Q&A: Damien Echols
For nearly two decades, Prisoner SK 931 spent his life in jail for a crime he has adamantly maintained he didn’t commit. In 1994, at the age of 19, Damien Echols, the 931st person to be sentenced to death in the state of Arkansas, was tried and convicted for the murder of three young boys from West Memphis, AR. The second-graders were found naked and hog-tied in a drainage ditch. Echols, a poor, white teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, along with his codefendants, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, were instant targets for their “dark” taste in music, fashion, and fiction. Because of DNA advancements and new physical evidence in the mid-’90s, the case—known as the “West Memphis Three”—received a lot of public attention. Celebrities such as Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks got behind Echols and his codefendants and raised funds for the defense team and appeal process.
Echols spent nearly 18 years on death row. Prisoner SK 931 and his codefendants were released from prison in August 2011 due to lack of evidence. They entered Alford pleas, which allowed them to assert their innocence while acknowledging there was enough evidence to convict them. Essentially they are free but not fully exonerated.
Now 37, Echols, released from death row just a year ago, is trying to get his life back together. He spoke to INKED the same day he got his 17th tattoo (a dragon on his right biceps) at Sacred Tattoo in New York City. He’s candid, kind, and still has a sense of humor—something you’d never presume to expect from a person who spent the better part of two decades on death row. Echols is happy to talk about injustice, his wife, Lorri Davis, whom he met while in prison, and his non-prison tattoos.
INKED: What was a typical day in prison?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: The last 10 years that I was there, I was in complete solitary confinement—24 hours a day, seven days a week. They say that you get an hour a day outside your cell, but what they call “outside” is really another cell. I didn’t have sunlight for about a decade. It destroyed my eyes—my vision is just horrendously messed up. A typical day in prison starts at 2:30 a.m. when they serve breakfast; you get lunch at 9:30, and you get the last meal of the day at 2:30 p.m. You have to find a way to make time for yourself because time doesn’t exist in there. I would do anywhere from five to seven hours of meditation in a day.
INKED: What’s a typical day now?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: I wake up anywhere from 6 o’clock in the morning to 10 in the morning. It’s sort of just unregulated … I just let my body wake up when it wakes up. I work out a lot—only now I have nice equipment to do it with. [My wife] Lorri and I spend a lot of time together. I do a lot of exploring too. Whether it’s just going out and walking up and down the street or going to the bank and figuring out how to fill out a deposit slip. Right now, I’m just sort of exploring the world.
INKED: Were you into tattoos in prison?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: No. I stayed away from them like the plague because there’s no sort of sterilization process or anything. You’d get a tattoo and then the next thing you know, you’re dying of hepatitis and your liver’s shutting down. They wouldn’t allow tattoo magazines in the prison because they tried to prevent people from doing that by all means.
INKED: Well, you’ve gotten quite a bit of ink since you were released. Did you always know you wanted tattoos?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: My first one I got when I was a teenager and unfortunately it was one of those dumb mistakes people make when they’re young: tattoo a boyfriend or a girlfriend’s name on ’em. And that’s what I had done. I had an old teenage girlfriend’s name tattooed on me. As soon as I got out, the first new one I got was with Johnny Depp. We went and got one together [from Mark Mahoney at Shamrock Social Club in West Hollywood]. I did it as sort of a patch over to cover that old name up. And then I realized from that very first one that I was hooked because, to me, what tattoos feel like—really, I mean this literally—it feels like you’re putting on armor.
DAMIEN ECHOLS: Nobody can take it away from you. I’ve been in an environment where everything can be stripped away from you, down to your clothes, your hair. They take everything from you. And the thing that they can’t take is the ink on your skin. It makes you feel, I don’t know, a little less nervous about the world. They’re very soothing to me. Lorri went with me one time. She had been out shopping and she walked into the shop while I’m getting a tattoo and she just looked at me for a minute and says, “I’ve never seen you happier than when you’re getting tattooed.”
INKED: What did you and Depp get on that first trip to the studio?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: We have three that we’ve done together now. That very first one was a hexagram from I Ching, the Book of Changes. When I was in prison, I used to keep a journal every day, and one of the things I wrote about was this hexagram. And Johnny read it onstage when he did the Voices for Justice concert. What it’s about is that whenever you’re facing huge obstacles in your life, don’t focus on the huge obstacles or else you’ll lose heart and be defeated. Instead, just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. It’s by doing that that you eventually defeat the huge obstacles. It’s nicknamed The Taming Power of the Small. So we got it because it was not only what I was doing and it was the journal entry he read, but also Lorri, my wife, her nickname is “The Small.” So it was something that sort of tied all three of us together.
INKED: What were the other tattoos you guys got together?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: One was a skeleton key because for me, when I was a child, I thought that a skeleton key could literally open any door. So that if you ever got your hands on a skeleton key, you’d be almost unstoppable—no barrier could hold you back. It seemed like an incredibly magical thing. For me now, that’s still what it represents. That one we did simultaneously. He was in L.A. and I was in New York and we were on the phone at the same time both sending each other photographs back and forth, keeping track on the progress and everything else. I was at a shop on Franklin Street called Majestic Tattoo and there was a guy named Alejandro Lopez that worked there. He only worked there for a few weeks. … Now anytime I want something, he’ll come to my apartment.
“I’VE BEEN IN AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE EVERYTHING CAN BE STRIPPED AWAY FROM YOU, DOWN TO YOUR CLOTHES, YOUR HAIR. AND THE THING THAT THEY CAN’T TAKE IS THE INK ON YOUR SKIN.” – Damien Echols
INKED: So what was the third one that you and Depp did?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: I’m going to keep that one secret, but that was another one where we were actually there together.
INKED: You lost such a huge part of your life in prison—are you really choosy about how you spend your time or do you just kind of go minute-to-minute?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: Um, a little bit of both. It depends on what I’m doing. It’s been weird. For the first two months at least, I was in a state of deep and profound shock and trauma. So I really couldn’t appreciate anything the first two months I was out. It was like going through a bomb or something. I’m still just trying to find my way in a lot of ways. Some days I just set off with no particular plan at all and go exploring. Or—I have this book coming out in September—so some days I have to sit down and really get to the grindstone and finish up the writing project.
INKED: Is it a memoir?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: A lot of it is journals that I kept while I was in prison. A lot of it is memoir and some of it that’s essay form. It’s probably the thing that I’m the proudest of in my life right now. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s my life story and it’s sort of everything combined together.
INKED: Did you read a lot in prison?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: Nonstop. Nonstop. Lorri had to actually rent a little storage facility to hold all the books because they eventually overflowed out of her house. There were just too many to keep in there—thousands, thousands.
INKED: You’re also a visual artist. Have you been working on any new work?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: I’m actually getting ready to explore and branch out into other areas right now. I’m in talks with people right now about actually doing a show at MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art]. It’s actually going to be performance art. I’m going to be doing tarot readings.
INKED: You went from death row inmate to somewhat of a celebrity. Do people recognize you on the street?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: Yeah, I mean it’s not like somebody who is a movie star or a TV star or something. But it happens fairly regularly, a couple times a week, maybe. I always appreciate it. When people come up to me, it means something to me that I can’t really articulate. When I went into a tattoo parlor in New Zealand, as soon as I walked in the door the girl behind the cash register looks up and says, “Congratulations!” She knew who I was immediately.
INKED: You had a TV in your cell. Do you feel like you kept up on pop culture and current events, or did you feel lost when you got out of prison?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: A little bit of both. We got the basic channels like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox—no cable, no HBO, none of that. When I was in, I was a news junkie—I watched it all the time. You kind of have to because your life depends on it in there; your life literally depends on who wins the next election. Is it someone who wants to crank up the executions and feed people into the meat grinder faster, or is it a guy who feels ambivalent towards the death penalty? You have to keep up with stuff like that. Out here, I have not watched the news one single time since I’ve been out. I just can’t sit still for TV, and there’s so many more amazing things to be doing.
INKED: What are some of your favorite things to do now?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: Lift weights. I lift weights a lot, like a couple hours a day, just because it feels really good. I love the tattoo parlors. I love watching movies. I’m hooked, hooked on Danzig right now. I don’t want to listen to anything but Danzig. Now there are so many more Danzig albums that didn’t exist when I went in, so I just today got Danzig 5: Blackacidevil in the mail. And everybody’s saying, “Oh, that’s the horrible one, that’s the one where he turns industrial.” It’s still Danzig to me, and I still love it. I like how he doesn’t express any self-pity in his music, he just has this air of “Get the hell out of my way, I’m coming through.”
INKED: Your book Life After Death is out this month and you’re the producer and subject of the documentary film West of Memphis, which debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January. What’s going on with it?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: It’s in a state of constant improvement, all the way up until it comes out. We’ll keep looking at it, figuring out ways to make slight improvements on it to make it even better. A lot of it in the beginning was just length. We’ve cut it down to just bare bones. We’re trying to pack as much information into it as we can, where it’s just punch after punch after punch. And it’s still, like, two hours and 15 minutes. So a lot of it is that: trying to get the most out of the time. It’s been picked up by Sony Classics, [due out in December].
INKED: You’ve been a free man for about a year. What things still seem strange or surprising to you?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: I don’t know. One of the things I’m so amazed by is how you can get anything you want. When I was out in ’93, there was no such thing as Amazon.com. The last time I’d seen a computer before I got out was 1986 and it was this huge glorified typewriter for rich people. Now if you wanted a book or a movie or some music or something that you couldn’t find in your local, small town, you can go online and have it delivered right to your house. It’s still kind of stunning to me how available everything is.
INKED: What would you like the future to look like?
DAMIEN ECHOLS: To be honest, I kind of want to put this whole “West Memphis Three” thing behind me. I don’t want to be remembered for that for the rest of my life. I want to do things that stand on their own merit—that people know my name as something other than the guy who used to be on death row. I want it to be more like, “Oh, that’s that guy whose books I read that I really like.” Or, “Yeah, that’s the guy whose art show that we went to,” or, “That’s the guy who worked on that movie.” I don’t want to be defined by the way I was victimized for the rest of my life.