chapter  25
15 Pages

Modified Bodies: Texts, Projects and Process

ByPaul Sweetman

Tattooing, piercing and related forms of body modification have become increasingly popular in recent years, in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. This has in turn drawn increasing commentary from academics in sociology, cultural studies and related disciplines, who have sought to explain and assess the significance of these developments, both in their specificity and in relation to wider developments in culture and society as a whole. The following outlines and assesses these debates examining how far contemporary forms of body modification should be seen simply as superficial trends, and how far they both represent and differ from other forms of contemporary ‘body project’ – or attempts to construct a sense of identity in an era where previous forms of identity are increasingly untenable. It suggests that contemporary body modification can be seen as resistant and transgressive – and to differ from other consumption and lifestyle choices – in part because of the necessary corporeality of the procedures involved, and draws upon a variety of recent work in the area, including my own empirical work on contemporary body modification in the United Kingdom during the late 1990s (for further details, see Sweetman, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c). The increasing popularity of tattooing, piercing and related practices has been widely noted in the

growing body of academic literature which has, since the mid to late 1980s, sought to explain and assess the significance of these trends DeMello, 2000; Pitts, 2003; Sanders, 1989; Sweetman, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c). Tattooing, in particular, has become ever more popular amongst an increasingly diverse clientele, while piercing has shifted from the preserve of a small band of dedicated practitioners associated with marginal sexual subcultures in the 1970s, to having a visible presence – in the form of a dedicated piercing studio – on pretty well every high street. Partly as a consequence, the development of ‘newer’ and in some cases more experimental forms of body modification – such as branding, scarification, and the use of subdermal implants – has itself continued apace (Pitts, 2003). Such is the popularity of tattooing and piercing, at least, that even by the mid 1990s, certain commen-

tators were dismissing both practices as little more than fashionable trends; one instance among many of the incorporation of ‘the exotic’ into the fashion system, and a manifestation of the more or less superficial eclecticism that many argue is a key characteristic of the postmodern scene. Tattoos and piercings, it was suggested, were all but empty signifiers, once marginal or subcultural devices that had now gone mainstream, and were freely available to all and sundry in the ‘supermarket of style’ (Craik, 1994: 25; Steele, 1996: 160-61).