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Etch-a-sketch

Wielding a scalpel and a knowledge of primitive cultures, scarification artists are cutting into their customers and calling it art.
John Anderson

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.

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.

These days future scarification artists can apprentice with someone like Moidib, but most current practitioners are self-taught, often learning by trial and error. Steve Joyner of Obscurities Precision Piercing, located off Cedar Springs in Oak Lawn, has been cutting for more than five years, learning his craft when he was in the Army while sidelining as a body piercer. A friend asked him to scar his arm with a series of triangles. "It had symbolic significance for him," Joyner recalls. Although reluctant, he agreed to do it under the supervision of an orthopedic surgeon. "Later I started going to medical courses to learn more about the skin. I was just putting two and two together."

Joyner, a 29-year-old Native American, has always been interested in primitive cultures and their rituals and sees his scarification work as an extension of that interest. Something of a multicultural man himself, Joyner has tattoos, brandings, and piercings representing at least 14 other cultures, yet he refuses to scar himself. "I'm just not willing to go that far," he says.

But he says that those people he sees at Obscurities who want to get scarred (he cuts about one a month) fall into four categories. The majority who enter that part of the tattoo parlor marked "Lab" tell him they want to scar themselves as a means of personal expression. ("Rather than use ink and color, they want their body to be the art," Joyner says.) Others want scarification as a rite of passage or a cultural ritual. ("A man came into the store and wanted to commemorate his divorce...A schoolteacher who was Cherokee wanted the back of her ear marked because that showed her faithfulness to her husband in the Cherokee tribe.") Yet others see it as a mental rush. ("The endorphin and adrenaline release that it causes is the most intense high you can get naturally.") Then there's the leather-and-bondage crowd who use it as part of their sexual play. ("People mark themselves with other people's initials to show who owns who.")

Even though there are only four cutters in the Dallas area, Joyner is concerned that they practice their art form in an ethical fashion. He regrets that in Texas there are no specific regulations for those who engage in scarification other than requiring practitioners to work in a licensed tattoo studio -- a fact that seems strange to him, since tattooing and scarification are hardly similar. He is working with the state health department to write piercing regulations, and would also like to see tougher rules (though not as stringent as some states, which outlaw the practice altogether) and mandatory training to prevent just anyone from wielding a scalpel.

"I can cut you very deeply, very quickly with a scalpel," he points out.


Twenty-seven-year-old Robert-Michael possesses a constant, subtle smile, as if he knows something that he's not going to tell you. Teasing your attention, he communicates in low rumbles that make him easy to misunderstand. He wears baggy fatigue pants, and his blond dreads (definitely not his natural color) sprout haphazardly over his agreeable face, which is accented by 16 piercings in his eyebrows, nose, lips, and ears. Bold black tribal tattoos traverse his back, arms, and chest. Fascinated with body art at a young age, Robert scarred his own arm when he was 13 and exchanged brandings with a friend at 16. On his left forearm is a work of Moidib, a pattern of lines and arrows derived from traditional South African designs. Rugged yet smooth to the touch, the pattern has faded in the year since it was first cut. "I don't scar well; I'm white," he says with a grin.

With scarification, the darker your skin, the better you'll form scars and keloids. (Note the brandings sported by some black fraternity men.) So it makes sense that scarification is more prominent in cultures closer to the equator, where people tend to be melanin-rich, defeating the visibility of tattoos.

 

Why, then, would the light-skinned bother getting scarred? The answer, Robert-Michael says, lies as much in the process of scarification as in the outcome, in the sense that this is a test in transcending pain. It is somewhere in the moment before your flesh senses the cold blade descending, when the whole of you centers on that one place where your body will be forced to heal itself.

Although it might seem that those who scar themselves would be clinically depressed or bent on self-mutilation, like some victims of sexual abuse who cut themselves, Robert-Michael sees this as more a means of self-expression and identity. "It's pretty much bringing outside something that's already there."

Renee Angelica, an Austin teenager, has recently encircled her arm with dotted line cuttings and is still scabbing over. "When people see it, they think you must be suicidal or depressed, but it's not," she says. "It's a natural thing for me." And Angelica was pleasantly surprised that the process didn't hurt her all that much. She's planning more dotted lines -- around her arms, her ankles, maybe her chest -- to acquire that sewn-back-together look a la The Nightmare Before Christmas.

She claims she is adding to her body, not harming it. When endorphins rush into the bloodstream at the first incision, the feeling of being cut is even considered therapeutic. It's what Joyner calls flying, and what Robert-Michael calls centering. And it's what Colby Watkins looks for to calm him through tough times. While he waits at Atomic Tattoo, his grin betrays his glee at the thought of getting cut.

For a while now Watkins has been mulling over his new addition: the Japanese character for "air." Scarification, after all, is not something you jump into on a whim. "Everyone who has it done is prepared, because it's not an art form that can be taken off," Robert-Michael says. "You can't just half-ass something like this."

Watkins readies himself at the Atomic Tattoo, his eyes flickering, his face taut, his body wiry in his black T-shirt slashed open on each side. "It puts you through another perspective," he says, "opens you up."

"Opening up is a cool thing," Robert-Michael adds.


For all the scalpels, blood, and pain, scarification begins unceremoniously at the copy machine. In a small, bland room of the Austin tattoo parlor, Robert-Michael is enlarging "air" from Essential Kanji: 2,000 Basic Japanese Characters and holding it to the empty space on Watkins' right arm beneath "three" and above his elbow. When they find the best size, Robert-Michael runs the page through a carbon-copy machine to create a stencil.

In the incense-filled piercing studio, the scar artist lathers Watkins' arm with a surgical scrub then wipes it clean. If Watkins were a hairy man, Robert-Michael would shave the area as well. Rubbing on the stencil, which sticks like an adhesive one-day tattoo, he cautiously avoids placing the character near Watkins' bony elbow, since "air" has a swift descending stroke. The last thing he wants to do is trigger the funny bone with a scalpel in his hand.

As the autoclave hums softly, another customer walks in with a drawing of a scar pattern he'd like on his back, a large, complicated Eskimo design of an eagle he has been researching all morning. A scarification virgin, he's staying to witness Watkins' cutting.

"Can you do that in one sitting?" asks the prospective customer.

Robert-Michael considers the pencil sketch. "Yeah, I could." Then he disappears to the Exxon station next door for a cup of ice.

When he returns, Watkins is lying on his left side in the chair, breathing slowly with eyes closed. Robert-Michael places a lined, cool-blue paper towel, the kind dentists use as bibs, beneath Watkins' arm to catch the blood. He soaks another towel in the already melting ice and lets Watkins in on his plan: first the three horizontal strokes, then the connecting vertical line, and last the descending hook.

As Robert-Michael makes the first incision in the subcutis layer just beneath the dermis, Watkins grips his leg with his right hand and exhales deeply as if he were doing Lamaze. Blood wells up instantly in the fresh grooves.

After the initial etchings, the cutter goes over each incision again with the scalpel to ensure they are even, so the character doesn't turn out blotchy or fragmented. He stops often to wipe the steady bleeding, changing into a new pair of gloves at least eight times. Meanwhile, Watkins has turned his head to press his closed eyes to the inner side of his left forearm.

 

"You're dripping everywhere, Colby," Robert-Michael says with amusement. "How are you doing?"

"Fine. How are you doing?"

Robert-Michael chuckles. The dentist bib is all but soaked.

When the incisions are even and connected to the artist's satisfaction, he presses a paper towel against the wound to make a keepsake pressing for Watkins, just as he has done with his earlier cuttings. Then Robert-Michael pours concentrated ink generously over the design. He has been performing scarification for about a year, and Watkins is his experiment in progress. The first three of Watkins' cuttings were highlighted by either ink or a mixture of ink and ashes, but none of them is as dark as Watkins would like. He is hoping concentrated ink will do the trick.

After Robert-Michael wipes him down with the icy towel and patches gauze over the wound, Watkins' arm is still a bloody mess.

It has been half an hour, 40 minutes maybe, or an hour. Time has been hopelessly thrown out of loop. Outside on the staircase to the shop, Watkins and the prospective customer who was observing are savoring a post-cutting smoke.

The scarification was bloodier than the customer had expected; he figured it would be a clean, quick-snip affair in the manner of TV surgery. Forget about the one-sitting back design; he would start a little smaller. Watkins, though, is already planning more: characters on his other arm and on his thighs, and "love," which consists of 13 strokes, on his back.

He's feeling "fuzzy" right now. The cutting induced a floating sensation, he says, a rush that fades to something similar to an alcohol buzz. "I'll probably be in la-la land for the rest of the day," he says with a smile.

By the next day the carved lines already will have begun to scab over. To ensure that scar tissue forms, Watkins can pick at the scabs to irritate the skin. In a month the cuts will be completely healed, provided that Watkins keeps his arm clean to avoid infection. By then, he will probably be back for more. He's not just an experiment in progress, but an ongoing canvas of art, a remaking of himself in a way that nature never intended, or at least never dared.


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