By Mia Kerner
Tattoos, piercings and other forms of body modifications have been a hot topic of discussion for decades. Arousing strong opinions and negative stereotypes, recent generations – including students at Grand Rapids Community College – have decided to revive and normalize the notoriously taboo.
The earliest recorded examples of body modification came from Egypt in 2000 BC, acting as symbols of royalty or nobility.
The undesirable stigma of body modifications came later on, being associated with mariners and the lower socioeconomic status that sailors maintained. Upper classes began to see tattoos in particular as an undesirable representation of the working class.
According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, “…by the early 20th century, body modification had become a mark of social deviance.”
In recent years, there are still forms of bias exhibited against those with tattoos and piercings. In a behavioral study conducted at Iowa State University, it was found that “job candidates with piercings were seen as much less employable than their unpierced counterparts. The candidates with facial piercings were rated much more harshly, receiving lower ratings on competence, sociability, trustworthiness and moral character.”
Though many still associate these “mods” with negative personality traits and unprofessionalism, the acceptance of tattoos and piercings in the workplace seems to be the highest it has ever been. Tattoos, piercings and other forms of body modification have regained popularity and continue to become more of a norm amongst society.
Media exposure and television shows such as “Miami Ink” and “Ink Master” inspired millennials to view tattoos as pieces of art rather than permanent mistakes. Following in the millennial generation’s footsteps, Gen X is taking on the role of reinventing the tattoo industry. Students across the country and around the world are reigniting this ancient practice with vigor.
Grand Rapids Community College students were interviewed about their personal experiences with body modifications and the motivations behind them. Many students shared that they view body modifications as acts of personal expression that are either deeply meaningful or purely for physical appeal. The casual manner in which current students view tattoos and piercings is unmatched by previous generations.
When asked about the reasoning behind her various ear and navel piercings, GRCC student Jasmine Martinez simply replied, “Just because I think they’re cute, no other reason.”
Other students, such as Sports Management major Anabella Bailey, have more sentimental pieces of art on their bodies. Bailey claims that though she has parents that supported her decisions and had “never been personally judged to (her) face because of (her) tattoos and piercings,” she said that “there have been a few adult figures in my life who questioned my choice in getting tattoos.”
Despite this uninvited judgement, Bailey has had multiple piercings and two prominent tattoos. Her tattoos represent important parts of her personality and act as symbols of her individuality. Bailey describes herself as a “canvas” on which artists could “express their imagination.”
When asked about her opinion on body modifications in the professional world, Bailey recognized that although she does not believe her tattoos and piercings will affect her future career, there are still many professions that require body modifications to be hidden.
“You shouldn’t have to hide something that you’re passionate about because it was traditionally unacceptable. We have to realize that the world is changing every second and we need to adapt to those changes by not judging others and accept these new ways that people live by,” Bailey said.
Body modifications are not only meaningful to those receiving them, but also the artists responsible.
Co-owner of Westside’s Balm Tattooing, former social service worker and current tattoo artist Sarah Sun has expressed the deep connection that she feels to her customers and work.
Established as a “trauma informed tattooer” who makes a point to ”prioritize trauma survivors,” Sun consults with her diverse array of clients to provide them with permanent reminders of their strength and unbreakable will to survive.
“As I see so many trauma survivors, many folks are coming to me as a means to honor or reclaim/reconnect with their bodies,” Sun said. “Often the same reason I tattoo myself or get tattooed by others.”
Tattooing has also been routinely used as a means to conceal or embrace scars (physical or not).
The undeniable impact of body modifications on those who seek them out is highlighted through Sun’s recount of a memorable customer of hers.
“I mask scarring from self harm, domestic abuse, accidents, but I also do a lot of enhancing the beauty that’s already there,” she said. “One example: a client has a degenerative muscle disease and her legs are slowly losing mass. She wanted plants down her leg so she’d feel more confident, and now she’s wearing skirts more often!”
The discrimination of tattoos and piercings may be actively debated among many, yet the artists that stand behind their work often unanimously believe in the deconstruction of that stigma.
When asked about her opinion on the current state of this stigma, Sun said “I don’t think there’s anywhere near as much stigma around body modification these days, especially where tattooing is concerned. We now have surgeons that tell us we can tattoo below the elbow, or up along their necks.”
She added, “I tattoo a Michigan Supreme Court lawyer in very visible spots.”
Body modifications are no longer being viewed as symbols of blatant rebellion, but as representations of inner strength and outward passion.
Sun wants students and all those considering a body modification service to know that there are lots of safe options for them for receiving a tattoo, and that there are key things to look for in artists and shops.”
Prioritizing the level of professionalism, cleanliness, and quality of work is imperative when it comes to choosing a shop and/or artist.
Fellow Grand Rapids artist and piercer, George C. of Honest to Goodness tattooing and piercing, has experience piercing customers from all walks of life, from seven-year-olds seeking to get their earlobes pierced to 68-year-olds fulfilling their long-time desires.
George credits the recent popularity of piercings primarily to the rise in accessibility and the “explosion of high quality jewelry makers not only offering safe jewelry, but fine jewelry for body piercings (gold, diamonds, etc).”
He further explains that “with the accessibility to cleaner, safer facilities and practices along with thousands of high quality jewelry options, piercing no longer feels limited to certain demographics.”
When asked what body modifications meant to him on a personal level, George expressed that he deeply appreciates the range of jewelry from elegant simplicity to elaborate pieces that took hours to complete.
“Fine body jewelry is made with precision and intention and it is so very evident when someone wears such a piece,” he says.
George conveyed the intimate relationship between those who seek out body modifications and the art that they receive by highlighting the many different meanings behind tattoos and piercings.
“Piercings and tattoos can mean a lot of different things for everyone,” he continued. “For example; someone may have always wanted a certain piercing or tattoo, but couldn’t due to a toxic relationship. This modification could represent this person taking back their body and life. Other people may get their children’s birthstone put in a piece of jewelry, or their children’s name tattooed on them. Some like it for purely aesthetic reasons. There are no wrong reasons for liking body modifications. Please think twice before asking ‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ It’s all very personal.”
The remaining stigma behind body modifications would be best combated by accepting those who have chosen to receive them and not passing judgment on those who would not pass judgment on others, in George’s opinion.
When asked what he wanted college students to hear, George replied with valuable advice.
“Do your research,” he said. “Spend the extra time to find a reputable piercer or tattoo artist. Spend the extra money on good work/high quality body jewelry. Ask questions about why someone’s product might be better or more expensive than others’. Your health is worth it, and your modifications will look considerably better than if you just go to whoever is cheapest or closest. Also, be kind to people. It costs $0 to not be inconsiderate.”
The perspectives of those who have chosen to partake in body modification may not influence those who are opposed, but will hopefully provide insight into the ancient practice and its appeal.
Body modification has existed for hundreds of years and will continue to be practiced for generations to come, with its popularity growing among those of all ages and backgrounds. Exercising self-education and acceptance of this practice will not only provide comfort for the timorous, but understanding for the ignorant.