In the 1970s, while the punks across the pond were jamming safety pins anywhere they could pinch an inch, the godfathers of modern piercing, Jim Ward and Doug Malloy, began to research piercing and tattooing in the West Hollywood gay fetish scene. In 1978, Ward opened Gauntlet, the world’s first commercial body-piercing studio. This underground movement would explore the limits of what the physical body can endure and how it can be reshaped.
“Jim helped to reinvent piercing,” says Blair McLean, a former body piercer turned branding and scarification expert. “People were just sticking safety pins through their bits, and he decided that it would make more sense to use medical syringe needles and simple surgical stainless steel jewellery, the process that modern body piercing is based on to this day. His new ideas about how piercing should be done opened the whole industry to being able to pierce anything because of this guy in the gay community coming up with a better technique.”
McLean himself created a new technique called multiple strike branding, which allowed him to create larger, more elaborate designs using multiple scorching strikes with a smaller tool. One such design is Astro Boy (left), branded on the calf of vintage-clothing specialist Justus and designed to match his tattooed sleeves.
“It was the only cartoon I was allowed to watch as a child,” Justus say. “Astro Boy taught that technology was good up until a point. At the time, I was interested in modern primitive culture and doing a series for CBC Radio. I meditated and fasted for 10 days and then got branded by Blair. It was intense and it was done bit by bit, like a fi ne poker. It was painful and you smell burning flesh, then you feel like you’re flying and the endorphins kick in really quick.”
While Justus used tattooing and branding to reference elements of his childhood, McLean says the choice is often tied to sexuality. “People want to explore their anatomy,” says McLean. “Gay people have a lot of angst and frustration. We take it for granted when we live downtown, but a huge percentage of the gay community doesn’t, and when they get to the city, they want to explore themselves. People come out at different ages and have to catch up on their understanding of sexuality. One story I’ve heard quite a bit is that people want to have ownership of their body and sexuality by putting a ring through something or getting a tattoo.”
Nos Jawborn (right), 28, a former modification artist who is now a professional cycling instructor and an environmental activist, believes mods are embedded in gay culture and identity. “Body piercing has been with the gay community for a long time,” he says. “It’s not so much a question of why the gay community is drawn to piercings, but rather to realize that it’s been a part of our culture for decades. I don’t think that there is any particular kind of psychology that draws people to body mods, but I do believe we all make our mark on our bodies in some way or another in this life, be it tattoos and piercing, bodybuilding or drugs.”
Jawborn’s interest in body modification began in his teens, when he discovered pain and modification as a means to self-awareness, pleasure and spirituality. His mods currently include pencil-sized nostril piercings, 1.5-inch stretched earlobes, an inner-lip tattoo of two arrows and the word “dick,” a large Prince Albert piercing and a multitude of tattoos, each with its own meaning. “I’ve had many more mods in the past that I’ve since grown out of,” he says. Even with body modification, nothing is necessarily forever.
Justus feels that he has grown out of his Astro Boy sleeves and is in the process of doing what tattoo artists refer to as a cover-up, turning cartoons into old-time sailor tattoos. “As people grow older things change, and fortunately, I am able to change mine,” he says.
While Justus is going back to rework some older pieces, Scott Major (left) is adding more. He has tattoos over 80 percent of his body, has surgically altered his ears so they’re pointed and has sub-dermal halfdome Teflon implants in his chest. His interest in mods began in childhood, when he idolized tattooed men.
“To be heavily tattooed was always what I envisioned my body was going to look like,” Major says. “Seeing it on other guys is a turn-on for me, so that was kind of what started it. Once I started getting tattooed, it became an addiction and I couldn’t stop.” With very visible tattoos and modifications on his face, neck and hands, Major’s art isn’t easily covered up, but he doesn’t feel it has limited his career. He currently works as a customer service rep for squirt.org.
“My job’s not there to define me as a person,” he says, speaking to society’s shifting attitudes. “Because of the acceptance of tattoos and piercings in modern society, it has become acceptable to be fully sleeved and have your ears stretched and work in a regular job. No one seems to care anymore.”
It may be acceptable to have mods in the workplace, but some can have an effect on your love life. In the world of body modifi cations, what is sexy to some will not be to others. Full-sleeve tattoos can be incredibly attractive, while penis-splitting, subtraction (amputation) or penectomy (removing part of the penis) might not be. A trip to online body-mod supersite bmezine.com might cause flushed cheeks in some viewers and panic attacks in others.
When asked about the fetishizing of body mods and his own Prince Albert, Jawborn says, “Of course there is a sexual element to my tattoos and piercings, but no more than getting a haircut and the purposes it serves,” he says. “Lots of people find tattoos, piercings and great haircuts sexy. Having my cock pierced has made my sex life lots of fun, yes, but it’s definitely not a showstopper.”
Major agrees that arousal is in the eye of the beholder. “With any fetish, it can be sexually driven, or it can just be fetish in how you live and the way you want to present yourself,” he says. “For me it’s both. I find heavily tattooed men attractive, but I’m not stuck on tattoos being my visual need for a person to be attractive to me. You can turn anything into a sexual desire.”
Justus views practitioners of the more extreme mods like penis splitting with a kind of reverence. “I’ve seen penis splitting, and it’s not my thing, but I respect it,” he says. “It’s beyond life changing, almost like going through a sex change in terms of how far you can go with your body, and I take my hat off to them.”
Body mods have also, perhaps controversially, exploded into the world of fashion and pop culture. Nicola Formichetti, the new creative director at the Thierry Mugler fashion house and stylist to Lady Gaga, is one of the visionaries responsible. Formichetti tapped double-amputee Paralympian Oscar Pistorius as the new face of A*Men and chose Montreal’s Zombie Boy, aka Rick Genest (above), who sports full skeleton tattoos over his face and body, to appear in Gaga’s “Born This Way” video and on the runway at Paris Fashion Week. “I do envy Rick’s celebrity status at this point,” says Major, an admitted Gaga fan. “I was telling friends of mine I need to find his publicist.” But will gays start sporting sub-dermals to answer the call of their Monster Mother?
“Gaga has created an effective way to portray an evolved human race,” says Mike Munich (left), one of Gaga’s backup dancers and Haus of Gaga member, noting that the temporary prosthetic transformations for the “Born This Way” video took two and a half hours to achieve. “It’s very beautiful in an unconventional way, which suits the strange and unusual look she has for representing a race free of judgment.” Munich thinks that to really transform, people need “a sense of self-love and acceptance. If you are unhappy with your current appearance, you need to be changing for yourself and not for exterior validation. Own your uniqueness, don’t compromise yourself for anyone, and be the person you want to be, no matter what anyone else tells you.”
Andrew Robertson is a
fab writer who loves bad boys covered with ink, steel and attitude.
Special thanks to BluGod Tattoo Studio at 548 Yonge St for the use of their temple of ink for our photo shoot. Info: blugod.com