In the late 1920s, an English sideshow performer named Horace Ridler contacted legendary tattoo artist George Burchett about being “tattooed all over”. Horace would come to be known as The Great Omi, and would go on to tattoo a large part of his body in animal-like stripes, stretch his earlobes, and get a veterinarian to pierce his septum at a painfully large gauge. Being heavily tattooed and having a couple of piercings isn’t all that odd today, but back then, it was enough for him to make a career for himself as a freak and sideshow attraction. What is most notable now, however, is that Horace took a practice that has been fairly common in Japan, parts of Africa, Papua New Guinea, and many other places, for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and brought it to the western world. That’s not to say Horace was the first European to be heavily tattooed, but his travelling show made him one of the most-seen.
Full body tattoos, of course, did not originate as a freakshow novelty. Japan has a ten thousand year old history of full, or partial, body suits – most of which were, and still are, done with a single needle. Depending on the era, these large and colourful pieces were the symbol of the wealthy upper-class, the criminal lower-class, artists, gang members, or cultural heroes such as warriors and firemen. Interestingly, Japan has always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with tattoos – even completely outlawing them at one point – and so, despite their long, rich history of body suits, artists are very careful to design these tattoos so that a standard dress shirt will still entirely hide them.
In parts of Africa, a method that combines scarification and tattooing has long been used to cover the body in intricate and deeply symbolic patterns. Small cuts are made to the skin with thorns or razors, and charcoal or coloured ash is rubbed into them. This process often begins at puberty, and continues throughout one’s life, telling a story of that person’s experiences, rank, spiritual journey, and social status. For both women and male warriors, special designs are also applied for protection of one’s own body, and offspring.
Papua New Guinea also boasts a long, fascinating history with full body tattoos. Unlike many other cultures, tattoos in Papua New Guinea were largely the domain of women – girls began getting tattooed at just five, and most artists were also female. The meaning behind the tattoos varied – some were ritualistic, others erotic, and still others were fertility or religious symbols. Styles and motifs were often passed from generation to generation, so the body suits also indicated one’s family ties and status. So important, and such a major part of their culture, were these tattoos that women who did not have them, or enough of them, were considered unsuitable for marriage. Some tribes believed that tattooing has existed as long as heaven and earth, and that the first peoples emerged from the soil, already tattooed.
In Europe and North America, full body tattoos are still a very new and uncommon thing, though our reasons for getting them don’t differ all that much. In order for someone to commit to such a major piece of work, it invariably has to mean a lot to them, and therefore, is likely to have something to do with their family connections, chosen sub-cultures, or life’s journey. One has to wonder if freakshow performers like Horace had any idea the huge cultural gaps they would begin bridging when they were staring down a veterinarian’s needle.
Artists and front-desk staff alike are all too aware of the countless myths and misconceptions surrounding body modification. Because it was, for so long, a “behind closed doors” industry, there was not a lot of opportunity to put good information out there. Until now. The internet has allowed a sharing of facts, stories, and information that was completely unheard of just a couple of generations ago. While this exchange can help us in combatting myths, it also leaves the door open to them – seemingly everyone has a friend that has a friend that has a cousin whose face was permanently paralyzed after getting a piercing, or was refused an epidural because of a tattoo on their back. It can be hard to tell which of these stories are true, and which are urban legend. Of course, the ideal solution is to talk to both medical and body mod professionals about any concerns you may have, but this article aims to clear up at least the most common of these misconceptions.
#1 : PIERCINGS CAUSE NERVE DAMAGE
This is perhaps the most pervasive of mod myths. Countless stories have been told over the years about paralyzed faces, developing migraines, even going blind or deaf, as the result of a badly placed piercing. “Nerve damage” is a very frightening sounding term, so it’s understandable that people take this concern seriously. No one in their right mind would risk blindness just to get their eyebrow pierced. But is there any truth to it?
To date, not a single medical case of blindness or deafness as a result of a piercing has been recorded. Doctors that have spoken on the subject do include nerve damage as a possible complication, but also stress that this is incredibly rare, and generally due to dirty equipment or poor aftercare, not the piercing itself. Going to a clean, professional shop and taking proper care of it afterwards reduces your risks of such damage to almost zero.
#2 : TATTOO INK IS MADE OF (INSERT SOMETHING GROSS HERE)
From cow’s blood to urine, we’ve heard every possible rumour, myth, and legend about the ingredients found in tattoo ink. The truth is much less exotic. Tattoo inks, just like most other inks, contain numerous ingredients, but the majority of them are plant and carbon based. Even in Ancient Rome, long before FDA regulations or knowledge of allergies, tattoo ink was made of pine bark, vinegar, and leek juice. No cow’s blood necessary.
#3 : IT IS DANGEROUS TO GET AN MRI OR X-RAY IF YOU HAVE A PIERCING
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that the magnet in an MRI machine will rip out your piercings, or that an X-ray cannot be performed on someone with piercings. High-quality piercing jewelry is most often made of non-magnetic metals, such as stainless steel or niobium. And, common sense should be enough to tell us that X-rays can still be performed – afterall, people with metal pins or plates in their bodies not only can, but often have to, get them. The reason you are asked to remove all piercings before these procedures is not that it is dangerous, but that the piercings can obstruct vision – that piece of jewelry will show up on the X-ray, and if there is anything beneath it, your jewelry may hide it.
#4 : NIPPLE PIERCINGS CAUSE CANCER/ LOSS OF SENSATION/PREVENT BREASTFEEDING
Nonsense. While some of the other myths and misconceptions are at least based on some tiny kernel of truth, this one is just straight-up wrong. There is absolutely no correlation between piercings and cancer, breastfeeding is still completely possible, and it is actually more likely sensitivity will increase, not decrease (though, even likelier is it that your sensitivity won’t change at all).
#5 : YOU CANNOT GET AN I.V. OR EPIDURAL WHERE A TATTOO IS PRESENT
A few reasons have been offered for this myth: the ink will seep out, the tattoo blocks entrance to the veins, the ink will get into your bloodstream and poison you, your pores are covered, etc. All untrue. There is absolutely no medical reason why you cannot get an I.V. or an epidural, nor is there any truth to ink “seeping” when such procedures are done. The ink in a tattoo sits under the epidermis – it is well beneath your pores, is not “blocking” your veins, and will not just spontaneously start to travel if pricked.
Pointillism and sacred geometry may seem, to those in the know, diametrically opposed. The former – the use of many small, distinct dots to create an image – can be said to move from the abstract to the more concrete; a single dot has very little meaning, but string enough of them together, and a picture begins to emerge. The latter – applying sacred and universal meanings to geometric symbols – can be said to move from the concrete to the more abstract, using objective mathematics to seek a deeper understanding of the universe as a whole.
When I-Kandy’s newest family member, Crystal, told me a bit about her art, however, I was not struck by the differences between the two, but the similarities. In telling me about her style, she had this to say:
“The style is pointillism, mixed with sacred geometry and heavy blackwork. I love the symmetry and order of geometry – it feels like a dichotomy mixing it with creativity, and I like the challenge of putting them together.”
Both the order of geometry and the tedious nature of pointillism seem to contribute to that dichotomy – taking something structured and distinct and using it in a manifestation of the creative and symbolic. Indeed, it is that dichotomy and precarious balance that inspired these styles and movements in the first place. Pointillism was born from the post-impressionist movement – the combination of a strict, tedious technique and an abstract, divisionist philosophy was understandably appealing to impressionists – it was a new way to create a realistic image while obscuring the details. Sacred geometry, on the other hand, has ancient origins. Plutarch, a 1st century Greek essayist, made several references in his writings to God constantly “geometrizing” – a belief he attributed to Plato. And as we get a firmer grasp on science, we do indeed see mathematical and geometrical constants emerge, adding a curious dimension to our cosmic understanding.
Applying these artistic, geometric, and cosmic concepts to tattooing seems the logical, and yet rarely taken, next step. The style Crystal has created is truly unique in its combining of two artistically opposite, yet philosophically similar, concepts. The pointillism, she says “really calms me down – something about the presumed tediousness of it really resonates with me”, while the sacred geometry “is found in everything – in nature, architecture, our dna…I feel putting it on our bodies is a way of connecting with something deeper and older than ourselves”.
With so much history behind these styles and symbols, one has to wonder what the artist is hoping to pass on to clients. “I hope that people feel empowered”, Crystal explains, “Getting a tattoo is one of the few times in our lives that we have complete control over our pain and our body. We make a conscious choice to endure and rise above. We make a conscious surrender to the fact that all of this is temporary. That this skin is just a vessel that will diminish and eventually turn to ash. Tattooing allows us to remember, to heal. To surrender and forget. It allows us to feel a part of something, to fit in, to be original. To express ourselves in the way that feels most comfortable to ourselves.”
To this end, the blending of discipline, art, geometry, and spirituality seems more than apt.
In researching last week’s post on the crazy Arkansas bill outlawing certain types of mods, I became a little concerned. If this can happen in the so-called “land of the free”, what is stopping it from happening here?
A lot, apparently. Canada does not have any federal laws regarding body modification, and even the strictest of provincial laws merely prevent shops from offering services to those under 16. Legal guidelines are restricted to the health and safety side of things (laws that we can all get behind), ensuring clean equipment, hygienic procedures, and proper ventilation are used.
But these are laws that apply in the U.S. as well – so I decided to dig in a little more, and examine our laws regarding freedom of expression. Section 2b of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants us all “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”. What counts as free expression is a bit vague, but the Charter goes on to explain that the only restriction on this right is overt hate speech or public calls for violence – this could potentially interfere with your decision to get Nazi propaganda tattooed on your forehead, but even that would be a legal stretch.
Judging by some of the more frivolous Canadian lawsuits, and proposed bills, in recent years, and the swiftness with which they were shot down, Canadians can, at least for now, rest easy. As of today, not a single proposed law regarding the freedom to alter one’s body has been passed.
And that, my tattooed and pierced friends, is just another reason why Canada is awesome.
Remember that whole “constitution” thing? Arkansas apparently doesn’t. Last week, in an astonishing 26-4 vote, the Arkansas Senate passed a bill that will ban “non-traditional” body art and implants. Included in that definition is scarification, branding, and dermal implants/microdermals. The bill was sponsored by Senator Missy Irvin, and was passed quietly last Tuesday. It still needs to be passed by the House of Representatives, and many speculate that is where it will die, but that does little to ease the minds of many – body modification enthusiasts, civil rights groups, and anyone that places any value on the freedom of expression are understandably irate that this bill was not only proposed, but passed by such a huge majority.
In a day and age where body art is widely accepted and the freedom to express oneself is viciously defended, it’s hard to see this bill as anything but a major step backwards. It’s even harder to understand the reasoning behind it. Senators involved in the bill have done very little to explain their positions, or even offer a reason that this was an “issue” they felt needed addressing. One thing is certain, though – if this bill passes the House, it will set a worrying precedent. Many argue that the government already has too much control over our personal lives – permitting them to tell us how we can (and cannot) adorn our own bodies is a very slippery slope.
We will be keeping an eye on this bill, and posting updates on its progress.
The answer to that question may seem obvious – but it isn’t. The last 40 years or so have seen a huge growth in people making their physical ailments and desires known by way of tattoo, but the question of whether those tattoos have any legal validity or not has remained unclear.
A pathologist quoted in the Huffington Post last year himself has “NO CPR” tattooed in the centre of his chest, to indicate his wishes to any medical professional that may see it, but the same article states that, in the U.S. at least, medical tattoos carry very little legal weight, and that paramedics would likely still perform CPR on the patient, unless a legal “do not resuscitate” document was also found. Lawyer Cheryl David agrees: her website advises that no American states have laws that address medical tattoos, and that a medic would most likely err on the side of caution. An American Paramedics group takes that statement even further, making clear that they are not trained to look for medical tattoos, and wouldn’t even begin trying to interpret one in the case of an emergency – DNR could mean “do not resuscitate”, for example, but it could also be your husband’s initials, or your favourite band. Despite this all sounding like a very resounding “no” to the question of legal validity, it’s unfortunately not that straightforward. Medic alert tattoos have become common enough that some doctors are actually recommending them to patients – particularly diabetics, and those with life-threatening allergies. Dr. Aldasouqi of Michigan State, who has written about and long been interested in medical tattooing, admits that the guidelines are unclear, and expresses concern that ignoring this trend “leave(s) our patients kind of afloat”. He is working to bring together the medical and tattoo professions to develop a legally recognized standard for these sorts of tattoos so that American medics will know what to look for.
As for Canada, finding even vague information proves difficult. Canadian MedicAlert Foundation CEO Robert Ridge last year told the CBC “it doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but there’s a few issues that we have with it”, reiterating concerns that paramedics are not trained to look for them. As for their legal status, no one seems to know for sure. Different medical associations have various views, and there is no reference to medical tattoos in Canadian law. Tattoo artists, also likely to err on the side of caution, will gladly give you a medical tattoo, but will advise that they do not replace legal documents.
So, what’s the story? Will your “diabetic” tattoo be taken seriously or not? What about the biggie – “DNR”? The general consensus seems to be that if a medical professional happens to see it, and if it is extremely clear and matches what would be found on a MedicAlert bracelet, and if it simply advises of a condition, rather than asking you not be treated, it might be respected. When it comes to “no CPR” or “DNR” orders, however, the only ink that matters is that on a legal document, signed by both you and your doctor.
A tattoo shop isn’t a typical place of business…most of the time. We like loud music and lots of laughter, we aren’t likely to try selling you lots of random stuff (though our hoodies are pretty damned awesome), and we may be caught using the occasional questionable word. Ours is not the type of business that aims for a 30 second transaction – we like to talk to our clients, get to know them, and hear their story. The rules of etiquette are very different in a tattoo shop than they are in, say, a nice restaurant or a stuffy bookstore. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. While we do love to have fun and get a bit rowdy sometimes, there are still a few basic standards that make our jobs easier, and your experiences better.
1. Be patient. We realize in this “go, go, go!” world, people are becoming accustomed to instant everything, including service. However, body mods are a slightly more serious decision than what flavour of latte you’d like today, and this means taking our time with each and every client. Before we do anything, we want to ensure you are prepared, informed, and sure about what you’re getting, and that takes a bit of time.
2. Please, please, please don’t distract the artists. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that you shouldn’t startle someone that’s holding a needle – moreso if that needle is close to someone’s body. We know everyone wants to speak directly to the artists, but their prime focus is on the piece they are currently working on. Both piercers and tattooists need to be allowed to concentrate, for obvious reasons, and to maintain control over their stations, to ensure they remain clean and safe. The front desk staff is fully trained to answer your questions, and, better still, knows how to approach artists without startling them or contaminating their work area.
3. For the love of all that is good, come in sober. This isn’t much of a problem at I-Kandy, thank goodness, as the vast majority of our clients are amazing. But I have seen this issue elsewhere – the belief that a tattoo shop being an “adult environment” makes it okay to be drunk there. It doesn’t. Very technical work is being done in a tattoo shop, and the last thing anyone needs is drunk people stumbling about. We’re sure you are awesome to party with, but let’s do that after hours. Cool?
4. Don’t bring a posse. Everyone needs a bit of moral support, and we’re more than happy to accommodate your best friend or spouse, but please leave it at that. Bringing your entire volleyball team to watch you get your nose pierced isn’t really necessary, and will only distract the artists and give them less room to work.
Really, that’s about it. We welcome all sorts of personalities, we love all kinds of music, we’re happy to answer all of your questions, and work hard to ensure you are thrilled with your piece. Just, please, give us the time and space to do so.
We’ve all heard the negative stereotypes associated with tattoos – that the tattooed are criminals, gang members, freaks, or low-class. Everyone with a tattoo has likely encountered this attitude at one time or another. But is there any truth to it? This question has apparently played on the minds of several sociologists and researchers, leading to some very interesting studies.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Jerome Koch and his Body Art Team, who have spent years collecting data about the tattooed. Their findings surprised many – more and more, tattoos have become the domain of academics and artists. High-achieving students made up a significant portion of younger tattooees, and the number of tattooed women rises every year. Several other studies have confirmed these stats, discovering that the negative stereotypes are not only inaccurate, but statistically insignificant – such a tiny number of people fit that idea, it’s a wonder it still exists at all. Of course, that leaves many people wondering, if tattoos are not actually the domain of criminals and gangs, who is getting them, and why?
Through several surveys of American youths (under 25, in this case), one major trend has emerged: while many reasons for getting tattooed were offered, most agreed that “control over one’s body and image” was a factor. Students particularly reported a feeling of frustration with the societal expectations that had been imposed on them – that they were not encouraged to express themselves as individuals, and that getting tattooed gave them a sense of autonomy. Even when faced with the reality that tattoos have become very common, they still felt their tattoos made them unique, as theyhad chosen their pieces – they had, often for the first time in their lives, taken complete control of some aspect of themselves. Interestingly, the second most common reason was in opposition to the first: many reported getting tattooed in groups, to solidify friendships and memorialize achievements. Common examples include a group of university students all getting their school’s logo tattooed on them in their final year of studies, and females in particular bonding through matching tattoos. Rather than using tattoos to express their individuality, these youths chose to express a sense of belonging.
Of course, it’s not just young people getting tattooed. Almost one quarter of North American tattoos belong to someone over 40, and a good portion of them were done fairly recently. Not surprisingly, adults offered slightly different reasons for their ink, but not as different as one may think. The most common reason given was familial pride – parents getting their children’s names, or a related image, as well as memorial tattoos for passed-on parents, was by far the most popular answer. But there’s also a startling similarity between the younger and the older – a significant portion of tattooed adults reported a feeling of boredom with societal standards, and a desire to separate themselves from their peers. No longer content with the stuffiness of business attire and a clean-cut appearance, many have opted to buck the norm. Women especially expressed discontent with the expectations put on them regarding appearance, and saw tattoos as a reclamation of their bodies.
What all of these studies have told us is that, while there are countless reasons people get tattooed, the most significant seems to be autonomy. More and more, people are growing tired of having standards imposed on them, of being anonymous, faceless beings, of looking like everyone else. We are taking back control of our bodies and our images, and blatantly ignoring common stereotypes. Business-people, doctors, high achievers, and academics have all embraced tattoos as a way to rise above the tiny boxes they’ve been stuffed into, and in the process, have completely altered the tattoo landscape and rendered stereotypes meaningless. Ironically, this desire for uniqueness and individuality has made body-modification a very normal thing, but that doesn’t seem to weigh too heavily on anyone’s mind. To each tattooee, their body is their own, their art unique, and their message loud and clear: I belong to me.
Depending on how one looks at it, “play-piercing” is either a very old, or very new, form of piercing. Ancient tribes and cultures engaged in temporary piercing during rituals and celebrations, but play piercing as an artform seems a more recent trend. For those that haven’t heard the term before, play piercing is the act of giving or receiving temporary piercings for special occasions, spiritual experiences, or simply to enjoy the sensation itself. These piercings generally stay in anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and often create stunning visual effects – it is, in short, art for the sake of art.
It’s also one of the more misunderstood body mods. While people in general are now much more accepting of tattoos and piercings as a form of expression, many still struggle with the idea of sticking needles through your skin just for the hell of it. There’s an assumption of masochism or, as one of my more conservative friends put it, being “not quite right in the head”. And, I suppose I can see their point – the act of inserting a bunch of sharp objects into your body to create an intricate design, only to take them all back out again, may seem a touch odd to those that would never engage in such a thing. However, I think we take for granted that similar acts have become so mainstream, we don’t even associate them anymore: dying your hair, wearing make-up, plucking your eyebrows, and all sorts of other cosmetics, sound pretty strange themselves when you break down the details. The obvious difference is that many consider getting pierced a painful experience, and so find it odd that anyone would get a bunch of consecutive piercings, just for a temporary piece. What needs to be kept in mind, though, is that not everyone finds piercing painful – for many, it is a highly pleasant experience, a spiritual and joyful release of endorphins. And, for many others, the pain is worth it. The result – a truly unique artistic display, and a brand new experience – ends up being far more memorable than the few minutes of pain involved.
Aside from the physical experience, however, there are many reasons for play-piercing. Photographers, models, and performance artists have all utilized play-piercing to create a visual effect that cannot be matched. From putting wings on a model to creating a skin-deep corset, people in the arts have embraced these mods as a new and exciting medium. From a spiritual perspective, the artform has offered a way for ancient rituals and modern beliefs to meet happily in the middle – it has long been believed that temporary pain can foster permanent enlightenment, and play-piercing, with its combination of flesh, steel, pain, and pleasure seems almost self-evident as a means to that end. And, within the body-mod industry itself, it has opened doors to new techniques, ideas, and innovations. For the considerably small amount of attention it receives, play-piercing has made a major contribution to body-modification, spiritual practices, and art itself. Perhaps it’s time we all gave it the respect it is worthy of.
When I was 19, my dad got a tattoo. Already having two of my own, and thinking tattoos were mostly for the younger folk, this was just another testament to how cool my father was. Of course, I would later learn that tattoos had been around far longer than I could have imagined, and that it was, in fact, our dads, granddads, and great-granddads that had popularised them (at least in North America). More than that, though, I would come to learn that every generation, every era, has its own, unique tattoo culture – and that there is an actual science behind that.
Sociology professor Jerome Koch, along with a group of researchers dubbed The Body Art Team, has spent the last 14 years studying body modification from a scientific perspective. Several of their findings fly in the face of common stereotypes; almost ¼ of “well-integrated, mainstream” college students have a tattoo, women are now just as likely to get tattooed as men, and dad having a tattoo isn’t near as uncommon as one may think: about 24% of the tattoos in North America belong to someone over 40.
Half a century earlier, however, the trends were very different, and probably not in the ways you would think. Tattoos of the 1950s and 60s were almost entirely the domain of people over 30. Belonging mainly to bikers, artists, and army/navy members, it was not the youth that felt compelled to get tattooed, but those that had years of experience being outsiders or part of a smaller subculture or community. Go back still another fifty years, and you may be surprised to find women made up a huge percentage of those tattooed, and even farther back, we’ll find it was the richer and older population that had the most ink. Stereotypes became outdated so fast, it’s a wonder any took hold at all.
That’s not to say there is no consistency, however. As you may have guessed from the title and the day of this posting, fathers have always made up a significant percentage of the tattooed. Regardless of sociological fads, eras, generations, or prevalent subcultures, the one group we can always rely on to boost body mod numbers are fathers. Despite all the many changes in demographics and trends, one particular theme jumps out at us in each and every study: as far back as it is possible to research, “familial or tribal pride” has been the #1 reason men over 25 offered for getting tattooed. It is, in fact, the only consistency that can be found – literally everything else changes from era to era – from average age to economic status to gender to subculture – but fathers always have dominated the tattoo landscape, and that trend shows no signs of slowing down.
Happy Father’s day to all of you, from all of us at I-Kandy.