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.