Modiﬁed Bodies: Texts, Projects and Process
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).