Is it time to reg­u­late body mod­i­fi­ca­tion?

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Gra­ham had his tongue cut in half with­out any anaes­thetic. “It was un­com­fort­able, but I’m good with pain,” he says. “Some peo­ple take it bet­ter than oth­ers.” And he would know. More than a decade later, he has given lizard-like tongue snips to count­less more cus­tomers as a tat­too and body mod­i­fi­ca­tion artist.

All had been well, but busi­ness is get­ting tricky as fear and le­gal con­fu­sion swirls inside Bri­tain’s in­creas­ingly busy body art par­lours. Not ev­ery­one who gets a forked tongue is as brave. An un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tion by BBC Lon­don this week al­leged that two prac­ti­tion­ers in the cap­i­tal were pre­pared to il­le­gally in­ject anaes­thet­ics li­censed only for use by regis­tered med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als.

Else­where, tat­tooists and piercers are find­ing it dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate a le­gal grey area that sur­rounds the ex­pand­ing na­ture of their work, with many liv­ing in fear of pros­e­cu­tion. “We’ve been call­ing out for leg­is­la­tion for years be­cause body mod­i­fi­ca­tions are be­com­ing more and more pop­u­lar,” says Gra­ham, who is based in Scot­land but spoke on con­di­tion that he not be iden­ti­fied (Gra­ham is not his real name). “We’re an­gry be­cause rep­utable artists are sud­denly be­ing classed as backstreet hacks.”

Tat­too artists and piercers have to be li­censed by lo­cal author­i­ties but there are no for­mal qual­ifi- cations. As pro­ce­dures be­come more rad­i­cal, in­clud­ing the in­ser­tion of horns un­der the tem­ple and the re­shap­ing of ears and teeth, some par­lours are do­ing work tra­di­tion­ally con­fined to sur­gi­cal the­atres. While the law is clear on the use of some anaes­thet­ics, it makes no men­tion of this kind of work, and it is not clear if signed con­sent is suf­fi­cient to make it le­gal. Sa­man­tha Pegg, a se­nior lec­turer in crim­i­nal law at Not­ting­ham Trent Univer­sity, is some­one who has led calls for clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

Gra­ham says that some med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als of­fer in­for­mal train­ing to piercers. He also draws the line at some mod­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing eye­ball tat­toos. “I’ve turned down hun­dreds of peo­ple and told them they’re an idiot if they do it,” he says.

“Peo­ple are go­ing blind around the world,” says Luna Co­bra, a world-lead­ing body mod­i­fier who is based in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia. He pioneered the eye tat­too a decade ago but is now cam­paign­ing to have it banned. “I did a lot of re­search and spoke to eye sur­geons, but other guys are just hav­ing a crack at it,” he says. Co­bra says he would rather be forced to stop tat­too­ing eyes than watch less pro­fi­cient mod­i­fiers risk peo­ple’s sight. Ul­ti­mately, he, too, wants ur­gent up­dates to leg­is­la­tion. “The ques­tion is how many peo­ple have to be hurt be­fore any­one is will­ing to do it,” he adds.

Si­mon Us­borne

Body art fans at a con­ven­tion in 2015; (be­low) the Mex­i­can artist known as Vam­pire Woman

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