Beautiful scars: an extreme form of body modification

By in Culture

The Navigator (Vancouver Island University)

NANAIMO, B.C. (CUP) — Every scar has a story. It might recall past struggles and pain, courage and bravery, or mistakes and sheer stupidity. It could be the result of an accident, a life-saving procedure or the birth of a child. It can even be the physical expression of a hurting spirit.

Scars often draw powerful and visceral reactions from their observers, whether sympathy, concern or machismo respect and admiration. That’s because most people view them as violations of an unwilling body.

Others, however, choose to have patterns, symbols and words carved into their skin in order to be meaningfully and permanently marked. This is scarification, a form of body modification that originated in equatorial cultures but is now attracting adherents in Western culture.

Damien Kenny is one of these people. He sports heavily-tattooed skin, numerous piercings, surgically-pointed ears and four small spikes implanted in his shaved scalp. He also regularly pierces his face with wooden skewers and suspends his body from wires attached to hooks in his flesh. Finally, he has several scars that he personally burnt and carved into his legs.

“For me, it’s all about testing the limits of the human body,” he said as he calmly pointed out all of the modifications he and others have done to his own body. “And I have not and will not do anything to another person that I have not done to myself.”

A professional scarification practitioner and piercer, Kenny is the owner of Nanaimo’s Outer Rim Body Mod. He has practised body modification on himself and others for well over a decade. He learned his trade in the Fakir Intensives, a series of piercing and branding courses in California founded by Fakir Musafar, the so-called father of the modern primitive movement, who is credited with bringing body modification to the Western world.

Kenny continued his education by working in body modification shops and at conventions around the world, in countries including Finland, Australia, the U.S. and his native Ireland.

Kenny shows me two particular scars. The first is a large, thick, white geometric pattern in the back of his calf — a fully healed mark made a few years ago using a process called branding, which is scarification using heat or electricity.

The three main types of branding are strike branding, when a piece of heated metal is pressed into the skin; cautery branding, which uses soldering iron-type devices or, more commonly, medical electrocautery units to create instant burns; and moxibustion, which is placing pieces of pure incense onto the skin and allowing them to burn until they self-extinguish.

The scars produced are initially thin, but Kenny says that they always get bigger, to “about the width of a wide-tipped felt marker.” In general, branding scars are thicker and more pronounced than those made by other methods of scarification.

The second scar Kenny showed me was a thin red wound just above his left knee, shaped into the Devanagari symbol for Om. Delicately carved into the flesh only a few weeks earlier, the mark is an example of a practice called cutting. In this type of scarification, a design is cut into the skin using a sharp blade, usually a small medical scalpel. Typically, the cut is a few millimetres deep — about the same depth as a tattoo — so the scar left behind is thin, slightly raised and relatively precise. If the cut is deeper, though, the scar left behind will be thicker and more pronounced, as in branding.

Scarification is an ancient practice that started among hunter-gatherer societies, particularly dark-skinned equatorial peoples who have so much melanin in their skin that it is difficult to see a tattoo. According to a National Geographic article titled “Scarification: Ancient Body Art Leaving New Marks,” it began as a way to express “cultural identity, community status, a connection to ancestors or gods — and to mark rites of passage or to ”˜wear’ a permanent amulet.”

In some cultures, the raised marks were also considered beautifying. Maori men in New Zealand scarred their faces to look attractive to women, and women in Ethiopia’s Karo tribe with scarred torsos and chests are still considered particularly sensual.

In the article, Victoria Pitts, a sociology professor at the City University of New York, says scarification came to the U.S. in the mid-’80s as part of a new body modification movement, and was originally embraced by gay and lesbian subcultures.

By the mid-’90s, she says the practice was adopted by members of a neo tribal [modern primitive] movement that was “interested in reviving or [re-enacting] indigenous body rituals from around the world [and] trying to get in touch with a more authentic or spiritual experience of the body.”

Since then, scarification has spread across North America, Australia and Europe, and become, if not exactly mainstream, quite a bit less marginal.

Although Kenny practices both branding and cutting, he prefers the latter because cutting is more predictable in its healing and offers more control over the thickness and rising of the end result. Kenny also believes that cutting is the safer of the two simply because there is no visible blood in branding. With no bleeding involved, an inexperienced artist can do some serious damage to his or her customer, such as cutting through and cauterizing a major vein or artery, without knowing it.

Cutting, though, is the scariest type of scarification for most people. And it’s not hard to see why, as it involves scalpels, blood and pain. However, Kenny points out that it doesn’t involve “any greater depth of [tissue penetration], any more blood or any more pain than tattooing.” After all, tattooing is nothing more than being pierced several thousand times with ink-covered needles. The only difference is that cutting is silent and does not involve injecting a foreign substance into the body.

Fear of scalpels, however, is a little more difficult to explain away. For many, this trepidation is not caused by the instrument, but by the person behind it. One opinion is that professional scarification practitioners are acting more like surgeons than artists. But, Kenny says, this belief couldn’t be more wrong.

“I don’t think I’m a surgeon just because I use a scalpel. It’s completely different. I mean, just because you use a hammer doesn’t mean you’re a carpenter.”

Of course, scarification practitioners still need to have some knowledge of anatomy. Through training and later work experience, they learn to avoid vascular areas like the wrist, inner thighs and neck.

“It’s common sense,” said Darren Rinaldi, a professional piercer and brander, and owner of Nanaimo’s Tranceformations Tattoo and Body Piercing. “Stay away from the veins.”

Not everyone is quite so equable, though. Rinaldi says that he stopped branding — the only scarification form he practiced — at his studio two years ago because his insurance company refused to cover him if he continued.

“They said branding and cutting falls under ”˜practicing medicine without a licence’ due to the tools used and the invasiveness of the procedure,” he explained. “This isn’t really true, though. There is no legislation on scarification in Canada.”

The aforementioned fears only scratch the surface of the reservations people have about cutting and branding. Of all the negative associations that body modifiers must deal with, perhaps the most relentless is that between scarification and psychological distress.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, self-harm — also known as self-injury or self-mutilation — is the causing of mental, spiritual and physical injury to oneself without suicidal intent. Those who self-harm usually don’t know how to effectively express and deal with emotional issues such as loneliness, depression, anger, psychological pain, numbness or stress. Injuring themselves through practices like cutting or burning flesh is a coping mechanism that leads to immediate release of, and temporary relief from, negative emotions. The pain distracts from other problems, or, if the issue is numbness, allows them to feel something, or anything, again.

Body modification, on the other hand, is done for positive emotional reasons — perhaps simply to make one’s body more aesthetically pleasing. Another person, usually a professional artist, also does scarification. However, even those who cut or brand themselves just to see what will happen, what it feels like and how it scars, aren’t self-injurious, says Kenny. As long as there is no negative emotion involved, they’re just curious.

For others, the fact that it is a more hard core type of body modification than tattooing is reason enough to try it.

“People like to be bad,” Rinaldi said. “And some have a primal need to feel pain. It makes one feel alive.”

That might sound the same as needing to feel something, anything, at all, but many practitioners speak of scarification in nearly mystic tones.

“It is a very real experience that brings light to the soul, pain to the dead and life to those who hold out for hope,” said Rob Carlson, a Vancouver Island University student with two brandings. “There is something very sensual about allowing pain to willingly enter your body by any means. This pain allows you to breathe once more.”

Carlson says his brands now remind him of “monumental changes in [his] life” and that they are also symbols of his mother, as both were made using pendants she had given him. In fact his first brand, a Celtic eternal flame over his heart, was done specifically to honour his mother.

Kenny notes that many people get body modifications because it helps them learn about themselves.

“It stems from the inherent human need for some kind of coming-of-age,” he says.

There is no such ritual or ceremony in the Western world, but scarification, or any body modification for that matter, allows people to approach something they fear — like blood, pain, needles or scalpels — and overcome it.

“I think cutting is beneficial spiritually and psychologically. Even if you get a cutting and it disappears completely, perhaps due to shallow cuts or improper aftercare, it’s the procedure itself [that’s beneficial],” he says.

In a society where we often define ourselves through appearance, it’s hardly surprising, argues sociologist Pitts, that scarification has caught on in Western culture.

“The problem is that we’re taking it upon ourselves to represent a whole range of indigenous cultures in ways that they may not agree with, or may violate sacred spiritual ritual.”

But for most practitioners, it’s not about continuing an ancient ceremony. For them, scarification is about practicing an art form and making a buck. It’s not them who give meaning to the scars they make — that task is for the people who choose to be permanently marked with patterns, symbols and words carved or burned into their skin.

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image: Mathieu Jarry/Flickr