Words by Christian Mott
I arrive at the Herman household as the sun sets behind the trees. A white safety-gate blocks the front yard from the semi-circle driveway and the busy highway just beyond. They invite me into their home, and we break bread together in the form of vegan tacos.
Original artwork decorates the walls and family photos hang above a string of Halloween-ghost lights. Amanda sits across the table, and Sean sips kombucha as his rescue-dog falls asleep in his lap. We discuss tattoos, religion, punk rock, love, life, and death—and of course folklore. Their daughter rides a broomstick around the room. “I’m a witch.”
Sean says, “I don’t think witches really ride brooms.”
Together Sean and Amanda have created a collective of Southern folklore and legend. Think of it like the Brothers Grimm collecting fairytales throughout Europe, only these stories are local. They are part of our history, our home—and the best part is most of them are true.
The collective is known as The Serpents of Bienville, named after the historical founder of Mobile and New Orleans and his not-so-mythological snake tattoos. Sean contributes to the Serpents project in the form of summaries for some of the most well-known local legends as well as hand-stippled, visual renditions in ink. Amanda writes short stories specializing in ghosts, the strange, and all the macabre quirks that make our Southern history so dark and so rich. Together they lead the project and welcome new contributions by many others to the collection—myself included.
Sean and Amanda joke that he went to church eight times a week while she grew up Catholic, did things, and had fun. But Sean’s backstory isn’t quite so dull as the joke might have us believe.
He grew up in the alternative-Christian subculture, and he says it was punk rock that has shaped his entire worldview. It’s the thread that has woven itself throughout his life, from getting heavily tattooed during his days of youth ministry—which led to preaching across the country—to his career as a tattooist, which took him even farther around the world. “Calgary, Canada, and Gothenburg, Sweden were my favorite places because they were really similar. They were cool, but they reminded me of what I liked about the South. Because it was smaller, the community was pretty tight-knit.”
He ended up in San Diego, certain that that was where he needed to be, until his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Sean then moved back to the South, and while admitting the cliche, confessed he discovered that it was what he’d been searching for all along.
“It’s got the culture, it’s got the stories, it’s got the genuine need for something there. For kids, for teenagers, for people to see that it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be into these things. If you’re not the status quo, it doesn’t mean everybody hates you.”
“We’re all weird,” Amanda says. “That’s the whole point. There is no normal, except boring, and maybe fear. I don’t think fear itself is normal, but fear creates the idea of normality.”
“A lot of these older people have awesome stories and will fully accept you and be awesome to you as long as you treat them with respect,” Sean says. “Treat them like they do know something.”
He told me an anecdote about some ladies at the Daphne History Museum. He met with them on official Serpents business and they treated him, in his words, “like gold.” When he tried to thank them for being kind despite his appearance—that is, covered in tattoos—they had no idea what he was talking about. One lady told him a story of her father coming home from WWII with a tattoo on his arm that had been his only reminder of home. She said it was her favorite thing about him. Then Sean realized: out of his fear of being judged, he’d been the one judging them.
“If you’re gonna judge somebody then fine, judge them. And then be really nice to them, be open and listen. Because they’re gonna prove you wrong within minutes.”
Another occurrence involved him confronting a childhood bully in the street. The only problem was he had just returned home and both of them were now adults—but the bully had grown up to be a pretty decent guy. “I had a lot of schooling when I got back. A lot. I had to open my eyes and realize that Southern culture is not what I made it out to be. I was fortunate.”
During his travels Sean made friends all over the world, and nobody believed he was really from Alabama. When he moved home, a lot of them wanted to come visit and see the South for themselves. So he drove them around and told them the history of the area, including all the ghost stories. He kept asking, researching, and finding new places to show off and eventually became obsessed with the knowledge.
He didn’t know what he wanted to do with these tales, but he collected them. “Old stories, old pictures. Anything historical, just saving it.” He has over 250 books on local history, folklore, and ghost stories.
And when he finally decided to draw them, the first seed for Serpents was planted.
It began as an idea for a book. Sean had thirteen stories he wanted to write and illustrate, but the more he put into the idea, the more it grew. Soon with Amanda’s help, it became the collective we see today.
Bienville exhibit at the Fort Conde Museum connected all the dots. Bienville was tattooed by Native Americans; he was covered in snakFolklore is not only ingrained in Sean but in his marriage with Amanda and their relationship in general. When they first started dating, his favorite thing to do was drive her around and tell her all the local stories. Now Amanda is one of the key aspect of Serpents.
“I thought, there’s nothing to do here,” Amanda says, “This place is boring. And then having discovered all these different stories and folktales and true history...It’s just like Really? That’s crazy. Stuff that you see and don’t think much about...Did you know there’s a guy buried under Highway 98 over here? They changed it from a two-lane to a four-lane, and they just moved his grave marker to the back of a neighborhood. They didn’t move his body. They just paved right over his body.”
Sean says Amanda changed everything; I’ve probably heard him say a hundred times now, “You can’t have cough syrup without sugar. When it comes to Serpents I’m the cough syrup, Amanda is the sugar.”
Amanda shrugs, “The stories I write are the fun stuff. It was just me doing what I like doing, which is writing stories. I want to know why people did what they did. I like to present what-ifs.”
Amanda sought out to write a story a day and post it to the Serpents blog; for the most part, she has succeeded. “A lot of things I’ve found through other means. I’ll pick up a book of history or strange stories, and they’ll have a sentence in one of the stories that I’ll find interesting, and I’ll research that. It turns into this hole I get sucked into, but that’s the fun part about it, that it’s not so readily available.”
The name, and the focal point for the project in general, came to Sean when he was on the search for something else entirely—a name for his new tattoo shop in Daphne (now The Bell Rose Tattoo & Piercing). He payed a visit to Fort Conde and noticed the Julian Rayford 1974 sculpture of the Native American next to the hand with the snake wrapped around it. That image paired with the es from the neck down.
“I thought This is too crazy to not share,” Sean says. “How is this not everywhere? This story is way too obvious. This should be everywhere.”
He researched it, and found multiple sources backing it. Bienville was a teenager when he came to the Americas with his older brother. They went through discovering new places and naming them, although he wasn’t the only Frenchmen to do so. Bienville became obsessed with Native American culture and the tattooing that came with it. “So, he’s wanting to get tattooed as a teenager because he’s into the alternative culture that he discovered.”
Suddenly Sean’s viewpoint of this Frenchman with a powdered wig completely changed, and not just of the man himself but the legacy he left behind, altering Sean’s view of Mobile.
Sean found that many of Bienville’s plans failed historically, and he returned to France a sick and broken man. Bienville felt so much like a failure that he regretting his time here, believing his greatest plans were laid to waste.
“Is that what’s in this community?” Sean says. “Is that our curse? Everybody always says, ‘Those are some of my best laid plans gone to ruins.’ That could be, for some people, a mantra here—it’s what’s said. When we first started Serpents, I though Yeah, I can see that. But then I realized the problem is that everybody accepts that. Everybody says, ‘That’s just Mobile.’ But wait, why don’t we just change it? We can change this.”
They first opened The Serpents of Bienville Gallery and Museum in Downtown Daphne but will soon be relocating to Downtown Mobile in a spot more or less across the street from Boyington Oak, the site of a local legend where the tree is said to have grown from a dead man’s body to prove his innocence. “It’s so poetic and weird and dark,” Amanda says. “But I feel like that’s how this area is. It’s very interesting. There’s beauty in it, but you have to look for it. I’m just trying to make it easy for everybody.”
Sean’s mom died of cancer, and he was the one who had to make the call to pull the plug. But then he found himself comforting the nurses, who had come to know her and felt like they’d failed her. He saw it as an opportunity to talk with them and show them love. “When you open your eyes and get over yourself, it becomes easy to make a positive impact.”
What is important to Sean and Amanda isn’t so much what happened but why it happened and the meaning behind it. They say it all starts with honesty, with the connection the story has to the person reading it.