WILLIAMSBURG — Body art may only go skin deep, but one particular form of it is cutting the deepest.
Scarification — the intentional, artful slicing of one’s skin in ornate designs — is an increasingly popular form of body modification that has its home in, yes, you guessed it, Brooklyn.
Brian Decker, a scarification artist and owner of Pure Body Arts, is an authority on the subject. The 37-year-old Bushwick resident has been doing cuttings for the last 13 years and is sought after by clients around the world who make the trip to his Williamsburg studio to have a scarring done.
He has noticed its popularity increasing over the past few years.
“When I think about scarification in the past, it was very primitive. It was much more painful. The techniques that were used were much less intelligent. The results of what were coming out were not as nice as they could be now, just based on techniques and aftercare,” he explained.
“People started to implement the ideas of tattoo reference to the design, which made them more extravagant, more detailed. You were able to build much more beautiful designs, which I’m sure caught more people’s eyes," he said.
Decker explained that he gets all walks of life coming in for artistic scars. Among his clients are military personnel who are prohibited from getting tattoos, fraternity members looking to get a symbol cut into their skin and people looking to make an accidental or surgical scar look more aesthetically pleasing. He also gets clients who don’t like the idea of getting tattoo ink injected into their skin.
And, of course, there are those who want to do it simply because it’s something new.
“I think people’s motivations vary widely with their age groups,” said Williamsburg resident Chris Beierschmitt, 25, who has had scarifications done by Decker and is also a piercer for Pure Body Arts. “Someone who is freshly 18 probably relishes the idea of someone being repulsed by that. But there are certainly people who appreciate the art form and I’d like to think I fall into the latter category.”
Beierschmitt said that people react strongly to seeing the scars.
"Generally repulsion and the feeling that that person is mentally deficient or has some sort of issue because they would get something cut into themselves," he said.
Scarification is different from the clinical condition of self-inflicted cutting. Dr. Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescence and Young Adults, notes that cutting for the sake of body art is by definition distinct from self-injurious behavior.
There is a fine line, however, between the two, she added.
"It’s actually actively excluded from the definition of non-suicidal self-injury because we have in there 'for purposes not socially sanctioned.' That is specifically there to exclude tattooing and piercing because among some subgroups, that’s an art form," she said.
"Having said that, in the studies that we have that include piercing and tattooing, it’s pretty clear that for a lot of people, certainly not everybody...there is a subset of people for whom these activities...is a self-injury component," Whitlock explained.
"People who use it for body modification purposes aren’t always cognizant of what they’re doing. They might decide to add new pictures to their arm in times of stress and maybe functionally they’re injuring in the way I see it with people who self-injure. But they’re not necessarily using it consciously for that purpose," Whitlock said.
Decker has done scarifications for people who would like to change the look of scars that came from their own previous incidences of self-harm. However, he notes that in his experience it is not usual for people to "collect" scarifications in a way that would seem unhealthy.
"People who create scars on themselves as self-harm rarely think about or want the scars themselves. It's the sensation they feel while creating the wounds that satisfies them. The scars are the end to the means," Decker said.
"Most often, when cutters mature out of the phase that caused the urge to harm themselves, they don't find much beauty in the results. They may serve as a way to remind them of that time, but I haven't met someone who's been genuinely happy about what they've created on themselves," Decker explained. "I would never scar someone who was only interested in the feeling they got from being cut."
Much of a scarification procedure is similar to that of a tattooing. Once a design is put on the skin using thermopaper, the design is lightly scratched with a scalpel to open the skin. A gel that slightly numbs the surface is rubbed into the wounds. The artist then goes back in and widens the lines with the scalpel.
No skin is removed.
“You’re cutting away from the center of the wound to widen it by severing the connective tissue that’s around the wound without having to cut deeper,” Decker explained.
The recovery process is also similar to that of a tattoo, though perhaps with a few more fluids involved.
“Three to four times a day, you’re going to want to take off [cellophane], clean off whatever plasma or lymph or sweat or blood that has built up underneath the plastic and re-cover it,” he said.
After cleaning regularly with soap and water or hydrogen peroxide for about a week, a new layer of tissue will begin to cover the wound.
Scars can evolve over time and eventually they will turn white. Every body is different and can heal differently, however, and there are no guarantees as to how a scar will look as time goes on. Beierschmitt is pleased with his own scars — crisp flower designs cut into his forearm — but isn't ready to get the next one just yet.
"When I can stomach it," he said.
So, is scarification the next big thing? Dr. Janis Whitlock thinks it is possible.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a wave of people who do a lot more scarification if only because that’s the thing that socially seems to happen," she said. "Human beings seem to be hard-wired to go where man has gone before."
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