Although ink tattoos are the most popular modern form of body art, human beings have been adorning their bodies for aesthetic or ritualistic reasons in some manner or another for thousands of years. Whether it is with the fine strokes of an artist's airbrush or the precision slices of an expert's scalpel, the world of human body art and body modification is virtually limitless in its manifestations.
Let's take a look at the anthropology of body art and survey the most popular expressions of this art form in today's world.
The History of Body Art
When studying body art history, it is striking to notice how the different versions of both modern and tribal body art are reflections of the societies that their subjects lived within. Body art is nearly always heavily influenced by the aesthetic and social taboos of the societies that encourage their use.
Historically, permanent body art was used to:
- Correct the human form into the given culture's concept of ideal physical beauty.
- The acceptance of such adornment was considered a part of reaching social maturity. Body art rituals served as a rite of passage.
- Identification: tribe members and outsiders can identify each other by means of their body art.
- Social status: usually, the bigger the body modifications, the higher on the social ladder someone was.
- Magical protection: body art often served as a talisman.
Anthropologists have discovered that body art is one of the human universals that are found in every culture on the planet. Although one needs to go no further than the local shopping mall to find examples of tribal body art, it is often easier to observe cultural body modification by studying a culture outside of one's own.
Throughout Africa, examples of body art have been found in virtual every traditional society. Some of the best-known examples of African body art include:
- Neck stretching: a long neck is a beauty ideal in some African and Asian cultures. The neck is gradually elongated with neck rings.
- Lip stretching: several tribes are known for lip stretching, like the Mursi women of Ethiopia and the Botocudo women of Brazil. The stretching is done with the aid of lip plates (aka lip plugs or lip discs). In the Mursi tribe, the size of the lip disc correspondents with the number of cattle paid as the bride price. Stretched lips are a symbol of social maturity.
- Scarification: scarification is used in many different cultures as a rite of passage or as a means to show sorrow. More about scarification.
- Piercing: piercings are a kind of body modification that were seen as a status symbol. More about piercings.
- Ear Stretching (aka gauging or tunneling)
Body Art Today
In modern society, body art is typically used as:
- A form of self expression.
- A critique of the aesthetic values of the larger society.
- An expression of spirituality or religion.
- A fashion statement.
- A beauty enhancement.
- A rite of passage of the counter culture and mainstream world alike.
- Subcultural identification: people use body art to show they belong to a certain subculture (conformism).
As societies also tend to incorporate the existing forms of technology into their body art, one is left to wonder at how it will look centuries down the line. Innovations like glow in the dark and UV reactive tattoos are two recent examples of where body art has incorporated modern science into the artistic medium itself. The line between cybernetics and human physiology is growing ever slimmer, and the twentieth century provided a case study of how quickly a culture's taboos concerning the flesh can change.
Body painting as applied by the
Nuba (Sudan, Africa)
Although it is impossible to know for certain, it seems likely that ancient peoples were painting their faces and bodies far before the first tattoos or piercings were innovated. By some, body painting is considered the most early form of art. The question of how many hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors may have decorated their bodies with simple paints over countless generations of hunters and gatherers is lost to the ages.
Body painting with natural pigments such as clay existed in most tribal communities such as the indigenous people of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. In India and the Middle East, body painting is known as Mehndi. Mehndi is a form of body painting that uses dyes made from Henna. It is typically applied on brides.
Body and face painting were used for various reasons:
- Camouflage during hunting or war
Here in the modern world, contemporary body painting has become an established media of fine art during the course of the last couple of decades. Temporary tattoo artists have broken into the world of contemporary art through the use of full body painting that became progressively more refined.
Today's top body artists use airbrush tattoos to create meaningful works of art in which the body serves as both the medium and the message that is larger than the sum of its parts. The New Zealand body painter called Joanne Gair (aka Kiwi Jo) is considered one of the world's leading body paint artist. Her art appeared in the Swimsuit Issues from Sports Illustrated from 1999 to 2009. One of her most famous works is her Disappearing Model:
The purpose of less formal body painting and face painting is often just to have some fun with one's body and enjoy a temporary change from their usual skin. The uses of informal body painting can range from face painting at the county fair to henna tattoos for young adults to full body art that looks like clothing.
While tattoos are the best known form of body art, body and facial piercing are far more common among the general population of cultures throughout the world. Even in the most conservative western households, ear piercing is typically viewed as a young woman enters into adolescence.
Other traditional cultures incorporate body piercings into symbols of cultural conformity or spiritual dedication. However, the vast majority of body piercing in modern society is used as:
- Subcultural identification
- A fashion statement
- Symbolic expression
There are nearly as many different types of piercings as there are cultures that embrace them. Popular types of piercings that are used as fashion or cultural statements include lip piercings, nose piercings, belly button piercings, monroe piercings, hip piercings and ear piercings.
Ear piercing has been done since ancient times and was also the first kind of body modification that was socially accepted in the Western world. Ötzi the Iceman, the mummified body of a man who lived around 3300 BC, had pierced ears. Earrings are also mentioned in the Bible. A variant of ear piercing is cartilage piercing and tragus piercing.
Nose piercings gained a lot of popularity in the West during the 1990s. In earlier times, nose rings were worn by Native Americans, the Aztecs, Incas, Australian aboriginals and many more tribal cultures. There are 2 variants of nose piercing: septum piercing and nostril piercing.
Corset piercing imitates the lacing of a corset by lacing a series of surface piercings on the back. It is usually worn by women and is most often of a temporary kind because corset piercings heal badly. On photo this type of body art is usually shown laced, but's impossible keep them laced for long periods of time.
The tongue is the second most popular place to have a piercing (the ear is the most popular). Ritual tongue piercing was done by the Aztecs and Incas to honor the gods. The girl in the photo below has a tongue piercing as well as a Monroe piercing. Monroe piercings imitate a beauty spot such as Marilyn Monroe had one. They are also known as a Crawford (Cindy Crawford) or a Madonna.
Elaine Davidson, a Scottish woman, has the world record for extreme piercing, she has about 1903 piercings (see picture above).
Scarification and Extreme Body Modification
Nowhere in the world of body art is the ritualistic aspect of this art form more obvious than in scarification. While scarification is certainly not for everyone, it is rooted in the same tribal traditions as piercings and has been found across cultures as an important rite of passage marking the end of one's adolescence.
In modern society, advanced body modification is becoming a particularly popular form of male body art. Taken to its most extreme expression, this form of body modification is not for the faint of heart.
The primary forms of extreme body modification include:
- Branding: body branding is precisely what it sounds like and involves the application of a red hot figure of metal to the skin for the purpose of leaving a scar.
- Scalpelling: consists of the use of a sharp scalpel to make precise incisions in the skin, sometimes with the purpose of removing an entire portion of surface flesh for dynamic scar.
- Implants: various types of implants are used, but one of the most common is the implantation of cosmetic spikes into the forehead or eyebrows.
- Beading: beading is a separate form of implanting in which beads are surgically inserted under a person's skin for the purpose creating a symmetrical series of bumps within the flesh.
As you might expect, extreme body modification is not without risks. Most forms of scarification and implants are technically surgical procedures, and many extreme body artists lack formal medical training. As a result, it is considered largely up to the people who elect to undergo these procedures to be responsible for their own medical safety. The vast majority of body modification enthusiasts take their health very seriously though.