Wanna See My Tattoo?
Eugene and the body mod scene
STORY BY CAMILLA MORTENSEN • PHOTOS BY JAMES JOHNSTON
Smiling cheerfully, Alex Harrington says, “I stop traffic with this face.”
“It’s a lifestyle,” he says. Harrington is quick to point out that in his case, it has to be. His entire face is covered with a bold tattoo.
“I like the attention,” he says of the stares he gets anytime he goes anywhere in Eugene. “It’s a big deal to change peoples’ lives just by walking down the street.”
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Though at first his tattoos may cause a double-take, Harrington’s winsome smile and welcoming demeanor soon make it clear why his friends say, “Don’t be fooled by his face; Al is the nicest guy around.”
He is more comfortable in Eugene than any other place he has lived, Harrington says. He says — with a grin — that with a face like his, “you’re not going to work at some corporate job.”
Instead, Harrington has always been able to find work in the body modification community.
Oregon qualifies as one of the hardest places to get a license to tattoo, explains Splat Ter, a local tattoo artist. Splat, as he is known, has tattooed all over the world. But Eugene, many body artists and collectors say, is one of the best places to be if you have body modifications.
“I feel more normal around here than I do anywhere else,” says Jim Sens, a body piercer for more than 10 years. He says Eugene has “the best shops in the country” for tattoos and piercings.
“One thing I definitely noticed about Eugene is that it’s a safe haven for modified people.”
Until recently, permanent body modifications were seen as deviant in American culture. Eugene, however, is a Mecca for body artists and collectors. On a walk down 13th Avenue, near campus, you may see anything from a simple navel ring to a full back tattoo to a body brand.
The History of Tattoos and Piercings
When you think of permanent body art, tattoos are probably the first things that come to mind. But in the realm of body modification, as the practice is called, you will find piercings and different forms of scarification.
It is impossible to say what culture practiced tattooing, piercing, or scarification first. A commonly quoted biblical prohibition, Leviticus 19:28 in the Old Testament, admonishes, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.” This reference is often interpreted as a prohibition on tattoos by Judaic scholars and some Christian groups.
However in Genesis 24:22 Abraham’s servant gives a nose-ring (sometimes translated as earring) to Rebekah, the future wife of his son Isaac. And in Revelations 19:16 it says of Christ’s return: “And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS,” which is sometimes interpreted as a tattoo. Groups such as the Christian Tattoo Organization use such biblical interpretations as justification for religious tattoos.
Egyptian mummies from about 2000 BCE feature tattoos, and the frozen corpse of a Bronze Age man found in the Alps has 59 separate tattoos, according to tattoo historians. Ancient Greek and Roman scholars such as Plato also mention tattooing.
The word “tattoo” came into use after the voyages of Captain James Cook, deriving from the Tahitian tattau or ta-tu. Tattooing gained popularity among European sailors and later among upper class Europeans. Lady Randolf Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill, had a snake tattooed on her wrist.
Although the art form also existed among other cultures including Native American groups, as well as in Japan, where it is known as Irezumi, it was the European fashion for tattoos that spread to the U.S. in the late 1800s.
Well into the 1920s, society women had small decorative tattoos and even cosmetic tattoos — the same tattooed lipstick and eye paint now known as permanent makeup. But tattooing soon went back to its rebellious association with sailors, bikers, “primitives,” and punks until the 1980s and ’90s.
Many contemporary piercers and body modifiers say they were inspired by photos in older issues of National Geographic.
For years heavily tattooed people displayed their tattoos as curiosities at carnivals in freak shows. Contemporary body modification still retains some of this stigma. However, the sight of a tattooed arm or a pierced eyebrow has become pretty normal around Eugene.
The lower back used to be a favored place for women to get a tattoo, but these days “the ribs are the new lower back” says Sens of the latest tattoo trend.
Eugene has at least six tattoo shops, and there are several more in Springfield. In 2006, 36 percent of people ages 18 to 25 and 40 percent of those 26 to 40 were sporting at least one tattoo, according to a study released in January 2007 by the Pew Research Center.
Body Modification in Eugene
“We’ve had to work hard to get off the strips and out of the carnival,” says Georg Birns, owner of High Priestess Piercing and HPP Ink in Eugene, as well as four other piercing studios. Birns and other tattoo and piercing shops have struggled for acceptance of their lifestyle and of their profession.
Tattooing and body piercing are strictly regulated professions in Oregon. In order to pierce in Oregon, the “technicians,” as the state calls them, must be at least 18 years old with a high school degree or the equivalent and show evidence that they have received training in basic first aid, bloodborne infection control and aftercare procedures, according to the Oregon Health Licensing Agency. Piercers learn the techniques through apprenticeship.
To be licensed to tattoo, an artist must complete 360 hours of training from an Oregon licensed “career school” or show two years of full-time tattooing or four years of half time from another state.
Some tattoo artists have a problem with the use of tattoo schools in Oregon. “I like that they have regulations and licensing,” says tattoo artist Anji Marth, slender and dark-haired, with bluish dots tattooed over her eyebrows, “But I have never known a shop that will hire a person who learned in a school.” Marth and others say the system creates more bad artists than good. Bad tattoo artists are disparagingly called “scratchers” by others in the industry.
The nature of tattooing demands the one-on-one training of an apprenticeship, she says. “The grain of the skin on every human body is different.”
An artist needs to know how far into the skin to allow the needles and how many needles to use. Tattoo artists use a machine that allows needles to go up and down about 3,000 times each minute. An artist might use a grouping of three needles for a fine outline and more needles, in groupings from five to seven, for broader lines. Sometimes a single needle works for very delicate designs. Using the wrong needles or puncturing the skin too deeply can ruin a design or even cause scarring.
In order to really learn, Marth says, tattoo artists need individual attention. It’s a profession that affects the clients deeply, “The rest of someone’s life, how they feel about a part of their body, depends on you.”
The dedicated artists, she says, will leave Oregon to get educated elsewhere, then come back.
The History of Contemporary Body Mod
While tattooing has enjoyed a steady, if sometimes subcultural, presence in American society, body piercing and other contemporary modifications came out of the gay S/M leather scene in the 1970s.
The experiments of a group of men who came together in that scene and called themselves the T&P Group (tattooing and piercing) led to the body modification styles found in Eugene and across the U.S. Key members of the group were Jim Ward, founder of the first piercing shops, a chain called The Gauntlet, and Fakir Musafar. Musafar is known as the father of the “Modern Primitives” movement.
Their innovations included developing a specialized form of jewelry that won’t tear the skin — the now ubiquitous barbell jewelry and rings with beads. And of course they experimented with piercing different areas of the body. One of their slogans was, “If it protrudes, pierce it.” This included everything from penises to eyebrows.
Thanks to these experiments, modern piercers never use a piercing gun, which they say is unsanitary and leads to problem piercings. Instead, piercings are done with a large hypodermic needle that slices the skin, with the jewelry butted up against the end to aid insertion.
The T&P Group also involved Richard Simonton, who grew up in Seattle, owned the Muzak franchise for Southern California and funded much of the early experimentation on body modification.
After Simonton’s death, Ward and Musafar had a personal split, but both continued to pierce and engage in body modifications. Although Ward’s Gauntlet stores no longer exist as a chain of piercing stores, many former Gauntlet “master piercers” give training seminars across the country.
Musafar puts on Fakir Body Piercing and Branding Intensives — seminars on how to pierce and how to perform human branding, which he likes to call “the kiss of fire.”
The Association of Professional Piercers, an “international health and safety association” that advocates for piercers and disseminates information via their webpage (www.safepiercing.org),recommends training seminars in addition to apprenticeship as part of becoming a professional piercer.
Musafar’s modern primitivism is as much concerned with ritual aspects of body modification as it is with how it looks. Modern Primitives are people who live in contemporary, developed nations who imitate “primitive” cultures in their body modifications. They often focus on creating rituals when they pierce, tattoo or scar.
One controversial ritual performed by Musafar and other modern primitives is a re-enactment of the Plains Indian tribes’ Mandan Sun Dance ceremony. In the version of the ceremony performed by Musafar, he pierced his chest with large hooks and pulled against a pole for several hours.
This ceremony is similar to a “suspension.” In a suspension, which practitioners say is quite dangerous unless done correctly, a person inserts hooks through the skin in different points of the body and is then hoisted up to dangle from those hooks.
WHY BODY MODIFICATION?
“People often engage in body modification as a rite of passage,” says UO folklore professor Daniel Wojcik, author of Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art. “Rites of passage are rituals that mark a major change in one’s life or overcoming a difficult situation or trauma.”
“Tattoos can express affiliation, spirituality or commemoration,” or sometimes body modifications are simply done for “aesthetic reasons — to look good — or even for erotic reasons,” Wojcik says. Others enjoy the adrenaline rush that is an after-effect of the often intense pain.
According to Wojcik, tattoos and piercing have become “more acceptable in the last decade, but there’s still a lot of stigma for women who get tattooed.”
UO student Alicia Young agrees. She’s 24 and pretty with red hair and bright blue eyes. She has several large tattoos already but is waiting to get more until “I know what my future plans are.”
Young favors old-style tattoos with muted colors. This older tattoo style has classic tattoo themes such as hearts with daggers or pin-up girls, and a lack of shading. Young has an old-school sailing ship with mermaids colorfully inked upon her chest.
These are the sort of designs once found in tattoo shops from the 1920s into the 1950s. Whether old-school classic images or new-school designs with bright flashy colors, the predrawn tattoo designs and stencils found on the walls of tattoo shops are called “flash.”
Many people chose a flash tattoo for their first tattoo, but Young’s first tattoo was a design she had doodled. She had it done large on her lower back. It “hurt like a bitch,” she says.
People should know they can bring in their own designs and don’t need to choose flash, says tattoo artist Travis Boudreau. He also recommends looking through a tattoo artist’s portfolio of recent tattoos to assess skills before choosing an artist.
In addition to her tattoos, Young has stretched her earlobes to allow the insertion of large plugs, and the cartilage of each ear has a hole created by a large flat needle, also plugged. Some people eat the cartilage removed in such a piercing as part of the ritual process, but that is not condoned in piercing shops in Eugene.
People sometimes stare at her when she’s out with her boyfriend, Young says. But the stigma of tattoos may be wearing off. “I tattoo a lot of professionals and they are never worried” about what people will think, says Marth, one of the few women tattoo artists here in Eugene.
“I tattoo people from the hospital,” she says, “and they say, ‘Wow, you people are so clean!'” Marth and other tattoo artists take pride in the above-standard levels of cleanliness in their studios.
The majority of body modification artists are male, according to Splat, but he says women are welcomed. Many female customers prefer to be tattooed by a woman, Marth says, and a good female artist gets a lot of customers. As a result Marth’s tattoos are in high demand.
A lot of Jim Sens’ clients come in to relieve the stress of finals or mark the end of a relationship. “It’s easier to deal with physical pain than emotional pain,” he says.
Sens, an outgoing and friendly 30-year-old, has his own stretched ears, tattoos and scarifications. “I didn’t do this to look like a weirdo. I feel like this is the way I am supposed to look.”
“My girlfriend likes the way I look,” he adds. “She can always find me in a crowd.”
He says that for people concerned about what the tattoos will look like in 20 years, tattoo collectors should wear sunscreen — it not only protects the skin, it keeps colorful tattoos from fading.
“I think it’s kind of neat when I see old people with wrinkly tattooed skin,” says Young. “Wow, they’ve lived!”
For people who regret their decision to get a tattoo, laser removal is an option, In fact, according to a recent New York Times article, an ink called “Freedom-2” has been developed that is encapsulated in beads that break up after only one laser treatment. Currently it can cost several thousand dollars and take several painful laser treatments to remove a normal tattoo.
The Oregon Health Licensing Agency even has a program, “Piercing Thoughts,” with slogans such as “Think Before You Ink” to get young people to “be thoughtful before taking the tattoo or piercing plunge.”
TAKING THE (PENIS) PIERCING PLUNGE
Body piercer Sens says his clientele is largely made up of women 18 to 30, with the majority of them college students. Nostril piercings are the most popular, he says, but he also pierces five to 10 female genitals a week. Women tend to pierce the labia or the clitoral hood.
Neither male or female genital piercings are removed during sex — in fact pierced people say they enhance sex.
Piercing the male genitals, according to Sens, “is a lot of fun.” With women he is careful to be gentle and respectful. “But guys,” he says, “they just whip it out!”
The most popular male genital piercing is an apradavya, a vertical bar through the head of the penis. An ampallang is a bar horizontally through the same area. Both of those piercings often go through the urethra. A less common penile piercing is the Prince Albert or PA, which is a ring that goes in through the urethra and comes out under the head of the penis.
A rumor about the PA is that Prince Albert himself wore one and used it to tie his penis to his leg, to prevent a bulge in his pants.
One interesting side effect of penis piercings that go through the urethra is that urine flows out the holes and along the jewelry. As one man with multiple penis piercings put it, “I pee like a sprinkler.”
CHICKS DIG SCARS
If even pubic-area piercings have become popular, what is the next step? For some body modifiers, scarification through cutting or branding has become the way to go.
Such scarification is not legal in shops in Oregon since the practices use surgical implements, so serious modifiers engage in these practices personally but never as professionals.
Branding and cutting are pretty uncommon still in the U.S. but are becoming more visible in Eugene. The most common way to cut is through slashes with a razor blade or scalpel. The blade cuts into the permanent layer of skin but usually not all the way through; the skin heals into slightly raised scars. Removing patches of skin results in larger scars, according to BMEzine.com, which has perhaps the largest collection of body modification photos and articles.
Some modifiers rub ink into the wounds to color the scar, though the ink may be pushed out as the wound heals. Introducing an irritant into the wound, or repeatedly reopening the scar, can also result in raised scars.
Some body modifiers will mix the cremated ashes of a loved one, even a loved pet, into the scar.
Sens has three scars on his right shoulder, near a tattoo of a rose. The scars symbolize “the three loves of my life” he says.
The whole notion of burning yourself aside, branding has some negative history to it. It was used for many years in Europe as a form of marking criminals and mark slaves. Branding has been present for many years among some African-American college fraternities. Basketball star Michael Jordan has an omega branded on his chest for the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
Contemporary human branding for aesthetic purposes is done with an electrocautery device or a cautery pen. This creates a more detailed design than traditional “strike” branding (think of the way a cowboy brands a cow — that’s a strike brand). Brands tend to heal in raised and white scars that wearers say are pleasingly tactile. The scar is always much wider then the surface that was burned, which is why the designs are kept simple.
Looking back at the last 10 years of changes in body modification, folklorist Wojcik says that body modification has definitely become more accepted by the general public, and it’s possible even scarification will become more common, but “right now it’s more commitment, more edgy, more hardcore.”
Then again, he speculates, “Maybe the rebellious thing to do in another 10 years will be no tattoos or marks at all.”