In 1882, the Duke of York, who later became King George V of England, traveled to Japan with his brother, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale. Prince George had an audience with Emperor Meiji and, according to historian Donald Keene, presented Empress Maruko with two wallabies from Australia. He also visited a tattoo artist, who inscribed a dragon on the arm of the future king (as well as one on his brother).1 They were not the first royals to have themselves tattooed—twenty years earlier, their father, King Edward VII, had had a Jerusalem cross tattooed on his arm during a visit to the Holy Land. And in 1066, King Harold II’s tattoos were used to identify his body after he died at the Battle of Hastings.
Human beings have always marked themselves. Özti the Iceman, a Bronze Age man whose 5,000-year-old remains were found in the Alps on the Austria-Italy border, had several tattoos, including a small cross behind his left knee. Using a computed tomography scan, researchers at the British Museum recently discovered that a female Egyptian mummy dating from 700 CE had the name “Michael” tattooed on her thigh. Tattoos and other body modifications have long been a way to mark one’s membership in a group. Members of indigenous tribes, practitioners of certain religions, sailors, prisoners, and gang members have all used permanent body marking as a way to signal belonging.
Today, devotees of body modification are a thriving subculture with their own social networks, e-zines, websites, conventions, and celebrities. They embrace not only tattooing but also practices such as scarification (deliberate scarring of the skin), subdermal implants such as bumps and spikes on the forehead, various body piercings and dental modifications, and stretching of the lips, earlobes, and nostrils, among other body parts. The heavily tattooed men and women who used to be displayed as “freaks” at carnival sideshows would barely get a second glance at a contemporary body modification convention such as ModCon.
In an era of excessive individualism, our markings and modifications are viewed not as a sign of freakishness or outlier behavior but as an expression of personal taste, devoid of historical or cultural baggage. I doubt that the waitress at my favorite pizza place, who has a delicate butterfly tattoo winding up her wrist, thought much about the fact that her ink gives her a shared history, stretching back centuries, with both British royalty and prison gang members. “I just thought it was beautiful,” she told me, when I asked her why she got tattooed. And it is.
But as body modification becomes more individually expressive and less an expression of affiliation, its cultural meaning becomes clouded. What does the weakening of stigma associated with some body modifications suggest about cultural change? What does our embrace of the extremes of body modification reveal about our understanding of the integrity of the human body? What do these extremes have to teach us about more accepted cultural practices such as dieting and cosmetic surgery? And what motivates us to do these things to ourselves?