When Josh Burdette cuts a path through a crowded room, people notice. Actually, people stare. Occasionally they drop something or walk into walls as they gape, dumbfounded.
Piercings glint over Burdette’s eyebrows and the bridge of his nose. Steel curled tusks a half-inch in diameter protrude from his septum. But most striking of all are his ears. Through years of gradual stretching, he now wears ebony plugs more than 2 inches wide in his lobes.
Head shaved and swathed in black, chains and dark shades, Burdette resembles a modern Buddha with a streak of badass. The 23-year-old from the Washington, D.C., area was in Detroit recently for RABcon — a gathering of the denizens of rec.art.bodyart, the Usenet newsgroup dedicated to discussions of body modifications.
The gathering showed a diverse cross section of the participants. In addition to the prerequisite tattoos and piercings, many attendees were also sporting the latest progression of the body-art stratum — ritual body modifications from other cultures, such as cutting, branding and earlobe stretching.
Of course, body art is nothing new; the human race has been practicing adornment since the dawn of time; in Marks of Civilization, a book edited by A. Rubin, there’s an extensive discussion of these practices. In Western culture, piercing and tattooing — also appropriated from other cultures and once considered bizarre — are now so commonplace they can hardly be called alternative anymore.
Partly because of this, the gradual mainstreaming of body art has opened the door to what appears to be the next phase of progression: scarification. Again, nothing new — but as exposure broadens and knowledge spreads, these modifications are beginning to gain popularity and visibility among the pierced and tattooed set. And as body art becomes more widespread, enthusiasts are employing their own modern spin — neon-green ear plugs, cuttings of contemporary designs, brands of initials.
But what comes with this appropriation of the marks of other cultures? Is it a deeper understanding and appreciation of foreign customs? A highly personal expression of significance? Or is it just the next big trend?
The body art community has a complicated set of subcultures within subcultures, derived from different levels of modification and intensity. Body modifications themselves (or bodmods, as they are often called) can be loosely divided into three segments. Mainstream mods include piercings and tattoos. Extreme mods belong to a predominantly underground subculture below the radar level of the general public and consist of facial tattooing, tongue splitting, teeth filing, severe genital modification, even castration and amputation. What lies between the two is a loosely defined middle ground that revolves around scarification, and gradually more of the mainstream-modded are wading into its waters.
Modern scarification is practiced both as an at-home procedure and by specialists. While some choose to scar or brand themselves, most of those with larger or more intricate designs in mind choose to go to a specialist, who usually works out of a piercing or tattooing studio.
Professional cuttings are performed with a scalpel, while some at-home cuttings employ a razor, knife or other sharp implement. The cuts must be deep enough to produce a scar, but not so deep as to strike any blood vessels.
Scarification is different from other forms of body modification where the goal is to heal as quickly as possible; with scarification, it’s necessary to irritate the wounds during healing — by picking the scab or scrubbing it with a brush — to encourage a dark, permanent scar.
Health risks are always present when the skin is broken, but if proper precautions are taken, infection risks can be kept to a minimum. In any case, sterile instruments and meticulous aftercare are key to proper healing.
Anyone with a visible modification has probably been asked, at some point, “Why?”
The answer is anything but simple, and depends on the individual. Many use their modded appearances as a barometer for society; a way of filtering out the judgmental and closed-minded. Some define their modifications as a physical inscription of psychological battle scars, a means of physically marking an important milestone in life.
Clearly, such heavy meanings are not conveyed by every person; some do it simply because they are attracted to the aesthetic look, a few are simply hopping onto the latest bandwagon.
Western, urban modified
Burdette, a recent graduate with a degree in psychology, who works as head of security at a nightclub, is an ongoing work of art. In addition to his stretched earlobes, he is also tattooed, cut and branded.
At 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds, Burdette realized early on that his body would never be considered “normal.” He first pierced his ears at 12, and began stretching the holes early on in his bodmod career.
“When people ask me how big I’m planning on going, I simply say ‘bigger’,” he says. “I don’t know how far they will go. I only know that this process is not finished yet. My journey is still happening, and I don’t know where it’s going to end.”
All of his mods have deep personal significance, and he never attempts to hide them. “It’s not about other people. It’s not about bucking the system. It’s not about setting a trend. It’s about listening to my body and doing what is right for me,” he says.
“If someone doesn’t want to talk to me because of the way I look, I’ll talk to someone else. If someone doesn’t hire me, I’ll get another job. If someone wants to ask me the same question I’ve been asked a hundred times, I’ll answer it politely as long as they are polite about it. I am willing to accept any and all consequences of my choices about my body. That’s part of the deal, and I have known it all along.”
Fear and loathing
While often a source of intrigue and amusement, Burdette is also a source of fear to many who encounter him, and it’s not just because of his size. Scarification and extreme earlobe stretching like his touch the uninitiated in a deep, primitive way that probes the innermost struggle between deviance and social acquiescence.
It appeals to the car wreck-gawking compulsion in all of us — we are equally disgusted and entranced, and can’t tear our eyes away.
Burdette says one of his favorite hobbies is to watch people as they watch him. “Most of the time I get stares, but every once in a while someone does a full 180,” he says.
The weekend of the convention, I took Burdette down to Eastern Market for a stroll. Though I have known him for several years, I had never really stopped to watch the reactions of his gawkers. This time I made a conscientious effort, and was amazed.
Literally everyone who passes him stares. More than a few take a step back. A little boy’s eyes widen as he wildly points and tugs his mother’s sleeve, as though he has just encountered a real-life cartoon character. His mother quickly hustles him in the other direction. We pass a burly biker type who smiles and flashes a thumbs up. I get to witness at least one 180-degree gawk. An older woman tags after us, hammering questions in rapid fire — “What is that in your ear? How did you do that? Didn’t that hurt?”
“I think this place isn’t ready for me yet,” Burdette whispers to me with a sly smile. I simply can’t imagine living every day of my life evoking as much attention as he does.
Why do these mods invoke such a visceral reaction? Aside from the shock of someone’s abnormal appearance, it’s possible that the main driving force is fear; fear of the unknown, the incomprehensible, and the primal fear of pain.
“Didn’t that hurt?” people gasp, with a look of mixed horror and entrancement. Translation: “Are you crazy?”
It’s hard for many people to accept that anyone would voluntarily choose to inflict pain on themselves. Mainstream society thinks of pain as something to be avoided at all costs, while in modification, pain is an integral and necessary part of the process. Without pain, the modification loses partial — if not all — meaning and significance. Pain is a mark of passing; one must endure the pain to enjoy the final, aesthetically appealing and psychologically triumphant result.
Body art enthusiast Heidi Anderson of Cleveland describes the pain spectrum of the cutting she received below her navel.
“The first second or so was painless. Then I could feel my flesh splitting open under the sharp blade. It felt exactly like someone was cutting my skin with a scalpel, and I really can’t explain it any better than that. I could feel the two sides of the cut parting. The pain followed the blade, leaving no pain in its wake. I felt like I entered a sparkling world of tinkling glass, and time moved forward in quantized moments. And then it was over. The next step involved rubbing sand moistened with alcohol into the cut. At first it felt cool, and then it started stinging. It also tickled. I couldn’t stop giggling. This cool/burning/stinging/tickling sensation is absolutely indescribable. It is the strangest feeling I have ever felt. It hurt, yes, but also felt good.”
Breast implants and other tribal markings
Many of these modifications can be described as tribal markings, in reference to the African and South Pacific tribes who originated them. But the tribal analogy is easily extended: The tribe of traditional Western society decorates itself in a manner that reflects its socially accepted norms — delicate jewelry, breast implants, nose jobs. Tribes of other cultures decorate themselves in their socially accepted norms — ritual brandings and cuttings, stretched lobes, wooden lip plugs.
When a member of the Western tribe utilizes decoration from a foreign tribe, it immediately becomes a mark of the unknown, and therefore the feared and the shunned.
In some circles of extreme modification, 3-D implants are popular — the procedure involves implanting small, circular pieces of Teflon or other materials under the skin, which create the look of ridged bumps, or, if placed on the forehead, horns. Technically speaking, they’re not that different from breast implants — but by Western standards, one is considered attractive and the other downright repulsive.
Clearly, the issue of beauty standards comes into play; in Africa, complex scarring patterns featuring keloids (raised bumps of scar tissue) are considered a mark of high beauty for women, while in America, large breasts are desirable. But where modern body art is a celebration of the body and meant to be noticed as a blatant thumbing of the nose to society’s norm, plastic surgery is about disguising the procedure. It’s an attempt to make something wholly unnatural look natural, often due to intense body shame caused by this society’s ideals.
Garnet is a 23-year-old psychology graduate student from Cincinnati who attended RABcon. Mere days before the convention, she received a large, elaborate cutting on her torso.
When it comes to plastic surgery, she says, “I believe the line between critics and practitioners is often (defined by the) use of anesthesia or something producing a nonmainstream aesthetic. Society in general seems to think that enduring pain to achieve a nonmainstream aesthetic is unhealthy or insane.”
Garnet says she gained a fair amount of weight in college, and although happy with her life in general, she was somewhat uncomfortable with and self-conscious of her body due to the pervasive cult of thinness perpetuated by Western society.
“I wanted a big and bold design that accentuated my body. My breasts had become a bit bigger, and somewhat uncomfortable at times. It was a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, but this cutting has enhanced how they look. I feel with the design they look less out of place on my body.”
Mutilation vs. decoration
Trannie Carter is a 22-year-old computer programmer and former piercer from Grand Rapids who also attended the convention. A quiet and reserved person, Carter has been adding elaborate cuttings to his body for several years now.
Rarely does one find someone who can speak so eloquently about their own modifications, and Carter’s words paint a powerful picture of the motivations behind his markings:
“There is so much beauty in seeing a scalpel open your skin and then looking deep within yourself through that perfect, clean white wound,” he says.
“Then the blood comes and washes everything. Blood is a very powerful symbol. I hate that it’s become so associated with death. People fear it because it represents pain and disease. There is no time when you are more alive than when you’re bleeding. Blood is life.”
I asked him why he practices cutting and other modifications. “There is no one purpose for me; there’s just so many aspects to body modification,” he answered. “I use it to claim ownership to my community. Separate myself from others, challenge myself. It also fills certain psychosocial needs that are largely unprovided for elsewhere. The physical and emotional sense of being close to someone is something that I generally lack, and I think my continuing bodmod interests stem from a desire to renew that bond. The texture of my scars invites people to touch, and I generally like it when they do. It’s another way to attain a sort of touch.”
Many psychologists, both professional and armchair, have charged that scarification is nothing more than a mutilation practiced by those with psychological disturbances, along the lines of cutters — people who habitually injure themselves — and anorexics. Most body art enthusiasts quickly and irately deny this charge, stating that scarifications are usually planned out well in advance, and serve as a decoration and celebration of the body, not a punishment.
In most cases, this is true; however, Carter contends that the line is sometimes not a clear one.
“Mutilation is in the eye of the beholder. It can be a harmless and beautiful way of dealing with different stresses, but some people think that using body modification as a response to stress is deeply wrong and deviant. But even those people make use of it, even if it’s a bit further down the continuum.
“Have you ever been so angry that all you can do to control yourself is to clench your fists and feel your nails bury themselves in your palms? That pain focuses you and allows you to deal with your anger. There are times and feelings that call for something more than clenching a fist. Cuttings (and other body modifications) can answer that call.
“There are times when I feel lonely or angry at myself that I want to do a cutting. Those impulses really aren’t the best way to handle such feelings, and I do think most of my cuttings that I did myself could be lumped into the category of mutilation, but I don’t think that’s a necessarily bad thing, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. The more I learn about myself, the more I recognize why I do some of the things I do, and can guide myself in a more constructive directions.”
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