Body modification, the deliberate altering of one’s body, has become an everyday sight in today’s culture. Tattoos and piercings are some of the most common body modifications in Western culture. However, they are not a new invention and can in fact be traced back to thousands of years ago.
The earliest known tattoos are those on Otzi the Iceman, whose mummified corpse was excavated in 1991. It was found that Otzi had several carbon tattoos of groups of short, parallel vertical lines along his spine, as well as some markings around his ankles. The presence of tattoos on Otzi, who dates back to around 3300 BC, suggests that body modifications had already been in practice long ago.
Tattooing was also evident in ancient China, particularly in the Zhou Dynasty, where bodies were found featuring tattoos that are believed to have been used as an act of defiance against the traditional code of conduct. In ancient Egypt and India, tattoos were common as body adornment. In fact, there was an ancient Filipino city that was dubbed “The Island of the Painted Ones” due to the intricate full body tattoos people wore there.
In more recent history a few centuries ago, tattoos were commonly associated with outlaws and outcasts, namely pirates. Tattooing was also seen as a rash act a drunk man might do, imprinting the name of a woman he loved on his arm, and then perhaps regretting it later if he broke up with her or no longer fancied her.
These days, tattoos have become a conventional practice in many modern cities, although there remain some who still regard tattooing as a taboo practice. Modern tattoos are often used to symbolize a person’s experience, belonging or a cause the person believes in. Although tattoos are still used as the marks of gangsters today, a large number of non-gangsters have also chosen to modify their bodies with tattoos. Tattoos are performed almost anywhere on the body, including on the sclera (eye whites).
While tattoos may have had unsavory connotations throughout most of history, piercings – at least only on certain areas – were more accepted. Some early mentions of piercings can actually be found in Biblical scriptures, defined as the literal puncturing of the skin or parts of the body.
Today, we see all sorts of piercings on every part of the body, just like tattoos. The most frequently seen piercings are ear piercings, which have been common worldwide, although for a time until recently it was mostly only socially acceptable when practiced by women. Exceptions are in some ancient civilizations where ear piercings were performed regardless of gender. For instance, in ancient Egypt, slaves had an ear pierced as a marking. Traditional ear piercings all over the world were only done on the earlobes, but other types of ear piercings are becoming increasingly common.
Nose piercings are the next most frequent piercings, having been practiced in historical tribal culture as well. Being in the center of the face, the nose has always been a focal point and a place for people to adorn themselves. It is believed that nose piercing originated some few thousand years ago in the Middle East. Today, some cultures still practice nose piercing as part of tradition. For instance, women in India usually pierce their left nostril as it is thought to represent femininity, childbirth and reproduction in spiritual practice and Ayurveda medicine. A woman with a nose piercing is believed to have increased fertility and fewer problems with menstruation and birthing.
Septum piercings are similar to nose piercings in that they were historically practiced by tribes as part of cultural tradition, particularly the tribes in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, South and Central America, the Australian Aborigines and Asia.
Tongue piercings were traditionally practiced by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs as a bloodletting ritual. They believed that by drawing blood through tongue piercings, they would bring honor to the gods and attain heightened spiritual conscience by being able to communicate with the spirits.
Lip piercings have been practiced by a number of tribes across Africa and Central and South America. In some cases, the lip piercings are stretched to fit larger wood or clay plates. Lip piercing is traditionally considered to be a statement of beauty and a rite of passage.
A more modern form of piercings is surface piercing, which goes through the surface of a layer of skin on the body instead of an entire piece of tissue. Surface piercings generally take a longer time to heal. They include eyebrow, neck, wrist and hip piercings. Some types of surface piercings are known as temporary or play piercings, such as corset piercings, as they need to be removed after a period of time or the skin may reject the piercing. These are more commonly practiced in the body modification community in modern times.
Another less common form of body modification is scarification, which was more often practiced by ancient tribes than it is today. It is believed that scarification originated in the tribes whose people had darker skin and thus found tattoos to be less effective. As such, they created the scarification technique, including skin branding, which makes use of scratching, cutting, burning or etching designs into the skin. After the skin has healed, the result is an aesthetic scar.
Scarification was practiced together with the resurgence of body modification in the 1980s, particularly with fraternities, where members would brand symbols of their house on their skin to symbolize eternal belonging. Today, scarification is offered by many body modification artists mainly as an aesthetic practice. Some people may opt for scarification instead of tattooing if they do not wish to have ink or foreign pigments in their skin. However, the practice has been banned in some countries, such as Britain and some parts of the United States.
Implantation is mostly a modern procedure, involving the surgical process of placing a foreign object or substance beneath the skin so that it forms part of the body. Implants have become more common with the increasing availability of healthcare. One of the most common implants is the breast implant, which is commonly used in breast augmentation surgery to increase the size of a woman’s bust. There are also other related procedures such as butt, thigh and calf implants.
Other types of implants include transdermal implants such as metal spikes, horns or transdermal jewelry. Procedures for these implants will permanently place these augmentations in the body. However, these implants can be more risky than other body modification procedures as the healing process tends to take a long time and the skin could possibly reject the implants. Although the popularity of transdermal implants is growing in the body modification community, not many surgeons will willingly conduct these procedures.