Special/Signature Issues » Custom Eyes

Body Language

Curating the flesh.

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Before you head to a plastic surgeon to remove the name of your college sweetheart from your left bicep, think about why you even got a tattoo to begin with: You wanted to make a statement. Fast-forward a generation and not much has changed.

We curate ourselves in original (or trite) ways just as gallery owners curate their walls. Through our clothes, iPods, wheels and epidermal layers, we're living, breathing works of art trying to actively or passively connect with friends or total strangers.

But is this self-expression or a faAade for our shortcomings?

Certainly Richmond teems with advocates for the acceptance of body modification as art consumption or self-expression. Ghostprint Gallery co-owner Thea Duskin, 30, who's been inking the general population with her highly prized custom work for seven years, relishes the access Richmonders have to competent tattoo artists.

“The barriers of social acceptance here have been somewhat bridged,” Duskin says, “and people feel more comfortable decorating their bodies.”

Through the arts of tattooing, piercing and scarification, people make indelible marks on their bodies that transmit a message about their inner selves, cultural trends or historic movements — some with a stigma.

“Branding is a tradition that goes all the way back to slavery in ancient Greece,” says Joe “Broadway” Ellis, 25, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and a member of the black fraternity Omega Psi Phi. While Ellis says members of his fraternity occasionally sport brands (the art of searing the flesh to create a raised scar), he doesn't support the negative vibe associated with the art form.

“I don't feel like that's where we really are as a people,” he says.

He's unaware of any fraternities that condone branding, he says. But he plans to get a tattoo in the near future.

Scarification expands on branding's aesthetic model, creating an image on the skin by cutting or burning it. Like branding, it's nowhere near as common as tattooing, in part because scarification bears the risk of the piercer being pegged with practicing medicine without a license. Still, some people find ways to take advantage of their blank canvases.

“I have a huge flesh scarification of an ohm on my chest that's probably about the size of your face,” Onetribe owner Jared Karnes says. Onetribe, in Manchester, specializes in jewelry manufacturing and boasts a collection of all-natural antique body jewelry (bamboo, bone and other materials), some of which is 3,000 years old.

“It's almost kind of a museum,” he says. “We're all very versed in the history of [piercing and scarification] and follow the legislation very closely.”

No stranger to the art of body modification, Karnes acknowledges the legal risks of using medical equipment such as scalpels and dermal punches for cutting and epidermal implants, resulting in protruding studs, or spikes. “The scarification I have on my chest technically was an illegal procedure. …” he says, “but it was done out-of-state.”

Several artists around Richmond say that while they're unaware of any parlors here that ride the underground wave of scarification, they see firsthand evolving trends in the tattoo culture — moving away from tribal and typical flash art — pirate ships, sailor stars and other iconic, individual items — with the desire to say something more meaningful through custom work.

“It was the next logical step,” says Jesse Smith, 32, of Ghostprint. “Now everyone is getting tattoos and in order to stand out, they have to get something more personal.”

Chris Hensley of the new custom tattoo parlor Heroes and Ghosts in Carytown says while there are countless methods for sending a message or for experiencing the sensation of getting prodded, impaled or scathed, there's no denying the intrinsic artistic value in the ever-more-ubiquitous art form of body modification.

“You're given an empty canvas,” Hensley says. “You might as well make it yours.”

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Click to read other stories in the Midseason Arts Issue. 

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