• 177,189 / 1,383,792
  • 96 / 10,290
  • 875 / 54,915

Why XY Mod? Why XX Mod?

n the words of Dr Catherine Grognard: "The very soul can be read on the open page of the skin" (1). She was referring to the skin as a bodily organ, and its ability to reflect desires and show emotions, as well as indicate torment or sickness. I use the quote for another, not altogether different reason. I am referring to the skin as a canvas, a pincushion, a billboard, and, among other things, a mirror to the soul of the men and women who make the most of (or abuse) their bodies outer crust. Why does he have a panther tattooed on his shoulder, a septum ring and two nipple rings? Why does she have a navel ring, and a rose tattooed on her thigh, made slimmer by liposuction? In this study I explore the reasons behind the body art and body modifications of the two genders.

The oldest mummified tattoo is dated at 2,000 BC, and is found on the priestess of Hathor, from the eleventh dynasty of ancient Egypt, who has the Egyptian sun god pricked into her skin. Egyptians tattooed their dead, especially royalty, as protection against violent spirits in the next life.

The "Iceman", found after having been frozen in a glacier for more than

5,000 years, has tattoos in inconspicuous places: his lower spine, his ankle and behind his knee. Because of their locations some have suggested the tattoos were not for tribal purposes, merely personal ones (2). The "Iceman" liked the look of ink under his skin, so he acquired a few in places that wouldn't affect him in his day-to-day life.

The ancient Romans tattooed their slaves so that runaways could be

identified and returned. The Romans, like many races, also branded their cattle...

The Maya peoples of South America are known for some of the most

extreme body modifications in the world, disfiguring themselves to the point of ugliness to segregate themselves from other humans and become closer to the gods.

The Mursi women of Ethiopia have their lip pierced when they come of

age as a rite of passage into womanhood.

The Picts and Native American men used tribal markings as a form of

permanent war paint to scare and confuse the enemy.

Burmese men tattoo a parrot on their shoulder for good luck, Thai women

tattoo a left-handed scroll.

Maori, Ainu and Japan's Hokkeido Island women tattoo blue whorls

around the mouth to emphasise the lips.

Some might say that he twentieth century Westerner turns to body art

because they like the look of it . . . Or is it more than just aesthetic appeal?

"HE" (Male Bodmod)

"I forgot that your tattoos and your knife were, above all, an armour 
for your artichoke heart." (Renaud in Manu) (3)

A look at the surface of male body art might suggest that the tattoos and the piercings of the man are little more than an "armour" for the heart. Some might say he covers himself in stainless steel and permanently shades his skin with images often intended to shock and offend, as a protection against his emotions and his 'true' self. The tough exterior is a deterrent for a horrible soul.

This view is stereotypical, but it can be argued that it contains some

elements of truth. Just as the bodybuilder takes his strength from his appearance, so does the man with a tiger or a snake, an eagle or a dragon, a jaguar or a spider tattoo. He may be a featherweight, but his "artichoke heart" tells him he is invincible because of his piece of permanent art. Because of the pain he went through to get it, and the belief that perhaps some of the animal's power and strength has become a part of him, he, perhaps unknowingly, has provided an armour for himself.

Claude Levi-Strauss wrote of tribal body art: "One had to be painted to

be a man. Those who didn't alter their natural state were indistinguishable from the animals." (3) In this sense, body art makes the man, as opposed to just making him feel like one. What this "paint" is is irrelevant. It could come in the form of a tattoo, or it could be completely unrelated to "paint", such as a body piercing or other form of body modification. What is relevant is why one must be painted to be a man. In this case it sets man apart from the beasts. In modern Western society it could be to set the 'men' apart from the 'boys', the gang member from the rest or the biker from the businessman. Here we find that it is the modification, colloquially called 'mod', that makes the man because the majority of body art involves pain of some sort, always a test of manhood. It doesn't really matter what is done, so long as some change is made. To leave one's temple of the soul unadorned, to simply exist, is what the animals (and, to a lesser extent, the boys and the businessmen) do.

The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow's Mr Lifto, whose specialty is lifting

heavy objects from any of his various exotic body piercings, was once asked why he was constantly trying to find more extreme forms of body modification. "I'm always looking for some new kinda kick," he answered. "Gotta try to experience everything at least once." (5) Of the reasons given for their body art in my questionnaires, this type of response was the most common for males: a bit of fun and a new experience. The bearer must be either very sure of, or apathetic towards, his body, doing it because he knows he wants it, or just because he can. Certainly some sections of Western communities regard body modification for the sake of body modification as something of questionable nature.

Then there is the minority. This group of people, I believe, were not

even represented in the questionnaire, and yet are often believed to be in the majority of people with body art and body modification. They are the men who are insane. Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, interviewed more than one hundred killers over a period of ten years and says eighty percent of them have one thing in common: Tattoos. "There's something really the matter with most people who wear tattoos," he says. "I know from experience there's something terribly flawed about people who are tattooed above the little something Johnny had done in the Navy, even though that's also a bad sign." Capote's valued judgement based on his research is that for these men tattoos are a sign of some feeling of inferiority, trying to establish some sort of macho identification for themselves. (6)

A picture says a thousand words, as the old saying goes, and tattoos

can say even more. Tattooing is an ideal medium for expressing sexual fantasies: Mermaids and pin-up girls are two popular traditional designs obvious in their connotation. Modern tattoos seem to rely more on symbolism and the position of the piece to express their meaning. Either way, the man externalises his sexual impulses, openly displaying them in order to control and exorcise them, without saying a word. (7)

"SHE" (Female Bodmod)

"The perfect tattoo . . . the one I believe we are all struggling toward 
. . . is the one
that turned the jackass into a zebra." (Cliff Raven) (8)

Unlike the majority of male body art, which is often designed to disfigure the body and shock, body art for women is usually to complement the shape of the body, or is an attempt to take the woman from one state to another more beautiful one. Often these women may feel a little cheated by nature. They may try to make themselves beautiful by adding colour to the skin here and there (a more permanent form of make-up) or hanging jewellery from any body part that sticks out. Perhaps the next steps up from these sorts of body modification are the modifications of cosmetic surgery, a much more obvious way of beautifying the self than a navel ring. But tattoos, at least for now, are by far more accessible than a $20,000 trip to the doctor's. Women can walk into a tattoo studio, spend a few hundred dollars, and walk out, as Cliff Raven said, "a zebra". The woman is beautiful because the art is beautiful, and this leads us to the next group.

Many women get tattoos for the sole reason that they like tattoos! I

asked body art enthusiast Jennifer Bond why she'd turned to tattoos. "The answer is really quite simple," she said, "They are beautiful." Just as traditional art-lovers hang paintings around their home, lovers of tattoos as an art form stick art to their soul's home. The meaning behind the tattoo may be minuscule or non-existent, other than the fact that they like the art, and it is this attitude that many people without tattoos find disturbing. Submitting oneself as a human canvas for the art one loves and then having to live with the results forever doesn't seem to make sense to many of those who have avoided the whirring needle.

After the art-lovers comes the lovers of the art-lovers: The women who

follow fashions and trends. "Any craze inevitably attracts those who have not properly thought it through," writes Michelle Delio in her book, Tattoo - The Exotic Art of Skin Decoration, "Of course, tattooing is one trend that, by its very nature, is going to last." (9) Whereas men often get a tattoo because they have seen their mate with one, women are more likely to become tattooed because they have seen a tattooed celebrity. There are inked celebrities everywhere: Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Pamela Anderson, Courtney Love, Cher, Spice Girls' Mel B, Aqua's Lene Grawford Nystrøm, All Saints' Melanie Blatt, and the hip list goes on, including numerous supermodels. It is often the fashion cats who regret their body art in later years. The reason being that their tattoo is a result of a temporary fascination instead of a genuine and lasting personal desire to express themselves in a life-long way through a tattoo.

Cher once said, "For someone who likes tattoos, the most precious thing

is bare skin." (10) Women's tattoos are almost always erotic in some way, and are often in places concealed by clothing, reserved for the eyes of the privileged. They become like a second skin, so that the woman is never truly naked, as the tattoo both attracts and diverts the eye from the skin. It could perhaps be surmised that men express sexual fantasies through their tattoos, whilst women make themselves into sexual fantasies through their tattoos, trying to arouse feelings of desire by clothing themselves in beauty born from pain.

Because body art appeals to such a wide variety of people, it has a wide range of influences and obsessions. This makes it very hard to view the art objectively. The body is a link as well as a barrier to the outside world, and it is not easy to determine whether a person's body art is from the inside or because of the outside. The groups I have labelled, and the reasons I have given for men's and women's body art and body modifications are largely from my own point of
view. Even quotes from the people who know have been interpreted through the mind of an un-tattooed and yet-to-be-pierced year 12 Art student. On the other hand, it could be argued that the value and motivation behind all art forms is in fact a subjective judgement both by the artists themselves and those who view the art.

Throughout the year, through the questionnaires, the contact with

artists, the books, magazines and web pages (and with one eye constantly watching the world of bod mod) I have noticed two pairs of opposite reasons for why so many men and women have succumbed to the needle in one way or another. The first contrast is beautification versus disfigurement. The second contrasting reason is acceptance versus rejection. The "Iceman" was tattooed because he liked the look of them: beautifying. The Romans tattooed their slaves as a form of humiliation, defacing their bodies as they did their animals: disfiguring. The Egyptian priestess was tattooed so she would be recognised in the next life: acceptance. The Maya people pierced, implanted, tattooed and scarred themselves to the point of ugliness to get closer to supreme beings and separate themselves from humanity: rejection.

The conditions may change, techniques will change, and society has

changed. However, the motivations behind male and female body art and body modifications are the same for each gender, and are the same as 4,000 years ago. Body art truly is forever, no matter which sex you are.


Catherine Grognard, The Tattoo - Graffiti for The Soul, The Promotional Reprint Company, 1994 Catherine Grognard . . . Catherine Grognard . . . Catherine Grognard . . . http://www.bmezine.com/people/mrlifto.html http://bmezine.com/tattoo/bme-tatt.html Catherine Grognard . . . Chris Wroblewski, Skin Shows - The Art of Tattoo, 1989 Michelle Delio, Tattoo - The Exotic Art of Skin Decoration, Pan Macmillan Publishers, Australia, 1993 Michelle Delio . . .


Catherine Grognard, The Tattoo - Graffiti for The Soul, The Promotional Reprint Company, 1994

Michelle Delio, Tattoo - The Exotic Art of Skin Decoration, Pan Macmillan Publishers, Australia, 1993

Chris Wroblewski, Skin Shows - The Art of Tattoo, 1989

Chris Wroblewski, Skin Shows 2 - The Art of Tattoo, 1991

Laura Reybold, Everything You Need To Know About The Dangers of Tattooing and Body Piercing, The Rosen Publishing Group Incorporated, 1996

The World Book Encyclopedia (Volume 19), World Book Inc., USA, 1988

The World Book Dictionary, Doubleday & Company Inc., 1978

The NIV Study Bible, The Zondervan Corporation, 1985

Encarta '96, Microsoft Corporation, USA, 1993-1995

































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on: 15 Nov. 1998
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