Making magic on Royal Street: Mask maker creates treasures

NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) - When you walk into Massoud Dalali's shop in the 800 block of Royal Street, you'll be swept away by a wave of colors and styles. Most days, you'll find him quietly working away at his workbench in the corner.

"I started making masks at home and it evolved into a business," he says.

The home business soon turned into a successful endeavor that eventually led to the French Quarter -- where he's been making mask for more than three decades.

He was one of the last mask makers to work with ceramic and porcelain. He says that once the imports came from China, he decided to make the move to leather.

Massoud was born in Iran -- but went to school at Tulane University, where he studied architecture. Now he's an educator himself, sharing the cultural significance of Carnival season with the visitors and locals who enter his shop.

For more on Dalali's creations, and to see News with a Twist reporter Stephanie Oswald wearing one of his masks, watch this video:

You may notice there are also traditional Venetian carnival masks on display at 841 Royal Street. Those are made by a different artist -- and represent the style you would see at a Carnival celebration in Venice, Italy.

"In Venice, they have set designs that they repeat all the time. They come from the Commedia dell'Arte (a theatrical group in Italy). But for us, anything goes. In New Orleans we are not tied down to anything in particular. We are free to do anything we want and that's what I love about it!" says Massoud.

He says if he can put eyes on it, then he can create a mask with it -- and his "anything goes" attitude is obvious on the walls of his shop: You can find leaves, fish, musical instruments, dragonflies, butterflies and even octopus transformed into impressive leather masks.

Which one is his favorite?

"The one I haven't made yet, that's my favorite," says Massoud.

"Because you always challenge yourself  and you sit down and think about it and work on it and that becomes your favorite, until the next one."

Depending on the complexity of the design, each mask takes between five and 27 hours to make, and they sell for $50 to hundreds of dollars -- and even thousands, for custom-made creations.

He draws each design on leather, cuts it out, places it on a mold and cures the leather overnight. This helps the mask keep its shape. Each one-of-a-kind creation is hand-cut, hand-painted and hand-decorated, often with Swarovski crystals.

"Even if it's my work, it won't be the same mask twice," says Massoud -- and you can also be sure it's an original by looking for the Dalali signature on the back.

Celebrities, locals and tourists alike are drawn to these artistic treasures.

He says Beyonce once came into the shop and bought a slew of masks for family members to wear to her mother's birthday party. Massoud says he's not sure which one she chose for herself, but she had several to choose from.