By Dara Collins
The long history of body modification for Revina Lower started when he was a teenager piercing his ears and eyebrows on his own.
In his mid-20s, Lower started tattooing his face, split his tongue and received implants.
Now at the age of 44, Lower has lost count of his list of body modifications that includes many more tattoos and piercings as well as tattooed eyes, filed teeth, branding and scarification.
While his look may be on the extreme side, body modification is becoming increasingly popular, and there are more methods than simply tattooing to create an individual’s ideal body image.
“You can become your own monster,” Deus Kremsreiter of Richmond, Va. said. Kremsreiter says he’s seen a lot of societal changes in his 30 years as a professional piercer.
“You can choose how heavily tattooed, how heavily pierced, how extreme you want to go, whether you want your ears pointed or your tongue split, whether you want to do subincision genital work, whether you want to have silicone implants done or a metal mohawk implanted. We can literally become what we have always dreamed of,” he said.
Lower and Kremsreiter are just two of many individuals partaking in body modification.
According to The Body Project, an undertaking by the Women’s Studies Program of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., body modification is a technique practiced for multiple reasons, including conforming to ideals of beauty, displaying membership to a group, defining social status, sharing personal qualities or accomplishments and improving self-esteem.
What is body modification?
Americans modify their bodies in countless ways and have for many years. Dieting, exercising and tanning are considering body modifications that most individuals would classify as daily activities. More talked-about practices include tattooing and piercing.
Then, there’s modifications such as tongue splitting, scarification and branding.
Harris Poll data from 2016 found that three in 10 adults in the United States had at least one tattoo. This statistic increased 20% from 2012. In 1936, only 6% of Americans had a tattoo, according to MEDermis Laser Clinic, a tattoo removal clinic, in Texas.
“It’s nothing to go into a law firm and see someone heavily tattooed,” Greg Piper, a tattoo artist and Pittsburgh native, said “It’s nothing to go into a nice restaurant and see an incredible Michelin-rated chef who got his hands and neck tattooed. This is normal today.”
As for piercings, a study from 2008 used in The Body Project revealed that 60% of women and 42% of men were pierced. Popular piercings included nose, tongue, eyebrow, lip, nipple, naval and genitals. The most popular between males and females is the ear.
Scarification is less popular than tattoos and piercings but continues to grow in popularity. It is the process of cutting the skin to leave scars in a specific shape or design on the body.
Individuals can ask for anything from wings covering their entire back to scripture to flowers.
“There’s definitely stigmas out there about people with tattoos, but I think our generation is the one to break that.” – Andrew Duncan, 24
A quick glance at Lower would reveal a black vine-like design climbing up the left side of his neck onto his check from beneath the collar of his shirt. A black spider sits in the middle of his forehead, and alternating black crosses take the place of his left eyebrow.
Lower’s body modifications include tattoos (on his body and his eyes), piercings, scarification, branding, subdermal and transdermal implants, a split tongue and filed teeth.
“When I was young, I loved these bands that get all crazy on stage and monster movies and stuff like that, so my look has always been a little extreme,” Lower said. “So it was just the next phase of like, what else can I do to myself?”
In his late teens, Lower started getting tattoos and even branded his chest at age 19, which he considers his “most intense” modification.
“It’s what’s called a strike brand, which they heat up metal and put it to the skin,” Lower said. “And each part of the spider was like one piece of metal. So overall, it was 37 strikes.”
Lower said his now faded brand was “miserable” to get done.
“With my chest, I could hardly move without being in constant pain,” Lower said. “It took a couple months for it to completely heal.”
In his 20s, Lower added facial tattoos and dermal implants to his list. In the center of Lower’s forehead lay three subdermal implants in a vertical line, and there are two transdermal implants on the sides of his forehead. Lower is able to screw different tops onto the bases that protrude from his forehead, including horns or varying jewels.
“They had to do an incision,” Lower said, explaining the subdermal implants. “They did it above the hairline, so that your hair would hide the scar, and then they use tools to separate the skin. They separate the skin down, they slide [the implants] down and they sew it back up. There’s a smaller one here you can barely see, a medium sized one and a third size a little bit bigger.”
Lower said his look led him to his profession, not just as a professional piercer at Pittsburgh Tattoo Company, but also as a performer. He is a member of Only Flesh, a band, a sideshow troupe and suspension team – and a group he can be entirely himself.
“I had a job where I had to have a bandaid over my lip, which was silly because I just had this big bandaid that covered my whole bottom lip, which, if you don’t know what’s under it, seems a lot grosser than just seeing someone with rings in their lip,” Lower said.
As a professional piercer and performer playing music and practicing body suspension, Lower no longer has to cover his modifications, nor does he plan out future endeavors.
“I didn’t necessarily plan out a lot of stuff I got long term…I was mostly like, ‘Oh, my next project will be this,’ and then just trying to figure that out. Once I got that done it’s figuring out what else you would do next,” Lower said.
Kremsreiter appears more modest in his appearance. Wearing a long sleeve shirt, he only appears to have gauged ears, a spiked septum piercing and a few neck tattoos.
“Cops used to follow me with my oldest child when we’d be walking down the street, cops would slow cruise behind us,” Kresmreiter said. “Now, I got cops that are my clients that I’ve worked on for years.”
Kremsreiter explained the booming industry of piercings, stating his shop considered anything less than $500 to $600 a slow day.
“There’s times when we hear the doorbell ring letting us know people came in, and we sigh,” Kresmreiter said. “It’s just that hectic an industry now.”
Andrew Duncan, 24, of Clearwater, Fl. has just under 20 tattoos. Someday, he may add ear piercings and a nose ring.
At 17 years old, Duncan received his first tattoo: the death date of his grandfather and signature from his Army papers.
“I went to school the next day and felt really cool,” Duncan said with a chuckle.
Since then, Duncan has received tattoos in Pittsburgh as well as abroad in Scotland and Japan.
“A lot of my stuff is commemorating periods of my life,” Duncan said.
Duncan maintains an American traditional style throughout his tattoos and has all black and grey work. The Tokyo coordinates exist permanently above his kneecap, and black and grey designs of roses, the Keystone state symbol and shaking hands peek out from under a short sleeve shirt.
“I’m kind of reckless when it comes to tattoos because I enjoy the experience of it more than anything else,” Duncan said.
Similar to Duncan, Grace Edwards, 23, of Johnstown, Pa. also received her first tattoo at 17 in similar fashion: a memorial tattoo of her late sister’s handwriting, “I love you Munchkin.”
“I love the handwriting tattoos,” Edwards said. “I love being able to carry that with me forever because people don’t last forever, but the tattoos will.”
Edwards has seven tattoos in total and plans to add to her list.
“It’s freedom of expression, freedom to claim [my body] as my own,” Edwards said. “It doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s something that I get to do because I choose to do it in the way that I want to do it.”
Maggie Woods, 24, and her friend Hannah Guidosh, 23, say tattoos help boost their self image.
“I only ever planned on getting one or two tattoos, and getting them hurt [badly], but while you’re getting tattooed you’re thinking, ‘I cannot wait for the next tattoo’…I have a lot of body issues and getting tattooed makes me love myself more.”
Guidosh agrees she feels better about her body after each tattoo.
“I used to have an ex who would say your body is a temple, so you should treat it well, and no temple that you go to is stark white,” Guidosh said. “It’s covered in art, and it’s beautiful, and people go there anyway. My body is my temple, and I’m going to cover it in art.”
The “fine art” of today is not the same as it was years ago.
“‘You would be a lot prettier without those holes in your face.’” – Grace Edwards, 23
Body modification has been linked to risky behaviors in the past, but the American Academy of Pediatrics study reported the scientific link between tattooing and such behaviors is less consistent.
Today’s generation attempts to prove this decrease in consistency on a day-to-day basis.
Piper, now 49, started tattooing when he was 17. He remembers when the secretive business was strictly around the rebellious biker lifestyle. Now, it’s a $6.4 billion industry.
However, the growing popularity hasn’t removed all the stigmas.
Piper, wearing a short sleeve shirt revealing his sleeves of tattoos, said he walked into a BMW dealership to buy his first M5, and he had to ask for help while other employees tripped over one another to get businesses from everyone else walking in wearing a shirt and tie.
“It’s still like that somewhat today,” Piper said. “People will address me differently if I’m in a long sleeve shirt than they will if I’m in a short sleeve.”
In addition to tattooing, Piper is a photographer for National Geographic and Discovery Channel, and that changes individual’s perceptions immensely.
“When someone’s talking to me about photography, they’re never comfortable with saying the word ‘fuck,’ but when they know I’m a tattoo artist, they think it’s fine to talk to me that way,” Piper said. “They talk to me in a much different way as if I’m dumber for some reason because I’m a tattoo artist.”
Lower has also seen his fair share of glares from people.
“Walking down the sidewalk, I have people yelling things out the windows,” Lower said. “I have not got served at a restaurant, and I have not got served at a bar before. You get people taking what they think is being secret or sneaky pictures of you without consent.”
In addition to strange looks, modified individuals receive verbal comments. Duncan says older individuals ask what he will do when he has children and grandchildren.
“‘What do you mean? I’ll show them,’” Duncan said.
Edwards’ tattoo honoring her deceased sister is her most beloved tattoo – and also the tattoo associated with an uncomfortable interaction while Edwards worked at GetGo during college.
“It says, ‘I love you Munchkin,’ which was my sister’s handwriting who passed away, and [a customer] was like, ‘oh, you love me. I love you too,’” Edwards said.
Edwards has also received negative comments about her piercings. She has been asked, “Why do you have all those holes in your face? You would be a lot prettier without those holes in your face.”
Unfortunately, in the workplace, she cannot respond defensively.
“I never have figured out a way to respond appropriately because most of the time it’s in a professional setting where I can’t react,” Edwards said.
Fortunately, modified individuals have thick skin.
“I just remember they have no idea what these mean to me, and as long as I know what they mean to me, then that’s fine,” Edwards said.
Duncan equates new tattoos to always decorating his home with new art.
“That’s because I just see something I like, I appreciate it and want to put it up and look at it in my house, and I feel like it’s the same thing with tattoos,” Duncan said.
The invasive questions and rude comments aren’t the only negative aspect of body modifications.
Modifications are not universally accepted in the workplace.
Similar to Lower covering his lip rings at a previous job, Duncan cannot get a nose ring due to the clients he represents at work. Edwards cannot have many visible tattoos because of future career plans to become a professor.
“What is academia going to say about it?” Edwards said.
Guidosh recently started working as an Organics Analyst at an environmental technology company and was nervous about her modifications. Fortunately, her workplace is a welcoming environment.
“I was super nervous about being tatted and being pierced, and I normally have purple hair, so this is a little more neutral for me,” Guidosh said, gesturing to her now dark brown hair. “I walked in and people have full sleeves and purple hair.”
Modifications also prove costly. Duncan didn’t get many tattoos in college due to financial reasons.
“In college you don’t have the money to just go and get a billion tattoos,” Duncan said.
Lower believes one of the biggest misconceptions of modified people is that they don’t have jobs because of their appearance.
“The most modified people I know are a lot of business owners because that’s who can afford this kind of stuff,” Lower said.
For instance, Lower paid $2,000 to get both of his eyes tattooed.
“That’s the big misconception that it’s just people living off the government, which I don’t know if they’re cutting checks like that from the government to get modded out,” Lower said.
Piper agrees it’s not just the bikers and blue-collar workers anymore – it’s everyone.
“Now I’m tattooing the CEO of ReMax, my orthopedic surgeon, my lawyers,” Piper said.
Of course, there are personal negatives that come with modifications apart from outside factors.
Robbie Ripoll, 39, a previous contestant of Ink Master, says any modification has some kind of tradeoff. A small heart implant in his left upper cartilage becomes swollen and irritated from time to time. His dermals become caught on various things.
“With tattoos, the tradeoff is the immediate pain and the money,” Ripoll said. “With body mods, it’s the fact that it might fuck up your body forever or change the way things are.”
Despite all the negative factors in place, modified individuals are willing to take that chance.
“I’m 39 years old, and I still feel like I’m 17…I live a good fucking life man, and it’s all because of tattooing,” Ripoll said.
Although it’s not a guarantee, Edwards and Duncan believe the stigmas surrounding modifications will relax in the future.
“As we continue to outnumber [past] generations, because of how big our generation is, I think it will get more relaxed in a sense,” Edwards said.
“I think the world is changing,” Duncan said. “There’s definitely stigmas out there about people with tattoos, but I think our generation is the one to break that.”
Every modified person can agree on one thing: everyone has their own way of self-expression.
“We should be teaching our kids you can be anything you want to be,” Kresmreiter said. “Now, we’re letting them look how they want to look, and that just adds to self-worth, self-value and self-esteem in the long run.”
Disclaimer: The author of this piece is pictured in the video
Dara Collins, 22 of Johnstown, Pa. received a lower leg tattoo from Ryan Cristan of Still Vision Tattoo at the Pittsburgh Tattoo Expo. Collins has attended the convention for four years and received tattoos three out of the four years. This year, she opted for a tattoo of a face on her shin. Cristan uses an iPad to refer to his design while tattooing her leg wirelessly.