By Lisa Han
Heating metal before creating a strike brand. Photo courtesy of Galagorn.
Despite the recent buzz about tattoos becoming acceptable in the workplace, alternative forms of body modification have a reputation that is anything but mainstream. To most, they exist largely in the realm of rubbernecking internet users—casual voyeurs looking for a peek inside the culture of the extreme. For instance, apart from its Wikipedia page, the immediate results of a Google search for the term “body modification” typically includes lists like, “8 Most Horrifying Body Modifications” or “Top 10 Bizarre Body Modifications”. These images focus on grotesque instances of surgical implantation, piercings, and often times, branding.
As with all new trends, the spectrum of the extreme is shifting.
Roughly 10 years ago, branding took off in popularity as a prevalent form of body art akin to tattoos and piercings. Modern branding is a form of scarification that uses heat to create designs on the skin. There are several methods in which this is accomplished. Strike branding incorporates strips of metal formed into shapes and draw branding is a form that incorporates medical grade surgical steel rods of varying thickness that are heated with a blow torch. Rev Decay, a scarification artist for 717 Tattoo, explains that his preferred method for branding is an ESU pen, or electrical surgical unit, because it is clean and gives the artist precision. Different types of branding, however, have different advantages.
“Thermal branding is not horrible, but you can feel the heat and that’s very irritating, and the healing process for it really sucks,” says Decay. “ESU branding is quite brutal, but you’re only struck for four seconds at a time. For a thermal cautery, it’s continuous almost… When you lift the ESU pen there’s no heat whatsoever, and the healing process is minimal.”
Fancy technologies aside, human branding is anything but new. According to National Geographic, branding and scarification is a tribal tradition that has been around the globe for centuries in communities such as the aboriginal tribes in Australia and the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. Traditional motives range from rites of passage, to feminine beauty, to spiritual expressions. The “Moko” ink-rubbing scars of the Maori tribe, for instance, were meant to serve as a completion of the body.
Not surprisingly, branding today often draws from these original notions of ritual and rites of passage. Firefighters and college fraternity members are common customers for brands symbolizing their loyalty to a station or particular chapter.
The negative stigma, however, comes from its historically more punitive uses.
In the past, branding has been seen as a means of marking the oppressed (slaves) or for punishment. For those familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, it is true that Puritan colonies once employed various forms of branding and mutilation on thieves, slanderers, or those guilty of sexual crimes.
Rose Andlauer, a piercing and branding artist and owner of Miraculous Creations, explains that, “to the unknowing person there are assumptions that someone who has a brand or brands likes pain, is a party person, does drugs, or drinks too much.” While subversion of social norms does play a part in the decision for some customers, it isn’t what defines the art form. In Andlauer’s experience, branding to show submissiveness is common, but rather than being a form of punishment, it is a voluntary and agreed upon decision with the dominant counterpart.
Rose Andlauer branding a client. Photo courtesy of Rose Andlauer.
Like tattooing, getting branded is often a very personal process. Among its other advantages, it is done without the addition of external substances to the body, and everyone heals differently. “Some don’t want color, some just think it’s cool because it’s more unique, and some feel it’s more symbolic of a sacrifice they are making to get it,” explains Andlauer.
A common fear about scarification, however, is that it is unsafe. Branding without the professional equipment and attention is dangerous because it can lead to infection as well as nerve and tissue damage. Healing time is also longer than other forms of body art. However, Andlauer makes it a point to emphasize that artists today have come a long way.
“The days of doing it yourself with car cigarette lighters and such are long gone…I know that people are going to get brandings and piercings and often from someone that either doesn’t know what they’re doing, or are mean and nasty while doing it, or all of the above. I like giving people what they want, and doing it in a safe and clean environment,” says Andlauer.
Finished brand. Photo courtesy of Rose Andlauer.
As with tattoos and piercing, the increased safety and visibility over time has encouraged more people to get branded. “When body piercing started getting into large communities in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was a lot of the swingers community and the kink community doing the body piercing,” says Decay. However, once the trend caught fire and piercing spread outside of these niche communities, the stigmas against it also largely disappeared.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Even if the process is safe, the change is permanent and deserves careful consideration.
“One of my favorites was on a young man that came in with his college buddies to have an entire butt cheek branded with ‘USDA Grade A,’” says Andlauer. “Being a Mom, I actually tried to talk him out of it but he was determined to get it no matter what, so I did it…I suspect he’ll get chuckles out of that brand forever!”