As long as man has roamed the earth, we’ve continuously searched for new ways to enhance our physical appearances, express our individuality, mark milestones, celebrate life achievements, commemorate loved ones we’ve lost, heal our minds and bodies, and grow spiritually. All of these motivating factors and more have compelled people to modify themselves in a variety of ways since time immemorial.
Some of the earliest forms of body modification included crude body piercings, tattoos and scarification designs. From there, body modification grew to encompass more extreme forms of body modification, like tongue splitting, implants and suspension, but these aren’t the only ways people modify themselves. We dye, cut, perm, straighten, braid, and dread our hair, clip, paint and extend our nails, adorn ourselves with stylish clothes and jewelry, diet and exercise to lose weight and tone our muscles, and sometimes go the the extreme of having plastic surgery to make ourselves more attractive to others, express our individuality, or just feel better about ourselves. As these examples illustrate, there are many ways people can modify themselves, but traditionally speaking, the term “body modification” pertains to tattoos, piercings, scarification, split tongues, implants, and human suspension.
When did people first start engaging in body modification in the modern sense of the phrase? What lead people to begin exploring the many ways they could modify themselves? What motivates people to modify today, and how has body modification changed in the past twenty years? We answer these questions and more here in our History of Body Modification.
The art of tattooing has a rich, complex history that dates back thousands of years. Although people may have been tattooing each other earlier, the oldest tattooed man discovered lived roughly 5,000 years ago. Scientists dubbed him “Ötzi the Iceman” because of where the mummy was found, in the Alps’ Ötzi Valley. Ötzi’s body was adorned with very crude line and dot tattoos that, in combination with their placement along acupuncture points, indicate that the man was tattooed for either adornment or spiritual reasons as well as for healing purposes.
Although the early European Ötzi and others who lived during the Bronze Age have been found to have tattoos on their mummies, it seems that the ancient Egyptians had more to do with the spread of tattoos throughout southern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. Early on in Egypt’s history, during the time of the Egyptian priestess Amunet, only women who engaged in ritualistic practices were tattooed; the practice was performed on them strictly for spiritual reasons. However, during the 3rd and 4th Egyptian dynasties when the pyramids were being erected, tattoos became prevalent among all Egyptian men and women. As Egyptians traded with countries like Greece, Persia and Arabia, others admired their tattoos and were inspired to adopt the art form themselves.
By 2,000 B.C., the western-Asian nomads known as the Ainu had carried the tradition of tattooing to Japan. However, there is no written record of tattooing in Japan until 297 A.D. By then, the Japanese had adopted tattooing almost exclusively as a form of self-adornment, rather than for the spiritual, magical and healing purposes for which so many people were tattooed in the centuries prior. They favored beautifully-colored, elaborate designs that often extended into full body suits–a tradition that became the mark of the Yakuza mafia men between the 1600s and mid 1800s.
Tattooing became a prevalent practice throughout China and into Russia around the same time that the Ainu first brought tattooing to Japan. From there, the practice spread to the Celts who settled in Ireland, Scotland and Wales between 1200 and 400 B.C. The Celts were particularly fond of blue woad tattoos in labyrinth, spiral, and braided knot-work designs. Those symbols had spiritual significance for them; the spirals, knots and braids represented the interconnectedness of all life, and the key-like labyrinth designs represented the many different paths a person’s life may take. Some Celtic tattoo symbols had more specific meanings, like the three-pointed triquetra knot, which is said to symbolize either the Holy Trinity or the union of mind, body and spirit.
Pazyryk (Russian) mummies dating back to 385 B.C. have been found decorated with symbols of social status as well as animals and mythical creatures. Although some of the images had magical significance for the wearers, the Pazyryk’s tattoos were some of the first elaborate tattoos created primarily for self-adornment.
Closer to the end of the B.C. era, between 100 and 1 B.C., tattoos were worn by Greek women as exotic beauty marks. The Romans quickly followed suit, but they initially adopted the art form as a means to mark and disfigure criminals and slaves, and they progressed into getting tattooed for self-adornment later. Around the same time, the tribal Picts of Scotland began decorating their bodies with war-inspired tattoos intended to intimidate their rivals in battle. By the time 1 A.D. rolled around, tattoos held more diverse significance than ever before in the history of tattooing. People got tattoos as symbols of their social status, to adorn themselves, for spiritual reasons, to promote healing, for added strength in battle, and more.
It wasn’t until around 15 A.D. that Polynesians introduced tattooing into their culture. They called the practice “tatu”, which inspired Captain James Cook to coin the phrase “tattoo” in 1769 after visiting Polynesia. The Polynesians tattooed themselves for highly spiritual reasons, creating intricate, skillfully-applied tattoo designs despite their crude tools. The Polynesians believe that a person’s “mana”, or spiritual power, is visible through their tattoos, so both men and women of all ages adopted the practice. In Samoa, the tradition is passed from father to son. Their chiefs would undergo elaborate, painful tattooing ceremonies when they first reached puberty. Samoan women were tattooed less extensively, usually just on their legs and hands, with their hand tattoos being of critical importance. Without them, women could not perform the honorable tradition of serving the narcotic drink “kava” during ceremonies.
From Samoa, the art of tattooing spread to migrant communities in New Zealand, Hawaii and other parts of the South Pacific. New Zealand’s Maori people adopted their own form of tattooing, called “moko”, and they used their elaborate wood-carving skills to carve their skin in an artistic way. Moko became symbols of the Maori’s social status, lineage, tribal affiliations, war conquests, and other important life events.
In Hawaii, tattooing was known as “kakau”. Hawaiians tattooed themselves to show their social status, adorn themselves, and protect both physical and spiritual health. They favored patterns from nature, such as woven reeds and flowers. Hawaiian women even had their tongues tattooed with such designs.
The practice of tattooing ebbed in Polynesia after the first Christian missionaries arrived in 1817. They setup schools and forbid tribal children from attending if they were tattooed. Many tribal members wanted their children to have an education, so they suppressed tattooing and other cultural practices the missionaries found offensive. Later, the missionaries relaxed their rules, which allowed for a resurgence in tribal tattoos throughout the South Pacific.
Interestingly, Native Americans adopted the art of tattooing around the same time that it first appeared in Polynesian culture. They used sharp objects like bone and rock to carve tattoo designs into their skins, and then they filled the wounds with soot and natural dyes to make them stand out more and remain permanently. Many Native American men got tattoos as symbols of victory after winning wars, and men and women alike were tattooed with designs unique to their tribes as well as with animals whose strength they wished to emulate. They believed that all tattoos had spiritual meaning, and some believed their tattoos could give them supernatural powers and incredible strength.
In the centuries after South Pacific and Native American tribes adopted the art of tattooing, the practice ebbed and flowed in other parts of the world. From 306 to 337 A.D., facial tattoos were banned throughout the Holy Roman Empire by Constantine, who felt the practice defiled God’s image. Although most strict Muslims also believed it unholy to get tattooed, a sect of Moroccan women adopted the practice during the Prophet Mohammed’s time, between 570 and 632 A.D. Around the same time, tattooing was also prevalent in parts of North Africa, like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but scarification has historically been a more common practice in parts of Africa like the Sahara. Although some Africans got tattoos for self-adornment purposes, they more commonly engaged in the practice to ward off evil spirits, reward bravery, and mark major life milestones.
The Incas of Peru practiced tattoo art around 1,000 A.D., and the first documentation of Viking tattoos is dated back to around the same time. The Italians, however, don’t seem to have discovered the art of tattooing until Marco Polo visited Quanzhou, China, between 1254 and 1324 A.D. He noted that people were traveling from India and beyond to get tattoos by talented Chinese tattooists.
Although Marco Polo documented his exposure to tattoos centuries earlier, word must not have spread to Spain, because the explorer Cortez and his crew were horrified to find that tattooing was a common practice among the Mayans and other South Americans when they visited in the 1500s. The practice was unfamiliar to them, and they believed it to be the work of the devil.
After Captain Cook, his British naval officers, and French officers voyaged to the South Pacific in the 1700s, tattoos started growing in popularity among European military personnel, particularly in England and France. That wave ended for the French in 1861, when a scientific report was issued warning against the health hazards of tattoos, but tattoo culture continued to flourish in England–so much so that two Londoners invented the first single- and double-coil tattoo machines shortly after a rotary tattoo machine was released in the US. The first British royal to adopt the art form was King Edward VII, who had a Jerusalem cross tattooed on his arm in 1862, while he was still the Prince of Whales. Japanese master tattoo artist Hori Chiyo later tattooed King Edward’s sons, who were the second and third royals to get tattooed, respectively.
In the late 1800s, a Japanese tattoo art craze hit the US, attracting primarily the upper class. Tattooed carnival “freaks” also became a popular attraction around that time. By the 1940s, though, America’s passion for tattoos had faded, and many people looked down on those with tattoos as being derelicts, outcasts and freaks. Tattoos didn’t start to gain popularity in the U.S. again until later in the 20th century, as companies like Intenze appeared and began making strides to provide higher-quality tattoo equipment and sterile tattoo ink.
One of the last major milestones in tattooing to date was the invention of the pneumatic tattoo machine in 2000. Although pneumatic tattoo machines haven’t gained popularity among tattoo artists, this invention shows just how far the art of tattooing has evolved over its extensive history. It’s progressed from necessitating pointed sticks to drive crude pigments into the skin 5,000 years ago to using heavy coil-powered tattoo machines that had to be suspended from ceilings to be operable in the mid 1800s to lightweight, fully-autoclavable tattoo machines that deliver ink into the skin with rapidly-moving, finely-pointed tattoo needles in the most efficient manner possible today. Tattooing is now a widely-accepted art form that’s trending in the mainstream consistently around the globe for the first time in its long, meandering history.
To read a more thorough documentation of the progression of tattooing through time, read our History of Tattoos article. We’ve broken it into a timeline that provides approximate dates for each major milestone in the 5,000-year-long history of tattooing.
The History of Body Piercings
Like tattooing, the practice of piercing is far from new. The earliest record of a body piercing is tied back to Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,000-year-old tattooed mummy described in “The History of Tattooing” section above. Ötzi’s earlobes were not only pierced, but stretched to between 7mm and 11mm in diameter. Ear piercings like Ötzi’s remained popular among tribal people in the centuries since Ötzi lived, primarily as a defense against evil spirits they believed could enter the body through the ear. In later years–most likely post-1600s–sailors began piercing their ears to satisfy the superstitious belief that doing so would improve their eyesight and keep them safe at sea. In Borneo, mothers and fathers will each pierce one of their child’s earlobes to represent the child’s dependence on them, and people in the U.S. and Europe often pierce their infant daughter’s ears for cosmetic reasons. To this day, earlobe piercings are by far the most popular type of body piercing among men and women alike.
Although the exact start of the kuno (foreskin) piercing trend is not recorded, it’s believed to be one of the most antiquated piercing practices after ear piercing. The name “kuno” comes from the Greek word “kuon” (foreskin), which is part of the foundation for the word “kynodesme”, which was a leather thong that nude Grecian athletes used to tether down their penises so they wouldn’t flap about while they played sports. The practice eventually lead to the permanent piercing of the foreskin, either to prevent slaves and athletes from having sex or to keep them from having embarrassing erections. Later, around the 12th century B.C., the Romans began placing two piercings through men’s foreskin and women’s labia so they could attach a lock and keep them chaste.
The second oldest written record of a body piercing after Ötzi the Iceman’s stretched ears dates back to around 4,000 B.C., during which time nose piercing became a common practice in the Middle East. Nose piercing is still practiced in the Middle East to this day; husbands often give their wives nose rings to ensure their financial security in case something should happen to them. The size of the ring denotes the gifting family’s wealth.
One of the third oldest references to nose piercings is actually in the Bible. Genesis 24:22 describes Isaac giving Rebekah a “golden earring” that was actually a nose ring. The Hebrew word used is “Shanf”, which translates more directly to “nose ring” than “earring”.
From that point forward, it’s hard to say exactly which piercing traditions predate which. We know that a number of tribal cultures have practiced lip piercing, tongue piercing and septum piercing for centuries, if not thousands of years. Septum piercing has historically been the most popular of the three types among tribal people–particularly among warriors who want to look fierce in battle–second only to ear piercings created to ward off evil spirits. Tribal people with septum piercings often wear shards of bone, pig tusks, pieces of wood, and other natural materials as septum jewelry.
The Dogon tribe of Mali and the Nuba of Ethiopia wear an actual ring in their lips (rather than labret “rings”) for religious purposes. They believe the spirit “Noomi” wove thread through her teeth to create the world, but instead of the thread returning back out, speech issued forth instead. The tribal people of Central Africa and South America stretch their lip piercings to extreme sizes and eventually insert large wood or clay plates. The Makololo tribe of Malawi wear upper lip piercing plates called Pelele. All other tribal cultures that practice lip piercing use various forms of labret jewelry, such as wood, ivory, metal, or quartz pins.
Tongue piercing, lip piercing and septum piercing were practiced by the ancient Aztecs, the Maya of Central America, and some northwest Native American tribes around the 1500s, if not earlier. Priests and shamans would pierce their tongues to draw blood and create an altered state of consciousness that would allow them to communicate with the gods. The higher male caste members of the Aztecs and Mayans also sported labret studs made of jade, obsidian, pure gold, or gold inset with jewels. The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas were all very fond of septum piercings, too, often wearing gold and jade septum jewelry for primarily religious reasons. Native Americans often pierced their septums as well; the Nez Perc tribe of Native Americans from Washington state were actually given their name by French travelers who literally named them the “nose piercing” tribe in French, which is what “nez perc” means. The Cuna Indians of Panama continue the tradition of septum piercing to this day and are known for wearing thick gold rings as septum jewelry.
Septum piercings are also prevalent in Nepal, India and Tibet, where septum jewelry is often so large that it gets in the way of eating. In Australia, aboriginals have tried to flatten their noses by wearing long sticks and bones in their septum piercings for centuries. Nostril piercing, on the other hand, didn’t seem to progress beyond the Middle East until the 16th century, when Indians adopted the practice. Indian women often pierce their left nostrils (or both nostrils) to this day, because that area is associated with female reproductive organs in Ayurveda (Indian medicine). Left nostril piercings are believed to lessen menstrual and labor pains. American hippies who traveled to India brought the practice of nose piercing back to the US in the late 1960s, and it was later adopted by British and US punks in the 1970s as a symbol of rebellion against conservative values. Both nostril piercings and septum piercings are more popular than ever throughout the US and Europe today.
Male genital apadravya piercings date back to 700 A.D., if not earlier. The earliest written record appears in the Kama Sutra. Palang piercings (sometimes mistakenly called ampallang piercings), which go side-to-side instead of front-to-back through the glans like the apadravya piercing, was only introduced within the last several hundred years. Both piercings and several other types of genital piercings originated in Asia, where the practice of body piercing has been practiced since antiquity. The the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Dayak, and Iban tribes of Sarawak on the Island of Borneo were also early adopters of the palang piercing. The practice of hafada (scrotum) piercing originated in Arabia, and it spread from there to Africa and the Middle East well before becoming a western practice, but the exact time that this and most other genital piercings started being performed is undocumented.
It’s said that Prince Albert had his penis pierced around 1825, shortly before marrying Victoria. Although he may not have actually been the pioneer of the trend, it was certainly named after him. Tight trousers were all the rage at that time, and they were so tight that the penis had to be tied to one side of the crotch or the other to prevent an unsightly bulge. Some men were said to get PA piercings so they could hook their penises to the sides of their trousers. It’s because of that trend that tailors still ask people if they dress to the left or right to this day.
Although women decorated their nipples with rouge and delicate nipple caps as early as the 14th century, it wasn’t until the late 1890s that the pierced “bosom ring” came into fashion. Nipple rings were sold in expensive Paris boutiques as ‘Anneux De Sein’, and some women linked their nipple piercings together with delicate chains. The Karankawa Indians of Texas also practiced nipple piercing, and the women of the Kabyle tribe in the Algerian mountains still pierce their nipples today. The practice has also made a resurgence in western culture, where men and women alike get their nipples pierced for decoration and sexual stimulation.
Navel piercings and dermal piercings are much more modern trends compared to the other types of body piercings discussed above. Belly button piercings first became popular in 1993, after Aerosmith released the music video for Cryin’, in which Alicia Silverstone sports a pierced navel. Model Christy Turlington debuted her belly button ring on a fashion show runway in London around the same time, but Aerosmith’s video likely had a bigger impact on the popularity of this fashion trend than the model did. As for dermal piercings, they’re an even more recent development in body modification that’s cropped up just in the past decade or so. You can read about them more in “The History of Dermal & Subdermal Implants” section below.
To learn more about the progression of piercing through time, check out our History of Body Piercings article. In it, you can read about each of the most popular types of piercings, what spurred them to become popular initially, how various piercing trends have evolved over the years, and more.
Scarification, which is the process of cutting or burning permanent artistic designs into the flesh for cosmetic purposes, has been a time-honored tradition among many tribal cultures for thousands of years. In African tribes, scarification has historically been favored over tattooing because of the ease of creating scarification designs and the way that they stand out more prominently on darker skin. It’s most often used as part of elaborate milestone ceremonies in African tribes, such as puberty and marriage ceremonies. Additionally, when African women are ready to become mothers, they will often scarify their stomachs as a symbolic affirmation of their readiness to conceive.
Scarification has also been performed by the Maori of New Zealand for at least the past 2,000 years. The Maori are exquisite wood carvers, and they use their talents to create intricate, unique scarification tattoo patterns in their flesh, called “moko”. These artistically-applied scars serve to identify individuals, show their social status and tribal affiliations, trace their lineage, represent war conquests, and signify other important life events. Maori men also believe in deeply etching their faces to look fierce in battle and attract women. No two patterns are identical.
Among tribal cultures, scarification serves another purpose besides those described above. Many tribal members are viewed as incomplete if they don’t participate in their tribe’s scarification rituals. Getting scarified can help someone reintegrate with their tribe and increase their social standing.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that scarification began to gain popularity among western cultures. The most prominent trigger for the initial adoption of scarification among western societies was the modern primitive movement that started in the early 1990s. Its goal was to help people get in touch with their spiritual sides via body rituals like scarification performed by past and present tribal peoples from around the globe. Out of the modern primitive movement, the Church of Body Modification (COBM) evolved. It’s an organization that focuses on educating, inspiring and helping its members along a path of spiritual body modification using such trials as fire walking, tongue splitting, human suspension, scarification, and other forms of body modification to help its members achieve spiritual enlightenment.
Although many tribal cultures and subcultures like COBM still practice scarification today for spiritual/religious purposes, it has evolved into a true art form in recent years. There are a range of different methods used by modern scarification artists to create beautiful, permanent body art. Cutting, strike branding, cold branding, abrasion, cautery branding, and electrosurgical branding can all be used to create scarification designs, but cutting and electrosurgical branding are the superior options. They’re more easily controlled methods that yield the most precise scarification designs.
You can learn more about the art of scarification, including details about the scarification methods available, scarification aftercare, scarification history, and scarification as a means of spiritual enlightenment, in our Scarification blog post and our Scarification Aftercare article.
Tongue splitting or bifurcation, which is the process of splitting the tongue in half as far back as the point where it intersects with the base of the mouth, isn’t a new concept. Forked tongues have appeared in numerous ancient religious documents from Hinduism, Buddhism and even Christianity. Hindu mythology makes mention of several split-tongued gods, like the serpent goddess Kaliya. Buddhist texts speak of naga spirits with bifurcated tongues. The Bible also discusses Satan as having a forked tongue like a serpent’s.
The actual physical practice of tongue splitting dates back thousands of years as well. The Khechari Mudra yogis are one of the oldest known groups to perform tongue splitting and “milking”. The goal is to be able to train the tongue to flip up and back so that it plugs the sinuses and seals off areas where the body could otherwise leak energy during meditation and other spiritual enlightenment exercises.
Jump forward to modern times, and you’ll find a record of a man splitting his tongue in Italy in 1994, but his experience wasn’t formally documented until 1997. He had a dentist perform the procedure and then cauterize his tongue with silver nitrate. The next person on record to split her tongue was Dustin Allor back in 1996; she later documented her experience in a 1997 issue of Body Play Magazine. It wasn’t until the “Lizardman”, Erik Sprague, and body mod pioneer Shannon Larratt bifurcated their tongues that the trend really started to gain popularity in western culture, though. In the years since, progressively more people have had their tongues split, which is an irreversible procedure.
The one big downside of tongue splitting is that it’s performed by body modification artists rather than medical professionals, which means that no permeating anesthetic can be used during the process–at least not in the U.S. A topical numbing spray with 5% lidocaine or another topical anesthetic may be applied to the tongue, but such products only numb the surface. The tongue contains a pair of muscles that have to be separated in one of several painful ways, so a topical analgesic does little to help. To split a person’s tongue, a body modification artist can either make a series of small cuts down the center over the course of several sessions, cut it all at once, or use an electrocautery pen to cut and seal the edges at the same time. Alternatively, you can slowly split your tongue on your own using the “tie-off method”, if you have a well-healed tongue piercing. You would remove your jewelry, thread a piece of sterilized fishing line through your tongue piercing, and tie the ends tightly around the front of your tongue, continuing to tighten the knot daily until you’ve completely cut through your tongue from your former tongue piercing forward.
Read more about tongue bifurcation in our Tongue Splitting blog post.
Dermal implants are a modern piercing invention that involve placing single-point piercings through the epidermis and inserting dermal anchors into the dermis beneath, where tissue can grow up, around and sometimes through the anchors and secure them in place over time. Decorative dermal tops are then screwed onto the anchors, or all-in-one skin anchors (a.k.a. skin divers) are used instead of traditional two-piece dermal jewelry. The latter type of dermal anchors do not have removable tops.
Subdermal implants are more involved than dermal implants, but they’re also modern inventions that have cropped up over the past decade or so. An artist will make a small incision in a client’s skin, and then insert a sterile, shaped object made of a surgical implant-grade material beneath the flesh before stitching the insertion hole closed. These implants come in all shapes and sizes, like hearts, arrows, squares, stars, and more.
Most piercers perform dermal implants now, but usually only specialized body modification artists perform subdermal implants. Some artists are exceptionally skilled at inserting implants with minimal scarring and attractive healed results–artists like Arseniy Andersson of Russia, whose portfolio you can view in our online gallery. Steve Haworth is an even bigger name in the subdermal implant scene, because of his magnetic finger implants that will attract paperclips and other small metal objects.
The art of human suspension, which is the act of suspending a person from large-gauge hooks placed through temporary body piercings, is a practice that dates back thousands of years. It was first performed for very sacred religious purposes, but it has since evolved into a performance art as well as a method for obtaining spiritual enlightenment.
Devout Hindus in India first began performing human suspension roughly 5,000 years ago. The practice began during a time when Hindu spiritual leaders were exploring the connections of mind, body and spirit and looking for ways to use the human form to transcend the body and find enlightenment. Practitioners believed that it was an act of penance that would prove their growing devotion to their Hindu gods as they engaged in progressively more intense suspension sessions.
Human suspension has also been a Mandan Native American tribe tradition for hundreds of years. They made suspension the focal point of their annual Okipa (Oh-Kee-Pa) ceremonies, which were first documented by a member of the Louis and Clark expedition named George Catlin. Catlin described the ceremonies as four-day-long events that required extensive preparation and self-sacrifice. Mandan warriors-in-training would be strained to their breaking points during the ceremonies as they worked for their gods’ approval. In addition to being suspended from hooks for long periods of time, the training Mandan warriors would also be weighted down and stressed in other ways that often resulted in them losing consciousness.
Today, human suspension is still practiced in India, but almost exclusively by the Savite Hindus. Many human suspension festivals have been banned in India and Sri Lanka, but the Tamil people of southern India still believe in the spiritual power of human suspension even though they can only practice the act occasionally at festivals in other parts of Southeast Asia. Such festivals are prevalent in Thailand and Malaysia today.
In western culture, there are many human suspension practitioners who still utilize this body modification art form as a means of spiritual enlightenment, like COBM practitioners. Allen Falkner was one of the first to document suspension’s non-spiritual benefits, like developing physical endurance, quieting the mind, relaxing, and using suspension as a performance art medium. Falkner played a large role in developing the core positions used in human suspension today.
You can learn more about the evolution of human suspension and the basic suspension positions in our blog post, A Brief History of Human Suspension. To better understand its applications in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, check out our The Art of Human Suspension blog post.
Learn More About Body Modification
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