The art of body modification

[Kealie Mardell | Print Editor]

Body modification. This might sound intense and scary to some, but it’s a weird term for something truly wonderful. For many, it’s a cultural tradition seeped in history, for others it’s an expression of art and individuality.

The act of altering one’s appearance, body modification holds countless possibilities, although two of the most common are tattoos and piercings. On a more extreme level, there are practices such as skin stretching, branding and surgery. With options such as snake tongues and elf ears, it can be shocking. It can be stunning. It can break society’s standards of beauty.

Piercing is one of the oldest trends of body modification, and can be traced back thousands of years in cultures across the globe. While piercing can be for a traditional reason, its increasing popularity can be purely aesthetic.
Tattooing also appears throughout ancient history, with even Egyptian mummies discovered with tattoos of animals and symbols – although this was probably a much different process to the mechanics of the modern tattoo machine!

Once a mark of difference, tattoos are also becoming increasingly commonplace. According to the PEW Research Centre, 36% of 18-25 year olds are tattooed, increasing to 40% in the 26-40 age groups. Other studies suggest that in America 42% of people have tattoos and 61% have piercings. The stats for England fall slightly below, but still represent the most tattooed country in Europe.

As someone with tattoos and piercings of my own, the ink I have so far holds a personal meaning. For my last tattoo, I called on artist Elliott Wilkie for the design.

Kealie Mardell tattoo

“I often start by trying to understand the reasoning behind the tattoo (if there is one),” he said. “Learning as much as possible about WHY they want a specific piece on their body is important to me, I love being able to convey those personal notes to the best of my ability.”

For many people, deciding on a tattoo, and factors such as design and placing, can be a long process. While the meaning of a tattoo can be an important element, it’s a personal decision, and doesn’t give onlookers the right to demand an explanation from everyone they see with a tattoo.

“I’ve designed many tattoos for numerous clients, some friends, bloggers, YouTubers and everyone in between,” he said. “I’m primarily a graphic designer by profession, I love painting but there’s something so unique about tattoo design. I love experimenting with different mediums and designing something that’ll be on someone for the rest of their lives is certainly one of the most prominent things an artist can do.”

Image by Elliott Wilkie
Image by Elliott Wilkie

There is often a lot of speculation and criticism over whether visible piercings and tattoos can affect your employability, but with nearly half of the population partaking in some form of body modification attitudes are changing.

The STAPAW movement (Support Tattoos and Piercing at Work) aims to stop the discrimination of piercings and tattoos in the workplace. Their findings suggest while 76% of job seekers feel tattoos and piercing could hurt your interview chances, 73% of people say they would hire someone with visible tattoos, and only 4% of people had reported facing discrimination in the workplace.

“Luckily in my profession most graphic agencies don’t frown upon body art or modifications,” said Wilkie. “I find it unfortunate and ‘old fashioned’ when companies choose not to employ the individual with body modifications. It does, however, make me relived to see most industries are now looking past a candidate’s exterior, employing them for what matters – their ability to work. Like a person’s skin colour, body modification should never define someone.”

Laurel Woodward
Laurel Woodward

Professional piercer Laurel Woodward said: “A few decades back it was a rare thing to see heavily tattooed or pierced people but nowadays it is becoming a thriving industry, as a new generation is beginning to grow…If you carry yourself well and are polite and professional, I don’t think tattoos should have any involvement on your ability to be a professional in any industry.”

Currently based at Hot Steel in Welwyn Garden City, Woodward has aspired towards the piercing profession from the age of 18.

“I worked hard to get an apprenticeship at my local shop,” she said. “I knew if I could give people the same happiness I got from getting piercings and to have an opportunity to share my passion with clients, it would be very rewarding.”

Alongside piercings, Woodward is also tattooed and describes her first tattoo as ‘a life changing moment’. When asked whether she had faced negative reactions because of her body modification, Woodward expressed that it comes with the territory.

Laurel Woodward
Laurel Woodward

“I have to expect some negative reactions but recently I am quite refreshed at how much society is beginning to accept body mods and tattoos, even in older generations, and the positives are what I hold onto,” she said.

“I think body modification is a really personal journey for those who want to find different parts of themselves…Being able to just go out and change your body to something that appeals entirely to yourself and to give you that self-satisfaction, to adorn your body and make your personal ideals of beauty a reality, is an amazing thing for people.”

I for one am itching for the buzz of a needle and am already planning my next creation!

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The art of body modification