BODY MODIFICATION PT.2: TATTOOS AND PIERCINGS

If the top of the body modification iceberg is hair, then just below the water sits human’s second most frequent alterations: tattoos and piercings. While a hair change is temporary, tattoos and piercings are both aggressively permanent. Tattoos can be lasered off and your septum piercing can close up, but evidence of your modification will remain with you always. Tattoos and piercings both have complicated histories of acceptance and discouragement across different cultures and generations, but ultimately help us individualize ourselves and expand the definition of beauty. 

Let’s begin with tattoos, which can be dated back at least 5,300 years to the Bronze Age. Hikers exploring the Ötzal Alps discovered the remarkably well preserved body of a man in 1991, and after much examination, anthropologists have been able to identify 61 tattoos across the skin of Ötzi the Iceman, consisting of small lines. The leading hypothesis for their presence on the body is that they were a form of acupuncture, and not simply embellishments. This theory is supported by the fact that the locations of the tattoos are on acupuncture points of the body, appear to have been scored repeatedly, and certain joints and bones in Ötzi show evidence of degradation during his lifetime, a stress the man would have attempted to soothe.  

The many tattoos of Ötzi
Brad Pitt with his tattoo of Ötzi

The first piercings are more difficult to date, and body remains, artworks, and literature are often discovered that change the timeline for first recorded earring, nosering, etc. However, the current oldest example of remains exhibiting evidence of a piercing was recently established by Dr. John C. Willman, a biological anthropologist specializing in dental anthropology. A body found in Tanzania in 1913 showed evidence of ablation, a body modification involving the removal of teeth that was widespread in Africa about 16,000 years ago, and this conclusion was accepted for over a century. In 2018, Dr. John C. Willman was able to begin closer research of the body (OH1) and found that abnormalities in the skull indicated evidence of labrets (in anthropology, a lip or cheek piercing, usually made from wood, bone, shell, stone, or metal, depending on the determined time period). This was an immense discovery that pushed the recorded history of piercing back a substantial number of years, to at least 12,000 years ago. The main issue with identifying piercings and tattoos in remains is that they are implemented on soft tissue, which of course does not preserve as well as bone does. It was only through luck that Ötzi was mummified so well that his skin was in good enough condition to research, and that OH1’s piercing impacted his jaw and left such enduring evidence. 

As with most anything, public opinion on tattoos and piercings change depending on the time period and culture. In Japan, tattoos are especially contentious. In the seventeenth century, criminals were effectively branded with tattoo markings to ostracize them from society. Two hundred years later, Yakuza reacted against bokkei by proudly covering their body to show their gang affiliation and high status in the criminal underworld. The more of the body that was covered, the greater the loyalty to the organization. Due to the boldness of their art, lately Yakuza instead opt to blend in as much as possible in modern Japan. While the amount of non-Yakuza citizens with tattoos is increasing, most are still met with trepidation and rejection. In a similar vein of nonacceptance, tattoos are looked down on in places with a large Islamic presence, including the middle east and parts of northern Africa. To tattoo one’s body would be to go against the gifts that Allah gave to you. In Jewish culture, tattoos have a recent history of adamant refusal due to the forceful tattooing of Jews during the holocaust. These are only three examples, but research dictates that America’s mainstream acceptance of tattooing is not reflected in the majority of the world’s cultures. 

Yakuza members

Piercings on the other hand are historically common all over the world, often to display opulence. Frescos from Iran and Rome, and carvings from Egypt and Greece all depict upper class citizens and holy figures with elaborate jewelry hanging from their ears. Influential empires like the Byzantines and Babylonia spread ear piercings to the groups around them and after them, and through artworks and found artifacts we know that earrings persisted for a long period, only dipping in popularity when factors such as vast economic strife and the growth of the lower class came into play. In western culture, body piercings began in earnest post world war two as not just status symbols but as defiant forms of self expression. Today we have arrived at a place where nose, nipple, lip, and other piercings are not cause to stare at someone in alarm, but instead examples of personalized and diversified beauty.

In modern America, young people’s idols are likely relatively young and in entertainment, whether it be athletes, musicians, twitch streamers, onlyfans models, ect., and these figures are often not simply tattooed, but prominently tattooed. Young Thug famously said he got his first ten tattoos on his face, and Lebron James has put his tattoos on display in hundreds of highlight reels throughout his career. All spring and summer we see articles about Rihanna “flaunting” her tattoos on some private island. The sentiment that tattoos will limit possible job opportunities and similar discouraging statements don’t apply to people who are as successful as these individuals, and this freedom is aspirational for the average person. In this way, tattoos become status symbols. More obviously, piercings are status symbols as well. Lil Uzi Vert whipped up a tsunami of attention online when he debuted his $24 million USD diamond forehead implant. Even the average person will buy shiny gold earrings to appear wealthy, or become financially crippled when they buy an engagement ring. It’s the same idea as someone carrying a Damier Ebene printed bag despite paying rent. Living above your means in order to present a certain image to a world that values money above everything is disappointingly commonplace, and pathetically boring. The type of celebrities that can easily afford to get conspicuous tattoos and extravagant jewelry piercings are wealthy, attractive, famous, and have become the archetype teenagers strive towards. Through social media kids can keep up with celebrities’ fabricated lives, and their influence on the younger generation is indisputable, ie. “If it’s cool enough for [insert name], it’s cool enough for me!”

Lil Uzi Vert with his diamond implant

Ultimately, in the modern world tattoos and piercings serve as reactions. The fact that they have been deemed unacceptable by so many organizations, governments, cultures, and religions for various reasons only exacerbate their appeal to younger generations who try to react against social conformity and attempt to show the world they are unique individuals. Much like the hair modifications I discussed in part one, the reigning justification for modern piercings and tattoos is to make one feel beautiful, and react against the vanilla beauty standard that is universally impressed on people who are just trying to find out who they really are. What was once reserved for nobility is now normalized, and as time goes on, tattoos and piercings have become far less timid. While thirty years ago a tattoo sleeve and lip ring were scandalous, now we see people inked from the neck down with glimmering jewelry proudly protruding from any number of places. As the percentage of people with piercings and tattoos continues to rise, I am positive we will see a reaction against that, as the new “cool” outlier will become those void of any. As part three and four of this series are released, we’ll come to realize that modern body modification is rather binary: either to fit in as much as possible, or stand out as much as possible.