Living With Myself: How I Reconciled Army Tattoos, OCD and Social Anxiety Into A Fruitful, Self-Aware Life
Albert Chessa is an Australian Artist currently living in Canberra.
1988 – 2005 – Early Life & Education
Albert Cedric William Chessa (A.C.W.C) was born in Waratah, near Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, and is the second of three children – one boy and two girls. Chessa has lived in Australia for most of his life, though he spent a few years in Le Marche, Italy, where he learned fluent Italian.
In 1998, Chessa had his first art class in Montefiore Dell’Aso, a small Italian village, where he lived with his family. Despite being surrounded by the works of the Old Masters, which he wasn’t exposed to very much, he revered the works of various hobby magazine illustrators instead. Chessa therefore resisted traditional art school teachings, and has remained largely self-taught to this day.
Moving to Australia in 2000, Chessa began refining his self-taught skills in private. He remembers making ‘dozens’ of private drawings, simply for his own keeping. Though moving house close to ten times in Australia, by and large Chessa remained mostly in Canberra, attending Yarralumla Primary, Alfred Deakin High, and Canberra College. It was at this time, having turned 18 in 2005, that Chessa first began to make the expressive, abstract works he is known for. These ‘patternworks’ came initially in response to several compounding personal life issues, including the standard teenage/hormonal problems, stress brought on by attending a college separate from his friends (and not confronting his family about it), and clashes at home over his then-dream of becoming a circus contortionist, which led to dramatic weight loss, isolation, and the development of debilitating OCD as part of his self-taught circus training.
His first abstract was made in French class at Canberra College – asymmetrical, interlinked black tendrils which created a vaguely heart-shaped mass. Down the centre he drew a stake, with three perpendicular thorns across it, drawn to represent the letter ‘I’ for ‘Inquisition’. It has since been lost, but Chessa remembers having conceived it as ‘The Sigil of the Ardent Pravity’, an imaginary sect of fanatical religious zealots who would brand themselves with it. Chessa has since revealed he was intensely researching the Malleus Maleficarum – a treatise on the prosecution of witches – at the time, as part of his ongoing appreciation for the hobby magazine illustrators of his youth, whose works often explored such subject matter.
As Chessa’s OCD reached it’s apex – he recalls not having been able to decide which side of a stop sign to walk on, and determining then and there that enough was enough – he joined the Army, partially out of guilt for ‘putting his parents through having to deal with him’ (his OCD) and in part inspired by the approval his eldest sister was receiving for having recently joined the Navy. Setting aside his dream of becoming a contortionist, Chessa discarded almost 30kg of amassed OCD scribblings and drawings, and enrolled in 2006 as a Supply Operator.
2005 – 2007 – Army Years
Chessa thrived at basic training, which took place over 80 days at ARTC Kapooka between 2006 and 2007. He applied his circus-gained physical fitness towards the various obstacle course challenges, and worked hard to win his platoon (25 Platoon) the Dress & Bearing Trophy, which was shared with their sister platoon (24 Platoon) on march-out day, whereupon Chessa was also personally awarded the Best Physical Fitness plaque. He was immediately assigned to a Holding Platoon in Wodonga, completed his job-specific training in Albury, and began work at Sydney’s Holsworthy Barracks, as the Reconnaissance Platoon’s Quartermaster-in-training. Throughout this year-long period Chessa produced few works, including some portraits and designs for friends.
On September 11th 2007, Chessa was posted to the outskirts of Holsworthy Barracks where he and his assigned unit (Reconnaissance Platoon) were to have a day-long live-fire session. Compared to basic training, Chessa did not gel well with the ‘real’ Army lifestyle and it’s rough and crass customs, and thus majorly reverted to his introverted ways pre-Army. As a result he had not made many friends and was generally seen as an outsider to his fellow soldiers. This came close to being fatal when on that same day Chessa was forgotten about during the routine head-count before commencing fire, and was still on the firing range when live firing commenced. He had been given no high visibility vest, bulletproof vest, hearing protection, or radio.
The incident caused Chessa to undergo a personal crisis, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Later he would go on to say that this was the time in his life where he had completely lost faith in humanity, having bordered on such thoughts through his battle with OCD and both family and trust issues. After an overlong investigation in which the Army attempted to shift blame over to Chessa for his ‘pre-existing conditions’, the case was settled on the black and white basis that whatever state Chessa was ‘already in’ at the time of his incident, the Army failed to enact a basic protocol, placed a soldier’s life in near-fatal danger, and subsequently attempted to cover it up. Chessa was shortly after admitted to a local hospital where he battled daily with panic attacks, PTSD symptoms and SABD (Social Adjustment Behaviour Disorder) – conditions he was diagnosed with during psychiatric appointments which took place. For his first few nights in Hospital, Chessa requested paper and pencil so that he could draw in bed to pass the time, and also to calm himself.
2008 – 2011 – The First Works & Tattoos
Whilst the bureaucracy and paperwork of Chessa’s high security military case went through its several exhaustive stages, Chessa was released from hospital and sent on convalescence leave to await further steps towards his eventual medical discharge from the Army. He had initially wanted simply to transfer units, attempting to ‘keep his head down’ and return to work, but after he was told this would be impossible, he elected instead to fully pursue a path out of the Army.
It was during this extended time of paid convalescence and ‘heightened, emotionally numb life limbo’ in Canberra, at the Chessa family’s then-home in The Causeway, Kingston, that Chessa made his first series of abstract works, called The First Works, many of which can be seen in their vectorised form on this site. These vectorised versions are largely all that remains, as Chessa’s state of prolonged mental isolation and accompanying struggles at the time led him to either destroy, discard or give away almost all of the originals. Two ill-fated relationships, including his first, contributed to this.
By early 2008, Chessa had been spending almost all day indoors drawing, with the rest of his spare time dedicated to taking up the Unicycle, contending with Rehabilitation Appointments (which he largely ignored at the time), and planning extensive patternwork tattooing works on himself. Once he was officially discharged in July of 2008, Chessa moved to Sydney on the excuse of wanting to pursue a career as a Personal Trainer (after the Army).
The very first tattoo Chessa acquired was, appropriately, the very first sigil he designed in French class, ‘The Sigil of the Ardent Pravity’. His rationale at the time for having the tattoos applied were that, to him, they felt like his ‘existence crutches’ – he felt that having such a permanent mark of his ‘true nature’, as an artist, on his skin would ‘counteract’ the very nearly permanent state of death he almost experienced as a consequence of turning his back on his true purpose in life. Chessa’s rationalisations for this self-harm would ebb and shift as the years went by.
In late 2011, now covered on his chest and most of his left and right arms in his various ‘healing, metaphysical glyphs’, he moved to Melbourne with his parents. A large portion of Chessa’s works were destroyed by the artist himself, apparently having chosen to vent his sadness and frustration at various then-occuring personal life issues by tearing up piles of his own art. With 2012, Chessa resolved to properly commit himself to his theretofore neglected Rehabilitation from his Army incident.
2012 – 2014 – Rehabilitation & Exhibitions
With the support of his current partner, Chessa successfully completed rehabilitation, got out of debt, shed his plan for further tattoos (coming to realise their true nature as trauma-induced self harm and coming to peace with them as such), enrolled into University and began earnest employment within the Australian Public Service. During this time Chessa had two successful exhibitions of his works in Canberra, overcoming his long-abiding shyness and self-effacing streak when it came to his art, again with his partner’s help. With this closure on the past few years reached, Chessa has ceased his First Works period and has since shifted his focus towards sharing his story, pursuing other forms of creativity, and becoming a proponent of Art Therapy, commencing his own custom practice.
2015 – Current Trajectory
With the launch of the new archival online store and site, Chessa has begun a new stage in his life of expressing his creativity, known as The Second Works. These constitute his Art Therapy Practice (albertchessa.com), his creativity initiative Quantumyth (quantumyth.com), and his YouTube channel TweedyGamer (tweedygamer.com). Chessa intends to eventually collate his First series of personal art therapy works with those he will produce alongside his Art Therapy Practice into a multi-volume art book set combining psychoanalysis, spirituality, self help & art therapy into a resource for use in cases similar or analogous to his own, or those of his clients.