Body artists

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    Body Artists Customize Your Flesh

    By Quinn Norton | Also by this reporter
    02:00 AM Mar, 08, 2006 EST

    Shannon Larratt was a child when he first dreamed about modifying his
    body. When his father would make pizza and sit with him to watch Star
    Trek, Larratt was captivated by the diverse looks of people from other
    worlds. He was particularly taken with the forehead ridges.

    In Larratt's ideal world, “Everyone looks interesting, everyone looks
    different.” So when body modification artist Steve Haworth invented a
    way to implant jewelry under human skin, Larratt jumped on the

    After Haworth was done, Larratt's forehead sported two symmetrical
    ridges that stretched at a jaunty angle from a spot above his temples
    down toward his eyebrows.

    Larratt was an early adopter of subdermal implants, a form of 3-D body
    modification pioneered in 1994 at Haworth's piercing shop in Phoenix,
    Arizona. The first human canvas for the art form was a woman from New
    Zealand who came in and asked for a bracelet. Haworth pondered the
    challenge, then suggested that he could place series of beads under the
    skin around her wrist. She enthusiastically agreed.

    In years that followed, subdermal implants became popular in the
    community of extreme body modification. The process creates a raised
    area on the skin in a shape of the artist's choosing. The effect is
    dramatic: Implants can be most any form you can think of, from Star Trek
    ridges and small horns, to little stars and hearts sprayed across the
    chest. Many people with body modifications have combined their implants
    with tattoos to create often beautiful or terrible effects.

    Today, at least 50,000 people worldwide have artistic implants,
    estimates Larratt, who now runs BMEZine, one of the biggest online
    communities in the body modification world.

    Early implants were medical-grade stainless steel, but today's are
    mostly molded silicone. A few are implant-grade Teflon.

    To install them, the practitioner uses a scalpel to make a shallow
    incision to the subcutaneous layer of the skin, then wields a plastic
    surgery device called a dermal elevator to create a channel between the
    subcutis and the fascia. The elevator, which looks like a tiny spatula,
    clears enough room for the implant, but not enough room for it to move

    The implant is slid into place after the elevator is removed, and the
    original incision is sutured shut. Anesthetic is hard to come by, so
    subjects typically just bear the pain.

    On a purely technical level, the process is neither controversial nor
    novel. Surgeons and gynecologists make a similar skin pocket for
    pacemakers, infusion lines for chemotherapy and the implantable birth
    control known as Norplant. But most piercers who are asked to perform
    implants have no medical background, and that's where the controversy

    “It is a surgical procedure, there's no way to get around it,” says
    David Vidra, founder of Health Educators, a 10-year-old company that
    educates people in the body-modification community on safe practices.
    “As soon as you open the cavity, that's a sterile environment. That's
    totally different from a piercing…. Our extreme artists need higher

    Some bodymod artists have medical experience. “My background is
    medical-device design and implant design,” Haworth says. It was a family
    business, in which Haworth designed tools for cosmetic surgery. He often
    watched his tools used in procedures, working to refine his designs to
    suit doctors' needs.

    International artist Emilio Gonzales underwent two years of medical
    training before doing modifications. “I was completely given to my
    profession as body piercer,” he explains.

    But that kind of training is exception, not the rule. That bothers Dr.
    Phil Haeck, a plastic surgeon in Seattle, Washington, who, like many in
    his profession, looks on the practice with unease.

    “What qualifies people to do this?” he asks. When an implant goes bad,
    it can require surgical correction, skin grafts, and still leave
    permanent disfigurement. If an implant site becomes infected, the tissue
    over the implant can die. “If it isn't done a perfectly sterile
    environment, the infection can be a disaster,” says Haeck.

    Haworth and other artists acknowledge the problem. Haworth estimates
    there are around 30 modification artists who use butter knives to
    separate the layers of skin. “It's like trying to drive a Cadillac
    though the eye of a needle, it's way too large,” he says.

    There's risk of damage to the nerve and lymphatic system, especially in
    the hands of inexperienced practitioners without knowledge of anatomy.

    And unlike piercings, “implants sometimes … can't be removed,” says
    Vidra. “No modification artist has malpractice (insurance) to cover

    But the process is unlikely to be adopted by the most qualified people
    to do it — plastic surgeons — anytime soon. Haeck, like most medical
    professionals, rejects it on ethical grounds. “This is ritualistic
    scarification in a different form. I can't imagine (a doctor) wanting to
    become involved in this area. This is a deviation in surgery that has no
    place for someone that has taken the Hippocratic Oath and wants to serve

    Even if Haeck were inclined to install devil horns on a patient's head,
    he wouldn't be allowed to under the rules of his profession: Modifying
    the body toward societal ideals is considered ethical, but any
    modification away from those ideals is unethical and comes with
    potentially stiff penalties.

    That frustrates Haworth and Vidra. “The American Medical Association
    says you can't modify the body away from what society says is normal,”
    says Haworth. But what society deems normal changes.

    Even Haeck concedes people have the right to modify their own bodies.
    “In a sense people that are doing this to themselves are totally
    entitled to do what they want…. (This) is part of belonging to their
    tribe,” he says. “It's really no different from the '60s, when we had
    long hair and tie dye, but (this is) more permanent…. It's shocking to
    the older people, but labeled as cool by (the bodymodder's) friends.”

    As one woman getting an implant explained to Haworth, “I'm not trying to
    be different, I'm just trying to be me.”

    But for now, such implants remain the purview of body-modification
    artists, and happen in the gray zone of unlegislated practice. How can
    someone seeking a modification stay safe? Just as you would when you
    look for a piercer or a doctor, seeking out experienced people with
    proper tools is key.

    Most implants don't result in medical problems, but as long as the
    practice remains unstudied and in the hands of medical amateurs, it
    remains risky.

    The modification community continues to innovate. Haworth is working
    with optical-grade silicone these days, to create implants that
    literally glow underneath the skin. He expects to have it available

    Shannon Larratt says the next step is to make implants functional in
    some way. “There's crossover with people doing RFID work — there's a
    large number of people that want to build active implants.”

    Haworth agrees: Implants with integrated electronics are the future of
    his art.

    #196141 Reply

    One day, I will get something done like this. Wanted to do something since the Gauntlet in SF offered subdermal spikes.

    #196142 Reply

    OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH glowing subdermal implants!!!! That is rad! 😮 😮 😮

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