OP-Ed: A lesser ritual?

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John Joyce was cutting my face when our photographer took this picture. It was either the last cutting or close to it of the last night of Scarwars3 in Philadelphia, October of 2007.

He was cutting into scar tissue from my previous facial cutting(s) and the pain was starting to spike. My friend Klein came over and took my hand and squeezed it. Followed by Sarvas, Christiane and Håvve. Hand after hand grabbing me, reminding me that I was doing just fine. To this day, I don’t know how many of my friends were holding me. Most of the SW guests had gone home with just a core groups of die-hards still hanging around. The feeling of safety and of my friends looking out for me was one of the most amazing things that came out of the weekend for me.

A few days ago I started writing an article on anesthetics use in the early days of the Western body piercing community. It wasn’t exactly common, per se, but interesting to note that the majority of piercers who used them- either ‘spray freeze’ 1 or injectables 2 worked almost exclusively from private or home studios whereas the loudest voices against their use came from piercers working out of retail shops.

There’s an ethic in the tattoo community of ‘Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe.’ Don’t share private things because they could fall into the wrong hands; those hands are a communally accepted boogie man of hacks, scratchers, kitchenwizards and the scariest of them all- legislators seeking regulation. Retail piercing shops had to take a stand against anything that could possibly harm their business; especially at a time when the entire concept of piercing seemed like the pursuit of S&M devotees and sexual deviants. The late 1970s issues of PFIQ 3 featured piercing and fictional content much more ‘extreme’ than what could be found in the 80s editions; with more eyes watching we had to be much more careful. Lines had to be drawn.

11nipspray copyPiercers like Doug Malloy, Sailor Sid Diller and Jack Yount used anesthetics, with Jack feeling that piercing was ‘brutal’ and that his clients shouldn’t have to go through the discomfort of an ampallang without a nerve blocker. Jack often pierced at thicker gauges than his West Coast peers and his reasoning was a 25g hypodermic needle caused far less distress to a client than an 8g. He would allow photographs to be taken of him doing minor surgeries with no fear of legal reprisal, but he was adamant that no photos be taken of him using injectables. His fear wasn’t unfounded, and in 2002, seven years after his passing, a Florida body piercing shop was raided and it’s piercers arrested for practicing medicine without a license. 4

The arrests made several news broadcasts, one of which cited a possible complication being death from anaphylactic shock due to the anesthetic used, if the client didn’t die from hemorrhaging or massive infection first. In response, Truitt says he never uses anesthetics for any procedures, and none were found in the studio. 5

The genie was out of the bottle and released into the Internet superculture. The worst fear had been realized and soon legislators would work on banning piercing/body modification. Any day now.

Last week- some 14 years since the Florida arrest- a well known body modification artist posted photos on his Instagram/Facebook of a procedure that exposed his client’s skull. Far from the keep it secret, keep it safe self-regulation of days gone by, here it was posted openly. Not behind the pay-per-view wall of BME/Extreme, but on the modern Eye of Providence Facebook. To say it inspired discussion would be an understatement. They were coming, the regulators. Any day now.

I posted about my proposed article- again on Facebook- and laid out my misgivings. Would talking about anesthetic use in the 1980s somehow make a connection that today’s body modification practitioners, some of whom are doing modification work on a public scale undreamed of in Jack and Sid’s day, might be using them too. Where does my responsibility lie?

The feedback the Facebook page provided was helpful. An influential West Coast piercer (long since retired) discussed using numbing creme in the early years of his career. Another Sacred Debris writer echoed my worry of exposing current modification artists. A friend from New England discussed his views on ‘earning’ a modification by feeling all of the pain from the procedure. Having earned all of my modifications- including the ones I was lucky enough to experience pain-free thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, I couldn’t decide the right course of action and the direction the article should take.

I could talk about the piercers who offered ‘pain free’ procedures to their clients. I could discuss the fear of regulation that anesthetic use inspires. I could talk about ritual and earning modifications (the story that starts this article found me with blue-gel being applied to the cutting to help me deal with the pain and how it was still a significant ritual for me) or I could somehow talk about all of it.

I went with 4: All of the Above.

What are your thoughts?
If you could get your piercings done without pain- would you?
Do you feel modification artists should post photos of extreme modifications being performed?

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Notes:

  1. Usually Ethyl Chloride.
  2. Most commonly Xylocaine.
  3. Piercing Fans International Quarterly. 1977-1997, ed Jim Ward.
  4. THE POINT #23, 2002
  5. THE POINT #23, 2002

Shawn Porter has spent the majority of his life in the modification world. As a body modification archivist and documentarian, he has one of the most extensive collections of documents relating to the early American body modification community in existence. He edited the SPC website from 1995 to 2005, co-founded ModCon, was the host of ModCons 3.5 and 4, and created and hosted The Scarwars Project from 2004-2007. In 2011 Shawn launched Occult Vibrations, a blog devoted to traditional American tattoos with a focus on the occult and esoteric. He currently resides in Philadelphia with his Italian Greyhound, Bailey, and his wife Julia.

11 comments

  1. Saw that same photo on my tumblr feed and thought, “Why the hell is this being posted in public” as well.

    As far as getting piercings done without pain, I don’t think I would. I quite enjoy the whole process and I don’t think I ever would have gotten into this world if there was no pain involved. Now as I start looking to get heavier stuff, I might change my mind.

  2. As a piercer for over 20 years,I’ve always been against the use of anesthetics for the average piercing, I felt and still feel that with a competent piercer, the discomfort from a piercing shouldn’t be “brutal”. And maybe, just maybe I am of that “old school” mindset, where things like tattooing, piercing, scarification should be felt. The experience should one where the “piercee” should recognize (whether consciously or subconsciously) that they are taking a step into the next part or phase of their life.
    I was disturbed to see the “well known modification artist” posting the extreme procedure all over social media. By all means, if you have the ability and skill to successfully perform such procedures, go to, but keep it out of the limelight.
    Are the powers that be going to crack down on studios and people? You bet. Is it going to be today or tomorrow? Not likely, but it IS going to happen, in fact in a lot of places, the legislators are taking very close looks at what we do and the hammer is starting to come down.
    I’d rather err on the side of caution and keep any heavier mods lowkey and out of the spotlight, and focus on being the professional piercers we are, rather than being the “dude that cut some guy good”.

    1. The artists using anesthetics were Doug Malloy, Sailor Sid, Jack Yount.. I’d call them ‘old school’, Ken, and they apparently didn’t mind.

      While you have every right to decide not to use anesthetics for a modification, I disagree that every person walking through the door of a studio wants or needs a ritual. To them; it’s the destination not the journey.

      1. Oh I know there were guys like Jack and Sailor Sid that were using anesthetics and I’ll concede that they have their place, but the main point is that it is kept out of the spotlight, perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in expressing that. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for those that came before, and many practitioners today that work in a “grey” area.
        Like I said, if you are capable to do the heavy mods and do them well, certainly go to, but keep it out of social media as it really can have a negative impact on the industry as a whole.

  3. I have had relatively major work done with no anasthetic when I had my labret cut to 1/2″ and although the pain was significant, it didn’t last very long.
    There are some heavier procedures that I have gone through (implants), that I was happy for the anasthetic both for their insertion and removal, not sure I would have handled things so well otherwise.
    I think the use of anasthetics is dependent on the procedure and who is performing it

    1. “I think the use of anasthetics is dependent on the procedure and who is performing it”

      And I can’t reiterate enough: Who it’s being performed on. Some people just don’t want the pain. When I was younger I was proud; chest puffed out and cocky that I had sat for a 13 hour tattoo appointment. I ‘earned’ it. Now if I go more than two hours, the list of pills I take would make a pharmacist proud.

      1. I have to agree that the pain tolerance diminishes thge older I get. I’m sure that I used to be invincible, not so much these days

  4. I’ve been researching for a book I plan on writing about Sailor Sid. The use of any sort of pain killer was a real mindblow to me when I took an ex to get her snake bites done. I had no idea that this was even done.

    I’ve seen all sorts of really “brutal” things done, alls you gotta do is flip on NatGeo to see that. I’d say the pubescent boys getting there backs crocodile skinned might need a little.

    But I can say either way. Some people can take it, others cannot.

    Me? When I got the first line (and a little one at that) done on my first tattoo when I was 18 I nearly pooped. So you’ll not see me saying, “Man Up!” Anytime soon.

  5. I think there’s no way to use a big brush to reugulate the righteousness of anesthetic use. I personally still prefer getting my mods done without any numbing substance, but I had to use them more than a couple of times. Some areas of the body and some mods are a beyond the line of “I can take it”. But this is personal. As a tattooist I am glad if the customer has taken some pills that ease the pain if I’m making some complex tattoo in a delicate area. I don’t want my customer to shake all the way to the end of the procedure. That’s pointless.
    I’ve been cut on my ribs and on my head and I could not face it without painkillers. Both for my pain treshold and for the sake of the artist who would have had to cut a trembling bleeding sausage.
    In the end, I still believe in the ritual part of it, but I think everyone should aknowledge that sometimes the important thing is the healed work, and it’s important to get it done the cleanest and the best way.

  6. Also saw THAT photo and queried its worth. I’ve been in both camps – piercing-wise (ditto tattoos, large-scale scarification and micro-dermals), I prefer no numbing agent; but when my piercer’s implanting a 3x7mm magnet in my fingertip, I’m also damn glad of that lido shot.
    One of my RFID implants was installed with anaesthetic, the second wasn’t – I don’t feel like I earned the latter any more than its counterpart.
    But while I don’t want to see any old high-street studio or hairdresser/piercer wield a syringe, I think it makes sense for professionals willing to train in its usage to have that option for heavy mods. There’s little point in a practitioner rushing to finish an implant procedure before the icebath numbness wears off, IMHO – or the client fainting afterwards and requiring stitches. That just creates other problematic opportunities.
    Will skip any mention of a possible God complex and just add that legal issues become a grey area on the big bad web. What’s kosher in one state or country may not be somewhere else – something to keep in mind when viewing such mod photos.

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