Neil Preston Autry has a tattoo on his upper right arm of Colonel Sanders. There’s blood pouring out of the fried chicken magnate’s eyes.
“That one, I guess, gets the most attention,” says Autry, 36. “When I first got it, people were like, ‘Why do you have that? Are you a vegan?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not a vegan. I just really like Colonel Sanders.’
“Really, it’s just there because of my adoration for his determination. The guy had multiple businesses that failed, and he didn’t give up. He just kept going and kept going, and then he finally became successful. I feel like I can relate to that.”
Though he doesn’t much look like it — the Colonel tattoo is one of countless that cover his body, and he’s often found in a ripped sleeveless shirt and jeans — Autry’s a businessman himself. He owns a counterculture apparel company called Western Evil, which he started in 2010, and sells his stuff online and around the country at places like punk music festivals, oddities and curiosities expos, and tattoo conventions.
Western Evil (tagline: Enjoy Our Filth) specializes in what you might call “murder chic.” Interested in purchasing a dress plastered with the mugshots of serial killers like Aileen Wuornos, H.H. Holmes, and David Berkowitz? How about a “Mickey Manson Family” shirt with the face of infamous cult leader Charles Manson imposed on the body of Mickey Mouse? Western Evil’s got you covered.
“I’m a one-man show,” he says. “The whole downstairs is basically my production shop. There are three living rooms in my house, and I turned one of them into my screen-printing shop, and then one of the downstairs bedrooms is my shipping office. I tour, I do these pop-up shops, I design, I ship, I print, I field the emails and stuff like that. I do everything myself.”
That one-man show has gotten a lot more attention since its creator got on TikTok a year ago. As Western Evil has reached a larger audience, it’s meant more sales, more wild comments from viewers, and more questions about the morals of making serial killer merch.
Given Western Evil’s fixation on crime and death, it makes a certain amount of sense that Autry started his career as a member of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. He entered the force at 22 and was asked by the Vice squad to participate in undercover operations due to his young appearance, he says.
“There’s a picture in the newspaper of me swearing in. I’m front and center of this photo and I literally look like I’m a 12-year-old in a suit that’s too big for me. [They were like], ‘We really want you to pursue this and come into Vice. We’d love to use you, you look like a child, this’ll be great.’
“In my mind, I’m like, ‘This is going to be 21 Jump Street as fuck.’ But not long into it, I quit. I hated it. I hated being there. I hated the people I was around. I hated the attitude, the chip on the shoulder of a lot of people.”
Next came a stint working security for the Indianapolis Colts, during which time he and two friends started talking about opening a screen-printing business. One of the friends was going through a hard time, and ended up taking his own life, Autry recalls. It put some things in perspective.
“After that I was like, ‘OK, I have to do this. I’m not going to drag my feet and work shitty jobs that I hate.’ And then almost immediately after that, I got laid off from the Indianapolis Colts, and I collected unemployment, and with that unemployment I started Western Evil.”
A lot of Autry’s initial designs were based on horror movies and pop culture, with a few true crime-themed items thrown in the mix. He made the rounds of horror-movie conventions selling his work, but he began to notice that the market for horror-themed clothing and accessories was saturated.
“I started to realize that more and more companies were kind of popping up doing the same thing I was doing, and I was making less and less money,” he says. “And so I kind of leaned into doing more of my true crime designs, and I realized that my sales got better because no one else was doing it at the time.”
Autry’s interest in true crime had been simmering for years.
“There was an evolution into it,” he says. “I think every kid as a teenager has the interest in Charles Manson and all these serial killers. It kind of ties in with punk rock — you have Suicidal Tendencies having a picture of Charles Manson wearing a Suicidal Tendencies hat. It just is part of that kind of cult-rock culture. That’s kind of where I took interest in it to begin with.
“The idea of always wanting to be a cop and having the little detective kind of attitude growing up as a teenager made me curious about things that had been unsolved, like the Black Dahlia murder and the Zodiac killer,” Autry continues. “But then when I was a cop, and I was going through criminology courses, and criminal psychology courses they were teaching us in the police academy, I got really interested in it that way, too.”
In case you’re wondering how Autry can get away with making his designs: Mugshots are in the public domain, and prisoners can’t profit off of their image. But the way he uses those photos are his copyrighted designs.
“The pattern is something that I did,” he says. “So even though those images are in the public domain, the way it was assembled and arranged was done by me, and so that pattern is unique and copyrighted as my intellectual property and my art.”
A clothing company that sells a Black Flag-style shirt with crime scene photos of the Black Dahlia murder and a reproduction of the “Burn Bundy Burn” shirt that merchants hawked outside of Ted Bundy’s execution raises a question that Autry is well familiar with:
Where is the line between an interest in true crime and glorifying murderers?
“I feel like as soon as I started, I always kind of coined [my aesthetic] as exploitation,” Autry says, referencing the film genre. (As it’s explained in the book Exploitation Film by Ernest Mathjis, “exploitation film is a type of cinema, often cheaply produced, that is designed to create a fast profit by referring to, or exploiting, contemporary cultural anxieties. Examples include films about drug use, nudity and striptease, sexual deviance, rebellious youths or gangs, violence in society, xenophobia, and fear of terrorism or alien invasions.”)
“So exploitation is, I guess, glorifying something to a degree, but at the same time I’m not trying to tell you that Ted Bundy is sexy. I’m not trying to tell you that Richard Ramirez is hot. A lot of my products have pictures of their mugshots. It’s them being caught, being executed,” Autry says. “So if you want to say that I’m glorifying it, I guess so, but there is also the awareness that these people did do things that were wrong and they paid the price for it, or are paying the price for it.”
The true crime renaissance of the last several years has made it a little more “normal” to be interested in serial killers, Autry says. Podcasts like My Favorite Murder, Netflix shows like The Staircase, and even news stories like the capture of the Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo draw huge attention from the public.
As media like this goes mainstream, an interest in true crime “becomes more and more accepted, and people who are interested in the criminal psychology of it become less and less chastised and judged over it,” Autry says.
In the year of our Lord 2021, no interview is complete without asking the subject what they did during the coronavirus pandemic.
In Autry’s case, he got on TikTok.
In early 2020, he was already toying with the idea of getting on the popular video app just to keep himself distracted after a series of breakups. Then, it became a matter of necessity.
“The pandemic hit, and you go from doing shows where you’re making thousands of dollars in three days to having zero income. My online presence was never that strong because I never pushed online — I was always doing these shows. I had to figure out a way to pay my rent.”
He’s @neil_diemond on TikTok, where he’s got almost 90,000 followers. He’s not unaware that a lot of his audience is there for his bad-boy good looks and kinda-sinister, kinda-charming persona.
“As vain and stupid as this sounds, I read some article saying that TikTok was pushing creators that were attractive. And I was like, ‘Hey, I kind of fit that mold. Let’s see if I can sell some shit with my stupid face.’ So that’s what I did: I got on there and I started making videos. I played the part of, like, the thirst trap kid and I started peppering in the things that I actually do, of screen-printing and art design, and that I make these T-shirts and I run this label, and it worked. It worked fast. I couldn’t keep up with it.”
Autry’s videos are sometimes funny, sometimes topical (about the Capitol riot, say, or true crime trivia), and yes, sometimes a little thirst-trappish — which had some unintended consequences.
“People don’t know how to act right now. People hadn’t had face-to-face interactions for months, and they have the anonymity of the internet, and they’re saying crazy crap that you wouldn’t say to someone face to face. The messages and emails that I got, they were disturbing. People telling me that they would get naked in front of children to get my attention, or they want me to rip out their heart and have sex with their heart in front of them and spit on them. And I’m just like, “Oh, my God.’ It gets a little much.”
With the pandemic looking like it’s on its way out, Autry is back to traveling often for shows (Werebear comes with him sometimes, and other times Autry leaves him with his mother, who lives near Sedona). He continues to pursue his hobby of photography. He is actually a vegan now. He’s currently single.
As relates to Western Evil, he says, “I’ve kind of been thinking about doing a brick-and-mortar store, but I don’t even know where to begin. In the first year being out here, everything kind of closed, so I’m not sure how to even set up anything, because I just didn’t leave the house for an entire year.
“But I’m constantly evolving and doing new stuff. You have to. You gotta stay relevant. You got to stay ahead of the competition and the curve, because there’s more and more people popping up who are doing the same thing that I’m doing. They’re not doing it as good, but they’re still trying.”
One idea he’s toying with: making a limited series of John Wayne Gacy shirts using ink made from dirt from Gacy’s yard.
“My original plan was to chop up [the dirt] into a powder and then mix into ink and screen-print exactly 33 shirts for every victim that he was charged for,” Autry says. “And I’ve not done it because I’m just not willing to part with it yet. But eventually I will.”