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.