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Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Tattoos for me, one of the reasons I started to get them is because when I was in prison, when you go to prison they completely strip you of an identity. You don't even have a name anymore. You're given a number. My number was SK931. That means I was the 931st person sentenced to death in Arkansas. To the state of Arkansas I was not Damien Echols. I was inmate SK931. They take your clothes, they take your name. There were even times when I was shackled to a chair and had my head shaved against my will just to make you look like every other prisoner in the prison. They don't want any form of identity, any form of humanity. So I learned that pretty much everything can be stripped away from you except your skin. That was why I started tattooing things that were meaningful to me, bonds I shared with other people, friends, anyone from Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson. We got tattooed together to just people that were friends of mine in the tattoo shop. It's like if you have a photograph you can lose that photograph. It can be torn up. It can be disintegrated through time. But whenever you carry something on your body it's almost like you have a suit of armor made out of the things that are meaningful to you.

So a lot of the things I have on me were not only things that I shared with friends like representative of bonds that I had with other people but I started to also use talismans, sigils. What talismans are we were talking about thought forms a while ago. Well some things are really hard to visualize. If you want to put energy into manifesting something say, for example, happiness. So you don't know what will make you happy. You just know that you're not happy at this particular time in your life. You're not happy with your job but you don't know what job would make you happy. You're not happy in your relationship and you don't know exactly what sort of relationship you want to be in that would bring happiness. You can use a talisman or a sigil to take a concept like happiness and break it down into a symbolic form that will bypass the conscious mind and can be fired directly into the subconscious because it just looks like a squiggly line for the most part. It looks like an alphabet that your conscious mind doesn't read. So it bypasses all of the thought processes, goes deep into your unconscious psyche and can then work in whatever way it works down there. I don't know how some of this stuff works. I just know it does work. If you break it down into just a symbol and then put the energy, put the chi into that symbol you can manifest something that you may not necessarily be able to picture like happiness or protection or love.

I even have one of my favorite ones is probably the one on the side of my neck and what it is is a talisman that represents New York City because to me this is home. His is the second I landed here, the second I stepped off the plane I knew this was the place I wanted to live and this was the place I wanted to die. I want to be buried here. So and like I said earlier if you react to something, if you interact with something as if there's an intelligence behind it, it will react to you in the same way. So you can do the same thing with not only concepts but places. We think of for some reason people have come to think of natural places or wooded areas or deserts or whatever as being somehow more sacred or more holy than urban environments. And that's not true at all. Everything is made out of the same divine substance. So either everything and every place is sacred or none of them are. For me I choose to approach life as if they all are. So if you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind it the same way the Romans did, the same way the Greeks did then it will behave towards you the same way. So I will do things like some people in different traditions like say Native American shamanism will interact with spirits of animals. For me it's more along the lines of spirits of particular trains. You burn blue candles to communicate and link yourself to the spirit of the C train or the A train then it will respond to you as if there's an intelligence behind it. So the tattoo on my neck what I wanted to do was sort of enshrine New York City, the spirit of this place. Sort of ask for its blessing, as for its favor as I go about day to day life here.

  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."

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