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.