The History of Body Modification Around the World

Written by Leanna Serras

Body modification is the deliberate alteration of the body for non-medical reasons such as rites of passage, aesthetic reasons, religious reasons, and to show self expression. Body modification is a term that is generally associated with tattooing and piercing but can also include branding, scarification, surgical implants, and a number of lesser known procedures and practices. Not all types of body modification originated at the same time, while some practices have been around for thousands of years, others have just begun to gain popularity in recent years.

Tattoos are believed to have originated over 10,000 years ago, and the oldest documented tattoo belongs to Otzi the Iceman who died in 3300 B.C and whose body was found in 1991. Tattoos depicting animals and mythical creatures were also found on the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptian people. It is said that some form of tattooing can be found in every inhabited place on Earth but that wasn't always the case. When Christianity began to gain popularity, tattooing was increasingly associated with criminals as well as the pagan religion and were prohibited in Europe by Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor. By the late eighteenth century, tattoos were no longer prohibited and started to become popular with British sailors and seamen, and then gained even more popularity when King George V got tattooed. King George's tattoo led to a plethora of tattoos among royalty in the nineteenth century. Tattoos have long been used not only as a form of expression but as a form of identification. Nazis tattooed numbers on the arms of Jews during the Holocaust, and the Romans tattooed their slaves and criminals. Despite the grim uses of tattoos of the past, today people generally use tattoos to tell their personal stories and express themselves. Throughout history there have been times that tattoos were thought of as taboo but currently they are becoming more mainstream everyday, and the art of tattooing is ever improving due to the introduction of new techniques and technology.

Body piercing is another popular form of body modification that has been around for thousands of years. Nose piercings were first recorded approximately 4,000 years ago in the Middle East, and are mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 24:22. Sometime in the 16 th century, nose piercing was brought to India from the Middle East. Nose piercings did not appear in the west until the 1960's when hippies traveled to India and brought the trend back to the states. Tongue piercings originated with the ancient Aztecs in the form of a ritual where the tongue was pierced to draw blood for the gods and to create an altered state of consciousness so shamans could communicate with the gods. Lip piercings were also popular among the ancient Aztecs, and were reserved for male members of higher castes. There are also numerous tribes throughout Africa in which pierced lips have a religious signifigance. Tongue piercings are now one of the most popular of all types of piercings. Ear piercings are thought to have originated for magical purposes. Primitive tribes believed that demons and spirits could enter a body through the ear, and these demons and spirits are supposed to be repelled by metal so ears were often pierced. In many societies ear piercing is also done as part of a ritual such as in Borneo where the mother and father each pierce one ear of their child as a symbol that the child depends on their parents. Body piercings, much like tattoos, are becoming more popular with modern culture, and new techniques and procedures are taking the art to a whole new level. Piercers now have the ability to insert surgical implants under the skin, pierce new areas of the body, and perform microdermal anchoring.

Scarification is a form of body modification that is gaining popularity but is not yet as popular or well known as other types of body modifications. Scarification is defined as the creative or artistic application of scars in a controlled environment to achieve a desired result and appearance. Various types of scarification have been practiced for many years in many different tribes throughout the world but have only recently begun to gain popularity in the west. The goal of scarification is to get a raised scar called a keloid scar, which gives the design a three dimensional appearance. Scarification is most often times used as a rite of passage whether it be during a tribal ceremony, or a personal experience. There are various types of scarifications and different procedures are used to achieve different results. Branding is a type of scarification in which heated metal is applied to the skin to create a serious burn which eventually becomes a scar. While scarification is growing in popularity, it is still not a well known procedure and should be performed by a qualified artist.

The art of body modification has a long and fascinating history and the art is unlikely to fade away anytime soon. Modifications such as piercings and tattoos are becoming more mainstream and acceptable everyday, and the artists that perform these modifications are constantly learning new techniques and becoming more skilled at their crafts. Body modification artists are constantly working on new modifications that range from simple and mainstream to extreme and often times taboo, much like tattoos and piercings were at various times throughout history. It will be interesting to see if new extreme modifications will become more acceptable over time just like tattoos have.