The human condition: The first cut is the deepest

Scarring and branding is the body modifier's way of saying I love you. Hero Brown reports

Dave Deacon, a 28-year-old Mancunian, has been cutting his body since he was 14. In the past few years, he has performed 12 scarifications on close friends, and in 1995 underwent elaborate scarring himself. You might suppose he's violently disposed towards himself and others. But "body modification" is the ultimate test of trust and love for its practitioners.

Deacon is eloquent and intelligent on the subject. "There's something very emotional, a release when you do a cut," he says. "I would only cut certain people, those doing it for the right reason. Not for a fashion reason, or because it's trendy, but because it means something emotionally for the cutter and the person being cut."

Branding and scarification have their modern roots in the lesbian S&M scene in the States. Over the years, the scene has expanded to include straights and gay men. Body modification provokes strong emotions. Many lesbians, for example, find branding offensive and anti-feminist because of its associations with slavery.

S&M culture remains the basis for the body modification scene, although just how many "normal" people indulge in this lifestyle is anyone's guess. Certainly, those interviewed here claimed they knew many white-collar, "respectable" types who were secretly involved, and the explosion in British fetish clubs would suggest that the punters are composed of more than just the occasional weirdo. Even so, branding and scarification are actions so far removed from common comprehension that they are viewed as a form of GBH and punishable by prison sentence.

For Deacon, body modification is a way of expressing himself and taking control of his body. It is also his way of exploring the body's limits. "I wouldn't say that I like pain, I think there would be very few people who could say that. But I am interested in the experience, what you can do to your body." Western notions of beauty make it difficult to understand someone who is so dismissive of pristine skin. Deacon is already heavily pierced (eyebrow, lip, tongue, nose, nipples, belly) and tattooed (head, shoulder and arm, leg, feet, nipples and chest). But it is his scar, sitting centrally above his naval, which is most incredible. He shows it proudly, inviting me to touch it. It looks surprisingly attractive.

Deacon received his scar as part of a "performance" at an S&M club. Part of the S&M scene himself, he nevertheless claims that there was no sexual agenda for him. Experimenting with his body and shocking the audience were more important issues. Watched by several hundred people, at an un- named venue (he fears recrimination for the club), Deacon was held upside down and cut 16 times - without anaesthetic - on his stomach with a hook scalpel, creating a simple symmetrical pattern of roughly three inches square.

"From what I remember from my cutting, the actual sensation was very intense," he says. "I was planning to exhale on each cut but I only managed it for the first two because the pain was acute. There were people passing out and leaving the room. I guarantee I wouldn't be doing what I do in a performance if I didn't get a reaction. It's about people finding their limit. Some people find their limit having their belly pierced; it doesn't matter. Basically, I advocate personal choice: you have the right to say what happens to your own body. I do what I do - because I can."

This kind of body modification is beyond the comprehension of most. Deacon's own parents have "great difficulty" contemplating his actions. He can't talk to his father about what he's done to his body for fear of making him "physically ill". Other forms of body "actionism" are perhaps easier to relate to. There are stories of bereaved partners rubbing their dead lover's ashes into newly received cuts as part of the grieving process. Examples abound of cuts performing the same function as deeply personal tattoos, using symbols such as eagles to reflect native American culture, crosses on the breast bone to indicate love or Pacific fertility symbols on the stomach to celebrate birth. Keloiding (a type of raised scarification which works best on dark skin) is popular with some African-Americans, as a sign of respect to their tribal heritage.

Some couples see branding and scarring as an emotional rite of passage. Kate, 38, performed a private branding on her long-term S&M lesbian partner Mandy, 27, last year at their London home. "We planned it for ages," admits Kate, "and we wanted it to be an affirmation of our commitment and faith in each other. It has to rank among the most intense experiences of my life." Kate branded Mandy using a cooker-heated piece of rectangular stainless steel, creating two horizontal brands on her upper arm. "It was a very controlled, calm environment," says Mandy, "but we were both incredibly nervous. We'd seen loads of performance brandings before but we'd never tried anything like this ourselves. Kate was fantastic. There was no pressure to go through with it but it was brilliant. Undoubtedly for us there was an element of the sexual in the build-up and the branding itself, but the significance of what we did goes way beyond that."

Since their private branding, Kate claims, other friends who are uninvolved with the S&M scene have thought seriously about giving their partners brands. "The perception from outside is that it's a violent, perverted act, but it's much more complex than that," she says. "When people see how much thought and emotion goes into what we do, it can change their perspective. For us, it meant as much as getting married."

Couples like Kate and Mandy feel that, as consenting adults, they should be free to (ab)use their bodies as they wish. Certainly, it's hard to see quite how a Prince Albert (a painful piercing through the eye of the penis which takes at least three months to heal) can be legal, while a brand on the arm is deemed an offence. But the mind boggles when Deacon claims, "I know people who have gone much further than me." How much further? "When you're talking to a guy who's cut his dick in half, without anaesthetic, even I can have only limited thoughts on that," he answers.

We have a deeply ingrained resistance to any breach - stretch marks, Caesarean scars, extensive burns - in the body's integrity. "I suppose you can take out piercings," shrugs Kate. "But the risks involved in branding and scarification feed directly into the primary fears we have as humans. The fear of pain, of burning, of disfigurement are intolerable to most people."

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