Friday, October 22, 1999

Modern Body Mod: The Past, Present and Future of Body Modification

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #115, October 22, 1999)

PHOTO SUGGESTIONS: On Wednesday I’ll be bringing in some photos of interesting and splashy tattoos.

Like VCRs, microwave ovens, PCs and cell phones, body modification (piercing, tattooing, etc.) has recently become commonplace in western culture. Unlike those newfangled devices, however, body modification is not even remotely new. In ancient Egypt a pierced ear was the mark of a slave, and for about five thousand years circumcision has been one of the world’s most popular body modifications. (I bet you never thought of it that way, did you? It qualifies.) But while circumcision has been accepted and even mandated by the Judeo-Christian culture, most other forms of body modification have been seen as sinful (defiling the temple, you know) and down through the years people who practiced body modification have been viewed with suspicion.

A few hundred years ago, the only men who either wore tattoos or had pierced ears were pirates. Such body modifications were the mark of outlaws and outcasts, someone who didn’t play by society’s rules. Pirates were feared and reviled; paradoxically, they were also romanticized at the same time. Oh, to be so swashbuckling and to live so dangerously! Women swooned and men were subtly envious.

Even in more recent times, tattoos still carried a less-than-savory reputation. The stereotype was that a tattoo was something drunken sailors (notice the nautical connection again) got while on shore leave, and when they sobered up they supposedly regretted it. They especially regretted it if they broke up with their girl after having her name tattooed on their arm. (Today’s drunken sailors can have their tattoos removed by laser technology, assuming they can come up with the money it costs.)

Body piercing got even less respect. While it was all right for a woman to have her ears pierced, it was still an outlaw thing for a man to wear an earring. As for piercing other parts of the body, for either sex it was completely unacceptable. If tattoos were the mark of an outlaw, body piercing was the mark of a savage. Certain American Indian tribes, notably the Nez Perce (which in French means “pierced nose”) had septum piercings, and certain African tribes did fascinating things with ear and lip piercings. But body piercing was something a “civilized” person simply wouldn’t think of doing.

Except, of course, for Prince Albert and his Prince Albert, which in Victorian times was known as a “dressing ring.” It was all strictly practical, of course—men of that era used dressing rings to keep their penis strapped tightly against their leg, thereby minimizing unsightly bulges in the fashionably tight trousers of the day. In Albert’s case the dressing ring offered a second benefit: supposedly he was uncircumcised, and by keeping his foreskin pulled back the dressing ring cut down on odor (wouldn’t want to offend the Queen, would we?)

Well, that was then. As the world’s odometer prepares to roll over to another big set of zeroes, body modifications like piercing (not just ears—anything and everything) and tattoos have become positively mainstream. Rather than being the mark of an outlaw, for some people they have almost become a statement of conformity. In today’s leather world your humble columnist, who has no piercings and no tattoos, finds himself becoming the nonconformist.

Why do people get tattooed or pierced anyway? The most frequent reason I hear is “It’s a way of asserting” (or “reclaiming”) “control over my body.” If someone is raped, or survives cancer, or gets out of a bad relationship, or comes out of the closet, they get a tattoo or a piercing as a symbol of celebration to themselves that they survived the ordeal, they’re still here, and now they’re in control. People also tell me they enjoy the natural high caused by the anticipation of getting the piercing or tattoo, and the excitement while it’s being done. That high can be quite addicting, leading people to do it again and again. Many people like the decorative and creative aspect of tattoos and piercings, and they can also be markers for what a person likes sexually. Having a nipple pierced, for example, can make it more sensitive, and the jewelry also draws amorous attention to the area.

If tattoos and piercings are becoming commonplace, what’s a person to do if they want to shock? The next hot thing in body modification—literally—is branding. Following the analogies above, branding goes beyond outlaw and beyond savage, all the way to animal. But I’m hearing more and more about it, and at least one advertiser in Lavender is already offering branding services. In ten years, will it be as ubiquitous as piercings and tattoos are today? Wait and see.

Scarification (cutting) is also becoming more popular. Cutting, knives, and blood sports in general seem to hold more attraction for women than for men. I never quite understood why until a local group of leatherwomen explained to me that women are forced by menstruation to become extremely familiar with blood—bleeding is a normal part of their life in a way that it isn’t for men.

If you’re contemplating some sort of body modification, use common sense. These procedures are not for amateurs; people have showed me tattoos they claimed they did themselves using a ballpoint pen, but this is not recommended procedure. And don’t try to experiment with branding by grabbing the rosette iron out of the kitchen drawer. Borrowing from the “this is your brain on drugs” frying-pan ads, consider what happens to an egg (or a hamburger) if you throw it in a cast-iron frying pan that isn’t hot enough, or that isn’t seasoned well. It sticks, and it’s a mess. Any questions?

Before you surrender to your passion, learn about what can go wrong (hepatitis from contaminated tattoo needles or ink, piercings that become infected or are rejected) and what can be done to avoid problems. That way you’ll be able to select a good practitioner instead of a questionable one. For all forms of body modification sterile procedure, expert technique, and scrupulous attention to detail are the essentials that make the difference between a fantastic, fulfulling experience and a tragic one.

Why, after so many thousands of years of getting no respect, has body modification suddenly become so acceptable? I have my own theories, as do many other folks, but we’ll save them for another column.

Mark Your Calendars

On Friday, November 5, a fundraiser will be held for the Mr. and Ms. Minnesota Olympus Leather Contest. The event will be at The Minneapolis Eagle, 7-10 PM. (While you’re marking that on your calendar, also mark that the contest itself will be held on December 10 and 12.)

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Friday, October 29

Minneapolis Eagle Halloween Weekend Party: Trick or Treat (Guaranteed)
For details visit The Minneapolis Eagle’s website at

Saturday, October 30

Minneapolis Eagle Halloween Weekend Party: Uniform Contest
Whether you like to wear ’em or watch ’em, come on down! For details visit The Minneapolis Eagle’s website at

Sunday, October 31

Minneapolis Eagle Halloween Weekend Party: Costume Contest
For details visit The Minneapolis Eagle’s website at

PHOTOS: A gallery of tattoos: Porn star Steve Cannon, Mr. Wisconsin Leatherman 1999 Andrew Sagan, and Ashley Rukes, perennial organizer of the Twin Cities Pride Parade. (Rukes’ tattoo is based on a design by your humble columnist.)

EDITOR: The picture of Steve Cannon is the one that also has me, but I was thinking you would just show Cannon’s arm and nipple piercing by putting another photo over my face and his crotch. That way this image would be shaped like an upside-down “L.” The guy with the boot tattooed on his back is Andrew Sagan, and the “Pride=Power” logo is Ashley Rukes.

I am giving you the picture of Steve Cannon as a second choice--the picture I really wanted to use is one of International Mr. Leather 1996 Joe Gallagher, who has a fabulous tattoo on his back. Every time he has his shirt off and turns his back on the crowd, they go wild! I was sure I had a photo of it somewhere, but I’ve not been able to find it. So I e-mailed Joe and asked him if he had one in electronic form, suitable for printing in a magazine, that he could send me. If I get it, I’ll forward it on to you. If all this happens, the caption should read as follows:

A gallery of tattoos: International Mr. Leather 1996 Joe Gallagher, Mr. Wisconsin Leatherman 1999 Andrew Sagan, and Ashley Rukes, perennial organizer of the Twin Cities Pride Parade. (Rukes’ tattoo is based on a design by your humble columnist.)

PHOTO CREDIT: You can still credit Sagan and Rukes to me. I’ll supply information about the Gallagher photo when I get it.

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