For 30 years Darth Vader’s shiny black helmet has symbolized cool/evil, and not many dared mess with it. But last year DKE Toys founder Dov Kelemer approached dozens of artists about using the iconic helmet as a canvas, and now an army of die-hard Star Wars fans have arrived at a huge conference room at the Los Angeles Convention Center to examine the 66 painted, modified and stylized Vader heads on display this weekend through Monday at Star Wars Celebration IV. The list of artists answering Kelemer’s call is an impressive who-who’s of underground and popular artists. Kozik covered his helmet in rusted iron and rivets. Shag took Vader tribal, with orange and black stripes and two hoop earrings. Paul Frank Sunich re-created a gimp mask in white leather. Winston Smith, best known for his Dead Kennedys artwork, covered his mask in a collage of details, and put eyes staring out of the helmet’s sockets as if someone was trapped inside.

Suckadelic’s piece got lots of “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd of costumed Jedis and Leias. He turned Vader’s helmet into a Tatooine diorama, with a tiny Luke out front working on the droids and a model of Suckadelic himself in a Boba Fett costume (which he was also wearing in real life, wandering around the convention center) holding a mini model boombox.

Tim Biskup, Gary Baseman and Ugly Doll co-creator David Horvath literally used their helmets as canvases, covering them in cartoony ghosts, monsters and bright colors. Jeff Soto and Mr. Cartoon used menacing images in dark blue and black keeping the mask’s villainy intact. Several artists used Vader as a metaphor for America, one turning it into a Statue of Liberty with a crown of spikes more threatening than any lightsaber. Dave Pressler painted an American flag on the face of the mask, leaving the hood black. Others covered their masks in bling, giant antlers and Japanese samurai regalia.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people seem to think it’s a really cool thing,” said Kelemer. He conceded that a couple of people might have been outraged for disrespecting the Dark Lord’s basic-black look. But most seemed to find the art a welcome change from the usual sci-fi convention fare of autograph signing and toy collecting. After the Vader Project wraps up at the Star Wars Celebration, all the masks will be packed up and shipped to a showing in London, then to Japan, and eventually, into the homes of wealthy collectors.

Vader mask by Joe Hahn

Many more photos of masks from The Vader Project

Many more photos of masks from The Vader Project

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.