April 30th, 2001

self portrait

Midnight ramblings

So after I took a much-needed shower last night, I sat, brushing out my hair and watching some programs the Tivo had grabbed for me. In particular, there were two Discover Channel programs, one on tattooing and one on body piercing that looked like they'd be interesting fare.

The program on tattooing was very interesting. Apart from the expected display of lots of tattooed flesh, a lot of the program talked about how tattooing became more popular in Western culture and some of the major events that helped it spread and marked its growth. For example, the invention of the first electric tattoo needle, around the time that inventors were looking to electrify everything, caused an enormous rise in the number of people who got tattoos. About this same time, the "Tattooed Lady" became a side-show fixture in circuses around the country. Overall, I found it a balanced program, showing both the current state of tattooing and some of the things it has come to mean as well as a historical exploration of how we got here.

The piercing show, however, was a disappointment. I expected much the same kind of exploration but the producer/director of this program went a different rout. Here's the show's official description:

Examine the rebirth of body adornment as a rite of passage and sign of membership. Meet four young Americans whose tattooing and body piercing has roots in ancient tribal rituals of love, worship and sacrifice

What this meant was that little or no time was spent on the ancient, tribal uses of piercing and how this came to be a modern, Western phenomenon. Of the four young Americans we meet, the most compelling story is of a New York young man who travels to Ethiopia to visit the tribe that inspired his piercings. There was a too-brief set of interviews with two men who participated in Native American sun dance rituals (burned into my popular culture consciousness by "A Man Called Horse"). These two struck me as deeply spiritual people, who used the ritual in a way meaningful to them on a personal and cultural level. Just watching their few minutes of taped interviews, I had the impression that they were men larger than the confines of their skin. That is, people interesting to learn more about.

Unfortunately, the program spent a lot of time on a group of young people centered in Dallas/Ft. Worth who perform modern piercing/suspension rituals. Of these people I had the general impression that they were most interested in finding new and increasingly dangerous ways to hurt themselves. While they talked about some spiritual elements to their practice, they seemed to be more interested in understanding themselves than the universe of which they were a part. Further, of the suspensions shown on the program, most looked to be designed to be overtly dangerous and/or stupid. (Hanging upside down from hooks piercing the skin by the knees, for example.)

So I went to bed feeling stodgy. I've considered getting a tattoo, but could never decide on a design and placement that had meaning for me. I've thought of having an ear pierced but never saw the point in other body modifications. I don't look down on people that practice these things, be they for spiritual, cultural, or esthetic reasons. I guess I just wanted to know more about how piercing moved to the mainstream in the same way the previous tattooing program provided that information.