Model Citizen Tattoo and Body Modification as a Rite of Passage
Where are some of the most painful places to get one?’ I asked James as I could hear the needles turn on. He began tracing the outline along my lower ribs.
James’ piercer, a man, Neek, traveled in and out of the back room setting up decorations. I couldn’t help but be drawn to Neek’s sagging gauged ears and plethora of colored tattoos. I became seemingly self-conscious of the small tree being engraved into my side. I asked for a paper towel to bite on, nonetheless.
James and Neek talk logistics, as they are still making final touches to their new location in the back of No Radio Records on Seneca Street. ‘This is a total art in your face experience’ says tattooing apprentice Phoebe, of the new place. Music redefined the symbolism behind tattoos. James called this the ‘Tattoo Renaissance,’ when people would come into tattoo parlors looking to get identically inked with whatever the biggest new rock star had.
James Spiers, 34, seems intimidating at first. A shaved head on all sides with a long blond ponytail down the middle, he carries himself confidently, but his gentle manner and the photos of his children that line the walls grow comforting.
James has been tattooing for 15 years and opened Model Citizen Tattoo three years ago. It began on State Street and moved to its current spot in No Radio Records only weeks ago.
Tattoo parlors are now one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. People want to express their feelings by changing their bodies. We have no physical rituals to express our emotional needs, as many other cultures do, so we have invented them through body modification.
I return to Model Citizen a few days later to talk to James about the art of body modification. “Tattooists are artists, engineers, therapists, social workers… I could have people on the table who have lost 50 pounds and are commemorating that moment, or recovering addicts who are marking months sober. Lost loved ones, births… There are so many reasons why people choose to come in and I get to hear their stories as I’m creating this work of art on them that’s intended to be permanent until you die.”
Tattooing is one of the oldest art forms known to exist. The oldest human skin ever found is decorated with tattoos. Before the fashion statement that body modification now often represents, it was something of a secret code. It created a sense of belonging to those on the fringe of society, exercising their right to be ‘different.’
I got to thinking about the culture surrunding body modification. A few days before, I was watching a National Geographic video podcast about an Eastern African tribe where boys are accepted as men through a series of initiation rites, which included the art of scarification. This is a process by which you make shallow cuts in the skin to create a desired design. These cuts are then sometimes rubbed with an irritant to enhance the resulting scar tissue. These men were cut along their backs and torsos to create a crocodile aesthetic- an animal their tribe worships. While in the Western world we have done away with formal rights of passage, the same patterns exist.
Scarification specialist Raelyn Gallina interviews all the women who come to her, and nearly every woman she speaks with experienced childhood trauma. These women were choosing to cathartically get scarred as a mechanism for reclaiming their bodies. Pain as a process adds to the emotional experience of the event. There is no other tangible outcome for an individual’s anguished past.
“You know you’re going to endure some pain, you’re going to shed some blood…That act, once it happens and you come out victorious, makes you go through a transformation. We have so little control over what goes on around us… It comes down to you and your body,” says Gallina.
James mentioned that friends will call him after a rough week, just needing to get some work done. ‘You don’t remember what bills you’ve paid or so many other daily tasks in a day, but you remember when you got that tattoo, the exact way it felt, how and where it hurt.’
I ask him what the most fulfilling aspect of the job is. ‘I absolutely love what I do. Seeing people’s reactions when they get to see their tattoo for the first time is awesome- that it’s exactly what they wanted, even more. To know you can give someone that is a really good feeling.’
As I am speaking with James, Phoebe comes in with two college-age girls with computer printouts of a flower to show James. ‘This is cool. I really love the color in this,’ James responds enthusiastically. There is some discrepancy about the size she wants it to be and where. “I’m sorry,” she sighs. “It’s just my first one and I’m a little nervous.” Everyone grins. ‘When would you like it done?’ James asks. “As soon as possible.” And thus begins her journey.
by Julia Pergolini