At first glance, The Enigma’s appearance can be jarring. Reactions range anywhere from wonderment to fright, as the eccentric-looking artist has become famous for his full-body tattoo comprising blue puzzle pieces as well as his affinity for body modification, including getting his eyes tatted and snipping his ears to mimic the jigsaw pattern.
But looks are only skin-deep and, ultimately, superficial. After spending some time with The Enigma it’s obvious that there’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the veteran sideshow performer, who moved to Denver in June and currently tattoos at Freakys on East Colfax. “The art is on the inside,” he says with a smile.
One of a dozen Freakys locations dotted throughout the city, the tattoo shop he sits in is humming with the day's business. Co-workers, all fellow tattoo artists and “freaks,” as he refers to them, are more preoccupied with the human canvases suffering under their needles than “the blue guy,” as The Enigma's close friend and current tattoo apprentice, Amy Asche, affectionately calls him. A few stop in to say hello or see what he is up to. But otherwise, it’s just a normal day at Freakys.
“People say, ‘Oh, what are you doing here in Denver?’ They always expect me to be in L.A. or something,” he says with a shrug.
Truth be told, he always had a soft spot for the Mile High City, and planned to make it his home “before they legalized things," he says, "but it took me a while to get here."
Jim Rose Circus Sideshow from 1991 through 1998, when he struck off on his own and became a solo sideshow and tattoo artist. Most recently, he's lived in Peoria, Illinois, and Sidney, Nebraska, where he owned a tattoo shop — Tattoouija — for the past three years. He jokes that he sought a more efficient “command post” in Denver as he plots his global takeover.
“As far as Denver is concerned, I was thinking about, well, since I can live anywhere, if you were to try for world domination, where would you go? Well, probably in the middle of the country, because you can go from seaboard to seaboard in a few days, and it’s dry here,” he reasons.
“But when I got here, all the closets and garages were all rented out for plants, so it was really difficult to find a spot,” he adds coyly.
The Enigma, as he’s been known for more than thirty years now, never thought a teenage infatuation with and talent for sword-swallowing would lead him to a life of travel and worldwide recognition. Since he began compiling his body suit in 1992, he’s been tattooed by more than 250 artists, and in 2011, Guinness World Records confirmed that he has the most jigsaw-puzzle-piece tattoos on the planet, with a total of 2,123. It took three hours to count them.
The puzzle pieces aren’t all completely filled in yet, though; The Enigma admits that he hasn’t been getting worked on as much anymore, for several reasons. “It’s always an ongoing process. It’s like painting a barn with a toothpick. By the time you finish a panel, the sun’s bleached half of it and you have to go back and do it again,” he explains, adding that when he started, from the legs up, it wasn’t uncommon for upwards of a dozen artists to be working on him at one time, particularly at tattoo conventions.
Plus, as a tattooer himself, he was busy inking blue puzzle pieces on other people. In that sense, he is seemingly an always expanding, never-ending art piece. “Everyone from South Africa to Switzerland wanted to get a piece of the action,” he says. “During that time, I was tattooing blue puzzle pieces on everyone else, too. My tattoo is bigger than myself. It extends onto other people. It’s probably the largest tattoo in the world.”
Asche initially met The Enigma at the Mile High Horror Film Festival a decade ago, when she interviewed him for her Resident Rock Star magazine. The two clicked, and she began to book his appearances, including on the Front Range. While he’s technically her boss at the shop, she jokes that she’s essentially become his manager.
“We just connected. He would give me shit, and I would just give it back. We really just bonded on that level. We work really well together,” Asche shares. “In a lot of ways, I do all of the stuff that a manager would probably do for him, but I’m not his manager; I’m just one of his trusted friends.”
In teaching her the trade, The Enigma has allowed Asche to touch up and fill in some of his puzzle pieces. It's not just practice, but a sign of trust, she says. “He is very picky about who he gives trust to. I feel like that’s a blessing on my part,” she adds. “I’m very lucky to have him as a friend. We support each other in that way. He’s very intense, like a fire at the circus.”
Circus of the Scars for early footage and acts by a fresh-faced, clean-skinned Enigma). He talks with a comforting nonchalance, as though anyone could slide swords down their throat or push a condom through their nostril like he does if they really wanted to. (For the record, don’t do that!)
“When I go to the stage, I’m prepared to give everything I have. When you slit my wrists, sawdust comes out from the circus floor. I really am there,” he says. “If I get injured or anything like that, which has never happened, but if it does, I’m ready to give for that. That’s just part of it. Otherwise, without danger, it’s not much of an act. That gets my heart pumping a little bit, too. I like that. So I need a little bit of a rush. I've got to entertain myself as well.”
Whenever he’s not booking shows (he's currently available for appearances) and wowing wide-eyed audiences, he enjoys playing music, a hobby he’s had since before sideshow gigs. He jokes that he had a “blue-collar Juilliard” education growing up, with classical piano and dance lessons. While touring with Jim Rose, he served as the show’s organ player. In 1992, the circus sideshow landed a spot on Lollapalooza alongside headliners such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. The Enigma's been touring ever since, including once opening for David Bowie.
“I’ve lived a very creative life. A lot of people don’t have that, so I’ve gotten lucky in that regard. I’ve pushed the envelope and I’ve sacrificed a lot to do what I’ve done,” he says. (His diminishing vision requires him to use a magnifying glass while tattooing now, and he has a sensitivity to loud sounds.) “I don’t have health insurance, but I've got a photo with David Bowie."
Asche, who is nearby, likes to call The Enigma more of a renaissance man than a sideshow act, even though she believes he’s “one of the last great American sideshow performers” — a man from a different place and time.
“But he is The Enigma. That is who he is. He’s very intense and thorough. He wants me to do everything exactly right. He’s studious. He’s a very good teacher. But he is always The Enigma,” she explains. “When we are born, sometimes we are given an identity that’s not really who we are. He figured out who he is, and he made himself who he is today. It’s not like he breaks character. He’s always The Enigma. He has feelings like everyone else. He’s a very sweet, sensitive person. He deeply cares about his friends, and we have a great, trusted bond together.”
It's clear The Enigma appreciates the kind words. While he doesn’t necessarily have a regular gig performing locally, he shares that he’s working on a comic book series, a collaboration with local artist Daniel Crosier called The Adventures of The Enigma, with an anti-bullying message.
“It would be great if I can get that comic book in all the classrooms in America,” he says, adding that he was ragged on a lot when he was young.
“I was bullied quite a bit in school, mostly because I was outside the norm. I think that if you can just reach a few people, man, with a message of standing up for your friends, that would help everybody,” he continues. “Maybe you save one life from ending it all because of bullying. It’s a big topic now with people trying to find their identities. I think it’s even more important these days. But, yeah, I was bullied a lot and kind of a nerd.”
Even after all the notoriety and offbeat success, including an appearance on The X-Files (S2, E20), The Enigma says he is “just a man about his business, doing his thing.
“There’s nothing special about me,” he concludes, “except I just have a fairly large tattoo.”