She is young, perhaps 20, and has a lovely smile. Her hair is pulled back tightly, calling attention to her high cheekbones and large eyes. She is wearing very little, but is well wrapped in elaborate jewelry. She is, by any and all standards, beautiful. At least, her face is. I can’t be sure that everyone would find her body as striking as I do. Her arms, stomach, and chest appear to have been cut thousands of times, leaving a pattern of deep, raised scars all over her body. Intentionally. And this isn’t a modern day body-mod fanatic with green hair I’m looking at; this is a photograph of a woman from West Africa in the early 1900s.
Indeed, scarification is an ancient practice, and in many cultures, was the precursor to tattooing: some of the first tattoos were simply cuts that had ash rubbed into them so that the scar would appear grey or black. The reasons for the ritual practice vary greatly from culture to culture and era to era, but most share the general theme of identity. Maori men used to scar their faces before going into battle, or when in search of a wife, as the scars were seen as a symbol of strength and virility. Several African tribes use scarification to mark stages in one’s life and identify one’s lineage and status. In Papau New Guinea, scarification is performed in initiation and coming of age ceremonies. And, just to underline how little human nature really changes, all of these cultures also use(d) scarification to make themselves more attractive. It is this commonality between all people that may serve to explain how scarification made its way from ancient tribes to modern tattoo shops.
In the late 70s and early 80s, small groups of people across North America and Europe were taking noticeable interest in the tribal practices of other cultures. Sociological theories abound regarding why, and the reasons are likely multiple and layered, but one of the most obvious and highly agreed upon is a rejection of their own culture. Many were dissatisfied with their own histories, feeling we had long ago lost touch with our true selves, and let conformity and materialism take over. Returning to ancient cultures and practices served the dual purpose of visually standing out – rejecting the conformity – and making an attempt to find our roots, to reconnect with the universe itself. This movement has been labelled many ways – mainly as Neotribalism and Modern Primitivism. In its earliest inception, it was embraced mostly by GLBT and BDSM communities, but over time became the foundation for an entirely new subculture, and singlehandedly changed the landscape of body modification. Prior to Modern Primitivism, body modification consisted mainly of pre-drawn tattoos (“flash”), and jabbing safety pins through your friend’s ears or, if they were really rebellious, nostril, which, if it didn’t get horribly infected, would result in a “piercing”. Once this movement began to pick up some speed, however, it was unstoppable. Exploring countless cultures and practices while fashioning modern, customized tools opened the door to an endless list of possibilities; with the right tools and a little knowledge, almost any part of one’s body could be pierced, cut, branded, tattooed, and modified to their own specifications.
At this point, scarification was split into two main categories: cutting and branding. The former is what most people think of when they hear “scarification” – a sharp implement, most often a scalpel, is used to cut a design into the skin; the latter involves heated instruments burning the design into the flesh. Both, however, rely on the resulting scar to hold the pattern. Because everyone scars differently, it will never be a precise art – one can get a general idea of what the scars may look like upon healing by looking at others, but there is no way to guarantee your own will look the same. This unpredictability is often seen not as a downside, however, but as furthering the symbolism of identity and individuality – no two scars are the same.
Over the last 30 years, scarification has become slightly more common, but it has never, and probably will never, reach the status of tattooing and piercing. There is still something taboo about the idea of branding or slicing into one’s skin, something that gives many the heebie-jeebies. And perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps we need some of these practices to forever remain uncommon, to continue on as rites of passage and proud proclamations for only those who would truly appreciate such a ritual. Whether acquired intentionally or not, scars tell a story of where we have been, of what we have experienced. The scar is not the event itself – it is a symbol, a permanent reminder, of a particular moment in one’s life. For those who care to, our entire story can be read, and written, in our scars.
Tattoos have been part of human history for thousands of years – and for most of that time, the tools of the trade consisted of a sharpened shell, bone, or pieces of metal, and a couple of small cups full of ink. And then, seemingly overnight, the tattoo machine was born. How did this happen so suddenly, and whose idea was it? As with many inventions, the answer is not one, but several people and ideas.
In 1876, prolific inventor Thomas Edison patented what he called a “Stencil-Pen” – an electric pen, run by a rotary motor, designed to create stencils. The machine would puncture the paper (Edison boasted it could make 50 punctures a second), which would then have an ink-roller taken to it. The invention was designed to help secretaries, printers, and office workers who often had to make numerous copies of one document. It went on sale in the U.S. in late 1876, and was then quickly followed up by an improved, two-coil electromagnetic version, selling in both the U.S. and the U.K. Ultimately, however, the pen was not all that successful; similar products, as well as the earliest typewriters, were already on the market, and Edison’s invention didn’t seem much of an improvement on the current technology.
While the Stencil-Pen was overshadowed by better products in the office, people in a very different industry were just beginning to see its potential. Around the same time Edison released the rotary machine, an Irish man named Samuel O’Reilly began tattooing – an art which, at the time, consisted of poking and cutting ink into the skin. O’Reilly was good at what he did, however, and eventually moved to New York, where he tattooed circus “freaks”, daring celebrities, and many fellow Irishmen, gaining himself a large clientele and a reputation as a legitimate artist. He was also, apparently, a shrewd business man. Legend has it that O’Reilly first spotted a rotary Stencil-Pen in the window of an office supply shop, walked in and asked for a demonstration, and immediately contacted the patent office to find Edison had let it expire. O’Reilly purchased the pen, made a few minor alterations, including an ink reservoir, and patented it as the first tattoo machine in 1891.
Across the Atlantic, Thomas Riley of London was working on a similar idea, using the electromagnetic concept. Riley created a single-coil machine using a modified doorbell assembly contained in a brass box, and patented it just 20 days after O’Reilly patented his. The autumn of 1891 saw the tattoo machine born not once, but twice. One rotary, one electromagnetic; one American, one British; both inspired by Edison’s failed pen.
From that year on, artists and engineers took these two machines and altered, improved upon, and re-patented them many times. Alfred Charles took Tom Riley’s machine and added a second coil, creating the immediate predecessor for the machines we see most often today. Charles Wagner, thought to be a student of Samuel O’Reilly’s, patented an improved version of O’Reilly’s machine in 1904. As both designs evolved, they began sharing more and more features, and in 1929, Percy Waters took the best of both machines, made heavy alterations to the design, and patented the machine we still use today. It was Waters’ modifications that really changed the landscape of both tattoo machines and tattooing as an art-form – his design allowed for adjustments, which meant the speed, depth, and angle of the needles could be changed as needed. He also improved the functionality of it, making it lighter and easier to handle. It was this machine that artists would run with, and from then to present date, alter, modify, and personalize.
It is doubtful that Thomas Edison would have ever seen any potential in the Stencil-Pen as a tattoo machine. It is doubtful that Samuel O’Reilly imagined his adding an ink reservoir to it would spawn a whole new industry. It is doubtful that Tom Riley thought his doorbell in a box would become the prototype of today’s machines. Yet the ideas of these three men, along with many others along the way, all directly led to Percy Waters’ perfected version of a tattoo machine, and launched the first major tattoo supply company in America. Were it not for these inventors, artists, business men, and engineers, we may very well still be getting tattooed with shells and sticks.
So, you want a tattoo…
Great! When done well, a tattoo can be a beautiful piece of art, and you get the honor of being the canvas! They can represent you, your family, your friends or your memories. They can be cool, funny, sad, serious, political, symbolic and creative. They can be black and grey or vibrant colors. They can be hidden — your little secret, or they can be displayed for all the world to see. Because they can be so many things (permanent being among them!), it is important to take a few things into consideration before you enter the wonderful world of body modification.
1. They Are Permanent
Yes, I realize you all know that. But, working in a tattoo shop, you eventually learn that a lot of people don’t really consider their permanence when they start coming up with ideas for their tattoos. You may think you’ll always like your tribal armband or having Tinkerbell on your breast, but trust me, you probably won’t. When choosing designs, think long and hard about the fact that it willalways be there. Yes, there is now tattoo removal, but relying on this fact is a lousy idea. Laser removal is both more expensive and more painful than the tattoo itself, and it doesn’t always leave your skin looking new and fresh. If you’re going into a tattoo with the idea “well, I can always remove it later”, you probably shouldn’t get that tattoo.
2. Does It Mean Something?
I’d estimate that, in the tattoo industry as a whole, 25% of our business is covering up old tattoos. The #1 reason? “I got this silly tattoo when I was 18…”. The problem, of course, isn’t with getting a tattoo at 18, but with getting one that means nothing to you. Getting a tattoo with some friends on the spur of the moment may sound like a fun bonding experience, but if the piece itself holds no meaning for you, you will come to hate it.
Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get something fun or outrageous (we love it when people ask for weird things!), it just means you should ask yourself why you’re getting it. If you can’t think of any reason besides “uh…it’s cool?”, don’t get it! The tattoos people treasure the most are the meaningful ones — a memorial piece for a parent, a piece of art you’ve always loved, a symbol of your favorite memory, sport, band or childhood hero, an inside joke between you and your best friend, a piece with spiritual or intellectual significance or some other symbol that would only make sense to you.
3. What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up?
I’m 32, and I’m still asking myself this question, so don’t think this is a lecture reserved for the young among you.
While I’m happy to report the world is slowly coming around to the idea of tattoos, a lot of people still frown on them. Yeah, we’d all like to say we don’t care what others think of us, but if there is a career or lifestyle that you are passionate about pursuing, you may have to care a little. Certain professions still forbid visible tattoos in the workplace, so you need to consider whether you may end up in one of those professions.
The good news is that this doesn’t mean you can’t get a tattoo at all — you just may want to consider putting it somewhere that can easily be hidden; an ankle, the back of your shoulder, your upper arm or on your ribcage are all good options for the hidden tattoo.
4. Timing Is Everything
A tattoo shop’s busiest season is in the summer. It shouldn’t be.
Tattoos need a decent amount of time to heal (expect 3-6 weeks), and should not be exposed to direct sunlight or a lot of water in that time. This means no tanning and no swimming. Depending on where you get it, you may also want to do it when you have a couple of days off work (my feet swelled up so badly, I had to just sit still for a day!). It’s the artist’s job to give you a good tattoo, but it’s your job to look after it; make sure you get it at a time when you can care for it properly.
5. Are You Ready?
There’s a lot more to getting a good tattoo than saving up some cash and picking a design. One of the regrets I hear most often from clients is that they got their first tattoo at the first shop they saw (while we at I-Kandy of course hope you’ll all come to us for your tattooing needs, we also realize you may be reading this from Taiwan or Timbuktu). In my experience, a person is truly ready to get a tattoo once they’ve:
-Thought long and hard about the piece they want
-Researched the shops in their area and chosen the cleanest, most experienced shop with the best reputation
-Looked through the artists’ portfolios and chosen the one most suited to their piece
-Had a consultation with the artist
-Saved up enough money for at least the first session (if it takes more than one)
Tattoos are a beautiful thing. Take the time to do it right, and it will be a permanent piece of art that you can carry with you forever.
Body piercing is, perhaps, the most common type of body modification – everyone and their mother has their ears pierced these days, and even those that were once frowned upon (at least in Western culture), such a nostril, lip, and navel piercings, have slowly become acceptable. But where did they come from? Who was the first person to say “let’s punch a hole in ourselves and fill it with metal”? It seems a bit of an odd idea to have come out of nowhere, and yet, someone had to have it!
While we of course have no idea who did, or had, the very first piercing, we can be sure it was long ago. Mummified remains dating back over 5000 years were adorned with earrings, and, in the Middle East and India, both ear and nostril piercings have been common for at least four thousand years. Piercing, and stretching, lobes and lips, has been standard practice in Africa for as far back as we can trace, and ancient Greeks often used piercings as a way to make clear their status or profession. Suffice it to say, body piercing is not a new fad, and, in fact, Western society is very much playing catch-up with many older cultures in this regard.
The reasons for piercings vary as much as the cultures that practice(d) them. In the Bible, we can read about a bride-to-be being gifted with gold earrings and a nostril ring. This made their marital status clear, and also served as a sort-of insurance in case of divorce or the death of their spouse – gold was of high value back then, and could be traded for money or goods. In India, it was thought that piercing the left nostril would aid in fertility and an easy childbirth. Aztecs, Mayans, many Native and African tribes, as well as some Greek and Roman warriors, would pierce their septums as signs of their wealth, status, and virility. One of the most common, and wide-reaching, reasons for piercing, however, was magical protection. Several different cultures were of the belief that demons, or negative energy, were deterred by metal, and so piercing the various openings in one’s body (ears, nostrils, mouths, etc.) made it harder, if not impossible, for these negative entities to enter.
How, then, did piercing become popular among cultures that did not hold such beliefs, or engage in these rituals? We can point in a few different directions to answer this. The Punk Rock era helped to popularize piercing in the United States, when punks, in an act of defiance, began piercing themselves with safety pins. This was taken even further when Jim Ward and Doug Malloy opened the first professional piercing shop in the U.S., distributing pamphlets on the art (which later gained widespread criticism for their inaccurate history, but still succeeded in garnering interest and attention), and making their own customized jewelry. Perhaps the most important person in Westernized body piercing, however, is Fakir Musafar, founder of “Modern Primitivism”, and Master Piercer. Musafar developed an interest in ancient tribal practices at a very early age, and began experimenting on himself with piercing, scarification, tattooing, and suspension in his teens. Over time, these separate subcultures became more and more familiar with one another and their respective practices and rituals, and a new subculture was born. In a relatively short period of time, these groups brought piercing from an underground practice to a mainstream form of expression. While many of the ways and reasons piercings are performed have changed, the one thing that seems to remain throughout all cultures and eras is the declaration of self. From ancient times, right up to present day, people are adorning themselves with these markings to claim ownership of their bodies, to make clear their position on individualism and to claim their status, whether as individual, part of a subculture, or as a walking piece of art.