Aug 18, 2005

I Sing The Body Modified

Tattooing. Piercing. Branding. Surgical implantation. Foot binding, scarification, and neck stretching.

The eye of the pop culture has turned to tattooing in a big way this past year, more so than ever before. There are two reality television shows on currently about tattooing, and numerous speciality shows on different networks that focus on specific modifications--tattooing, branding, or outrageous cosmetic surgeries and implants. Modifying the OEM human body has become all the rage. Or shall I say that it has been all the rage for many more thousands of years than we give it credit for, and the modifications that used to be considered outrageous or offensive are now becoming socially acceptable. What was once the sole territory of the rockstar and the Yakuza sarariman is now as common a ditch water.

I won't try to get deep into this subject simply because I don't feel well-equipped to venture too deeply. I'm familiar with tattooing inside and out, am somewhat versed in simple body piercing, and I am comfortable both talking about and enduring both, but when the modification reaches the point of scarification, tongue splitting, or the surgical insertion of nylon or surgical steel items under the flesh I have to call a halt, because I am not equipped in neither experience nor learning enough to discuss them clearly, and I am not comfortable with either procedure.

And that's what I want to talk about, actually. My discomfort with body modification. Almost sounds like a pun, does it not?

Something struck me while watching a body modification show on National Geographic. Now keep in mind that there have been tribes of native peoples in Africa who have been scarring their faces and bodies for thousands of years as a means of cultural identity. I accept that just as I accept the fact that the art of tattooing, the insertion of pigment in the skin is just as old, and piercing is also. What struck me as odd, and actually struck a pang of revulsion in me was the sight of pale white kids of 19 or 20 having their skin intentionally and extensively scarred. I can view a full suit tattoo as a wonderous act of personal sacrifice and very personal art, and can long for and work toward the same goal myself, but the sight of a multiple pierced nose or ear makes me wonder just why someone would so change their body, and the idea of someone intentionally applying intensely heated steel (1000+ degrees) for the sole purpose of causing disfiguring scars on their skin is utterly alien to me.

I'm such a bipolar sort of guy. Tattooing is not like applying pigment on top of a canvas. It involves the near-surgical implantation of foreign objects (organic or man-made pigments) under the uppermost layer of skin, deep enough that it will remain there while the epidermis sheds with growth but not so deep that it cannot be seen through the epidermal layer. It involves pain, blood, and hours of careful work, not to mention a week or so of fairly regular aftercare. It is body modification in the simplest sense--changing the outward appearance of the human body. And I love it. I accept it as a vital, necessary part of who I am. And I would no more get someone to press a white-hot piece of surgical steel on my skin than I would ask someone to hammer my testicles to a thin film with a 40 pound bag of sand.

So exactly when and where did I draw the line in my head, the one that says on one side "This is cool:" and underneath those words is "tattooing, minor piercing, and wearing my hair long." On the other side of the line is the heading "This is not cool:" and the words "scarification, extensive piercings, surgical implantation and icky things like tongue splitting."

I can look at The Enigma and see beyond the piercings to a guy who has a strange but outrageous sense of humour. Opting for a full body tattoo, he did not take the Western approach and have himself covered in hundreds of small designs. He did not take the Eastern approach and have himself covered in one or two very large designs. No, he took the Enigma approach, and had himself covered in puzzle piece outlines. Then he started having htem coloured in. In blue. Just blue. Last I saw him he was about 80% blued in, and had started venturing into piercing and "modern primative" piercings, as well as minor surgical insertions (a pair of small horns on his forehead.) I look at his wife, Katzen, and find her to be utterly foolish, though she is working along the same lines as he is, only with black tribal tiger stripes and nylon whisker inserts pierced through her cheeks.

I find The Enigma to be startlingly funny. The first time I saw his photo in a tattoo magasine I almost fell out laughing. I thought "What a wonderfully new approach to the full-body tattoo!" And I still think that. Then I can watch a frat boy or girl get their three Greek letters burned into their flesh and think "My stars and garters, what a f**king idiot."

Both are modifying their bodies permanently. Tattoos can be laser removed, scars can be surgically minimised, but both will leave some sort of permanent record, no matter how much work is done to remove them. So why is one disgusting and the other enlightened?

I hate to use the pat answer, but I think it's just taste. Personal esthetics. I view paint on a canvas as art, as desirable and welcome, and to me the body is simply a more challenging canvas. Where cotton material is relatively permanent (as permanent as it can be) the human body is much more transitory, and unlike cotton material changes with each day. Subtly, but it changes, and does so radically over the decades. Cutting and splitting and inserting chunks of nylon and steel under the skin destroy the smooth lines of an already well-designed meat and blood machine, and doing things like splitting a tongue in half down the front is frankly repulsive.

What's funny is that I'm sure that when I get old enough to sit on my front porch in my slippers and wife-beater T-shirt, with my robe pulled close to protect my pride and joy full body tattoo from the damaging rays of the sun, paid for with hundreds of hours under the needles, I will be shouting imprecations at the neighborhood kids with their homemade, genetically altered bodies and wonder just what the hell the world is coming to, when kids have designer brand extra limbs and factory custom internal genitalia and skin that chameleons to match any background, while they will look at the old man with his bilaterally symmetrical, non-modified body and his old skin covered in non-photoreactive, non-holograpic, non-animated pigment and laugh at the old-timer, set in his ways.

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