response to Christiansen’s work has been impressive. He’s one of the few artists who began creating his own cards prior to the pandemic. His popularity grew and now his commission work on a card begins at $1,000. His top price for a card bought at auction was $2,650 with several others going in the $2,500 neighborhood.
Christiansen, who also works as an art restorer, has produced hundreds of cards. Don’t, however, let his popularity or the price tag for some of his work give the wrong impression. He remains, at his core, a simple artist who has traveled a wild and wacky road over the last 20 years. That includes working as an Uber driver, which he still does, and starring in Da Republic of Brooklyn, a Spike Lee documentary based on his work and the work of others as Uber drivers.
When he’s not driving or creating, Christiansen sings in a band with weekly gigs around New York City. Additionally, he did work on movie sets before the writer’s strike brought that industry to a grinding halt. It makes for a deep and well-rounded resume, one that begins with a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology [FIT].
Christiansen worked in graphic design and animation applications after graduating before moving on to managing a pharmacy. He wasn’t happy with his life, though.
“I wasn’t being the person I had always been,” he said. “When I left that career [the pharmacy in 2014] the art came flooding back into my head and I had to get it out. It’s been about 10 years now since that happened and that happens to a lot of artists.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that he began working for Uber. It’s a position that allowed and stills allows for flexibility when Christiansen has a slow down with other projects on which he is working.
“I had been working pretty much full-time at Uber for about a year when they dropped me an e-mail asking if I could come in for an interview,” Christiansen said. “They were asking questions about my life, my art and how it all works with Uber. They had me in for a second interview and then sent me to Spike Lee’s production studio. I had no clue.
“He was there and we sat and talked for an hour on camera. They had interviewed about 4,000 Uber drivers in Brooklyn and they chose five people to do short documentaries and I was one of them because of the art and music. That video was on Netflix and had close to a million views. It went up on [the] Uber [website] and they showed my work at the time; you can see the cards I was involved with making.”
Christiansen said that the hubbub about the video began to subside after about six months and he found himself in position of needing to reinvent himself once again. He created an Instagram page, kardkiller, which he still uses – and slowly his career in the field began to grow.
He began making films with horror music depicting his work and he started to get some responses. The feedback he received spurred him to continue.
“I thought I could get more and more creative,” Christiansen said. “I took videos of myself cutting up cards and turned them into short, little films, replacing the characters from horror movies or other movies with the players on the cards. I was replacing actors with actual trading cards. People saw I was having fun with the hobby.”
Nowadays, Christiansen goes to a card shop or a show and sifts through the singles just like every other collector. He prefers the flat color of a refractor card, one that has some shine but isn’t “too busy”. He cuts the cards into “a million pieces” then assembles them onto a card, topping them off with traditional gold leaf, which he uses to put the player’s name and a serial number on the card.
The final step involves sealing the newly minted card in an epoxy resin so it won’t bend or destroy any 3-D additions he might add.
“I did a Mike Trout card once where I used a string as fishing line and put a fish on the card,” he said. “You can use other materials, but largely my cards are just cut up pieces of other cards, gold leaf and epoxy.
“I do spend quite a bit of time on cards individually. It’s never a one-day process. Each time I make one I try to make out another step, that’s my way of approaching it. I make it more difficult so I can learn something new for myself. It takes longer and longer because I keep pushing it. So, it can take 20 hours or a little over that depending on the details. I try to make it as elaborate as I can because it feels like I am going backwards if I don’t.”
Christiansen said a third of the cards he has made and requests he gets are baseball with the other sports making up the other two thirds of his work. His favorite baseball card is that of Marlins pitcher Devin Smeltzer, who was pitching for the Twins at the time Christiansen made the card. Smeltzer, who pitched a no-hitter for Miami’s Jacksonville affiliate last month, is a cancer survivor, having overcome pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma as a child.
“My friend Donny [Lopez of Donnie B Collectibles] on the West Coast and I did a project where he got 20 different artists to customize his [Smeltzer’s] Topps rookie card. He has since signed it. The proceeds from the auctions he runs on the cards get donated to Smeltzer’s charity. I’m glad to be part of that project. It’s not my most elaborate card but it is my favorite to date.”
Perhaps Christiansen’s most well-known card is his Darth Mantle, a card in which he combined Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle with Sith lord Darth Maul of Star Wars fame. Christian is a big Star Wars fan as well as a fan of the mashup.
The Acuna, Jr., by the way, was a collaboration with Isaac Coronado, who goes by the handle optimusvolts on Instagram.
“Whether I am telling stories or making individual cards or getting people involved in my collaborations, if a card speaks to me in a way, I will do it,” he said.