Sunday, February 07, 2010

Scrimmies: Strange cult revealed

Who are the scrimmies? And why do they practise this strange art that goes beyond tattoos and piercings -- the bizarre body art of carved, living, human bones? By Pip Wilson

Click for Wilson's Almanac SiteMap
It was an appropriately unsettling entrance to the world of the bonecarvers – lost on my first visit, on June 12.

I must have walked past the door marked with the torn Greenpeace sticker and an incoherent bit of graffiti (something about Mariah Cary).

My informant, Justine, had told me to "knock on the blue door near the Leb shop". Had she forgotten that in this part of Sydney’s inner suburbs, every other shop is owned by Lebanese?

One of Sydney’s ethnic quarters, definitely. The blue door was actually squeezed hard between a Chinese-owned store and a pizzeria (to give more details would break my promise of anonymity to the scrimmies and Justine).

Considering the neighbourhood is so cosmopolitan, I was surprised that the scrimmies were so Anglo-Aussie, except for the Mexican, Serge.

I twisted the ancient bell knob on the grimy, chipped door and waited. And waited. And turned the knob again.

“Yeah?” came a woman’s voice, that one syllable betraying a broad Australian accent.

I introduced myself and she remembered that Justine had said I would be coming to interview the scrimmies.

'Hannah', reluctantly it seemed, led me up the steep, narrow staircase. The air was cold, gloomy. At the head of the stairs was a small landing with threadbare Westminster carpet. On the wall was a framed airline poster of that famous fairytale castle in Europe.

Hannah led me, or, rather, I followed her brisk pace into the book-lined, messy room with its untidy plethora of computer equipment, but I had to introduce myself as she dumped me and headed for a small sink in the corner where she made herself a cup of lemongrass tea.

The 'scrimmies' I met in that room, with its two kinds of worn carpet, and a flyspecked paper globe lampshade askew above the centre, had not assembled for the benefit of this pariah of the press. It seems that this apartment/office/clubhouse regularly holds a dozen or more lounging or websurfing scrimmies.

This day, there were five.

Hannah is 26 and a taciturn, rather surly postgrad Arts student majoring in history. Talia, 23, is a typical college waif who just topped her class in design. Serge, 36, works delivering furniture, and apparently can often drop in on the apartment on his run. He is possibly a lover to Jo, a 40-something musician with a prominent orchestra who doesn't look it. She apparently inherited some money and puts up most of the rent.

The fifth scrimmie that afternoon was Leo, 38, a heavily tattooed street performer, sometime hip hop singer and rainforest activist.


Though I knew of the ancient maritime art of scrimshaw, as practised by whalers and sailors, and I even knew that a scrimshander is one who practices the art, until Justine let slip one afternoon over coffee that she knew some scrimmies, I had never heard of the bizarre practice of having designs incised in one's own bones.

According to Jo, the human scrimshaw phenomenon goes back at least 150 years, but as far as she knew, the Australian origin was in that very apartment in 1995. There are "probably thousands of adherents" in the world.

Adherents? Jo’s use of the word surprised me and I challenged it. When people get a tattoo, they aren’t called adherents. Is this a religion? A cult?

Talia started to reply but respectfully deferred to Jo for what seemed to be “the party line” answer. (To this day I still don’t know if Jo is a cult leader. With her broken teeth and K-Mart tracksuit, she would make a most unlikely one. But stranger things have happened. And this whole scene was strange.)

According to Jo, no one knows if the art of incising living human bones was practised in Australia before she had the first, when her femur was 'scrimmed' as she put it, and an American anthropologist with her, by the enigmatic medical practitioner they simply refer to as 'the doctor' (who is not a scrimmie – just a scrimshander I suppose).

I asked to see the scar, and to my surprise, she pulled down – not up – her trackie pants to reveal a neat 15cm line; one of several on her body, she told me.

What design had been scrimmed on her thigh bone? ...


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