Body Text

Scars, both emotional and physical, become text on the body. This "body text" is the socio-historical record of man's existence. I am reminded here of the relevance to body art. Body art, especially tribal, provides a clear body-text. Various tribes around the world use various forms of body art as a clear physical mark to show social standing, genealogy, ancestral lineage, among other such things. The Maasai of Kenya are physical, intentionally scarred to portray important social traits. The Maori of New Zealand tattoo their faces, called "moko", to show social standing and lineage. A "moko" is very prestigious in that only the wealthy or high class get it done. In many cultures body art is an important part of the tribal socio-historical text as a whole.

For the modern primitive, the urbanites who are modified, body art is just as much socio-linguistic body-text or a social signifier. Many neo-tribalists use body art as a clear sign of their social standing, political ties or heritage. You can usually tell a hell of a lot about a person from just looking at his or her tattoos without ever having a conversation with that person. My own tattoos mostly portray my own religious affiliation specifically, and my social and political ties in general. I, like many other modern primitives, use my body art as a historical text in that we tattoo ourselves to constantly remind ourselves of who we are and from where we came.

Branding: A Trek Thru Beautiful Pain

The "kiss of fire", or branding, has been around for millennia in mostly tribal, non-western cultures as a form of body modification. Only relatively recently has it become available more widely to the urban primitive. Branding is, compared to tattooing and piercing, seen by many as a more extreme form of body art. Even some people who are heavily tattooed or pierced look at branding with disgust and loathing. People say; "How can you do that to yourself? Why would you choose to burn your own flesh like that?"

It was a very personal choice; branding is something I felt I needed to do for myself. When I tell most people that I got branded they ask; "You mean, like cattle?" Well... Yeah, I guess. The difference is, though, I chose to be branded- cattle have no choice in the matter. I choose to manipulate and scar my flesh; I am master. I think I felt I had to do it because I wished to "conquer" my physical body in some way. And sitting through that pain gave me a great sense of accomplishment. For me, it was like summiting a great mountain.

I got branded at the end of March. It was amazing! I thoroughly enjoyed the pain and endorphin rush. At first, when I saw the blowtorch, I had second thoughts. But I decided to suck it up and trek onward. I'm so glad I continued. The rush I get from tattooing just isn't enough, anymore. I needed something new. It's probably like going from coffee to crack for a better high.

I had been talking to Kat at Body Shock in Dayton about branding me for about a year. We talked about designs & she invited me to watch someone else get branded. When I saw the smoke & smelled burning flesh I said, "Fuck that! I'll stick to tattooing."

That was a year ago and now I have a brand. The stench of burning flesh, seeing smoke, and watching the glowing hot metal being touched to the flesh made me have second thoughts. I have to say that I never had a rush like that. It was an experience I'll never forget. I finally decided on the 'symbol of infinity' for my brand. It's simple enough for a good brand, but means a lot to me. I thought it would go nicely with my mostly Buddhist type tattoos. And, if I say so myself, it does; it's a wonderful addition. I decided to have it placed on my right forearm just below my elbow. I have a tattoo on my forearm that is Japanese script with flames around it. I wanted to place the brand just above the tattoo to run them together. My hope was to make it appear as though the brand was burned in by the flames. I finally, after more than a year, got up the balls to go through with it. Like I said before it was the most incredible rush I've ever experienced. Now that I'm drug free I've become an endorphin junky. I've never done another drug that even comes close to the rush I experienced through branding. After Kat had finished I was incredibly, naturally high on my own endorphins. It was far better than any other drug I could ever do.

Kat had drawn up and mapped out the design and had cut the metal. A guy there was asked to hold the blowtorch to the metal. He heated the metal until it was glowing red. The metal was so hot that I could feel the heat coming off the piece before she struck it to my arm. At this point I was sweating like a hog I was so nervous. I took a deep breath and stated, in a shaky whisper, that I was ready. I went with my friend Stacy. She wanted to be there to see me squirm. And I'm glad she went; it means a lot to me. Anyway, we rolled in there for the kiss of fire. I asked Kat how many strikes it would take. She told me five and I started trembling. The first time she hit me I jerked my arm back and it didn't take. After that, she told me not to watch, and Stacy held me down so I wouldn't jump out of my wheelchair. The whole process took about fifteen minutes. I have no regrets. Thanks Kat and Stacy.

A week after I got the "kiss of fire" was Easter weekend and my dad and step-mom came in from St. Louis to visit me. We all went out to dinner Saturday night; they then came over Sunday morning. I tried to hide my brand the whole time; I wore a long sleeve shirt to dinner and Sunday I didn't wear a shirt so I just tried to conceal it. My dad's cool about my tattoos and pierces, but I didn't think he'd quite understand the brand. I was right. He saw it as an act of self mutilation. In a way I can see his point. The tattooing and piercing are clearly a beautiful artform, but scarification through branding takes body art to an entirely new level. This is why it took me so long to finally decide to go through with the branding. That and the pain involved.

For me, scarification is a big step. A real sense of self-pride developed from my branding experience. I felt like if could tolerate the pain involved in branding I could tolerate anything. The experience truly instilled in me a sense of empowerment. Because of my disability I feel that I am enslaved by my physical body, but choosing to subject myself to the intense pain of branding made me feel like I conquered my body. Even if temporarily.

My body continues to change- I continue to define my identity. Wheelchair or no wheelchair. I now have new piercings, more ink, a branding and more to come. . . . Everybody asks 'Why.' Do I hate my body enough to mutilate it? Or do I love it enough to celebrate and decorate it? I can't give a clear answer.

My disability more or less forces me to be conscious of my identity. Therefore, my disability has become a large contributor to who I am. My lack of muscle control, my speech impediment, my physical breakdown have shaped my identity. My mental capacities largely exist in what forms they may because of my physical capacities. I think as a man on the outskirts of society because the handicapped will never be incorporated into the mainstream. Therefore, I have reclaimed my body through physical adornment because, for me, this act coincides with my mentality. I have pierced and tattooed myself, my body, to complement my disability. Body art gives me a new way of looking at myself. Anyway, I figure if people are gonna stare because of the chair - I might as well give them something interesting to look at. A chair by itself is pretty boring.

Tattooing and piercing provide me with an unspoken language in which to define myself. Because of my speech problems, along with my disability, people assume that I am mentally retarded. The body art, however, is a way to show people that I can think for myself. I mean, let's face it, no parent in their right mind would tattoo their child. My body art provides me with a clear voice I may otherwise not have. I can now clearly show the world who (or what) I am.

Because of my dependence on others to provide me with aid in bathing, dressing, almost all actions largely taken for granted by the abled; I feel my body is no longer my own. I need help in almost every physical aspect of my life. People can, a lot of times, choose my bedtime, choose my clothing, among other things- I feel very limited. But with piercing and tattooing I make the choice of what happens to my body. This way I reclaim my body as my own. Also, my disability is caused by a degenerative muscle disease, Muscular Dystrophy, that causes my current physical condition to be temporary, ever changing. My body art is permanent; it will always be there. My tattooing and piercing provide a sense of stability in their permanence.

Other disabled individuals, by and large, have attempted assimilation into the social mainstream. I strongly believe that no matter what, the disabled will never be part of the mainstream- never be "normal". Anyway, normal is boring. I personally have chosen to go the other way and remove myself from the mainstream (or that possibility) as much as possible. I'm already seen as different from the norm because of my disability- a physical deviation. The "physical norm" in this country belongs to the abled. Anything outside that norm is seen by most as freakish. I choose to take that "freakishness" and complement it with body piercing and tattooing.

I understand the point that other disabled individuals are trying to make by being as "normal" as possible. They are attempting total assimilation by wearing clothes, listening to music, and so on that conform to the social mainstream. When many of the disabled people see me they are angered. They look at me as though I were rubbing salt on the wound. I am seen as a contra in the battle for the assimilation of persons with disabilities. But I feel their way is counterproductive, a backslide. We need to thrust our individuality to the front lines.

I remember, when I used to wear my hair in a Mohawk, I passed two women who commented; "There's something you don't see everyday - a handicapped person with a Mohawk." Why is that? I guess people just don't expect the handicapped to go against the grain. But it's idiotic people like these two women that make me want to go against the grain in the worst way. I don't want others to assume what my identity should be because of my disability. The assumption is widespread that the disabled largely do not go against the grain. People expect the disabled to conform.

As my disability largely defines my identity I am also not going to let it define me on its own. For instance, I will not change who I am because of my disability. My disability is not the sole reason I'm into body art. A freak is a freak is a freak. I would be even more heavily pierced and tattooed, but my disability prevents me from tattooing or piercing certain parts of my body. The possibility of a career also prevents such action. My parents always say that it's hard enough for me to get a job because of my disability, but my body art only makes matters worse. They also believe strongly that it is difficult for me to integrate into society fully because of the disability and they believe my body art only adds to the problem. But I figure people need to get over it - both the disability and the body art. That goes for everyone.

In the same sense my disability has not become the main voice throughout my writing. Out of hundreds of poems I have maybe five that have a theme of disability. Which is strange because my disability is in the forefront of most other aspects of my life. I do have a few poems about body art. Body art has provided a stronger voice with which to write. Perhaps, though, my body art is used to subconsciously mask my disability throughout my writing.

I was diagnosed with a fairly rare form of Muscular Dystrophy, Freidrich's Ataxia, when I was seven. This meant that I would have to wear leg braces and a back brace. This "oddity" would be seen clearly by my peers. Part of me welcomed this oddity with open arms; I could now be physically different- more of an individual. As I entered high school and the wheelchair, however, I wanted to be like everyone else. I hated my disability. My comfort with my disability came later in life. I became comfortable with my difference. Body art gives me the power to choose - to reclaim my difference as my own.

My first tattoo came when I had just turned twenty. Eight years later I am up to something like seventeen (some are "blended" together.). I now have only three piercings;  one in my right rook (cartilage right above the ear canal), one conch, and a vertical nipple. I have had well over twenty facial piercings. I also have a brand of the infinity symbol on my right forearm. What's next? You'll have to wait and see. . .

Overall, I do this to overshadow my disability for myself and others. People focus on the body art and don't think about the disability for a moment. Or, maybe, it's the other way around; perhaps the body art brings more focus to the disability. I don't know or really care anymore. People are going to look at me however they want. So, for that reason, I will be the biggest FREAK I want.

Adam Cline
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