Holier than Thou 

Boise's body modification culture

For some the human body is a temple. For others, a machine. To the modified person, the body acts as a canvas.

"Body modification" typically refers to tattooing, piercing, scarring, branding, scalpelling; the list goes on. Modifying the human body has become a growing and expanding practice, encompassing stretching the skin to implanting materials under it, as well as altering genitalia, amputating body parts and the ritualistic practices of pulling and suspending. Boise alone supports more than 20 tattoo and piercing shops.

Suspensions, also known as flesh hangings, come in many styles. From the "suicide" to the "lotus suspension," flesh hooks are positioned in the skin to support the participant's weight. Pulling is a practice where individuals use their own weight and strength to put pressure on the hooks. It's often done with two people tugging against each other, but can take on a variety of forms.

On a recent evening, Caylon "Kit" Travis prepares for a superman suspension. With paired hooks placed in his upper and lower back, thighs, calves and wrists, he lies face down on the floor while Paul, Kit's piercer, secures the hooks to the suspension rig.

Kit explains, "The whole process is a trial, a test." He admits, however, "It's total butterflies and anticipation when they start to raise the pole."

Sitting just a few feet away, as Paul slowly ratchets Kit into the air, his skin gradually stretching, one can't help but imagine the hooks ripping through delicate flesh. Paul waits for signals from Kit, who's adjusting to the tension of the rigging. The crowd is hushed. With a few more clicks Kit starts to sway. The spectators clap and holler. Liftoff. But no plumes of superheated water escape below him. No orbital trajectory before him. Yet, the emotions feel similar.

Kit furthers his position by saying, "It's one thing to not want to be into something like this; obviously, very few people can take a liking into this sort of thing. But to look at this and say, 'that's wrong,' or, 'that's messed up,' or, 'there's something wrong with that person,' that kind of pisses me off."

"I just wish people could realize that this isn't something that was just made up recently because people were bored," Kit enthuses. He lingers, saying, "No one's crazy... No one's psycho... Yeah, those are hooks going through our skin, but ... it's my skin."

To most, pain and pleasure occupy two polar ends of a wide spectrum, but for Kit and many other modifiers, the divide between pain and pleasure is paper-thin. "For me, it's all about the beauty," Kit says. "Something that is truly beautiful is someone subjecting themselves to pain for pleasure ... They say, 'no pain, no gain.' I say, 'no pain, no beauty.'"

As Kit touches back down and the crowd cheers once more, one can begin to see his motives, the notion of a journey through suspension and individuation through body modification. Others have done suspensions and sport similar piercings, but no one else has that moment. The time Kit hung belongs to him alone. The momentary rush of a piercing, the arduous hours of getting a tattoo, the pain or pleasure mark his experience.

"I think that for the most part, people do it as a form of body adornment, not to shock, but to create more beauty," says 21-year-old piercing apprentice Steven Humiston. The ideas behind adorning one's body also plays a crucial role in understanding modifiers and the general societal sentiment of unacceptability. Paul Birnbaum, a 37-year-old piercing veteran, lumps such attitudes nicely together, calling it a "Conservative-American-cluster-of-civilizations-Christian-you're-not-supposed-to-adorn-your-body stigma." He adds, "I believe that extends to a lot of less conservative aspects of society, not so much that they're frowning on it for religious beliefs, but it kind of morphs itself into being less generally accepted in society." Still, Paul hastens, "If you choose to adorn yourself in this way, you have to be pretty thick-skinned."

Steven, who seems quite shy despite his extensive adornments, comments on the thickness of his own skin. "People usually just think I'm a pain freak. People just assume I get all this stuff done for attention when really I could care less about the attention I get," declares Steven. He explains about possible motives for modifiers "It's really to make themselves feel better as a person, to make themselves look better to themselves." Reflectively, Steven says, "I think it makes me more attractive. I had a really poor self-image growing up. The more I do to my body, the more I like it. I feel more confident. It makes me feel more comfortable with who I am."

When asked about possible stigmas associated with his modifications, 21-year-old piercer Nicc Stiemetz comments, "I have mixed feelings about it." His somewhat intimidating appearance quickly washes away as he begins to speak-his tone demonstrating an inviting demeanor that belies his gruff exterior. He recalls, "I've heard people say mean things about me. And sometimes I feel like a freak show." Though Nicc, co-owner of Devotion Inc. Custom Tattoos and Body Modification, realizes that "Every time I get another tattoo or an implant or my lip cut or a plug in my ear, I know that people are going to judge me. I'm setting myself up to be judged." Nicc, who views his tattoos and numerous facial piercings as not reflecting anything particularly meaningful about him, believes, "It's really about who you are inside your heart, not who you are on the outside." He adds about his detractors, "People with modifications don't care if you have a tattoo. It's people who don't have anything done at all who judge people who have something done."

Other body mod collectors have experienced harsher treatment in the public eye. Twenty-two-year-old tattoo artist Jay "Ol'erie" O'Leary shares some instances. "I'll walk down the street and people will lock their doors when I walk by. They'll grab their kids. When I walk around with my daughter, people look at me like I'm doing something completely and totally wrong."

Jay is, on one hand, an extremist among extremists, and admits, "I have pretty much one of every kind of modification there is." Yet, on the same note, he acknowledges some drawbacks to his radicalism. "I want to find a girl and fall in love, but they can't bring me home to Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad don't understand what I'm into," he reveals, though sticking to his convictions, he states, "I like the way it looks and I'm going to do what I want. I don't care what anybody thinks." With forked tongue and through tattooed cheeks depicting headless birds, Jay lays out his philosophy. "They're going to stereotype me as a creep, a hooligan, an asshole, but the way I see life is you're born ugly and you come to us to get beautiful."

One central question for most unmodified persons persists: Why traumatize your body and put metal in your skin? "Some people get modifications for the appeal, the look, the attention they get, but I get them to just sort of fill in something about myself, to feel something new," claims 22-year-old barrista Ricky Castellanoz.

Twenty-year-old hairstylist Audrey Inskeep adds, "I just don't think people realize that piercings and brandings and all that is thousands of years old." She concludes, "I think it's art; I think it's a beautiful thing."

Body modification has received lofty criticisms as its resurgence has gained popularity in the last few decades. Critics label modifiers as deviants and their activities as convoluted forms of self-mutilation. Twenty-two-year-old piercing apprentice Matt Funaiole says, "I can understand how [body modification] could be interpreted that way, and they may be right in certain circumstances. I would say that there has to probably be some people who do it purely for that, but most of the people I know aren't. We all get some kind of strange kick out of things hurting, but it's not to avoid anything else, and that's what I feel like self-mutilation is for a lot of people: to hide from something they don't want to deal with."

Notably, out of the modifiers represented here, less than half attested to self-injurious behaviors as adolescents. Steven talks from his experiences with such behaviors. "I was hurting myself because I thought I had no control, I hated who I was, I hated my self-image, I was just not happy with life." He adds, "I think to call this self-harm, when all it does is make you feel so much better about yourself, is completely inaccurate and wrong." Though the difference between art and mutilation proves difficult for many modifiers to articulate, most allude to aesthetics as a dividing factor.

Victoria Pitts, in her book In the Flesh, comments on the art versus mutilation conflict, arguing, "Human bodies are always shaped and transformed through cultural practices, new body modifications have been interpreted as challenges to the naturalized status of Western body norms, as forms of self-fashioning and self-narration in postmodern culture." Pitts writes, "Among the problems of the self-mutilation argument is that it uncritically relies on a classical ideal of the skin as a pristine, smooth, closed envelope for the self, and a notion of the body and self as fixed and unchanging."

In subverting this orthodox concept of the body, Nicc comments, "My whole body is a work in progress."

Jay says, "To me, it's like a moving canvas."

In public, body modification collectors are well aware of the attention they attract, of the scoffing and fears associated with their look. Jay takes full accountability for his appearance. He says, "Being fair, I knew what I was getting myself into when I did it. I can't get mad at people. People are curious."

Yet, everyone has limitations. "Usually people will just come up and touch my ears or grab me and want to touch me, which is kind of going across boundaries. You should always ask before you touch anybody," advises Steven.

Modified persons find themselves in an interesting contradiction between how they look and how they feel. Modified individuals do not claim ignorance and take an active role in confronting stereotypes. Even though Brad Huntington, a 23-year-old tattoo artist, has had entire families leave restaurants after being seated in their vicinity, he still says, "I feel that I've helped a lot with the stereotype by just doing small stuff like holding the door open for someone."

Twenty-three-year-old Jeremy Sandusky, who sports 13 highly visible mods, explains, "Some people look at you like you're from another planet." Yet he realizes, though it may not be fair, "It's a fact of life."

Matt claims, "I can't even walk into a lot of stores without having someone follow me around thinking I'm going to steal something from them." Nevertheless, for him, "It's incentive to be a more responsible, respectful person because I don't want to be a stereotype. That's the whole thing about trying to be an individual through body modification." Matt sketches his values, saying, "I try to be a walking example of what people don't think that our culture is all about." Addressing all lifestyles, he asks us to "Just be courteous; be respectful of people when they talk to you."

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