Etch-a-sketch

Some believe the latest form of body art opens the mind while it scars the skin

When some people stress out, they take a bubble bath among dimly lit candles. Or strum a familiar tune on a guitar, or shoot some hoop. Then there's Colby Watkins, who lives in Austin. When the 24-year-old and his former girlfriend ended their relationship, he went to Robert-Michael and asked him to do what any good friend should do for a friend in need: cut him with a scalpel. Preferably not in a quick-slash kind of way, but by making calculated, repeated incisions in an aesthetically pleasing pattern deep enough to scar. Slowly.

Watkins, a Camel rep by night (translation: the popular guy at clubs giving cigarettes away), says undergoing scarification is his "old-school Prozac" -- Prozac because it's his way of dealing with a crazy world, and old-school because scarification is a millennia-old practice. Cut evenly and deeply enough, the incisions heal into a raised scar pattern like a colorless but visible tattoo. Taking it a step further, Watkins had ink and ashes added to his wounds so that the three Japanese characters on his right arm -- "self interest," "sky," and the number three -- acquired a gray hue, as if they'd been sketched with charcoal. The scars are courtesy of surname-less Robert-Michael, who also responds to plain old Robert, piercer and scarification artist at Atomic Tattoo in Austin. Wearing this form of body art, he says, is a way of paying homage to the people of this earth who have come before you. Which actually isn't as New Agey as it sounds.

Scarification dates back to ancient times, when the Mesoamerican Olmec culture practiced it along with tattooing, piercing (of the forehead and the genitals), and skull elongation. Still customary among tribes in Africa and Papua New Guinea, the keloid scars denote rite of passage, tribal affiliation, or status and are valued for their symbolic meaning as well as for their tactile sensuality. The Ga'anda women in Nigeria undergo a program of scarification starting at age five and extending through their lifetimes. Performed by older women, the scarring represents femininity and demonstrates a woman's determination to endure the pain of childbirth. For centuries in isolated regions of New Guinea, scarification has been a coming-of-age ritual for young men, sustained by the belief that the painful initiation severs boys' ties to their mothers and transforms them into warriors.

Wielding a scalpel and a knowledge of primitive cultures, scarification artists are cutting into their customers and calling it art.
John Anderson
Wielding a scalpel and a knowledge of primitive cultures, scarification artists are cutting into their customers and calling it art.
Bear Moidib's name fits him. The scarification artist is generous with his hugs and comforting -- once you get past his ears.
John Anderson
Bear Moidib's name fits him. The scarification artist is generous with his hugs and comforting -- once you get past his ears.

Which doesn't reveal much as to what "self-interest-sky-three" says about Colby Watkins, except that he's part of a minority of body-art enthusiasts who have found something different from the standard ink jobs and piercings. Though never popular in the United States, scarification has garnered interest over the last few years on the coasts and is now making its way inland. Tattoo and piercing shops in Dallas, Corpus Christi, and Austin offer it.

At Forbidden Fruit on Sixth Street in Austin, Bear Moidib, senior piercer, brander, and scalpel-wielder, ushers clients into his studio, which is adorned with an eclectic collection of tribal masks: Tibetan, Aztec, Maori, Brazilian, Nepalese, and Masai. In the center of the room is a chair contoured for lying down, just as in a doctor's office. Moidib snaps on latex gloves and arranges instruments on a stainless-steel tray: the sterilized scalpel, a No. 12 blade, some gauze. To the enchanting lull of Dead Can Dance, he makes incisions, a green mask covering his nose and mouth. At a quick glance, he appears as meticulous as a surgeon.

Bear's name fits him: The 43-year-old is generous with hugs, comforting in an all-encompassing manner -- once you get past the distracting presence of his ears. His lobes are stretched in the fashion of the decorated warriors of his grandmother's Yanomami tribe in Brazil. It took six and a half years to stretch them enough to encompass ebony rings the circumference of rolls of masking tape. When he removes the jewelry, his elongated lobes hang like rubber bands. He removes them only when he sleeps, for the benefit of journalists, and for golf -- because they mess with his swing.

The former electrical engineer doesn't have any scar art himself. He says he "fears getting cut" -- and this from a man with tattoos on his face. But he understands the attraction. "In this culture, there's no form of rite of passage, except for the Hispanic quinceañera or the Jewish bar mitzvah," he explains. "Those are the only two cultures here that celebrate the passage of time from a youth to a young adult. Some people want to be marked because it's their rite of passage, their way of expressing how far they've come."

The more you express, though, the thinner your wallet. Price depends on the intricacy and size of the scar pattern, he says, though he never charges more than $100. The very nature of scarring limits the complexity of the designs, since scars heal into lines thicker than the incisions that formed them.

On average, two customers a month come to Forbidden Fruit for scarification, but Moidib is confident that it will grow in popularity, just as piercing has taken off in the last five years. Demand has risen slightly ever since he first picked up a scalpel a decade ago at the request of a client who wanted his back beaded as a tribute to his Kenyan roots. Moidib inserted a small Teflon bead into each of the pocketlike incisions he had made on the man's back and sealed the wounds with superglue, which flaked off in a few days, leaving the beads intact beneath the skin. Later he carved lines that traveled down the man's back and around his waist.

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