15 March 2000

The art of self-mutilation?

by Kate Melville

The new cult of extreme body has Myrna Armstrong, Ed.D, Professor of Nursing at Texas Tech Medical Center, worried.

Whether it's implanting plastic and metal beneath the skin, cutting flesh to create scars or branding, body art is now testing (and in many cases may have exceeded) the boundaries of medical acceptance (i.e. traditional tattoos and piercing).

According to Armstrong, "…there are three camps of people who are doing branding. One fraternity brands members with a horseshoe, and a limited amount is being done in studios, but most brandings are done by amateurs."

These amateur brands involve taking flexible wire, shaping it to the desired pattern and then branding the skin. More 'reputable artists', mold their designs from strips of stainless steel and are careful to try and control the extent and depth of the burn they inflict.

In Armstrong's opinion permanent branding and scarification are very dangerous forms of body art.

A lesser know version of body art is implanting, where items like metal and plastic are inserted under the skin, however Armstrong cautions that this is also much more dangerous. "Officially, implanting is considered surgery and should not be done at all. How do they open the skin? What are they putting in? How do they close the skin?

The procedure is outlawed, but we're seeing it."

Armstrong says tattoos and piercings continue to grow in popularity "Body piercing in particular is becoming very extreme. We are seeing more genital piercings, more chest piercings and chains, generally more kinkiness. We also see piercings of the cheek and piercings on the lateral side of the neck, which is dangerously close to the carotid artery."

In an age old quest Armstrong is encouraging parents to be proactive in talking about body art with their children. " We also have to help our young people to be more informed," she said, "so if they choose to go into a studio, they know the correct questions to ask. It's important that they have a product they like, because they are going to have it for a long time."

Now, while in the Science A Go Go office there are more than the national average of tattoos and piercings, we all know of people who have had problems ranging from simple infection to partial paralysis from practitioners whose 'work' didn't well, work. So rather than parents expecting their kids to ask before they indulge in body art, you will probably just have to be like all those generations before and go through the whole process of shock, disgust, feigned acceptance and eventual resignation. So just sit back and pray your kid is smart enough to avoid getting implants or facial tattoos!