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The map: Marked for life

A saucer in the lip, ear lobes to the knees or Arsenal tattooed on your chest - all are signs of beauty and status (honest). Fiona McClymont uncovers the facts
Piercings The unpierced are in a minority these days, and there are few limits when it comes to choosing which part of your body to spike. In the ear alone there are ten places that can be pierced - from the tragus (the hard cartilage where your ear meets the side of your face) to the most common, the lobe. Also possible and increasingly popular are the nostrils, the nasal septum (the part in-between your nostrils), the lips, the tongue, the eyebrows, the nipples and the genitals. Most piercings eventually close up if the ring or stud is removed, but in the case of flesh tunnels (metal tubes) or the insertion of weights of some kind, both of which enlarge the original hole, the piercing becomes a permanent orifice. The ear can also be stretched until it accommodates what are known as ear plugs - round discs often made of clay. These plugs are also used in lip piercings in cultures such as that of the Kaiapo of the Amazon, and the Suri of Ethiopia. Suri women have small round plugs inserted through the skin under their lower lip six months before marriage. The plugs are continuously enlarged and although the women cannot eat or speak when these are in place, the bigger the plug the higher their bridal price at marriage.

Nails In Far Eastern nations during the 19th century, nobles grew extremely long nails to indicate that they were above manual labour. Modern slackers choose false nails, adhesive transfers or the latest innovation - piercing. This is the process by which a hole is drilled into the tip of the nail, and jewels or charms are suspended from it.

Scarification Scarification involves making small cuts in the skin and putting charcoal, ink, ashes, or other substances into the open wound to help the scars raise as they heal, forming patterns of welts on the body. These are valued for their sensual, tactile quality and are also a way of attracting the opposite sex - being an extremely painful process, the marks signify that the wearer is a "real man" or "real woman". As Rufus C Tamphausen explores in Return of the Tribal (Park Street Press, pounds 15.99), scarification is slowly catching on among Western youth, but the modest designs they have cut into their flesh are small fry in comparison to the elaborate markings found in various areas of Africa. The women of the Ga'anda in Nigeria, for example, have scar patterns on their stomach, forehead, neck, waist, arms, buttocks and hips until finally, by the time they have reached a marriageable age, their entire body is completed with scarification designs.

Branding Originally put to use in the marking of slaves, branding for purely aesthetic reasons has been growing in popularity since its infancy in California ten years ago. It remains, however, strictly for the hard core. Strips of surgical steel are heated to approximately 1,100F, and are then pressed into the skin to produce scars. One drawback (apart from the pain and smell of burning flesh) is that it is difficult to predict the form the scars will take. Although illegal here, in the States public figures, such as Michael Jordan and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, sport brandings of their fraternity (university college).

Teeth Many people around the globe, including those in Central Africa, practise teeth filing - whereby the teeth are filed until they become fanged. If grinding away at the hardest material within the human body seems extreme, you could take part in a spot of dental modification by wearing tooth jewels or caps la Goldie and "Scary Spice" Mel C.

Tattoos The word tattoo is believed to have come from the Tahitian word "tatau" meaning "to inflict wounds", although another theory claims it comes from the sound the ancient tools made during the process of tattooing. Having a tattoo is unlikely to cause any raised eyebrows these days and almost any part of the body can be used as a canvas, although some areas remain something of a taboo in Western society - the neck and face in particular. In other cultures however, it is common for see bold and intricate facial designs, such as those sported by the Maoris. Their designs, consisting of spirals that seem to follow the contours of the face, are known as "Moko" and are symbols of the wearer's identity - to steal a Moko design would be equivalent to appropriating someone else's coat of arms. Tattoos are often imbued with religious or cultural significance, from the elaborate patterns denoting age and status covering the buttocks and thighs of Samoan men, to "Mam" and "Arsenal FC" on the arms of your British male. Not something to be done on a whim - laser treatment to remove tattoos is possible, but costly.