Scarifying (also scarification modification) involves scratching, etching, burning / branding, or superficially cutting designs, pictures, or words into the skin as a permanent body modification. In the process of body scarification, scars are formed by cutting or branding the skin by varying methods (sometimes using further sequential aggravating wound healing methods at timed intervals, like irritation), to purposely influence wound healing to scar more and not scar less. Scarification is sometimes called cicatrization (from the French equivalent).
Within anthropology, the study of the body as a boundary has been long debated. In 1909, Van Gennep described bodily transformations, including tattooing, scarification, and painting, as rites of passage. In 1963, Levi-Strauss described the body as a surface waiting for the imprintation of culture. Turner (1980) first used the term “social skin” in his detailed discussion of how Kayapo culture was constructed and expressed through individual bodies. Inscribed skin highlights an issue that has been central to anthropology since its inception: the question of boundaries between the individual and society, between societies, and between representation and experiences.
There are currently 4 competing hypotheses behind the behavior ecology of scarification:
(1) a rite of passage,
(2) a hardening/trauma procedure,
(3) a nonadaptive sexually selected character,
(4) an adaptive pathogen-driven sexually selected character.
There are also aesthetic, religious, and social reasons for scarification. For example, scarification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage. It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity; such permanent body markings may emphasize fixed social, political, and religious roles. Tattoos, scars, brands, and piercings, when voluntarily acquired, are ways of showing a person’s autobiography on the surface of the body to the world.
Tribe members unwilling to participate in scarification were generally not included in the group’s activities. According to anthropologist Grace Harris, group members lacking the normal characteristics consistent of the group are not considered as acquiring the full standings as agents in their society, they would also lack the capacity for meaningful behavior, such as greeting, commanding, and stating. Therefore scarification can transform partial tribe members into normal states entirely accepted by the group. Scarification a form of language not readily expressed, except through extensive and intricate greetings, gives the ability to communicate fully which is a key element for being considered as a normal member of the group.
- Scarification is usually more visible on darker skinned people than tattoos.
- Endorphins can be released in the scarification process that can induce a euphoric state.
- Scarring on the abdomen of women in many tribes is used to denote a willingness to be a mother. Her ability to tolerate the pain of scarring was an indication of her emotional maturity and readiness to bear children.
- Scarification can be used for healing a patient changing them from a less desired state to a more desired state. It may help a patient go from victim to survivor. What is relevant to society varies from culture to culture. These individuals pass through various kinds of ritual death and rebirth, and redefine the relationship between self and society through the skin
- Most people in certain regions of Africa who have “markings” can be identified as belonging to a specific tribe or ethnic group. Some of the tribes in Northern Ghana who use the markings are the Gonjas, Nanumbas, Dagombas, Frafras and Mamprusis.
- Some groups in Northern Ghana like the Dagomba use scarification to treat certain ailments such as convulsions, measles, pneumonia, stomach pains, and so on. It is believed that these sicknesses originate in the blood, so the skin is cut by a traditional healer and powder or potion is then applied to the wound so that it may travel directly to the bloodstream.
Research has also been conducted to show a connection in the different anatomical locations between the sexes as linked to pathogen prevalence in their area. Scarification in these areas is thought to be done to clearly show which individuals are pathogen-resistant mates. It is thought that as pathogen severity increase, so should permanent marking of body areas that are attended to for evaluating attractiveness and mate quality. Females were predicted to scarify their breasts and stomachs (due to the stomach being a component of waist-to-hip ratio), both indicative of youthfulness and fertility. Males were predicted to scarify those body parts indicative of sexual maturity and strength, such as the face, shoulders, and arms. The findings of this research revealed that pathogen prevalence predicts female stomach scarification independent of polygyny, famine, and social class stratification. The relationship between scarification of body parts and pathogen prevalence was not evident for males. These findings, based upon between-society comparisons, suggest that stomach scarification could act as a signal of female mate quality in societies that encounter a high prevalence of pathogens.
Scarification is not a precise practice; variables, such as skin type, cut depth, and how the wound is treated while healing, make the outcome unpredictable. A method that works on one person may not work on another. The scars tend to spread as they heal, so outcome design is usually simple, the details being lost during healing.
Human branding is one type of scarification. It is similar in nature to livestock branding.
Similar to the process used to brand livestock, a piece of metal is heated and pressed onto the skin for the brand. Historically it was used to claim ownership of slaves or to punish criminals, but as a form of body art, strike branding is less preferable to other types because it is not precise and tends to spread greatly on healing, and is not advisable for curved areas of the body. More successful is the multi-strike brand; it is done piece-by-piece rather than all at once. For example, to get a V-shaped brand, two lines would be burned separately by a straight piece of metal, rather than by a V-shaped piece of metal.
This is a less common form of branding. It uses a thermal cautery tool with a heated wire tip to cause the burns.
“Laser” branding is a marketing term coined by Steve Haworth, who pioneered its use in body modification. The technical term is “electrosurgical branding”. Though it is technically possible to use a medical laser for scarification, this term refers not an actual laser, but rather an electrosurgical unit which uses electricity to cut and cauterize the skin, similar to the way an arc welder works. Electric sparks jump from the hand-held pen of the device to the skin, vaporizing it. This is a more precise form of scarification, because it is possible to greatly regulate the depth and nature of the damage being done to the skin. Whereas with traditional direct branding, heat is transferred to the tissues surrounding the brand, burning and damaging them, electrosurgery branding vaporizes the skin so precisely and so quickly that little to no heat or damage to the surrounding skin is caused. This means that pain and healing time after the scarification is complete is greatly lessened.
This rare method of branding is the same thing as strike branding, except that the metal branding tool is subjected to extreme cold (such as liquid nitrogen) rather than extreme heat. This method will cause the hair on the brand to grow back white and will not cause keloiding. This process is also used in livestock and called freeze branding in that context.
Cutting of the skin for cosmetic purposes is not to be confused with self-harm, which is also referred to by the euphemism “cutting.” There may be cases of self-mutilation and self-scarification for non-cosmetic reasons. Lines are cut with surgical blades. Techniques include:
- Ink rubbing
- tattoo ink (or another sterile coloring agent) is rubbed into a fresh cut. Most of the ink remains in the skin as the cut heals, and will have the same basic effect as a tattoo. As with tattoos, it is important not to pick the scabs as this will pull out the ink. The general public often interprets ink-rubbings as poorly done tattoos.
- Skin removal/skinning
- Cutting in single lines produces relatively thin scars, and skin removal is a way to get a larger area of scar tissue. The outlines of the area of skin to be removed will be cut, and then the skin to be removed will be peeled away. Scars from this method often have an inconsistent texture, although this relies heavily on the experience of the artist and aftercare of the wound.
- This method is uncommon in the West, but has traditionally been used in Africa. A cut is made diagonally and an inert material such as clay or ash is packed into the wound; massive hypertrophic scars are formed during healing as the wound pushes out the substance that had been inserted into the wound. Cigar ash is used in the United States for more raised and purple scars; people may also use ashes of deceased persons.
- similar in appearance to flesh removal this method of scarification relies on using a sterile surgical scalpel to cut into the skin. Where a larger area is required to be scarred you cut with a hatching technique similar to the sketching technique. This method is easier to perform than flesh removal and can be done with one hand which could be beneficial in some situations. While this technique can take longer for larger pieces it is useful for smaller, more detailed designs and enables shading to be used.
Scars can be formed by removing layers of skin through abrasion. This can be achieved using an inkless tattooing device, or any object that can remove skin through friction (such as sandpaper).
Chemical scarification uses corrosive chemicals to remove skin and induce scarring. The effects of this method are typically similar to other, simpler forms of scarification; as a result there has been little research undertaken on this method.
The common practice on healing a scarification wound is use of irritation.
- Generally, the longer for a wound to heal, the more pronounced the scar will be. Thus, in order to have pronounced scars, the wound may be kept open for a protracted time. This is by abrading scabs and irritating the wound with chemical or natural irritants such as toothpaste or citrus juice. Some practitioners use tincture of iodine which has been proven to cause more visible scarring (which is why it is no longer used for treating minor wounds). With this method, a wound may take months to heal and there is a danger of a “blow-out”, meaning the resulting scar may spread beyond where it was intended to be.
- Keloids are raised scars. Keloiding can be a result of genetics, skin colour (darker skin types are more prone to keloiding), or irritation. Keloids are often sought for a visual, 3-D effect and for tactile effects.
- If an enclosed area perimeter is cut or branded, the skin inside the closed space may die off and scar due to a lack of blood flow.
- If a scarification does not heal to yield a prescribed outcome, secondary scarifications may be conducted.
An alternative view is described by the acronym LITHA, meaning Leave It The Hell Alone. In body modification this is often considered the best way to reduce the risk of infection and the pain of healing.
Scarification produces harm and trauma to the skin; thus it is considered to be unsafe by many. Infection is a concern. Not only does this hurt, the materials for inducing the wounds need to be sanitary, but the wound needs to be kept clean, using antibacterial solutions or soaps often, and having good hygiene in general. It is not uncommon, especially if the wound is being irritated, for a local infection to develop around the wound. The scarification worker needs to have detailed knowledge of the anatomy of human skin, in order to prevent tools cutting too deep, burning too hot, or burning for too long. Scarification is not nearly as popular as tattooing, so it is harder to find workers experienced in scarification. Precautions are made for brandings, such as wearing masks, because it is possible for diseases to be passed from the skin into the air when the skin is burning, that can lead to death from the tool they use.