Two Star Wars helmets at Soda City Art (Photo by Hanah Watts)
The shop is smaller than most dorm rooms.
Christopher LeBeau sits crammed in one of the corners, fiddling with a 3D printer. Rows of helmets in various states of done-ness line the shelves, and fantastical weapons line the far wall. A rescue pup named Buffy roams the little shop, bumping her nose on the nearest person, searching for a scratch behind the ear.
“I have five printers,” LeBeau said, “But these two are broken.”
Soda City Art is a small print shop in West Columbia. It does all the usuals: signs, T-shirts, banners and business cards. But Soda City Art specializes in something that cannot be found elsewhere in Columbia: 3D printed cosplay gear.
Earlier this year, a car crash into Soda City Art’s storefront, shattering the front windows. Shortly afterward, it had a break-in and robbery. Now, after months of rebuilding and readjusting, Soda City Art is celebrating its grand re-opening all October.
For the uninitiated, cosplay is a portmanteau of “costume” and “play.” It can be as simple as putting on a purple dress, a green scarf and an orange wig to be Daphne from Scooby Doo. Or it can be as complex as donning a fully functioning Iron Man suit with moving mechanical parts.
The most popular time of the year for cosplay in America is Halloween, but there has been a steady rise of year-round cosplayers.
At Soda City Art, LeBeau spends most of his time making custom builds, including a basic Iron Man helmet and a fully customized Black Panther mask with a lion’s face and antlers.
A standard Star Wars Clone trooper helmet takes around nine days to fully print. If the customer wants LeBeau to paint it as well, the entire process can take two weeks or longer.
After a print comes off the printer, it is rough, with dangling excess support pieces. LeBeau meticulously sands the piece until it is smooth, applies a primer and then paints the piece to look as if it came straight off a movie set.
“The painting, I think, is my favorite part,” LeBeau said. “I really like to paint them and make them look old, and weathered and patinaed.”
One of his favorite builds was a replica of a chainsaw from the film series Evil Dead. The chainsaw even had a built-in Bluetooth speaker so it could play the chainsaw sound effects.
“You don’t often see stuff like this around here,” said Midlands resident Emily Webb.
While she has yet to buy any cosplay gear from Soda City Art, she has bought a couple of metal pins that depict characters and scenes from films and games.
“I love my nerdy pins,” Webb said. “And it’s always super interesting to see the new stuff they’re working on.”
Globally, the cosplay costumes market was valued at $4.6 million in 2020 and is projected to reach $23 million by 2030, according to Allied Market Research.
With Soda City Art being one of the only shops of its kind in the Midlands, it has seen a lot of interest. And while cosplay gear seems like a product that would not lend itself to repeat purchases, LeBeau has seen the opposite.
“I have a decent amount of customers who have bought a lot of helmets — they collect the helmets,” LeBeau said. “And a lot of them are YouTubers, so they have a little setup behind them, and they display their helmets behind them on their YouTube channel.”
Kevin Crittenden is one of the shop’s repeat customers. After meeting LeBeau through Facebook, he bought a stormtrooper “skull” helmet.
“The shop is willing to take your ideas — no matter how big or small — and make them a reality,” Crittenden said.
Christopher LeBeau behind the counter at Soda City Art (Photo by Hanah Watts)
Star Trek insignia badges that clasp onto a shirt using a magnet (Photo by Hanah Watts)
Buffy lying on the floor at Soda City Art (Photo by Hanah Watts)
One of the prop weapons hanging on the wall (Photo by Hanah Watts)
Kevin Crittenden wearing his Stormtrooper Skull mask (Photo courtesy of Kevin Crittenden)