Body modification has existed around the world for centuries, but, in America, body piercing and tattooing rapidly shifted from a sign of subcultural membership to mainstream style. Although once associated with sailors, criminals and other supposedly “dubious” citizens, in the 1970s, body modification flourished among “modern primitives,” who viewed the body as a site of expression and sexual freedom. The term “modern primitive” associates body modification with mystico-religious interpretations of rites de passage.
Early modification media (1970s to 1980s) included tattooing magazines and one piercing magazine, The Piercing Fans International Quarterly. Vale and Juno’s Modern Primitives (1989) inspired a modification renaissance in the early 1990s, though piercing had already gained popularity with punks. Piercing and tattooing became fashionable in the early 1990s. Body modification was featured everywhere: Gautier fashions, the Aerosmith video “Cryin,” showing a girl getting tattooed and pierced, and Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, supermodels with pierced navels. Later, there was the piercing “rush” by adrenaline needle resuscitation of Uma Thurman’s heroin overdose in Pulp Fiction (Tarantino 1994) and the X-Files’ Agent Scully’s brush with tattooing that left her with a poisonous, hallucinogenic urobouros at the base of her spine.
Marketed to Generation X as a way to complete a “look” of personal “difference,” commodification of body piercing and tattooing peaked with rub-on tattoos and fake clipon piercing jewelry. But, despite the hype, the meaning of body modification ranges from group affiliation, modern rite of passage and method of teenage rebellion to an expression of body aesthetics and reclamation.