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The Motivation Behind Getting Piercings, Tattoos and other Body Modifacations

I thought I'd take a little different path with this installment and try to cover a subject that is often completely misunderstood. Possibly the main reason that it is so misunderstood is that it is often something very personal and can't always be described. We all have different motivations and drives that create the desire to modify and change our body's. From the marking of important events in our lives to something as simple as we like the way it looked. What follows is both a personal look at the reason that I have piercings and tattoos and also some insight from my years of experience of piercing other people.

To get a clear understand of the motivation, I think we must first review a little bit of history that lead up to the Tattoo renaissance of the 80s and 90s and the birth of modern body piercing. Body art is clearly a mainstream activity now but there was a period between the end of World War II and the early 1990s when it was unheard of outside of a handful of small subcultures. In fact tattooing was seen as a clear indication of anti-social behavior. However it has been estimated that at the end of WWII a majority of American households had at least one family member that had a tattoo. A majority of them were those that were on active duty during the war. In fact Tattooing had had it's first major boom in the 1940s. There were a number of motivations involved with this boom. Many believed that they wouldn't be returning from battle, others it was a bounding ritual with their fellow servicemen and other's believed that if they did die in combat it would make identifying their body easier. In fact the practice of getting tattoos while in the service continues to this day and often the same motivations are still the bases. 

So one could say that the decline was just a simple case of the reduction of people joining the military after WWII but I feel it was something different. The image and mean of the tattoos changed vastly to begin to reflex social rebellion and anti-social behavior. Many of those servicemen began to regret their tattoos or saw them as a reflection of the stupidity of youth. My father would be a good example and it was really my first exposure to tattooing and body art. He had a fore arm tattoo that was taken from a Sailor Jerry design of a heart and dagger that he got in Fort Riley, Ks before shipping out to Korea. It had his name Jerry on the inside of the heart which he explained was because he couldn't think of anyone else's name to put in there. I always felt it had more to do with identification than that. By the time I had came into his life the lines had blown out and it looked more like a dancing girl or spinning top than the original design. I now wear that tattoo also with the added heart and banner "My Pops". The tattoo was a continuing source of embarrassment for him, he rarely drew attention to it except when I'd stop by the house with a new tattoo. After I would tell him what I paid, he'd lick his fingers, slap the tattoo and say, "Buck and a half in a basement in Fort Riley, Ks, 1952. Son, you got took."

I never really understood he's dislike for the thing, I mean it didn't look good. It had been damaged by sun and time but he completely strayed away from any questions about it and would hide it whenever he could. When it was brought up, he'd skirt the discussion with jokes and half truths or just avoid it. He was the same way about anything that took place between his childhood and marrying my mother. Oh there were hints of hustling tourist with card games at Lake Okoboji in his teen years and a little bit of playing the gigolo around the same time whispered around the kitchen table during gatherings with my Aunts and Uncles. Also there was his expulsion from high school for blowing up condoms during class and countless other acts but when questioned about them he pleaded the 5th under the darting eyes of my mother. When asked about how he received a commendation, the Bronze Star and two blue heart, he would reply with jokes about getting stabbed with a fork in the chow line or was bayoneted while trying to climb a tree which lead to the massive stink bomb farts he was known for.

Later in life I began to understand that the real reason behind his dislike for his tattoo was that it was a continuing reminder of a past that he didn't want to remember. To me the tattoo was a mark or doorway into a secrete part of his life and one that he took to his grave. For most of my childhood I sat on his lap staring at it, trying to find the meaning in it and some hints to that past he was unwilling to share. I used to think that it was fear of my mother that was the reason behind this but I know it was because when he married my mother that door shut on that past to allow him to live a new future. It was how he dealt with it and it wasn't the healthiest way but it was his way. 

Regardless that planted the seed in my mind to getting a tattoo. A way to mark my adventures, my life and express my distance from those around me. I had notice this difference early one, my interests were different from those around me on the play ground, I was drawn to things outside their vision. They noticed it too but I wouldn't say I was bullied but I was quick to anger and the willingness to make everyone fully aware that I was going to hold them accountable for their actions. The scars that would form on my hands and body represented to me that code of accountability and my need to explore the edge of safety. In a way they were my first body modifications. The first marking of events that shaped my life and the first doorways into my secrete life.  Tattoos were a desire of mine because they were the representation of the pinnacle of rebellion. Outside of those in my family with military tattoos, the only time I saw examples of tattoos were on those on the edges of society. Criminals, outlaws, sailors, pirates, rock stars and bikers. They represented adventure and danger which was something I longed for. Though I really had no interest in being any of those things.

Growing up when I did in the 1970s, I experienced the back lash of the social revolution of the 1960s. I was part of that middle generation or what Richard Hell called the Blank Generation. Too young to be a baby bomber but too old to be a part of generation X. Whenever I look back on the world around in my childhood, I picture a world that was grey, cheap. decaying, rotting. fearful and in decline.  Regardless of what many believe I think this period in American history did more to shape the world of the end of the century and today then the 1960s did. Sure the 60s was a golden age of social and scientific advancement but the decade that followed was the hangover and the fear of that hangover shaped the world to come. The political shift that came in the 1980s was not about optimism it was about fear and anger. Even as a child, I was clearly aware that the mood had shifted from "We can do anything" to "Why even bother". For a lot of us coming of age in the mid 80s the future was a dark and hopeless place with limited chances for new discoveries. Just endless decline in a crowd that had been there and done that. Oppression was the fade of the day and self gratification was the mainstream and I for one wanted nothing to do with it.

So I began my migration into sub-cultures and the extreme sides of modern life. My first ventures were BMX and Skateboarding which was far from mainstream at the time. Both were considered childish and to a degree anti-social behavior. My first encounters with law enforcement would be during this period and often involved just riding a "Toy" at 3am and being a teenager. The thing about both of them is that there was a underground culture that revolved around both. They had their own publications, vocabulary, clothing styles and attitude. Most of it was taken from the 1970s Southern California Surf Culture which made it completely foreign to most of those around me. It was at times very tibial in nature making it easy to find those that were of the same mind set even when they were skating or riding. Body Art wasn't really a part of those markings yet but in a way being 16 and having scars and visible road rash was a great indicator that you were active on a more hardcore level then most.

Music was always a big part of my life and I was always a little out of step of those around me. Weather it be my interest in old country and DeVo in my Pre-teen years or my growing interest in obscure underground music and punk from my early teens to well, now. If it was new, different, strange or extreme, I was interested. Especially if it expressed something I could relate to. I had a number of dabbles before settling on Punk in early hip hop, new wave and even a short period with metal but the one that stood out was Hardcore Punk, Much to my parents dislike and the surprise of those around me, I began to try to express this interest in clothing and hair styles. In Des Moines, Iowa there was very few places selling anything that would be considered punk, so most of my early wardrobe was homemade and rather silly. Though I had wanted to get my nipples pierced since I was 12, which the motivation is still a bit of a question for me, Punk was my first real exposure to piercing. I think in a lot of ways it was the first mainstream exposure that it really ever got. Mostly in the form of cartoon punkers with safety pins through their nostril or cheek.

At the time, facial piercings didn't appeal to me. This was in part because I was still living a double life of sorts. At home, I played the role of the good Christian boy and everywhere else the wild crazy punk. By this time, men having one pierced ear was pretty mainstream and acceptable. Now that was only the left ear and only one, anything else would put your sexual orientation in question. When I reached 18, I left the church, got my first tattoo and began wearing multiple piercing. It represented not only my independence but that I belonged to a sub-culture. It was a reflection of my commitment to that culture. Something that I had kept some what hidden from my parents up to this point. This was a big step because it was a lasting and visible expression of interest. I desired to clearly state that I was different for others both in belief and interest. 

Now this might seem silly but it meant something to me. It meant a complete break from surfing through life and making a conscious decision that I was going to take a different path. I was at a cross roads in my life. One path involved college and a career that I was unsure I wanted but was very secure and the other was one of adventure, discovery and an unsecured future. Altering my body was a commitment to that path. 

The Body Art industry was a completely different world in the late 80s. Most studios mirrored the cliental of the time which was mostly made up of Outlaw bikers, criminals, rockers, and others on the outside edges of society. Tattooing was looked down upon and those that did it often had connections to the subcultures their clients were coming from. A Tattoo studio could be a very intimidating place. Most were run by odd ball characters of not the best moral characters which just added to the bad reputation. Those in the industry were very guarded about their skills and turf and it wasn't uncommon for this to grow into very violent acts.  There are many a legion of fire bombed shops, broken fingers caused by sledge hammers and like something out of the wild west, running competing artist out of town. Folklore aside, this created a situation where there was no exchange of knowledge or progression of the art form. It had stalled to say the least and is one of the reasons that a majority of the tattoos you see from the 1960s to the mid 1980s look so bad. Sure this is in part due to advancements in inks but a lot of it was the approach and the lack of sharing of knowledge.

The story of tattooing working it's way into the mainstream acceptance has to be created to Don Ed Hardy and his teacher Sailor Jerry Collins. Their approach as artists, the conventions that they were involved and the publication of Ed Hardy's Tattootime begin the transformation of the industry. The focus began to shift from close guarded secrets to one of openness and a focus on the artistic side of Tattooing. This would not only make tattooing more public friendly but completely revolutionize the quality of tattoos. This marked the slow decline of carny, biker and Ave A tattoo pallor and the rise of the Modern Tattoo Studio. The focus left the confines of flash designs and moved to more of a focus on customized pieces. Though flash is still the backbone of the industry, the level of the designs as greatly improved. Techniques and improved inks were developed because of the openness of this new type of Artist. Also through publications like Tattootime and International Tattoo, artist were introduced to styles and techniques of other cultures and exposed for the first time to the history of Tattooing.  Within a decade tattoos moved out of the freak shows tent and into the mainstream.

Suddenly, the fashionable side of Tattooing became driving force with a focus on personal expression and the more tibial marking components of sub-culture began taking a back seat. Now I'm not going to try to discredit getting a tattoo or piercing because it looks cool. Regardless of what anyone says, part of what draws all collectors to getting something is they like the look of it. Many times the true meaning of the body modification doesn't revile itself until years later. As they say hind sight is 20/20 but I think I should address the fact that many ended up regretting them later. Often because like my father, they express a part of their life that they wish not to express or reflect on. I for one, would rather have the tattoo or piercing there to remind me of that point in my life and how much I've evolved from there. I see them as badge of survival in a way. A testament to what I have lived through and experienced.

I've covered a lot of the history of Tattooing and before I get more into motivation, I think I should talk a little bit about the history of modern piercing. Tattooing and piercing share a timeline but unlike tattooing where you have a clearly document past as an industry, piercing is a little harder to trace. If you want to nit pick, Body Piercing as an Industry began in the 1980s, though the practice dates back to the beginning of time. The roots of the industry can be found in three sub-cultures, the Gay leather community, Punk Rock and the Bondage and S&M community. Who started it first is in question but many of the piercings and the more technical side of piercing where developed out of the Gay and S&M sub-culture then leaked into Punk Rock and other underground music movements. I have to credit both of them with creating a focus on safety that was already a large part of their activities, rituals and standards long before piercing came about. 

It's hard to talk about piercing or tattooing without at least making a slight mention of sexuality and masochistic behavior because pain and fear are both an active part of the procedure. Part of the ritual is the rush and empowerment of concurring and overcoming the fear and the pain. Which leads one to feel that it is a rite of passage in a culture that has very few. Since there is often a age limit involved in getting one, it not only marks ones passage into adulthood but it also can represents the strength of their womanhood or manhood. A kind of test to represent this passage which is hardwired in us from ancient times. However there is a natural high or state of being that can be achieved during the process of getting a tattoo or piercing cause by how body copes with the pain. The experience can be much like that achieved by runners when they "break through the wall" or "hit the zone". Also it's often referred to in the S&M community as "sub space". It's a place where your body produces chemical that place you in a euphoric state. Many tibial cultures have rituals that involve extreme pain that would used to create this state and give the person visions or self realization. An off shot of the industry has created the movement of Body Play where many S&M style activities are done without the sexual component like suspensions and reenactments of the Lakota sun dance and other religious rituals. Weather the motivation behind this is thrill seeking, a search for spiritual enlightenment, or another side show is really only those that are involved can answer. At it's base is the effects of pain on the body.

Since one of the major goals of the industry is to reduce pain, it might seem odd to bring up a motivation that involves it but often those getting them done will state that they needed or wanted to get something done to counter act stress or other events in their life. Pain has been used as a method to reduce stress and tension in alterative medicine for centuries. Acupuncture would be the first that comes to mind but also deep tissue massage would be another example. Maybe the motivation to seek out pain is a reaction to progress. We have as a society strived to create an environment that limits the amount of pain and discomfort we experience. It maybe hardwired in us that we must experience pain and discomfort to feel whole. Something inside of needs pain to confirm our existence.

Another motivating factor that falls in these lines is the fact that at this point in human history there is very few places left unexplored. So is it a wonder that exploring and experiencing what your body is capable couldn't motivate someone to undergo a piercing, tattoo or other modification? There seems to have developed in the fringes of the body modification sub-culture a group of people that were interested in exploring their body and their inner world. This lead to much of the more extreme procedures and rituals that I touched on before. The fact is that many of the early adaptors of this were searching for new experiences and personal ways of expression. Many felt that we had lost our connection to our spiritual side and found a connection through body art to the past or their ancestral culture.  

If I had to pick out a type of piercing that seems to bring up the most questions about motivation from clients and others it would have to be genital piercings. The most logical reasoning is sexual enhancement but often with sexual piercing and even non-sexual piercings, I've had clients state that they were doing it because of a relationship ending. That the piercing was their way of marking a change in their life but also there is an underlining vibe that they are reclaiming ownership and control over their body. Most including the psychiatric community, would consider this extreme and does lead to a question of what they are stating by modifying their body? Yes, there is often a increase in sexual sensation but in a way they are clearly stating ownership of their sexuality. It's also not uncommon for clients to state that they are getting the piercing and often re-piercing because their former partner didn't like the piercing. This in my opinion is a healthy step toward healing and closure after a relationship ends. A way of expressing their independence and an act of moving on.

After my son's mother and I broke up, we tried couple counseling and I continued for a while after she quit. During one of my sessions, the counselor brought up genital piercings and asked if I had any. I told her yes and she began asking me if I had been molested as a child. This seemed like an odd track for the conversation to go and seemed like a waste of time because my motivation for being there was to gain insight on how to coup with being weekend father. She brought up a paper that had been published tracing genital mutilation(they meant piercing) to molestation and sexual abuse. I stated that first off I didn't see the point of talking about this and that I hadn't been sexually abused. This lead to a discussion of what my motivation behind my genital piercings and what I felt was the motivation of my clients. To be honest, I really hadn't thought about it. The reasons were reflective of that period of my life. The first was of course sexual enhancement. The second was that I had not offered the service before even though I was trained to do them and felt that I need insight into what my clients would be experiencing. The third is that I had just gotten out of a very intense and often very explosive long term relationship. Also timing seemed right because I had no interest in being in a relationship at the time and felt I would have a break from sex. This lead to a pointless discussion about my sexuality which she concluded showed signs of sexual addiction. Suddenly the sessions stopped being about my upcoming fatherhood and more about her convincing me that even though I didn't show enough signs of sexual addiction, that I was a sex addict.  I soon stopped going.

That said I have had clients confine in me that they were getting a genital piercing as part of the healing process after being sexually assaulted or being in a abusive relationship. To them it was a clear statement of their ownership over their body and part of how they were dealing with the trauma of the assault and abuse. Though many practicing psychology would conclude that this was just a continuation of the abuse, my belief was that after talking about it at length with a few of these clients, that it was an empowering experience. Often a way of expressing their defiance of their abuser.

The thing is that there is no clear cut motivation behind modifying ones body. Most of the male population of the U.S. have had their most intimate parts altered soon after birth in the form of circumcision. Long before we are aware of our body or have a voice to protest and this is done under a drive for conformity and has no medical reasoning behind it.  Many vastly alter their body's through selective surgery but still view body modifications as anti-social and self destructive regardless of the motivation behind it. The fact is that our motivations are different from person to person, Some it involves a statement of the sub-culture they belong to, others it about enhancing their body to attract others. Some it is a need to experience a pain rite or to mark changes in their life. While others it may mean a clear statement of the ownership and control of their body. Some it's about sexual enhancement and others body art represents part of their spiritual quest to reconnect with the past and culture in a ever increasing climate of multicultural and drive for comfortable living. Whatever the motivation it's always a personal one that often doesn't show its true meaning till years later and has a number of contributing factors. It can be a passion or it can be a passing period of your life but one thing it will always be is a marker and road sign to a period of your life.