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These days future scarification artists can apprentice with someone like Bear, but most current practitioners are self-taught. Steve Joyner of Obscurities Precision Piercing in Dallas has been cutting for almost as long as Bear has and sees quite a bit of Houston traffic. He began by experimenting. "I started doing it on a trial-and-error basis on friends, to be quite honest," he says. "Later I started going to medical courses to learn more about the skin. I was just putting two and two together."
There are no specific regulations on scarification, although Texas requires practitioners to work in a licensed tattoo studio (which seems strange to Joyner, as tattooing and scarification are hardly similar). Joyner, who is working with the state health department to write piercing regulations, would like to see tougher rules and mandatory training to prevent just anyone from wielding a scalpel (though not as stringent as some states, which outlaw the practice).
"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, like he knows something that he's not going to tell you. Teasing your attention, he communicates in low rumbles that render his words easy to miss. He wears baggy fatigue pants, and his blond dreads (definitely not his natural color, but he's not trying to hide that) sprout haphazardly over his agreeable face, which is accented by 16 piercings in his eyebrows, nose, lips and ears. Bold black tribal tattoos transverse 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 Bear's, 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 you are, 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 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 and when your body does what it naturally does: heals.
"People are using their own body for design," Joyner says of those who prefer scarification over tattoos. "They're not putting pigmentation in their skin. It's so much more permanent. It is their body, their flesh."
Or as Robert attempts to articulate: "It's pretty much bringing outside something that's already there."
Don't assume that the scarred are depressed. Unlike those with depression or victims of sexual abuse who sometimes cut themselves, people who undergo the bloody scarification process are not necessarily driven by a self-destructive force.
"When people see it they think you must be suicidal or depressed, but it's not. It's a natural thing for me," says Renee Angelica, whose recent dotted-line cutting encircling her right arm is still scabbing over. With her shaved head and glittery eyelashes reminiscent of a pixie, Renee says she was pleasantly surprised that the process didn't hurt much. She's planning more dotted lines -- around her arms, her ankles, maybe her chest -- to acquire that sewn-back-together look $agrave; la The Nightmare Before Christmas.
She's adding to her body, not hurting it, she says. When endorphins rush into the bloodstream at the first incision, the feeling of being cut is even considered therapeutic. It's what Bear calls intense, what Robert calls centering. And it's what Colby looks for to calm him through tough times. While he waits at Atomic Tattoo, his silly grin betrays his glee at the thought of getting cut, as mirthful as a kid who has finally laid eyes on Disneyland after months of obsessive anticipation.
For a while now Colby 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 says. "You can't just half-ass something like this."
Colby is ready-set-go ready, his eyes flickering, his face taut.
"It puts you through another perspective, opens you up," Colby says.
"Opening up is a cool thing," Robert adds.
"Basically it puts your body in a state of shock. It puts you in a state of mind. It's better than drugs," Colby says.
"Which is why we don't do drugs anymore," Robert confesses.
For all the scalpels, blood and pain (though "pain is all in your head," Robert insists), scarification begins unceremoniously at the copying machine. In a small, bland room at Atomic Tattoo, Robert is enlarging "air" from Essential Kanji: 2,000 Basic Japanese Characters and holding it to the empty space on Colby's right arm beneath "three" and above his elbow. When they find the best size, Robert runs the page through a carbon-copy machine to create a stencil.