A Small Taste of Body Modification Culture
When I dawdled in, my eyes first led me to the lit jewelry cases to my left. They had well shined mirrors that reflected the many colors of the jewelry. Some gems were kept in wood displays some in black displays and some just sat on the glass shelves. Beams of light glittered away from the gems while the metal gave off a satin sheen. The decorations in the display case change seasonally, but this time there were fake tropical flowers on the inside. My pale reflection shone back at me in the spotless mirror.
To my right stood a tall jewelry case encircled by tribal masks and art. The seating area, which was also to my right, accommodated two black leather couches and a love seat. On the glass coffee table that was in front of the couch farthest away from me rested the piercing and tattoo artists’ portfolios. They contained many pictures of the artists’ finest works. In front of me was a hallway, it went to the multiple tattoo rooms and the piercing room. You could barely see a few black tattoo beds that have floor lamps over them.
While I am a part of the body modification community, I am not modified enough to know what it’s like to be harshly discriminated against because of my modifications. I was curious as to if others in the piercing community had experienced discrimination and, if so, what were their experiences. I also wanted to know who got modified and why, partially because I had little knowledge of why I did it. Curiosity about safety laws, or lack thereof, having to do with modification had also set in. I set out to write this paper for all these reasons, and also because I wanted to share the experiences of those modified. Lastly, I want to smash the narrow views that many of the outside cultures have of body modification.
I slid across the linoleum floor to the cash register placed on one of the jewelry cases. The lady behind the cash register was named Eva. Her orange-ish pink hair was gathered into a neat pony tail. She had half sleeves and a few ear piercings. The most notable being an industrial inside her conch. She was mid-twenties, but as I found out, her kindness was beyond her age.
I asked Eva* if she knew where Matt, the owner of the store, was. She asked me why I was there to see him and I explained to her that I was doing an ethnography for my English 111 class and that I was studying body modification culture, specifically how people with certain body modifications are discriminated against. She told me that Matt was in the office and would be out soon. I smiled and said “okay.”
Being a member of piercing culture, I fit in at the studio just fine. I didn’t look out of place and I was quite comfortable being there, even though I was worried about interviews. Evolved is almost like a second home to me, as I’ve been going there since I was 17. I was very happy to write a paper that included hanging out at one of my favorite places.
Not too long after Matt came out of the office, I introduced myself as we shook hands. I thanked him for letting me come to his business to study piercing culture. Matt was average height, fatherly looking, and tan. His most noticeable piercings were his ear plugs. He also had two spiraly sleeves. Tattoo machines buzzed in the background.
I started taking notes about the store. People came in and out. The most notable visitor was a woman in her 40’s who asked to return her daughter’s nose ring, a definite sanitary no. I was disgusted by this. Why would anyone think this was okay? She stomped out, angry. It surprised me how little people care and/or know about cleanliness.
Soon after she left Matt asked me if I wanted to watch Evan, an apprentice piercer, pierce someone. I said, ‘yes,’ and followed Matt and Evan through the hallway past the tattoo rooms and into the piercing room.
Watching Someone Get Pierced
The piercing room was cleansed of all impurities. The walls of the piercing room were green and the floor was made of linoleum. To my right was a sink with paper towels to dry your hands. To my left was a chair with a black adjustable medical bed to the right of it. To the right of the modifiable bed was a silver medical tray with gauze, a needle, and other sanitary piercing tools. In front of me was a long rectangular mirror. The room was well lit and was a great place to pierce.
The woman who was getting pierced meandered into the room. We acquainted ourselves as she sat on the medical bed. Her name was Jenny, and she was getting her philtrum pierced.
Evan scrubbed his hands with soap thoroughly. Evan handed Jenny a tiny cup of mouth wash and told her to swish it around in her mouth for thirty seconds so her mouth would be sanitary enough to get pierced.
Evan, Matt, and I talked, and Jenny gurgled at us trying to join into the conversation. Strangely Matt was able to translate. We talked about body mods and Jenny and I found out that we had been worked on by the same tattooist. She asked to see my tattoo so I lifted up my shirt and showed her my bird cage tattoo. She pointed to the pink sprinkled donut tattoo she had on her calf. Matt and Evan talked about Spanish words for piercings.
Evan sanitized Jenny’s face with an alcohol swab and began marking it with gentian violet on a tooth pick. It’s only Evan’s second lip piercing but he was in control. Matt, an experienced piercer, watched over Evan deliberately. Jenny hopped off the medical bed to check the markings in the giant mirror to make sure the marks were where she wanted them.
Evan asked Matt about marking the inside of the lip. Matt says it’s not necessary, but some piercers do it. Evan wanted to try it out, and decided to mark the inside of her lip as well. Since the inside of her mouth was wet, even after Evan dried it, staining the right place on the inside of her mouth was hard. Eventually he got it.
Jenny talked about being nervous but super stoked to get a Medusa piercing. As she laid down on the medical bed Matt pulled out the extension for Jenny to lay her feet on. The extension is made of wood and is about a half foot long.
Evan got ready for the piercing and told Jenny to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth over and over again to make her calm and the piercing process less painful. Evan took the needle in his medical gloved hands.
“Inhale,” he said, “and, Exhale.”
When she started exhaling the needle started going through her lip. Jenny squeaked when the needle was about half way through. When the needle was all the way through, Evan, leaving the needle in, snatched the moonstone jewelry off of the medical tray. He switched the needle for the jewelry. When he was done he screwed on the moonstone gem.
Both Matt and Evan looked at the fresh piercing. It looked good to them, so they told her to get up and look at it in the mirror herself. She felt around her mouth with her tongue, you could tell she was unhappy with it. She told them that it didn’t feel right on the inside and that it rubbed against her gums strangely.
She laid back down on the medical bed. After Evan got a new pair of medical gloves he took out her jewelry and the piercing starts to heal immediately. Evan took a new needle out of the packaging and told Jenny to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth.
The breathing in and out continued until both the piercer and the piercee were ready. After that he pierced her again. The needle stuck out of her face as Evan went to get the jewelry. He put the jewelry back in and she got up to look at it again. This time it was perfect.
Discrimination, or Being Rejected for Art’s Sake
“I’ve been kicked out of restaurants and grocery stores. It depends on where you are, too, in the south it’s way worse. At home (out west) it’s not as bad there, but I don’t go out a whole lot. I go to the same grocery store, same restaurants. So I’m not going anywhere random.” –Troy (Troy, personal interview, 5 May 2012)
A white tribal tattoo and two lip piercings decorated Troy’s chin. Three white dots trailed down from the middle of his forehead to the top of his nose. He had three black dots under both of his eyes with microdermals in the center of the middle dots. He had stretched ear lobes and both of his conches were pierced. His left ear had an industrial bar that connected his tragus piercing to his conch piercing. His neck and arms were covered in colorful tattoos and his forearms had five spherical subdermal implants in both of them.
“…I’ve been in a store to buy a motorcycle and I asked him how much this motorcycle cost and he said, ‘Obviously, more than you can afford.’ and I looked at him and was like, ‘Seriously, looking like I look, there are only two things I could be. I could be a tattoo artist or I could be a rock star. Either of those, I would have plenty of money to buy this motorcycle. Yeah, probably not for me, I’m going to go get my $25,000 car and go buy a motorcycle at another shop.’ He’s like, he looked and saw my car, and was like, ‘well, wait wait wait wait wait wait.’ ‘No, it’s cool. I’ll go up to another shop and buy this 5,000 dollar bike that I want because I can afford it.’
” Troy (personal interview, 5 May 2012).
Though I was surprised by all of his stories (I usually just experience rudeness with the typical job discrimination), this one particularly struck me. While it wasn’t the worst story he told as far as humanity showing its dark side, I had always seen motorcyclists as allies. While the motorcycle dealer may not have been a motorcyclist, I felt that he should have been around enough people with tattoos and piercings to have accepted it.
“The pierced model was perceived as less intelligent, caring, generous, honest, and religious,” said Martino and Lester (Dec. 2011). In a New York Times Magazine advice column, called The Ethicist, an employer asked if it was okay that, even though it was supposedly against her beliefs, she didn’t hire a woman because she had a tongue and nose piercing even though she was a good candidate for the job. The advice columnist said that she probably should have asked the potential hire if she would have taken her piercings out, but what she did was fair (Kaminer, 6 Nov. 2011).
When I was working on this report, I ran across people that felt that there should be something done about the discrimination, people who think it will run its course, and some who think it doesn’t really matter. I’ve come across people who think that private businesses have the right to have people who come into their businesses cover their tattoos and piercings, and people who don’t think they have the right to do so. It’s a topic that each person has decided for themselves individually.
Why Do People Get Modified and Who Gets Modified?
The answer is simple, all kinds of people get modified, people from all walks of life. According to Matt, an interviewee who wrote a paper on why people get modified, it’s fairly inconclusive (16 April 2012). People get modified for all types of reasons. “People get modified for four reasons in my opinion. The first reason aesthetic value, the second one is sexual enhancement, the third one is shock value, the fourth one is spirituality,” said Steve Haworth in the film Modify (2005). Some of the people I interviewed stated that they have an idealized version of themselves and body modification helps them fit that image. In my opinion the most overlooked reason that people modify their body is overcoming the need to have control over their own body. This is seen particularly in people of have been sexually abused (Stirn, Aglaja et al, 2011). “Participants with sexual abuse often stated that they wanted to overcome certain experiences [through body modification],” said Stirn, Aglaja et al (2012). There’s no simple answer nor is the answer the same for everyone.
Unlike with discrimination, I have experienced my share of rudeness because of my modifications. Since I started getting modifications done have I received rude comments from my friends’ parents. I often had to listen to a parent talk about how only whores have navel piercings. I’ve had people stick their faces close to my chest to look at the microdermals I have there, and others have touched my piercings which is unwelcome due to cleanliness issues.
“If you’re heavily pierced or tattooed or modified people don’t respect your personal space at all. They’ll walk over and start touching you and your piercings and tattoos. They’ll lift up your clothes. If I’m with a girl that’s tattooed they’ll pull up her shirt and pull down her shirt [to look at her tattoos]. ” . . . [A] lot of times I go somewhere
I’ll wear a hoodie to cover everything up as much as I can. It makes it easier and there’s less hassle so I don’t have ten people that surround me and want to ask me a bunch of questions. Really, you haven’t seen this before? Come on. . .”People grab me and start poking [my subdermals] and say, ‘Does that hurt?’ Well you’re lucky it doesn’t because if it did I would probably punch you.”
(Troy, personal interview, 5 May 12)
As with discrimination the views on rudeness differ from person to person. Matt, in particular, said that it doesn’t matter how people treat you. (personal interview, 16 April 2012) We can only hope it gets better as modification becomes more and more popular and people become more educated.
Modification Cleanliness and Laws
Cleanliness is probably the most controversial topic in body modification culture. Everyone has their own opinion about how a shop should be kept clean, what kind of jewelry should be used on initial piercings, and how educating people about body modification should be done. There are several associations that work to make body modification safer, since the U.S. Government appears to have little interest in doing so.
Some of the body modification associations are the Association of Professional Piercings (APP), Alliance of Professional Tattooists (APT), National Tattoo Association (NTA), and the Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals. All of them have the common goal of making their form of modification safer, promote education, and keep cleanliness standards high.
The biggest part of the sterilization process is the autoclave. An autoclave is a machine that heats things up to high temperatures to sterilize jewelry, scalpel handles, and tattoo machines. It is a key part to any body modification shop, because it kills the most germs. Needles and scalpel blades should always be new. (“Thrive Studios – Scarification,”).
Jewelry for initial piercings should be internally threaded or threadless according to the APP. Some people argue that step down externally threaded jewelry is okay, because when going through the new piercing the needle covers the screws. (Ouellette, Ryan, 2012). Some shops, shockingly, use externally threaded jewelry on the initial piercing, which causes problems because the jewelry can further traumatize the skin.
Information about how to tell if a modification shop is a good shop is available, but many people don’t know about sites that have such information. All of the modified people I interviewed believed that it should be talked about in mandatory health classes and have optional classes on modification available. “I’ve seen middle-schoolers with chest pieces, so [modification education is] definitely relevant.”(Matt, Personal Interview, 16 April 2012). “Parents usually don’t know much about piercings, either. Most people assume you just go to the mall, and piercing guns can be pretty scary.” (Troy, Personal Interview, 5 May 2012).
“A reputable professional won’t use a [piercing] gun for any piercing – even for earlobes.” (Picking Your Piercer). Most piercing guns cannot be sanitized therefore they are full of many germs and could even contain the hardy hepatitis virus, which is deadly. “Every time I’ve had my ears done with a piercing gun, I have gotten an infection.” (Sara, Personal Interview, 20 May 2012). “The gun forces a blunt stud through the skin, causing it to literally rip in order to make room for the jewelry. Then, it pinches the back of the jewelry in place snugly against the skin, allowing no way for the new wound to breathe and heal properly.” (“Piercing Gun Vs. The Needle”). The piecing needle causes much less trauma to the ear, and if you go to a good shop they will put the correct jewelry in. “Mall piercers gave me bad aftercare advice.” (Sara, Personal Interview, 20 May 2012) Mall piercers typically tell you to turn your piercing. Piercing professionals believe this method to be out dated, and that you should touch your piercing as little as possible. These mall piercers receive about two weeks of training,(“Piercing Gun Vs. The Needle”) where as a professional piercer will usually go through a minimum of 2 years of training, called an apprenticeship.
“In an analysis of several dozen past studies, CDC researchers found that tattoos from non-professionals appear to carry a risk of the blood-borne liver infection hepatitis C. That included tattoos done by friends or family, or ones done in prison” (“Amateur tattoos” 7 Feb. 2012). Tattoos need to be done in a professional environment and there needs to be an autoclave so that the tattoo machine, and scalpel handle can be sanitized. “Amateur Tattoos” also stated that “there was no evidence that tattoos done by professionals carried a hepatitis C risk.”
When laws are in place that get rid of bad shops, diseases amongst the modified go down to the national average (Urbanus et al., 2011). “Tattoo and piercing shops are checked by the same people who check restaurants [in Ohio],” said Matt (personal interview, 16 April 2012). Modification shops and restaurants are hardly the same thing therefore, modification shops being checked over by the people who regulate restaurants doesn’t make sense. Most of the people I interviewed agreed that modification places need their own specific qualifications instead of being lumped in with restaurants.
Some people aren’t so sure it’s a good idea to get the government involved. People fear the government will take away the right to do what we want with our bodies (Modify, 2005). Unfortunately, this is quite possible. In fact, in some states some modification is illegal and some states are working on making more and more body modification illegal unless done by a medical professional (Modify, 2005). Even fairly simple modifications, like microdermals, are sometimes at risk for being made illegal (Weber, 16 Dec. 2009).
Cleanliness is very important in the modification world, thus the controversy on how things should be done. What it really comes down to is this: Does the shop value making money over customer safety? If a shop values safety and cleanliness, they’ll spend more money on jewelry, needles, and scalpel blades, even though they may not get as many customers because the modification will cost more. Once more people are educated enough to know the correct safety precautions it shouldn’t be as much of an issue. When laws are passed about modification safety, diseases decrease amongst modified individuals goes down to the national average (Urbanus et al., 2011). When people can no longer go to less than professional shops because of legislation, unknowing customers will no longer fall victim to diseases and botched modifications.
Painting your nails, tattooing, dying your hair, body building, plastic surgery, and scarification are all modifications. Some are just more accepted in our culture than others. Modification is a spectrum though it is often not seen that way.
Probably one of the best things outsiders can learn is not to touch a person’s modifications without asking. Most people, modified or otherwise, don’t like strangers coming up and touching them. Therefore, it is not okay for the curious to touch the modified person without permission. Most modified people understand genuine curiosity and won’t mind questions, but keep in mind some things might be personal.
Going to a good shop for a modification is one of the most important things you can do for yourself, even though it costs more. Educating people before they are old enough to start wanting modifications is key. Not being educated can result in bad modifications, infections, and diseases which could result in a painful ending to one’s life. Good health is worth the extra money, so don’t go to a shop that doesn’t meet standards, or to someone’s house or basement. Getting modified in a friend’s basement is very dangerous since people don’t generally own autoclaves, and a pressure cooker is highly inadequate to the task of sterilization.
*All names have been changed
Body Modification –
to change somewhat the form or qualities of the body.
Conch Piercing –
A piercing through the deep bowl shaped part of the ear.
Externally Threaded –
Jewelry that has the screw on the outside of the jewelry. The screw comes in contact with the skin.
Gentian Violet –
a dye derived from rosaniline, used in chemistry as an indicator and in medicine as a fungicide, bactericide, anthelmintic, and in the treatment of burns.
A piece of jewelry that connects one piercing to another.
Internally Threaded –
Jewelry that has a screw on the inside of the jewelry. The screw does not come in contact with the skin.
A piercing that goes through the philtrum.
A piece of surgical steel that is partially under the skin and partially above the skin. The part that sticks up above the skin is typically adorned with a jewel.
is a medial cleft common to many mammals, extending from the nose to the upper lip.
A piece of jewelry that is placed into a bigger hole in the body.
Septum – S
eparates the left and right airways in the nose, dividing the two nostrils.
– Tattoos that cover the entire arm.
Steep Down Externally Threaded –
Jewelry that has the screw on the outside, but the screw is smaller than the jewelry itself. The screw does not come in contact with the piercing initially, because the needle covers the screw. After the initial piercing the screw will come in contact with the skin.
A piercing that has been made bigger by slowly putting bigger jewelry in the piercing.
Subdermal Implant –
An implant that is placed under the skin. The implant can be many shapes.
Jewelry that has no screw.
“Small protrusion of cartilage that juts out from the face over the center of the ear canal.” (Angel, Elayne)
“Amateur tattoos carry hepatitis C risk: CDC.” Reuters. Issues & Controversies. Facts On File News Services, 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 26 May 2012.
Angel, Elayne. The Piercing Bible: The Definitive Guide to Safe Body Piercing. Berkeley: Crossing, 2009. Print.
“Apprenticeship.” AskBME. Web. 20 May 2012.
Association of Professional Piercers. Picking Your Piercer. Association of Professional Piercers. Print.
Author’s Photo. Hell City Tattoo Festival Flash Art Area. 5 May 2012.
Author’s Photo. Hell City Tattoo Festival Tattoo Room. 5 May 2012.
“Evolved.” Evolved. 21 May 2012. Web. 23 May 2012.
Kaminer, Ariel. “The Nose Ring of Truth.” New York Times Magazine 6 Nov. 2011: 21. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 May 2012.
Martino, Sara, and David Lester. “Perceptions of Visible Piercings: A Pilot Study.” Psychological Reports Dec. 2011: 755-58. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 May 2012.
Matt. Personal interview. 16 April 2012.
. Dir. Jason Gary and Greg Jacobson. 2005. Netflix.
Ouellette, Ryan. “Step-Down Threading.” The Point 2012: 10-12. Print.
“Piercing Gun Vs. The Needle.” About.com Tattoos / Body Piercings. Web. 20 May 2012.
Sara. Personal interview. 20 May 2012.
Stirn, Aglaja, Silvia Oddo, Ludmila Peregrinova, Swetlana Philipp, and Andreas Hinz.
‘Motivations for Body Piercings and Tattoos — The Role of Sexual Abuse and the Frequency of Body Modifications.” Psychiatry Research 190.2/3 (2011): 359-63. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 May 2012.
“Thrive Studios – Scarification.” Thrive Studios – Scarification. Web. 20 May 2012.
Troy. Personal interview. 5 May 2012.
Urbanus, Anouk T., Anneke Ven Den Houk, Albert Boonstra, Robin Van Houdt, Lotte J. De Bruijn, Titia Heijman, Roel A. Coutinho, and Maria Prins. “People with Multiple Tattoos And/or Piercings Are Not at Increased Risk for HBV or HCV in The Netherlands.” PLoS ONE 6.9 (2011): 1-6. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 May 2012.
Weber, James. “BME: Tattoo, Piercing and Body Modification News Â» APP Â» Surface Anchors, Punches, and Legislation Issues.” BME: Tattoo, Piercing and Body Modification News Â» APP Â» Surface Anchors, Punches, and Legislation Issues. 16 Dec. 2009. Web. 30 May 2012.