WM3's Damien Echols on Tattoos & Tattooing
You would think after spending 18 years and 78 days on death row for a crime he never committed that Damien Echols of the West Memphis 3 would be hardened and bitter. Far from it. Affable and open, he's quick to make jokes and friends. He's got a poet's sensitivity. You can read it on his Twitter feed. And he's been immersing himself in art, from museums to his regular hangout, Sacred Tattoo & Gallery in SoHo, NYC.
At Sacred, Damien has not only been tattooed by their well respected artists but, in fact, has taken up the tattoo machine for the first time (with his blood borne pathogens certification) and is doing "X" tattoos, and occasionally his initials, which he stresses are for fun and not high art. Proceeds from the tattoos go to pay off the rest of the WM3 legal fees.There's a misconception that, with all the benefit concerts and fundraising by celebrities, the three walked out debt-free, but in fact, Damien's wife Lori had to take out two personal loans, and even on the very day they were set free, the Arkansas Attorney General called for an audit of the funds raised and slapped them with a $5,000 tax bill. So in getting tattooed by Damien you'll continue to support the WM3 cause.
Contact Sacred for details on how to make an appointment. [There may be a wait.] You can also donate any amount to the WM3 Freedom Fund.
A couple of weeks ago, Brian [Grosz] signed up to get an X from Damien on his toe (considering most of his other body parts are being covered now). Here's his blog post on that experience, which was indeed a lot of fun. I hung around and got to chat with Damien about tattooing and his own collection. Here's a bit of what we talked about:
Is this the first time you've ever tattooed?
The one I just did was my tenth tattoo. All X's and I'm not even very good at that! When Kevin [Wilson, the manager at Sacred] asked if I wanted to do this -- because we were getting tons of emails from people saying they wanted them done -- I said yes as long as he explained to them beforehand that I am not a tattoo artist. You will leave with some sort of mark on your body, but I make no claims as an artist. So as long as they come in and do it as fun, I love doing it.
Tell me about the very first tattoo you put on.
The very first one I did was on Nick [Wilcox]. He's done all these tattoos on me and so it was like why don't I do one on him. It was Kevin's idea initially. Kevin was then number two.
Kevin adds: I had to throw someone under the bus first!
How did Nick's come out?
Really good actually. But Kevin's are the best ones so far. The more I do them, the more downhill I go. [laughs] I think the reason theirs ended up the best ones was because I was laughing the whole time. Like, I stepped on the peddle accidentally and said, "Oh shit, did that go in?" That's the thing you never want to hear your tattooist say!
You're also doing your initials as well as X tattoos.
I'll do it if people want it but it's really hard for me to get them right.
Like you said, it's fun. People know that it's not a serious tattoo.
Kevin: People who email us say they just want to be a part of the process. They know the tattoos are not going to be spectacular. [Laughs]
Damien's X & initials tattooed on Kevin Wilson.
Is this something you want to do, become a tattooer?
I see a lot of people in the field, and they are real artists. When I look at someone like Paul Booth, I see something that I would work the rest of my life for just to be half as good. This is actually an art form. Back in the 70s and 80s, I remember, the only people who had tattoos were military and bikers. Now it's everybody. It's come a huge distance -- the quality of the artwork, the people who are getting it, and where they are getting it. Housewives and mothers get very visible tattoos. I wouldn't want to cheapen it.
But you are an artist yourself.
Usually not visual art. I do some visual art. These I designed myself - the talismans (points to tattoos). This is what I do, not something like portraits. I have four of these of my own design. Three on my arms and one on my chest. They're designed for different purposes. This one, for example, is for protection, the Archangel Michael. This one is for success in all ventures. And that's what it says around it in the Theban alphabet; it's also nicknamed the Witches' Alphabet. And inside is my name and the word "success" entwined. This one I actually got with Johnny Depp. It says "brother" on the outside and my name and his name in the middle of it. Mark Mahoney did it. He also did this one and this one, which means "Wind Over Heaven" from the I Ching. What this represents is, whenever you're facing huge obstacles, you don't focus on them or you'll lose heart and be defeated. Instead focus on just putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. I wrote about this in my journal log in prison. Well, they had a big concert to try and get me out and bring awareness to the case and one of the things they did was Johnny went on stage and read some of my journal entries, and the one he read was about this. So we got this tattoo because it was tying us together and also because my wife's nickname is "The Small," and this is called "The Taming Power of the Small."
Does Lori have a tattoo?
She got her first this morning!
What did she get?
She got three little birds in flight around her ankle.
You didn't do it I'm assuming.
No! She asked me at first and I said no.
Did you have tattoos going into prison?
Just little things. If you look closely here you can see it's a cover up of a girlfriend's name when I was 16 years old. It was ridiculous.
Did you hand poke it yourself?
Yeah. [Laughs] And I have other hand poked things on my leg and my chest. I was too young to actually go to a real studio.
What's the long standing attraction to tattoos for you?
For me, what it feels like is literally armor. Every time I get tattooed, I feel like I have a protective layer. Something that acts as a buffer zone between me and the world. There's a certain amount of physical pain that comes with it but for me it's very psychologically and physically comforting. There's something about it that is just completely and absolutely relaxing. People talk about how bad it hurts, but for me, it's comforting enough where I've actually dozed off while I was being tattooed. But again, it's something that protects me from the rest of the world.
Damien and I continued to chat while he tattooed Brian's toe like a pro. He's discussed his new book "Life After Death," which will be released by Penguin Books in September. In it, he describes the hell of living on Death Row and his battles with the American justice system. You can pre-order it on Amazon.com as well.
A film on the WM3 ordeal, West of Memphis, co-produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, will be released in December. Here's the trailer below.
For more on Damien, definitely check his wonderful Twitter feed.