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Modern modifications

The politics and possibilities of body modification are changing faster than we realize

Modern Modifications.jpg

Modern modifications

The politics and possibilities of body modification are changing faster than we realize

In 2004, The State Press published an image of an exposed nipple with an industrial piercing on the cover of its October magazine.

The cover story was titled “Sensual Steel,” but would be remembered in The State Press history by a different name: “Nipplegate.”

While the story profiled several community members with other extreme body modifications, it was the explicit cover image that ignited an administrative scandal. Major ASU donors were upset by the magazine, leading to threats from administrators to retract The State Press’ funding and kick the paper off campus.

Today, the legacy of “Sensual Steel” lives on in the pages of journalism textbooks and The State Press’ Wikipedia page. But would the issue have been as controversial if it was published today, 17 years later?

As the prevalence and popularity of body modification grows, new industries and technological possibilities are also rapidly emerging. Navigating these new horizons presents a brand new set of challenges and ethical questions for the next generation.

From subculture to pop culture

In modern American culture, where body modifications have been historically taboo, tattooing and piercing often emerge from subcultural, deviant or marginalized contexts.

Amy Shinabarger, an ASU English professor who studies body modification in public discourse, got her first piercing at 15. She pierced her own nose at home while her parents were away for the weekend.

“At that point, there wasn't really anywhere else I could do it,” Shinabarger said. “There weren't piercing places all over the place.”

With her new piercing came social stigmas that would follow her for the rest of her life. When she entered academia with multiple piercings and prominent tattoos in 1997, she often experienced what she called the “scornful grandma look.”

In Shinabarger’s opinion, body modification is stigmatized partially because it’s sometimes intended to be highly visible or shocking. But that does not give others the right to treat people with modifications differently, or to harass them, she said.

“It makes your body somehow a public space that people feel like they have a right to at least look at, but also sometimes touch,” she said.

Mark Walters is the owner and founder of Living Canvas, the first tattoo shop to be opened in downtown Tempe. The State Press magazine featured photos from Living Canvas in “Sensual Steel,” so it was only fitting that we returned for a follow-up shoot and interview to see how the world of body modifications has changed.

Walters said when he opened the shop in 1993, tattoo culture was the domain of punk rockers, bikers and those "far out in the left."

"It definitely let me see all the parts of tattooing that this generation will never see," Walters said.

Walters got into the tattooing industry in the late '80s when he said tattoos were "still kind of frowned upon." He had full tattoo sleeves by the '90s and said whenever he went to a restaurant, he would be seated out of view.

"I would never get a good seat," Walters said. "Everywhere people were like, 'oh, that guy's white trash' or whatever. But now it's just not like that. Now everybody has tattoos."

Walters said this change was in part due to the presence of popular musicians and athletes with tattoos in the '90s. Body modifications started to become more acceptable, but it was still "kind of an aggressive crowd."

Today, though, Walters argues tattoo subculture does not exist any more – in fact, now the reverse may be true.

"I think less tattooed people have the subculture," he said.

Shinabarger said there is still a stigma around body modification, but it presents itself differently. She can't help but notice her students have a greater interest in piercings and tattoos and are more eager to get them.

"If I were their age now, I would probably have a whole lot more piercings than I did," she said.

Old traditions and new industries

While many believe the prevalence of tattoos and piercings are a modern phenomenon, various cultures around the globe have practiced both since ancient times. Often spiritual or symbolic in nature, many Indigenous people wear traditional tattoos today.

For Michael Brogdon, a tattoo artist at Living Canvas, his passion for body art began in another context: his time in prison.

"Tattoos that come out of prison aren't always the things you see out here," Brogdon said. "There's meaning behind it. There's bloodshed behind it."

For these reasons, among others, the sudden popularity and acceptance of body modification is often disingenuously removed from its cultural tradition. Both Walters and Brogdon said they have had to dissuade customers from inadvertently getting a tattoo related to gangs, prison politics or cultural appropriation.

"It's like, f---, I really don't want to tattoo that on you," Brogdon said. "How do I tell you, 'hey, what you want to get is prison politics?'"

However, as body modifications became ubiquitous in fashion and popular culture, so has the prevalence of tattooing and piercing for purely aesthetic purposes, in what Walters describes as a rapidly growing "fad-based" industry.

Of course, the increasing popularity of body modifications has not been all bad – it has allowed artists like Walters and Brogdon to work with a broader range of clientele and grow their business. But even in this industry, growth has its own set of challenges.

According to Walters, the tattoo industry is becoming increasingly decentralized, with many budding artists leaving the world of reputable brick and mortar tattoo shops for private studios.

"This is the biggest problem in the tattoo world," Walters said. "People start an apprenticeship, they start to learn, they go 'oh, I can do this!' and then they leave. But they're not sterilizing correctly and they're doing more damage, and it hurts the industry as a whole."

His solution? Regulation.

Walters worked with the city of Tempe in the '90s to establish health and safety regulations for tattoo shop integrity. However, he said barely any changes in regulations have occurred in Arizona since 2004, when "Sensual Steel" was published.

In fact, Arizona has some of the most relaxed tattoo laws in the country. The state has no mandatory inspection of shops and no required licensing for tattoo artists.

"There's a lot of guys in this industry that are pissed off at me," Walters said. "I'm all about being the head of the boat. Let's get licensing, it would get rid of all these f------ idiots."

Brogdon agrees that more regulation would solve many of the burgeoning problems in the body modification world. 

"It's just messing up an industry," Brogdon said. "... to let a bunch of scratchers and hacks mess it up and water it down and take it in a different direction."

A transhumanist future?

As traditional and extreme body art gains social acceptance in America, new horizons of modification are emerging, including implantable technologies. While many of these devices may seem like science fiction fantasies, they are increasingly becoming mainstream realities.

Transhumanism is a philosophical movement that advocates for the use of human enhancement technologies to intentionally override our current biological limitations.

Some, such as Katina Michael, a professor at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence who studies emerging implantable tech, think transhumanist ideas are part of an illusive "technological trajectory" that could be dangerous.

Traditional body modifications have habitually served mainly aesthetic or social purposes, whereas transhumanist modifications are often functional, enhancing and amplifying.

Michael believes implantables are becoming increasingly socially normalized based on her own survey data. In her opinion, this could be related to the growing popularity of traditional body modifications.

“What was anathema in the 2000s may now be not only common talk but plausible,” Michael said.

With the advent of implantable technologies, new “socioethical dilemmas begin to arise,” Michael said. Much of her public work ponders the line between medical correction and performance enhancement — a line which, under the influence of big tech companies, may become blurry if “everything biomedical may eventually (also) have an enhancement capacity,” she said.

“It's going to be very difficult to determine who's got what for what,” Michael said. “And so we have to be careful, especially around legislation.”

Many states have already implemented “anti-chipping laws,” which prevent employers from coercively microchipping their employees. Meanwhile, tech pioneers often volunteer individually to implant devices in their bodies in attempts to enhance their own lives.

Traditional modifications like tattoos and piercings usually have legal and ethical backing in our society, which generally values bodily autonomy and privacy. Modern modifications could also be protected by privacy rights, but skeptics like Michael wonder how truly autonomous implantable devices can be when connected to global online networks and linked to massive tech companies like Google or Apple

“We're at this point where this capability that exists is now starting to create paranoia in people,” Michael said. 

Michael said many developers are strongly opposed to regulation of implantable biotechnologies, arguing that it could be pre-emptive or ill-informed. While she remains hesitant around legislation, she believes — much like Walters and Brogdon — the modification industry needs some regulation in order to ensure safety and positive outcomes.

“My view is we're moving too quickly,” she said. “We haven't thought about the longterm implications.”

Reach the columnist at and follow @lexmoul on Twitter. 

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