She saw her chosen profession's potential to change people at their core — "so that we can sculpt our realities," as she once put it. Clients who got to know her say she had an indelible effect on them, an impact that went well beyond the stunning original designs etched in their flesh. It was something powerful and spiritual and hard to describe. She was, they say, so alive.

All of which made her sudden and violent death, a murder in which she appears to have been a willing participant, nearly impossible for her friends to accept.

"A couple of weeks before she died, Kauri and I hung out and talked about tattooing and boys for hours," recalls Kim Kosnar, a member of the goth-industrial band Darker Days Tomorrow. "I've been around people who've committed suicide or who are depressed. You hang out with artists, you get that a lot. But there was nothing like that with her. No warning signs at all."

Tara Schinn, who had several tattoo sessions with Kauri, says her friend "did not want to die like this."
Tara Schinn, who had several tattoo sessions with Kauri, says her friend "did not want to die like this."
Kim Kosnar, who had "girl talks" with Kauri weeks before her death, says her friend gave no hint of being suicidal.
Kim Kosnar, who had "girl talks" with Kauri weeks before her death, says her friend gave no hint of being suicidal.

Over the course of two decades, Kauri had built an elite reputation as a tattooist while living the life of an urban nomad, drifting from shop to shop and coast to coast, from the Southwest to the Northeast and back again. Eventually, she opened her own place in Breckenridge, with Keenu as the resident piercing specialist. But last spring that arrangement began to fall apart. Kauri filed for divorce and moved to a warehouse space in Denver, which she hoped to turn into an art gallery and live-music venue. She was quickly adopted by a coterie of local musicians and artists.

Friends say her business was growing steadily and that clients from Breckenridge continued to seek her out in Denver. "We had plans together," says photographer Cora Reed. "She wanted to do political salons in her space. She was writing a book on physics. I just can't believe that she wanted to go out this way."

There was a great deal, of course, that her friends did not know about Kauri Tiyme. Most of her Denver acquaintances had never met Keenu, who followed her quietly to the city two months before her death. Even those who met her in Breckenridge knew little about her life before she showed up there. No one even knew if she had living relatives or how to contact them; her unclaimed body was stored in the city morgue for weeks.

But what they did know was her art, her smile, her buoyant personality and relentless energy. "She was probably the most gentle, loving creature I ever met," says Tara Schinn, who had numerous tattoo sessions with Kauri over the past two years and came to regard her as a close friend. "There was a lot happening in her life, but she seemed really happy. I know in my heart Kauri did not want to die like this."

After Kauri's death, Schinn was told by another friend that Kauri had spent $40,000 in the last year on experimental drug therapy — "strengthening your genetics from within, so you live longer, heal faster, get fewer colds," she says. "Why would someone like that, who was a vegan, an avid mountain biker, never smoked or drank, very fit, the epitome of health — why would she want to kill herself?"

People often shape their histories to suit the occasion, embellishing their adventures in order to appear more heroic, tragic, sympathetic or just plain interesting to those around them. Kauri was probably better at reinventing her past than most. It was part of sculpting her own reality.

After her death made the Summit Daily News, some of her Breckenridge friends were surprised to discover that she was 39 years old. She'd told them she was 36, only a year older than Keenu. A small fib, not unusual at all in a youth-obsessed culture, but it made you wonder.

She told people she'd been featured on CNN, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. That could all be true; she was certainly the kind of articulate and visually striking spokesperson who would draw film crews interested in the exploding field of tattooing. But only one transcript of those interviews turned up in a search of standard databases, a 1995 appearance in a short CNN featurette, in which a woman identified as "Kauri McPhillips" is described as having "adorned herself in the imagery of ancient myth."

McPhillips was one of several names she went by. Records indicate she was born Kauri Greene. She told friends she grew up in Arizona, that her grandfather had worked on the Manhattan Project with Oppenheimer and knew Einstein — hence her passion for physics and theories about the nature of the universe. She was an only child, she said, who embraced punk music and a goth look as a teen and stood out like a beacon of darkness in the sunny, affluent sprawl of the Phoenix suburbs.

"She said her father was an investment banker and that they were very close," says Schinn. "She would go into these beautiful stores and people would treat her badly or turn her away. Then her father would come in, all dapper, and announce, 'Pumpkin, we're leaving.'"

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