CHAPEL HILL - When Christian Honeycutt talks about surface bars, microdermals, ear gauging, scarification, tattooing and suspension, he glows.
His skin, marked with three tattoos, five scars and 17 piercings, is a highly textured map of his journey into the world of body modification.
Honeycutt, a religious studies and comparative literature double major who lives in Chapel Hill, is drawn to body modification, or body mod, because it explores the relationship between mind and body, he says.
"Body manipulation and pain rituals have been a part of society for as long as we've been people," Honeycutt said. "It's about connecting and disconnecting the mind and body. It's a liminal thing, moving between those poles."
As a kindergartener, Honeycutt skipped school and went with his mother to get his ears pierced. His body modification seriously began when we got his ears re-pierced at 18, and then began gauging his ears, or methodically stretching the piercing hole beyond the typical size.
One year later, Honeycutt had 11 piercings, including a surface bar, microdermals, earrings, three gauges and a tongue ring. A surface bar is a small rod which sits underneath the skin with the ends exposed, and microdermals are small studs on the skin's surface.New sensation
For Honeycutt, piercings are a way to experiment with both physical aesthetics and new sensations.
"You get a rush," Honeycutt said. "It's hard to describe the feeling, but it's this nervousness while the piercing gun is being prepped, and then this immense calm" after the piercing is completed.
"I look at the process of piercing as a highly ritualized thing, but not everyone sees nose-piercing as a ritual."
Even more ritualized is scarification, the process of etching into the surface layers of the skin with a scalpel to create images with the scars. It's more painful and time-consuming than a tattoo because the process goes deeper into skin layers. When completed, it looks like a tattoo made of scars.
Honeycutt decided to try scarification after talking to Richard Ivey while getting a shoulder tattoo. Ivey works at Warlock's Tattoo in Raleigh and is involved in the body modification community.
Honeycutt's first scarification is an Ahimsa, or vow of nonviolence, which took four hours to complete. Ivey was with him for the process. Ivey's interests developed from typical body modifications such as tattoos and piercings into scarification and surgical procedures.
Last year Honeycutt completed a suspension. A suspension is a ritual rooted in ancient eastern Asian and Native American traditions in which an individual hangs from a series of hooks in his or her back, arms or chest. In many of these rituals, it's a physical test of strength, stamina and manhood, he said.
These rituals still occur. While abroad in Malaysia, Katie McKee, a junior in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC, became aware of a Hindu ritual known as Thaipusam. In this ritual, the patriarch of a family has weighted hooks inserted into his back that he drags uphill in order to prove himself and gain favor from the gods. These hooks and weights are called burdens, and they represent the family's sins, McKee said.
"I am personally so interested in the spiritual motivation behind what they do," McKee said. "The fact that they would go to these lengths just to earn merit from their gods is fascinating."Across cultures
Body modification has been practiced in every culture and "predates any world religion practiced today," Ivey said. "Its universality must be considered in any discussion of its validity."
Ivey and another body mod specialist facilitated Honeycutt's suspension at the 17th annual N.C. Tattoo Convention in Greensboro.
Honeycutt said the actual suspension wasn't painful, though after the hooks were set, the tension in his back was. After stringing the hooks, the facilitators threaded the cords through pulleys on a large frame which would support Christian's weight. Slowly, the facilitators pulled him up until he was hanging from the hooks. He was suspended for an hour, but the amount of time varies person to person, Honeycutt said.
"It felt like I was flying while I was up there, and I felt so heavy when I came back down," he said. "If I can do that, I can do anything."
After the suspension, Ivey removed the hooks and massaged Honeycutt's back. During a suspension, the skin is pulled from the muscle and air bubbles form. The massage works out as many of those air pockets as possible, though they may take a few days to dissipate, Honeycutt said.Costly, dangerous
These experiences have a price.
The cost of piercing ranges from approximately $30 to $150. As the body modifications become more difficult and intense, the cost tends to increase.
"Extensive body modification is a very expensive endeavor, and it's not uncommon for people to spend thousands on themselves throughout their journeys," Ivey said.
There are also serious safety risks and finding experienced, trustworthy practitioners is crucial, Ivey said.
"Any time a foreign body violates the skin, there's a risk of infection and a risk of scarring," said Dr. Lynn Damitz, associate chief of the division of plastic surgery and director of aesthetic surgery in the UNC division of surgery of the UNC School of Medicine.
She advises people to evaluate the ability to reverse a procedure before deciding to try it.
"Is it something you'll want 20 years from now? A big dragon on your back might be great, but will you want to see it when you're wearing a wedding dress?"While tattooing is growing in popularity, the risks include moderate to severe allergic reactions to the ink, unwanted scarring and infection, according to Think Before You Ink: Are Tattoos Safe?, a consumer update from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Laser tattoo removal requires five to eight sessions, which cost approximately $250 each, Damitz said. Even painful and intensive surgeries intended to reverse more invasive modifications can only offer partial results, Damitz added.
"The skin is never going to look exactly like it did before," she said.
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