A Brief History of Body Modification

To Understand the Present You Must First Look Into the Past

Recently, Richmond, Virginia was announced “The 3rd Most Tattooed City in North America.” If you live anywhere near River City, you’ve seen it: there are thousands of beautiful and unique body modifcations dawning the skins of those who call this place home. In a city where it seems the norm is to have at least one tattoo or three; it is hard to remember that in other parts of the country many who chose to modify are still greeted with feelings of stigma and misunderstanding. For many people, such as myself, body modification (such as tattoos, piercings, scarification, branding, shaping, stretching, and implantations) is not just a beautiful way of turning your naked skin into a walking canvas, but a rite of passage, a way to mark something important in your life, a tribute, a spiritual seeking or experience, and a way to express one’s deepest self. But in order to understand the various reasons behind body modifications, you have to go back and look at its origins.

The Multiple Faces of Modification

The earliest documented cases of body modification can be traced back to the world’s earliest civilizations. If we break down the term “body modification” to its simplest form, you get the definition that body modification is the deliberate alerting of one’s physical body or person. That definition spans from simplest form of putting on makeup, decorative jewelry, fashion (all of which are not permanent and can be altered to serve a specific need or mood or cultural phenomena) to tattooing, piercing, scarification, branding and implantations (all of which serve as more permanent in measure). 

A Brief History of Tattoos

Tattooing, which is the act of inserting types of ink into the dermis layer of the skin for various reasons, can be traced back as far as ten thousand years ago.  Many early civilizations have references in script or art that represent aspects of tattooing. In fact, in 1991 the discovery of “Otzi the Iceman” radically pushed the notion of tattoos into the newspaper’s front pages. The excavation of Otzi showed that the his mummified corpse had several carbon tattoos including groups of short, parallel, vertical lines to both sides of his spine, along with several markings around the ankles. This discovery documented physical evidence that tattooing had existed as far back as 3255 BC.  Until the discovery of Otzi’s body, the earliest human visuals of tattoos were found on corpses of members of ancient Chinese Dynasties; most notoriously the Zhou Dynasty which has evidence of tattooing being used an act of defiance against traditional code of conducts, as well as a darker history of being the marker of criminals and bandits. In ancient Egypt and India, tattooing was a popular form of adornment and there is even evidence of an ancient Filipino city that was known for their intricate full body tattoos; “The Island of the Painted Ones”. There have been several methods of tattooing that have been used throughout history; hand-tapping, administering with a single needle and today’s use of a tattoo “gun” are a few examples. But no matter what method a tattoo has been conducted, the reasons behind it have always been complex, intricate, and also a unique part of human evolution and culture.

Beautiful Full Back Tattoo
Beautiful Full Back Tattoo

A Brief History of Piercings

Piercings, both facial and bodily, are actually mentioned in scriptures of the Bible (In Genesis 24:22 and Isaiah 3:21). Piercing is defined as literally puncturing or penetrating the skin, or parts of the body. Ear piercing is perhaps the most well known and most common type of piercing and can be found worldwide. It is a universal concept and practiced by both men and women alike. The second most commonly found piercing is nose piercing. The nose has always been a focal point of the face as it is located in the very center. For this reason, many tribes and cultures throughout history have chosen to adorn their noses with piercings. The practice of nose piercing is said to have originated in the Middle East and can be traced as far back as five thousand years ago. In India for example, females traditionally pierce their left nostrils because of its association with the spiritual practice of Ayurveda (a traditional holistic medicine), and its symbolic representation of femininity, childbirth and reproduction. It is considered to bring good luck to women who are with child and to lessen problems that may be associated with menstruation pains and birthing complications.  Tongue piercing, on the other hand, was practiced as a bloodletting ritual by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs; who would pierce the tongue to let blood as an honor to the gods and as a means to attain a heightened spiritual conscience allowing for communication between the spirits and man. Like nose piercings, septum piercings are also commonly found through various indigenous tribes and populations.  The septum piercing is extremely prevalent in tribes of the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Australian Aborigines, tribes of Central America, South America, and across Asia. Interestingly enough, septum piercing was also highly prevalent among certain Native American tribes; particularly the Nez Perc tribe of Washington state, whose very name comes from its piercing origin (Nez Perc means “nose pierced” in French; who’s fur traders gave the tribe their name). Lip piercings have also been documented well throughout various tribes and have been used symbolically for various reasons. In several tribes across Africa, Central and South America, lip piercings are often stretched to large proportions and clay plates or wood is inserted.  The lip piercing is commonly associated with a rite of passage and as a statement of beauty in many of these tribes.  Surface piercings are piercings which transverse a  surface layer of skin on the body, instead of a piercing that completely runs through an entire piece of skin tissue, such as lip, ear, nose, navel, or nipple piercings. Because surfaces piercings are harder to heal; they are a relatively modern practice.  There are various types of surfaces piercings such as eyebrow, neck, wrist and hip. Many are known as temporary or “Play Piercings” such as Corset piercings, which due to greater chance of skin rejection can only be in place for a certain amount of time before it has to be removed. These piercings are often practiced as part of Body Modification conventions and gatherings, and also may play a part in the fetish or BDSM community. No matter what type of piercing or the reason behind the act, however, it is undeniable that piercing will remain an important part of our history. 

Gorgeous Septum, Monroe, and Labret Piercings
Gorgeous Septum, Monroe, and Labret Piercings

Branding and Scarification

Branding, Scarification though practiced extensively by many ancient cultures is still found to be more taboo in practice today.  It is known that branding and scarification practices originated amongst tribes along the equator whose darker skins, due to greater amounts of melanin produced in their  bodies, found tattooing to be harder and more ineffective resulting in adornment practices that could be displayed more easily amongst their skin. Branding can literally be defined as the act of burning into the skin. Scarification encompasses the term Branding as scarification is the practice of scratching, cutting, burning, or etching the skin with designs, words, or images. When healed, the result is a scar, but a scar that has aesthetic, spiritual and symbolic meaning. Though not as well known or popular as other forms of body modification, branding and scarification have been found throughout history to be unique and beautiful. 

Intricate Scarification Piece, Before and After.
Intricate Scarification Piece, Before and After.

An introduction to Implantation

Implantation is the surgical process of placing an object or substance beneath the skin, muscle and structure of the body. It is a relatively modern day practice that has sky rocketed in terms of popularity in today’s modern society. Perhaps the most infamous of implants is the Breast Implant, which is essentially, the surgical resizing and reshaping of a woman’s breasts. Breast augmentation surgery is most often used as a way to aesthetically change the size of a woman’s breasts. Size can be bigger or smaller for personal preferences or medical reasons. These enhancements like butt, thigh or calf implants, along with multiple other forms of cosmetic surgeries have become increasingly popular in modern times and are steadily more accepted by society as a common practice or desire.

On the other hand, Transdermal Implants are implants which are found to be growing among many underground or hardcore body modification practitioners, who seek to permanently implant devices such as metal spikes, horns, transdermal jewelry, and other accents to the body that serve to further modify their current flesh or enhance pre-existing modifications. Because of its rough healing process and chance of rejection, many people who seek these modifications must do so through finding doctors who will willingly conduct the process which is currently hard to find. Thus most who seek out these modifications are forced to go through illegal and often painful means to acquire what they desire. No better is this documented than in the stunning and un-apologizing documentary “Flesh and Blood” directed by Larry Silverman, who uses his camera and voice to illuminate this ever growing community of people who are seeking for further ways to modify, change, alter and enhance their bodies. The documentary is beautiful and honest in its portrayal of the people it follows; allowing the viewers into their heads, and deepest desires; and showing us that radical modification whatever the reason may be is just another way to push the boundaries of what we can create. 

Extreme Modification, Surgical Implantations.
Extreme Modification, Surgical Implantations.

Changing History, Creating Ourselves

In short, it is evident that body modification has always had a place amongst our evolution and history, and that it is a practice and art that will continue to push and challenge the way we think, change, and define ourselves and our bodies.


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