TATTOOED BODY PARTS (OR MODERN
In the era of mass production/ consumption the act of customization is a cultural act. Most mass produced objects are not designed to be customized. They are conceived as autonomous, closed, "solved" objects. Customization is a violation of that conceit. The more perfect and precious the object, the more shocking the act of customization. Consider a Barcelona chair redone in orange fake fur with candy apple metal parts or pinstriping and flames on a BMW.
The modern act of customization of objects, or modifying a product to fit one's own desires or needs, can be best seen in the postwar American chopped and channel hotrod or the Harley hog with absurdly extended front forks. Part of the strategy is to shock or outrage by strangeness or improbability. That's why violation of function is a key element in strange customizations.
The most precious, thus the ultimate, object to be customized is the body itself, the home of the soul. The past couple of decades have been especially characterized by the objectification of the body. The body is seen as an object to be improved, enhanced and modified. It is acted upon in different ways. Decorative mutilation, body piercing and tattoos have several things in common. They are major commitments in that they are irreversible and they involve pain, making them essentially outsider acts. They are outside the realm of the normal and beyond those who are not committed enough to subject themselves to pain and irreversible alteration. Chopping and channeling a hotrod is in a way irreversible as well, a real commitment, a destruction of the perfection of the mass produced object and entrance into the dangerous territory of the strange and perverse. It is important that the modifications involved project the object or the body outside the normal.
This is where modern body mutilation and tattoos differ somewhat from tribal tradition. Tribal mutilation is intended to fit a traditional pattern-to ft into a cultural template. Modern mutilation is intended to signal individuality and to symbolize the position of the outsider, although that is difficult in a society that consumes, co-ops and commodifies rebellious gestures instantly. For example, Dennis Rodman performs remarkably perverse acts of body piecing, tattoos and hair shaping and coloring that are eagerly anticipated by his large audience. His body art and cross dressing have been embraced by the mass media wholeheartedly as part of the spectacle of basketball.
Body piercing becomes more powerful as an act as the location of the piecing becomes more uncomfortable or inconvenient. Ear piercing is not as shocking as tongue piercing is not as shocking as genital piercing. Body piercing and decorative scarring is physiological sculpture, the removal and/or rearrangement of body tissue. It wrests the power and control from the deity that made you into your hands. You are now in the physiological drivers seat.
The late century fascination with everything as sign reaches its apotheosis with the body itself as sign. Tattoos etched into the cells of the skin are permanent and immutable, fusing with the flesh. The body becomes a living billboard. Tattoo artists paint on living canvases. Tattoos are often a life history, of wars fought and loves lost or at least of drunken nights best forgotten. Some tattoos are positioned so as to become animated when certain muscles are flexed or twitched. Billboard becomes cinema.
Another realm of body customizing is enhancement, (or augmentation) the reshaping of the body to fit an ideal template. Women order up large breasts or small noses and men request larger calves or penises. This is a continuation of other global traditions like Chinese footbinding, in that the body is stretched against its will and its genetics to reach a cultural ideal. However, that ideal is not genetically encoded and thus subject to revision based on changing fashion (Dolly Parton vs Kate Moss). One can discard a customized object that is no longer in fashion but unfortunately that is not an option with one's own body. The ideal augmentation technology would be a kind of dial-a-body mutation based on changing cultural demands. It could be driven by an internet service connected to polls conducted by Gallup and Vogue magazine. There are already chat rooms being developed that allow you to create your own "avatar" or digital embodiment.
The motivation for customization comes from opposing forces: the desire for the ideal and the cult of the strange. The customization of objects, including your body, can place you inside or outside of certain cultural milieus. The attraction is control. Even with most events out of your control you can control your image and position within the culture to some extent through customizing. Body piercing is the price of entry into some subcultures. Once inside you are rewarded by belonging to an exclusive group. The satisfaction is intensified by the knowledge that the culture at large (the un-pierced) is excluded. And in the end the desire for identity is one of the key forces in the phenomena of customization.
"Everybody wants to see the
pictures,and yet nobody wants to see them."
Ray Bradbury - The Illustrated Man
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