By Jessica Skelton
Every scar has a story. It might recall past struggles and pain, courage and bravery, or mistakes and sheer stupidity. It can be the result of an accident, big or small, of a life saving procedure, or the birth of one's child. It can even be the physical expression of a hurting spirit.
Some people, however, choose to have symbols and words carved into their skin on purpose, in order to be meaningfully (and permanently) marked. This is the practice of scarification, a form of body modification that originated in equatorial cultures but is increasingly attracting practitioners worldwide.
Nanaimo, BC's Damien Kenny is one. In addition to heavily tattooed skin, he has several scars that he personally burnt and carved into his legs. He sports numerous piercings, surgically pointed ears, and four small spikes implanted in his shaved scalp. Regularly, he pierces his face with wooden skewers and suspends his body from wires attached to hooks in his flesh.
"For me, it's all about testing the limits of the human body," he says, as he calmly points out all the modifications he and others have done to his body. "And I have not and will not do anything to another person that I have not done to myself."
A professional piercer and scarification artist for over a decade, Kenny learned his trade in the Fakir Intensives, a series of piercing and branding courses in California founded by Fakir Musafar, the so-called "Father of the Modern Primitive Movement," who is credited with bringing body modification to the Western world. Kenny continued his education by working in body modification shops and at conventions around the world, in countries including Finland, Australia, the U.S., and his native Ireland. He now owns and runs Outer Rim Body Mod in Nanaimo.
Kenny shows me two particular scars. The first is a large, thick, and white geometric pattern on the back of his calf, a fully healed mark made a few years ago using a process called branding. A form of scarification using heat or electricity, branding falls into three main types: strike branding, in which a piece of heated metal is pressed into the skin; cautery branding, which uses soldering iron-type devices or, more commonly, medical electrocautery units to create instant burns; and moxabustion, which is placing pieces of pure incense onto the skin and allowing them to burn until they self-extinguish. The scars produced are initially thin, but they always get bigger, Kenny syas, to "about the width of a wide-tipped felt marker." In general, branding scars are thicker and more pronounced than those made by other methods.
The second scar Kenny shows me, however, is a thin red wound just above his left knee, shaped into the Devanagari symbol for Om. Delicately carved into the flesh only a few weeks earlier, the mark is an example of a practice called cutting. In this type of scarification, a design is cut into the skin using a sharp blade, usually a small medical scalpel. Typically, the cut is a few millimetres deep — about the same depth as a tattoo — so the scar left behind is thin, slightly raised, and relatively precise. If the cut is deeper, though, the scar left behind will be thicker and more pronounced, as in branding.
Scarification is an ancient practice that started among hunting and gathering societies, particularly dark-skinned equatorial peoples who have so much melanin in their skin that it is difficult to see a tattoo. According to a National Geographic article, "Scarification: Ancient Body Art Leaving New Marks," it began as a way to express "cultural identity, community status, [a] connection to ancestors or gods — and to mark rites of passage or to 'wear' a permanent amulet." In some cultures, the raised marks were also considered beautifying. Maori men in New Zealand scarred their faces to look attractive to women, and women in Ethiopia's Karo tribe with scarred torsos and chests are still considered particularly sensual.
Victoria Pitts, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, tells the National Geographic that scarification came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s as part of a new body modification movement, and was originally embraced by the gay and lesbian S&M subculture. By the mid-1990s, however, the practice was adopted by members of a neotribal — or "modern primitive" — movement that was "interested in reviving or [re-enacting] indigenous body rituals from around the world [and] trying to get in touch with a more authentic or spiritual experience of the body." Since then, scarification has spread across North America, Australia, and Europe, and become, if not exactly mainstream, quite a bit less marginal.
Although Kenny practises both branding and cutting, he prefers the latter because it heals more predictably and offers more control over the thickness and rising of the end result. He notes that cutting is the safer of the two, because it causes bleeding. In branding, on the other hand, in which no blood is involved, an inexperienced artist can do some serious damage to a customer, such as severing and cauterizing a major vein or artery, without knowing it. That doesn't mean that one method is better than the other, he adds. As long as the scarification is done by a well-trained artist, it's just a matter of personal preference.
Cutting, though, is the scariest type of scarification for most people, involving, as it does, scalpels and pain as well as blood. However, Kenny points out that it doesn't require "any greater depth of tissue penetration, any more blood, or any more pain than tattooing." After all, tattooing is nothing more than being pierced several thousand times with ink covered needles. The only difference is that cutting is silent and does not involve injecting a foreign substance into the body.
Still, there are those scalpels. For many, their trepidation is caused not by the instrument, but by the person behind it. Some critics say that scarification practitioners are acting more like surgeons than artists. Kenny, however, says the two are completely different. "I don't think I'm a surgeon just because I use a scalpel. I mean, just because you use a hammer doesn't mean you're a carpenter."
Of course, scarification practitioners still need to have some knowledge of anatomy. Through training and work experience, they learn to avoid vascular areas like the wrist, inner thighs, and neck. "It's common sense," says Darren Rinaldi, a professional piercer and brander, and owner of Nanaimo's Tranceformations Tattoo and Bodypiercing Ltd. "Stay away from the veins."
Not everyone is quite so understanding. Rinaldi says he stopped branding — the sole scarification form he practiced — two years ago because his insurance company refused to cover him if he continued. "They said branding and cutting falls under ‘practicing medicine without a license' due to the tools used and the invasiveness of the procedure," he explains. "This isn't really true, though. There is no legislation on scarification in Canada."
Insurers aren't the only ones with reservations about cutting and branding. Of all the negative associations that body modifiers must deal with, perhaps the most relentless is that between scarification and psychological distress. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, self-harm — also known as self-injury or self-mutilation — is the causing of mental, spiritual, and/or physical injury to oneself without suicidal intent. Those who self-harm usually don't know how to effectively express and deal with emotional issues such as loneliness, depression, anger, psychological pain, numbness, or stress. Injuring themselves through practices like cutting or burning flesh is a coping mechanism that leads to immediate release of, and temporary relief from, negative emotions. The pain distracts from other problems, or, if the issue is numbness, allows them to feel something — anything — again.
Body modification, on the other hand, is done for positive emotional reasons — perhaps simply to make one's body more aesthetically pleasing. Scarification is also usually done by another person, hopefully a professional. However, even those who cut or brand themselves just to see what will happen, what it feels like, and how it scars aren't self-injurious, says Kenny. As long as there is no negative emotion involved, they're just curious.
Indeed, curiosity is one of the many reasons people get scarifications. They're unusual. For others, the fact that it is a more "hard-core" type of body modification than, say, tattooing is reason enough to try it. "People like to be bad," Rinaldi says. "And some have a primal need to feel pain. It makes one feel alive."
Some speak of scarification in nearly mystic tones. "It is a very real experience that brings light to the soul, pain to the dead, and life to those who hold out for hope," says Rob Carlson, a student at Vancouver Island University, in an e-mail interview. "There is something very sensual about allowing pain to willingly enter your body by any means. This pain allows you to breathe once more."
Carlson has two brandings, both made using pendants his mother gave him. His first, a Celtic eternal flame over his heart, was done to honour her. "The pendant was a symbol of my mother's love, so if I were ever to lose it, I will always carry something to remind me of her when she's long gone and I can't remember her face."
For others, body modification is a way to grow.
"It stems from the inherent human need for some kind of coming-of-age," says Kenny. Scarification, or any body modification for that matter, allows individuals to approach something they fear, like blood, pain, needles, or scalpels — and overcome it.
"I think cutting is beneficial spiritually and psychologically. Even if you get a cutting and it disappears completely" — perhaps due to shallow cuts or improper aftercare — "it's the procedure itself [that's beneficial]."
Sociologist Pitt argues that scarification, and body modification in general, has caught on because in modern western society "identity is often expressed through appearance." In the mainstream, that means fashion, body building, and plastic surgery; elsewhere, tattooing, piercing, and scarification. Neither Kenny nor Rinaldi thinks that cutting and branding will ever be the most popular forms of body modification, but Kenny is certain that, if people knew as much about them as they do about tattooing, they would gain wider acceptance.
As Rinaldi puts it: "It all depends on your idea of what enhances beauty."