Scarification: Ancient Body Art Leaving New Marks

July 28, 2004

Until the 1870s, Maori men of New Zealand etched deep tattoos over their entire faces. Patterns were chiseled into the skin to create parallel ridges and grooves, much like designs cut into wood.

This painful process created raised tattoos that made Maori men look fierce in battle and attractive to women. Since no two patterns were alike, the raised facial tattoos also marked identity.

Today in the U.S. and other Western countries, ever growing numbers of people are expressing their identity by marking their bodies. A 2003 Harris poll estimated that 36 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. have one or more tattoos.

Now some are going further. They are scarring themselves by cutting or branding their skin—a process known as scarification.

Body Modification Movement

In the U.S., scarification emerged in San Francisco as part of a new body-modification movement in the mid-1980s. It was originally embraced by gay and lesbian subcultures, said Victoria Pitts, professor of sociology at the City University of New York in New York City.

But by the early 1990s, members of a neotribal, or "modern primitive," movement began using scarification. "That movement was interested in reviving or reenacting indigenous body rituals from around the world—trying to get in touch with a more authentic or spiritual experience of the body," Pitts said.

For some, this type of body modification sends the message that they don't want to fit into society in the ordinary sense.

Over the last seven or eight years, Pitts said, scarification has become remarkably widespread in the U.S. and Australia and across Europe, from London to Prague.

Scarification is done either by cutting repeatedly with a scalpel, using a cauterizing tool, or by "strike branding," which is much like cattle branding.

After cleaning the area and stenciling on the design, the artist begins cutting or burning the skin until reaching the right depth and width. "It can take 15 minutes, but I've also done pieces that took eight hours over two days," said Ryan Ouellette, a body-modification artist who owns Precision Body Arts in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Continued on Next Page >>


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