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When some people stress out, they take a bubble bath among 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 another 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.
Colby, 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, Colby 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 Age as it sounds.
Scarification dates back to B.C. 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 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 scarification has been a coming-of-age ritual for young men in isolated regions of New Guinea, 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, 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 gained interest over the last few years on the coasts and is now making its way inland. No tattoo or piercing shops in Houston offer it; for more immediate service, you'd best be somewhere in Austin, Dallas or Corpus Christi, somewhere like Forbidden Fruit on Sixth Street in Austin.
At Forbidden Fruit, Bear Moidib, senior piercer, brander and primo scalpel-wielder, ushers clients into his studio 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. Bear 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 a meticulous surgeon.
Bear's name fits the man: The 43-year-old is generous with hugs, comforting in an all-encompassing manner, and a storehouse of knowledge -- 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 elastic rubber bands. (He does this only for sleep, 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 "fears getting cut" -- 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, Bear says, though he never charges more than $100. The very nature of scarring limits the intricacy 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 Bear 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. Bear inserted a small Teflon bead into each of the pocketlike incisions he had made on the man's back, sealing 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 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.
In the incense-filled piercing studio, Robert lathers Colby's arm with a surgical scrub then wipes it clean. If Colby were a hairy man, Robert would shave the area as well. Rubbing on the stencil, which sticks like an adhesive one-day tattoo, Robert cautiously avoids placing the character near Colby's elbow bones 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, Otto Hayden 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 Colby's cutting.
"Can you do that in one sitting?"
Robert considers the pencil sketch. "Yeah, I could." Then he disappears to the Exxon station next door for a cup of ice.
When he returns, Colby is lying on his left side in the chair, breathing slowly with eyes closed. Robert places a lined, cool-blue paper towel, the kind dentists use as bibs, beneath Colby's arm to catch the blood. He soaks another towel in the already melting ice and lets Colby in on his plan: first the three horizontal strokes, then the connecting vertical line and last the descending hook.
As Robert makes the first incision in the subcutis layer just beneath the dermis, Colby 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 cuts, Robert 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, Colby has turned his head to press his closed eyes to the inner side of his left forearm.
"You're dripping everywhere, Colby," Robert says with amusement. "How are you doing?"
"Fine. How are you doing?"
Robert chuckles. The dentist bib is soaked.
When the incisions are even and connected to Robert's satisfaction, he presses a paper towel against the wound to make a keepsake pressing for Colby, just as he has done with Colby's earlier cuttings. Then he pours concentrated ink generously over the design. Robert has been performing scarification for about a year, and Colby is his experiment in progress. The first three of Colby's cuttings were highlighted by either ink or a mixture of ink and ashes, but none of them is as dark as he would like. Colby's hoping concentrated ink will do the trick.
After Robert wipes him down with the icy towel and patches gauze over the wound, Colby's arm is still a bloody mess. Colby keeps the bib as well, ink- and blood-soaked like a warped Rorschach test.
It has been half an hour, 40 minutes maybe, or an hour. Time has been hopelessly thrown out of loop. Outside on the staircase, Colby and Otto savor a post-cutting smoke.
The scarification surpassed Otto's expectation, which initially was that of a clean, quick-snip affair in the manner of TV surgery. Forget about the one-sitting back design; he's going to start a little smaller. Colby, though, is already planning more: characters on his other arm, 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, Colby can pick at the scabs to irritate the skin. In a month the cuts will be completely healed, provided that Colby keeps his arm clean to avoid infection. By then Colby 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.
E-mail Melissa Hung at firstname.lastname@example.org.