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Playing with Fire

By Michelle Delio

One second of exposure to searing hot metal, perhaps a sizzling sound and the thinnest wisp of smoke, and the first strike is done. It's the beginning of a piece of art that will be formed from flames and scars.

Branding isn't new. In western cultures it was normally used as a means of marking criminals and slaves. The French branded a "Fleur de Lis" into the shoulder of a criminal, a mark meant to turn the bearer into an outcast from civilized culture forever. But then they got a little carried away and started branding Protestants too. Eventually so many people were wearing the "mark of shame" that it was all but ignored. This bit of branding history was shown in the film remake of a classic story "The Three Musketeers". In the movie the Fleur de Lis brand, worn by the character played by Rebecca DeMornay, was a major point of the plot.

King Henry the Eighth was a big fan of branding -- as long as it was on someone else. Thieves were branded with an "S" before they were introduced to their new lives as indentured servants. This remained an accepted punishment for the light-fingered well into the eighteenth century.

Branding saw its first major resurgence in the 1920's and `30's, when it became a very popular way for fraternity members, especially those with predominately black membership, to show their allegiance to the organization. The practice continues to this day and many prominent figures, such as Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordon, Emmit Smith of the Dallas Cowboys, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson have the Greek letters of their fraternities indelibly emblazoned into their skins.

Despite the fact that relatively few people manage to work up the courage to allow someone to place a strip of metal heated to 1,800 degrees against their tender flesh, interest in branding is certainly on the upswing. "Venus Body Arts" in New York City, a full service shop which offers tattooing, piercing and branding, gets a request for a branding about every other month. Brander Adam Huffman spoke about the uniqueness of his art saying "Instead of putting something into your body, like tattoo ink, you're bringing out something that's already there. Scars are beautiful."

For a while there, bending coat hanger wire into decorative shapes and using them as branding irons was some people's idea of a fun way to spend Saturday night. But, unless your aim is to produce an unsightly scar, it's best to find someone who has wide experience in the procedure to brand you. If the metal used is too thin or conductive to hold the proper temperature, if it's not the right gauge, or if sanitary precautions are not followed, you'll end up with a shapeless blob of scar tissue, a raging infection -- or both.

Contrary to the picture in most of our minds, good brands are not created by pressing one big piece of smoking molded metal into the skin. Aesthetic designs are created by "striking" the skin repeatedly with various slender, shaped strips of metal that have been heated white hot in the flames of a blow torch. Each strike lasts for only a second, and most simple brands require only 10-30 strikes. The procedure usually takes about 15 minutes from start to finish. Don't plan on an intricate design for your brand, as scars tend to spread during the healing process.

Those of you who have crisped your fingers after a brief encounter with a hot frying pan may wonder: exactly what level of pain are we talking about here? Well, first off, unexpected pain is always worse than something you've had a chance to prepare mentally for. Secondly, branding usually creates a second or even third degree burn, which tends to cauterize the nerve endings. And, if you have burnt yourself, you know that the pain really sets in after the contact with the heat source. Most people who have gotten branded say that the sensation ranges from "soothing" to "ecstatic" (the latter due no doubt to the influence of endorphins [our body's natural painkillers] or the subject's particular sexual kink.) You may experience the healing process as either painful discomfort or a mild annoyance, depending on your level of pain tolerance.

All burns are prone to infections so you must be willing to take care of your new brand. According to a burn care unit nurse who prefers not to be named ("You're writing an article on what??? Why would anyone want to be burned?") a person who has gotten a second or third degree burn should make a point to drink lots of fluids for the first 48 hours. She suggests lots of water or even an electrolyte balanced drink (check at your local health food store, electrolyte solutions are also used by athletes). She also points out that homemade chicken soup has "a useful electrolyte composition" (score one for grandma!).

Standard care for a burn requires you to keep it clean by washing the area with sterile saline solutions or mild, un-perfumed soaps, using Neosporin, Bacitracin or another mild anti microbial ointment, and covering the wound until it forms a protective crust with a non-stick dressing. Take aspirins to reduce pain and swelling. The most dangerous thing is if the scab cracks -- that provides an open avenue for all manner of nasty bacteria. So don't pick your scabs, even if someone tells you it'll make your healed brand more prominent. Above all, follow the advice of your professional brander.

Branding isn't for everyone (but what do I know? I said the same thing about tattoos ten years ago). But if you've got a burning desire to express yourself in a hot new way -- it just might become your body modification of choice.

The author would like to extend special thanks to Teshima of the internet newsgroup rec.arts. bodyart for her assistance during the preparation of this article.

Originally published in Tattoo Savage


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 01 Jan. 1997
in Scarification

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