The subject of extreme modifications outside North America and Canada has long been a thorny subject. For example, how many British, or even European, practitioners of extreme modifications can you name? If it's more than 5, I'll be impressed. Is this because there are no talented artists outside America doing this kind of work? Are they simply more underground than in the US and Canada, or is everyone practising "DIY"?

The answer, I think, is a little of both. I cannot speak for the rest of Europe, but in Britain at least, the law is based on legal precedent, rather than any formal bill of rights. This is a problem American artists do not face; they can claim the freedom to express themselves is a constitutional right, as well as referring to clearly defined statutes in certain states.

For example, in his BME/people interview, Steve Haworth, who works from Arizona, USA, stated his position concerning the law: he is an artist, his medium is human flesh, and he is protected by his First Amendment Rights.

No such protection exists in Britain: police can prosecute a studio for branding, as it qualifies as Grievous or Actual Bodily Harm (wounding with intention to scar) and the practitioner can be prosecuted and incarcerated. There are no records of this actually happening to a practitioner of extreme mods for aesthetic reasons in a studio environment, but it is a law anyone wishing to carry out piercing or branding in a ritual or S&M environment must bear in mind.

Many studios are not willing to work in such "grey" legal areas. There is also the spectre of the "Operation Spanner" case in which fifteen men were prosecuted for consensual S & M activities, including play piercing and CBT, the sort of activities you might find on BME/hard. All were convicted, and received either custodial sentences (of between 12 months and 4 1/2 years) or conditional discharges. Considering a driver can kill two people in a drunk driving accident and receive a sentence of 90 hours' community service and a 2-year driving ban, this seems a little disproportionate.

The "Spannermen" fought long and hard for their convictions to be overturned, maintaining they had a right to do as they pleased with their own bodies in a consensual setting. As a result of this case, a legal consultation document was published which called the prosecution into question, but the Spannerman have to date received no overturning of the judgement which convicted them. It must be said that there were other issues involved other than consensual body modification, including sodomy on a boy aged 15 (under the age of sexual consent in England) which carries a maximum term of life imprisonment. However, the main attack of the prosecution was on the "mutilation" and "torture" aspects of the case.

For me, the really shocking thing about this case was that it called into question the whole idea that you can do what you want with your body, and enter into consensual "body play" with others. The seemingly aptly named Judge Rant had these words on the subject:

Much has been said about individual liberty and the rights people have to do what they want with their own bodies, but the courts must draw the line between what is acceptable in a civilised society and what is not. In this case, the practices clearly lie on the wrong side of that line.

In 1990, this same Judge Rant presided over the trial of the "grandfather" of British piercing, Alan Oversby, on the charge of having unlawfully wounded a man whose penis he pierced. His defence, which was that the client had consented to the procedure, was rejected by the judge, and he pleaded guilty. He was also convicted of unlawful administration of anaesthetic and sending obscene material through the post.

Although this case was concerned with private individuals, its implication was that the British Establishment frowned on consensual body modification, and would prosecute if so minded.

However, a similar case involving a husband and wife turned out more favourably. The Wilsons, also known as the "Bottom Branding Couple" were investigated after Mrs. Wilson's doctor reported a brand which Mr. Wilson had performed on his wife at her request. He was initially convicted, but this was overturned as the judge ruled that the private sexual activities of a married couple conducted in their own home were not a matter for the law. Perhaps this means it is OK to perform extreme modifications on someone else under English law, as long as you are a heterosexual couple?

Another recent British case concerned a medical doctor who wished to carry out a voluntary amputation on a psychiatrically assessed adult. The doctor was placed under a court injunction not to carry out this, or any other amputation, and threatened with a prison term if he did.

How much greater would the penalty have been if the practitioner in question had not been a doctor, but a piercer with no formal medical qualifications? The implication of voluntary limb removal would have been that the subject would be 'cured' by the procedure, and this would have provided the grounds for prosecution for "practising medicine without a licence". As well as this charge, the procedure would have undoubtedly involved the use of anaesthetic, possession of which is restricted to qualified medical personnel.

So what to do if you want extreme modification and have the misfortune to live in Europe?

It seems, however, that there are ways of avoiding legal problems which are increasingly being used by people in the British modification industry. The primary one is to obtain consent of the intended recipient in a recognised form. That a "consent form" could be challenged in court is unquestionable, under the same grounds that wills are contested. One way in which this can be challenged is if the person who gave consent is deemed too young to "understand the nature and likely consequences of the act to which they have submitted". The quote here comes from a judge's ruling on an artist who tattooed two boys aged 12 and 13, and was prosecuted for injury they suffered as a result. In light of Judge Rant's ruling that certain modifications are not acceptable in a "civilised society", it is likely that a consent form for extreme modifications would also be deemed worthless - as the individual involved has no right to consent to the procedure.

After trawling through these cases, and trying to find what exactly has been made law in regards to body modification, and what is just speculation, I have become extremely worried about the law in Britain. The law seems incredibly nebulous and Byzantine, and likely to remain so without an Act of Parliament. As a community, all British practitioners and enthusiasts have to make a hard decision : whether to lobby for better regulation and law, and accept that the law will be made by politicians who generally look on piercing and tattooing as a fad, and anything else as a perversion; or whether we want to continue, hoping not to be prosecuted under the present poorly defined laws, under which it is still technically illegal to pierce a penis, and scalpelling or being scalpelled could land you in prison.

We have to accept that politicians will consider piercing et al a 'fad' or 'fashion' until convinced otherwise. So far, all legal progress has been towards ensuring the safety and sterility of studios, not regulating the work they do. Hansard, the official record of the British parliament, records these comments by Health Minister Tessa Jowells in 1999:

These issues [of safety and consent] must be considered against the background of the increasing fashion for body piercing in recent years. We show our age when we say that we can barely understand the appeal of body piercing.

She concluded her statement with an assurance that the regulation and licensing of body piercing and tattoo studios which affects London will soon be spread to the rest of the country. At present, the Health and Safety Board has the power to inspect all licensed premises and close any it decides do not conform to standards of sterility and good practice.

Our strong preference is for good practice to be spread by means of self-regulation, and we intend to work with the industry to secure that objective. Let me also signal our intention to take further steps if there is evidence of abuse or negligence that puts the health of the public at risk.

The end result of this political maneuvering is that modification for aesthetic reasons is unlikely to be questioned and legislated for in the foreseeable future. We will not know whether extreme modification outside an S&M environment is judged as mutilation, or as an extension of piercing and tattooing, until a case is brought. To me it seems ridiculous that practitioners must put their faith in keeping quiet and hoping for a liberal judge if the issue comes to trial.

The only advice I can give regarding this subject is this: realise you are taking a risk, not just for your piercer, but also for yourself. Under English law, you as the receiver of a brand/implant/whatever can be prosecuted for abetting your piercer's grievous bodily harm on you.

Some notes on the rest of Europe:

So much for Britain, what about the rest of Europe? Well, here the problems I had finding legal information were amplified. Being passably fluent in French, I started to investigate Gallic Laws. One French piercer told me via email that "piercing has only been practiced and worn in France for about 4 or 5 years" and for this reason, French piercing has a very limited online presence.

I spoke to one of the big names often associated with Modification in Europe - the French artist Lucas Zpira, who circumvented Europe's laws: by crossing the Atlantic. He is currently touring the United States. Lucas told me that his work was on the very edge of legality in France, risking the "medicine without a licence" charge.

In fact, the APERF (Association des Perceurs de France) website states that, "tout acte de chirurgie esthétique par un non médecin constitue le délit d'exercice illégal de la médecine" (which I translate as: "all acts of plastic surgery not performed by a qualified doctor constitute the offence of illegal practice of medicine").

Also, the penalty for exposing someone to "the direct risk of injury or death by their mutilation" carries a sentence of one year in prison and a fine of 100 000F (roughly $13,000). As the website notes, this sentence is applicable even if no harm or death is actually caused - it is enough for the risk to be present. Under this penal code, it seems to carry out a scalpelled tongue split would be an offence, even if nothing went wrong. This seems, to say the least, Draconian. Switzerland also forbids piercing and tattooing (in fact, "anything which punctures the skin is illegal" according to a Swiss piercer I spoke to) so one can only imagine their attitude to extreme modifications.

If anyone can give me any further information on attitudes and laws in the rest of Europe, I will update this article accordingly. Contact Helen at [email protected]

Contact Information and Further Information

  • The website for Lucas Zpira's French studio can be found at in both English and French.
  • Steve Haworth can be contacted via email at [email protected]
  • The RAB directory of piercers outside North America (not totally comprehensive, and a year old, but a good starting point)
  • To read more about the Spannermen, read the interview in BME/People:
  • For even more information, do a search on BME's question of the moment for "legal" or "laws".
  • For Parliamentary transcripts of debates concerning the regulation of body piercing, visit
  • The APERF website is found at

    The photos surrounding this article represent some of the work done by Chuck Maple, a talented artist and friend who works both in Britain and Colorado. Chuck can be found at:

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