Art Hurts: Body Carving

To be fashionable means to suffer. But how far can people go in their constant pursuit of the trendiest and individuality? The rising popularity of body carving proves that the limits have yet to be set.

“Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past,” said Jack London, who preferred to write about fantastic adventures rather than living them himself. Had the great novelist survived until the twenty-first century, he might have well changed his mind. What was once reserved exclusively for sailors and inmates has gradually made its way under the skins of millions of people, from Hollywood celebrities to the housewife in rural Oklahoma. It is hardly surprising that fashion gurus have began to search for new ways to underline their individuality.

Reactions to Body Carving

“It’s gross!” The reaction to the pictures showing body carving step by step is usually similar. The very few who have seen the process before their very eyes say that water boarding and other deplorable torture techniques pale in comparison with body carving. In both instances pain is equally sharp; only the final effect is different. Even extreme tattoo and piercing fans with no blank points on their bodies find the new fashion unacceptable. “I have 18 piercings and seven tattoos – and I would never consider that. Gross!” says Red_dragn, a 25 year-old girl from Vancouver, Canada.

What Is Body Carving?

Body Carving in progress

If you do not know what body carving is, think of wood carving. An artist takes a piece of wood, usually oak or chestnut, and with a set of small knives cuts off little pieces from the material. The results can be amazing, ranging from simple furniture ornamentation to elaborate pieces of art such as ones that you can admire in various African and Asian countries. In body carving, instead of working in wood, artists work in human skin. Those who decide to turn their bodies into a carving material insist that their skin is no less worse an art piece than some Nigerian wooden doll exhibited in a New York gallery.

It takes long and painful hours to carve a sophisticated pattern in the human skin. First, the skin, usually on the back, must be disinfected, just like all the tools that will be used. At best, body carving should be performed in a clean, sterile room with an operating ventilation system. Often does it happen, however, that it is carried out in a semi-professional garage. This can result in a serious infection at best and in painful death at worst. Pieces of skin fall off the body, revealing red wounds that, in the months to come, would heal into a pinkish pattern. The scraps are either burned or taken by their owner.

Body Carving By Branding

Body Carving just completed.

Another popular way of body carving is branding. Here, the knife is replaced by a laser that cuts a pattern with a surgical precision. “An electrocautery device offers the ability to exert very precise control over the depth and nature of tissue damage, allowing the experienced artist to build up a texturally diverse scar,” a website run by body carving fans characterizes this type of branding. As it is a very expensive method, instead of a laser, many artists simply use a primitive tool known since the Middle Ages: a piece of heated metal.

Scarification Culture

Shocking as it is for western culture, body carving has a long tradition in Africa and Asia. Scarification – the term used by scientists – is widely popular among the indigenous people of West Africa, New Guinea, and New Zealand, but it can also be traced to ancient tribes inhabiting northern Asia and even the Middle East. “Scarification almost always happens in a culture where there is so much melanin in skin that it would be difficult to see a tattoo,” Vince Hemingson, a traveler and filmmaker, told National Geographic. In almost all cases, scarification has social purposes, from revealing your marital status to boasting your strength and courage.

Body Carving as the red shows through.

Opinions about body carving oscillate between hard-core supporters and hard-core opponents. Even the artists who earn a living performing scarification warn that it is not safe and may result in various infections and diseases. “Sickness with underlying mental issues: extreme self-mutilation, emotional instability, masochistic underpinnings,” one online user commented on a picture of a woman whose back was covered in bloody injuries that would soon form sophisticated graphics. “I saw a picture of it as well and was horrified by the flesh pieces, blood, and gaping wounds in the person’s back!” read another comment.

Spiritual Experience Or Sacrilege?

But many admit that the final result may be worth the pain. “Personally, I think it looks really nice, although it takes awhile to heal, and the results are not guaranteed,” wrote someone calling herself beanie37. Also thousands of those who publish their stories on the Internet say that body carving is much more than just a fashionable trend; it is a spiritual experience. “All and all, it was a fantastic experience, the adrenalin rush was amazing, and it was some how very … spiritual is the best word I can find, and coming from an atheist, that has to stand for something,” said Kat777. “I would definitely do it again.”

What is art for one group is sacrilege for the other. Didn’t St. Paul write “my body is my temple”? But maybe this holiness of the body is why so many people decide to beautify it by such drastic means. A professional tattoo artist wrote: “Some people like it because their own body makes the art; the artist cuts and the body makes the effect. I can see beauty in that.”

Krzys Wasilewski, while living in Poland, completing his masters degree in International Relations, was seduced by English Literature.