Is it time to regulate body modification?
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.
Body art fans at a convention in 2015; (below) the Mexican artist known as Vampire Woman