Branding and scarification are the latest fads to hit America's West Coast. 'Body art' or 'corporeal modification', attracts a range of people from the hippy, gay and sado-masochistic communities, as well as being central to the newer, so-called 'Modern Primitive' movement. This combines sex and fashion fetishism with a New Agey spiritual gloss.
Tattoo and body piercing clinics in Los Angeles and San Francisco offer the agonising 'kiss of fire': branding of the kind once used on slaves and since reserved for cattle. The brand is made with a 'strike', a piece of shaped iron attached to a rod, which is heated with a propane blow-torch until red hot, then plunged into the flesh causing a third-degree burn. Scarification draws on techniques used to make African tribal markings.
Body art specialists in this country report a growing number of requests for branding and scarification. For the style-conscious Brit, deciding on an ornamental scar as your next fashion statement is one thing. Finding someone who will burn or carve it into you is another. 'A lot of the people out there who are prepared to do it are in it for kicks,' warns Peter, a body piercer, who makes a living by putting holes through every pierceable part of the anatomy.
He ushers me into his workplace, a small 'surgery' tacked on to the back of his terraced home. 'If someone comes to me who is already seriously into body modification and has multiple tattoos and piercings, then I'm prepared to discuss the possibility of branding them. I've done about 10 brandings and the same number of scarifications.
'I try to discourage people, but if they really want it, I will do it, because it's safer than them having it done with a heated-up coat hanger or a soldering iron. I use a medical cauteriser.'
Peter has used this instrument to burn stylised scorpion, leaf and star designs into the backs, bellies and biceps of clients who, he says, feel no more pain than they would if being tattooed.
'I won't do slave branding, which is often what couples want. It may be just a game, but a scar, like a tattoo, is there for life.'
As the law stands, piercing and tattooing are legal when for decorative purposes, but not for sexual pleasure. That decision was reached after a controversial ruling four years ago (in the Spanner case), and is being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. The same would apply to branding and scarification.
So while Peter tiptoes along on the right side of the law, a well-known man on the SM scene who recently branded his initials into his girlfriend's rump in front of an audience of 90 in the upstairs room of a Home Counties pub is in murky legal waters.
Warren, a 24-year-old with a body piercing business in Brighton, has a brand on his forearm and a scar carved into his chest. Both use the symbol of the Temple ov Psychic Youth, a 'Modern Primitive' spiritual cult which doubled as a fan club for a now-disbanded rock group called Psychic TV.
Warren is dismissive of pain-free branding done with a cauteriser. 'That's not the raw, primitive side of it, which it's really all about. I know about 20 people who've been branded or scarified. For most of them it's a very private affair.
'When you experience intense pain, you gain knowledge and control of yourself. It's not self-mutilation. For me, on both occasions it was a rite of passage, along the lines of Mayan blood-letting ceremonies.' Warren, who describes himself as a 'non-sexual' person, had his brand done with a metal strike. 'Two seconds of intense pain. It's nothing to fear. This is actually part of a long-term spiritual project for me.
'It started with multiple piercings and will culminate in a self-crucifixion. I've been speaking to a doctor about the medical side of it and I'm arranging for someone to come and take over my business temporarily. My only concern is that after this crucifixion, where will it all end? I mean, next thing I'll be taking my head off with a meat cleaver. I say that tongue in cheek, but I don't want to end up like one of those performance artists who blow themselves up in public.'
Michelle Olley, features editor of Skin Two, Britain's fetish-lifestyle magazine, doesn't think the fad will take off here. 'The results aren't satisfying enough. Brands spread and the skin goes silvery white. I've seen scarification, a woman with a sun cut into her chest, which looked like the sort of thing for crusties who think: 'What can I do next?' I find the whole thing repulsive. We're more interested in tottering around on high-heeled shoes.'
'Unless you are working on black or very fair skin, it's actually very difficult to get lasting, visible scars,' says Peter. 'Black skin contains more collagen than white, so it forms raised scars more readily, which is why African tribal scarring works well. With white skin, you have to carve the skin repeatedly to get a lasting scar.'
With branding, any mark burnt into the skin will expand three times in size, and as the scar tissue forms, lines become blurred and lettering indecipherable.
'Nobody is really branding properly,' says Alec Spinney, a leading London tattoo artist. 'Not even in the States. I am currently doing a tattoo on the chest of someone whose brand went wrong. Branding is very dangerous and just leaves a weird, ugly, messy scar.'
Spinney has more time for scarification. 'I've known people who've done it to themselves with knives and I've seen a couple of really nice arm bands. I'd consider doing it on someone who's serious about it.
'Really though, it's just a lot of lost white boys running around after the latest thing. Black people certainly aren't reviving it. Most of my black friends seem pretty dubious about it. It's more for screwed-up white middle-class people like me who want to go and live in the jungle because we hate our parents.'
So far, Peter estimates that only about 100 people in Britain have brands, and the same number have ornamental scars. Although he hopes what he calls 'this hideous and dangerous practice' does not catch on, he points out that until recently body piercing was considered pretty weird.
'I have done genital piercing on thousands of people, including my bank manager and my solicitor. I'd never have thought that likely 10 years ago.'
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