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A Body Modification Primer

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Body modification is a tradition as old as civilization itself. Back in the days when people lived in caves, tattoos were frequently performed during ceremonies marking adulthood or other rites of passage. Body piercings might indicate status, or simply a desire to make a fashion statement. And things haven't changed much over the centuries -- humans are still fascinated by the fact that we can put ink under our skin and holes through various body parts.

But before you run out and get a lovely bit of metal in your eyebrow, or a gorgeous portrait of Bugs Bunny indelibly inked onto your shoulder, take a moment to read up on body modification, and make sure you know what it's all about. Tattoos and body piercings can be a great way to express your individuality, but they're permanent, after all, and not without health risks.

BEFORE YOU GO

It's well-worth the time and money to seek out a reputable piercing or tattoo shop and have the job done properly. A badly done piercing or tattoo can lead to scars, infection, disease, and other nasties, and just isn't worth the time, money, or effort you might save in having it done cheaply or by yourself or a friend.

If you're under the legal age for piercings or tattoos, you'll need to get parental consent to have anything done. Some shops will work on underaged people without parental consent, but it's highly unethical, illegal in most places, and it's always a bad idea. Generally, if a shop bends the rules on something like that, there's a very good chance that they'll take shortcuts elsewhere -- like sterility practices.

It's a good idea to check out a few shops before you actually plunk down your money and announce that you want to be poked with needles. Most shops will be happy to show you their portfolio and answer questions about the procedure. Take your time and look around -- is the shop clean and organized? Are the people friendly? Do they have a good portfolio of their work?

Think carefully about what you're having done, and why you're doing it. Will you still want it when you're 25? 30? 50? 75? Will it affect your ability to get a job? Are you doing it because all your friends have one, or because YOU really want to do it? Getting pierced or tattooed isn't something to do on a whim, or to be cool.

Tattoos are for all practical purposes permanent. Once the ink is under your skin, there's not much you can do to get rid of it. You can have it covered up with another tattoo, but that can be difficult and expensive, and you'll still have a tattoo. Tattoos can sometimes be removed using a laser, but it's expensive, painful, and frequently leaves scars. Piercings are somewhat less permanent, in that you can take the jewelry out of body piercings and let the piercing heal over, but there's no guarantee that the hole will close up completely, and in most cases, you'll be left with a scar.

Most importantly, understand that both tattooing and piercing, if not done in sterile conditions, with sterile implements, opens you up to the risk of HIV or Hepatitis transmission. It is IMPERATIVE that your piercer or tattoo artist work in a clean studio with clean needles. Before you get anything done, hang out in the studio for a little bit. Watch to make sure fresh needles are used, and that people are washing their hands and using fresh gloves. If they aren't, pack up and go and find a better studio.

Still sure you want one? Read on and find out how it's done.

BODY PIERCING

People have tried to pierce almost every body part imaginable. The ears, eyebrows, nose, lips, tongue, nipples, navel, and genitals are common locations for piercings, and a few brave souls have experimented with areas like the nape of the neck and the webs between fingers and toes. Some areas are more problematic than others. Eyebrows and navels, for instance, are notorious for migration and/or rejection, both of which can happen when your body decides that it doesn't want a bit of metal through it, thankyouverymuch. Tongue and lip piercings can result in chipped teeth. Others, such as earlobes, are generally foolproof so long as they're done properly and you're diligent about aftercare. Body piercing is usually done with a sterile hollow needle and special body piercing jewelry made from high-quality metals. The area being pierced is cleaned and marked, the needle is used to make a clean incision through the area being pierced, and the jewelry is then slipped through the hole and fastened. For some piercings, the area being pierced may be clamped first, to make it easier for the piercer to line up the needle with the entry and exit holes.

A lot of people have piercings that were done with a gun, but gun piercings are bad for a number of reasons. The guns cannot be completely sanitized, which means that it's possible for any number of nasty blood-born diseases to be transmitted from one person to another. The piercing studs used in guns are made from low-quality metals alloys which can cause allergic reactions, and the studs are nowhere near as sharp as the needles used by professional piercers. Instead of making a clean incision with a very sharp needle, the guns shoot a relatively dull stud through your ear at very high speed -- can you say puncture wound? And if all of that isn't enough to make you want to run screaming, piercing guns are usually operated by people with little or no professional training, in unsterile environments. All in all, they're A Very Bad Thing, and should be avoided at all costs.

Likewise, self-piercing is usually a bad idea. Safety pins and sewing needles aren't safe to use for piercing, and can lead nasty infections and scars. Shoving earrings through your skin isn't a good idea either -- they're not sharp enough, and unless you have access to an autoclave, they won't be sterile enough either. All in all, self-done piercings are far more prone to infection and migration than professionally done piercings, and it's well worth the time and money to have a professional piercer do the job.

TATTOOS

Tattooing is usually done with a tattoo machine, which moves the needle or needles very quickly back and forth, pricking the skin many times each second. The tattoo artist dips the tips of the needle(s) into the ink, and then "draws" on the skin with the needle(s), transferring the ink just below the surface of the skin. As the tattoo heals, new skin grows back over the ink, permanently sealing the artwork into your body.

Just as with body piercings, tattoos are best done by professionals, not at home or by your friend who has a sewing needle and a bottle of India ink. Most self-done and amateur tattoos come out badly, and are much more prone to infection and severe scarring. If you're going to get a tattoo, take the time to find an artist you like, and fork over the money. It's worth it.

There are many different styles of tattoo artwork, and almost any design can be tattooed onto the body. Some people choose pre-drawn artwork ("flash") when getting tattooed, but others prefer to bring in a custom design or have the artist draw up something unique for them. Most parts of the body can be tattooed, although people who get tattoos frequently avoid highly visible spots like the hands and face, or areas that get a lot of irritation from clothing or shoes.

OUCH, THAT HURTS!

Basically, most tattoos and piercings do hurt most people. How much they hurt depends on your personal pain threshold and where you get them done. Piercing soft tissue on less sensitive parts of your body, like your earlobes or eyebrow, for instance, tends to hurt a lot less than having cartilage or more sensitive parts, like the top of your ear, nose, tongue or genitals, pierced. Tattoos on the fleshier parts of your body tend to hurt a lot less than tattoos done directly over bone. If you're concerned about pain, again, talk to your piercer or tattoo artist to find out what will work best for you.

AFTERCARE

Once the tattoo or piercing is done, you'll probably be given an aftercare sheet, which explains how to take care of your new body modification. Follow these instructions carefully -- if you don't, you could end up with an infection, scarring, or other problems. If you think there's a problem developing, go back to the shop and ask them for advice -- don't guess around. A good artist will be glad to answer your questions and help you with any problems that may arise during the healing process.

During the healing process, be gentle to your body. Make sure you eat well and get enough rest, and keep the pierced or tattooed area clean. Tattoos and piercings are effectively injuries that your body will have to heal, and should be treated as such. If you can, try to avoid getting pierced or tattooed just before any stressful or hectic events, like tests or a week-long vacation.

LEARN MORE

If you want to learn more about body modification, there are lots of books and websites on the subject. Here are a couple I've found particularly helpful:

The tattoos and body piercing section of About.com (http://tattoo.about.com/mbody.htm) has an excellent selection of links and articles, including some aimed at young adults.

The Body Art Book: A Complete, Illustrated Guide to Tattoos, Piercings, and Other Body Modifications by Jean-Chris Miller is a beautiful new book aimed at people who are new to the world of body modification.

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Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.