Skin and art, Guelph's ink and hole buisiness

Monday, April 21, 2008

On This past Tuesday, I was laying down for a few hours with a needle being jammed into my arm repeatedly. On the surface, it doesn't sound pleasant but I and many, many other people are paying top dollar for tattoos, more and more complicated piercings and other body modification. The introduction to the very first episode of London Ink spells it out perfectly.

"Louis Malloy hurts people for a living. In his business, reputation is everything. When Louis does work on you, you remember it for life."

Unless you've been completely out of the loop, tattooing and piercing has come well into the mainstream of North American culture. The Learning Channel's three tattoo reality shows, mostly Miami Ink, have created a wave that has changed trends in tattooing and has sped the transition of tattoo to a mainstream art form.

Kyle Burkett has published very interesting article regarding tattooing and Western Stereotypes surrounding the art. He discusses references in the Old Testament or Torah forbidding cuttings or markings of the skin "Leviticus 19:28 states that: 'Ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.'" He discusses this passage and uses it to explain the disdain for tattooing in renaissances Europe when expansionism gripped the continent.

In the 18th century, tattooing was an art of an outcast society. When explorers "discovered" inhabitants of the South Pacific not only tattooed but sometimes completely covered with tattoos there was curiosity and shock. Such inhabitants were invited or kidnapped and brought back to Europe as attractions from the newly discovered lands. However, tattoos did take hold in sailor culture and pretty much only there.

Stigma from Europe transfered to European populations in North America. Fast-forward and in the 1950s almost only members of three groups had tattoos: Sailors, Prisons Inmates and Circus Performers. However, as the "baby boomer" generation grew up and rebelled, ink was a symbol of that rebellion. As the rebels became adults, society became more accustomed to tattoos. And in the past two decades tattooing has moved from marginal to almost cliché.

Today tattoo, piercing and other forms of body modification has creating a sub-culture of its own. Rather than tattoos symbolizing rank, status or inclusion into a group, people are gathering around the very idea of body modification. An obvious example is bmezine.com (Body Modification Ezine). The site boasts over 180 THOUSAND user submitted photos of tattoos, similar numbers for piercings and about 50,000 scarification/branding photos. This is all outside of the sections that are considered "obscene." The site is updated often with interviews and articles related to body modification of all sorts. An entire community has been created on the net for those that are interested in everything from ear-rings to eyeball tattooing (that's right, tattoos on the white of the eye).

Here in Guelph, there are 4 tattoo and piercing shops in the downtown core. It's about one shop for every 30,000 people in Guelph which is not impressive compared to Walmart but is not too shabby for a trade that was almost taboo a few decades ago. Just six months ago the fourth shop opened in Guelph and business is only getting better at Frequent Habits.

The tattoo and piercing trade in Guelph is not directly a result of the student population. According to folks at the two biggest shops in Guelph, Stigmata and Nighthawk, the summer is when they make their money. Right now Stigmata is booking between 40 and 50 clients each week while Nighthawk is booking appointments months in advance.

I had the chance to sit down with Nighthawk piercer and local body-modification health and safety advocate Mark McAlpine.

What are your thoughts on the communities that have formed on the internet, for example BME?

Basically, the internet has allowed folks that only would have people from their living community of only 5- 20 people and the internet allows it to go farther. People are learning sometimes that just because people have a similar interest in body art or a particular kind of art doesn't mean that they are like minded. The communities are very complimentary and they are really good for providing information. That seems to be the most important thing, from my view. If you're in a small town you can find out what it is all about and it provides a community that is responsible.

With the community coming forward there is more opportunity for people to be on the edge and there is further pushing of the envelope so that people can remain on the edge of that community.

Speaking of which, do you get requests for heavy mods?

We don't get that many requests for unusual things. People are aware of it. When it comes to heavy mods and suspension, scarification, branding, implants and things like that we don't get asked for those sorts of things. But people are aware of it but there is only a really small community of people that participate in those things. And usually those sorts of things are not done at a professional shop so we don't see too much of it.

What are your thoughts about the trade becoming more mainstream with things like Miami Ink and like shows?

The TLC stuff de-mystifies things a lot more, it dispells stereo-types but anytime that TV takes something and popularizes it in such a huge way you have to question what effect it will have on your industry. There are downsides. Due to the nature of TV there are unreal expectations that are created. People seem to believe that they can get a huge back piece done in one sitting. People also forget about the pain involved as the cameras don't really show the four hours of clients gnashing their teeth and being in pain.

With various influences, body modification has become a more standard feature of North American culture. In Guelph, the sky is the limit. A little basic math would reveal that each month about 600+ tattoos and piercings are done in Guelph. With that much work being done, Guelph is really a place where fantastic art is made and will be made well into the future.

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