I’ve been really interested in body aesthetics for a while, particularly people with extreme ideas about looks. In fact, my MA dissertation focused on relationships between the body and nature. Anyway, I wrote a piece for Vice about body modification and a body modification artist whose home-cum-studio I visited, witnessing some pretty gory procedures.
Read it online here, or check out my original and unedited version (plus some extra pictures) below.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to change their body in some way. The term ‘natural beauty’ is a joke – who really lives as nature intended: a walking tangle of oil and hair? Thanks to vanity and social pressures, modern humans are slaves to their looks. Besides cats, we spend more time preening than perhaps any other animal. And what’s it all for? To look thinner, browner, bustier, poutier, more ripped? We try desperately to fit a body ideal defined, in part, by the media, but it’s like trying to fit a human-shaped peg into a Kim Kardashian-shaped hole.
Samppa Von Cyborg changes people’s bodies for a living – he splits tongues in two, removes nipples, implants things under the skin and scars elaborate patterns onto it. He’s a body modification artist, a leader in a growing subculture with a very different concept of body ideals. For fans, a strong stomach and a high pain threshold are essential. This is an underground world of home surgery and human polymorphs that operates in the crack between legislation, a world where the aesthetics of the body are seen as something more personal.
The cultural origins of body modification go back millennia. It’s an ancient practice found in tribes all over the world, from the lip plates of Ethiopia’s Suri tribe to the neck rings of Burma’s Padaung. But while globalisation is slowly suffocating many of the old tribal traditions, the modern Western scene is beginning to flourish. For one of its most famous prescribers, Dennis Avner AKA Stalking Cat, ‘mods’ became a way of life and even a career. With the help of cheek implants, whisker implants, full body tattoos, lip bifurcation, nose flattening, removable claws and even a mechanical tail, Avner exaggerated his features beyond all recognition, reinventing himself as his Native American spirit guide, a tiger. But his enjoyment was short lived – he took his own life in 2012.
“The human body is dying,” Von Cyborg, told me, lighting a cigarette. I visited his warehouse conversion-cum-studio in east London where he sees his clients. He’s the walking embodiment of his art, his face laced with tattoos and piercings, metal-tipped teeth and a bifurcated tongue: it’s been split in two down the middle, leaving it forked like a snake’s, both sides able to move independently of each other. He demonstrated by sticking them out and curling them around each other. His arms are ribbed with spine-like lumps from the silicone implants he has buried under his skin. They’re known as subdermal implants and they’re one of his signature mods – coming in other varying shapes, from stars to skulls.
“It’s not natural to sit at a computer or go to the gym,” he said, engulfed in smoke. “Evolution is going downhill. First we got stronger and healthier, now it’s going the opposite way.
“In the future people will have arms amputated voluntarily because they can get a better arm. People want better capability, a robotic arm would be more accurate, have more power and a million other uses. The technology exists and they’re using it already for the medical industry.”
The body modification scene is made up of subscenes, some like to experiment with cybernetics while others prefer to focus on fetish or spiritual rituals. There are Transhumanists influenced by Nietzsche and Modern Primitives inspired by tribal anthropology. Biohackers who believe in using technology to enhance the human form and Body Hacktivists who believe in avante garde experimentation with it. But their common goal is to rediscover the body, to use it again as a tool rather than just a fashion accessory. Von Cyborg is a Biohacker: he believes that one day the human form will integrate with technology, changing the ways we use our body.
“I’m working on many kinds of functional implants,” he told me. “And big companies are starting to get these ideas too – a mobile inside your body or even a kind of telepathic communication using a brain implant.
“Sony, Nokia and Philips are already getting patents for implants. They know it’s not going to happen any time soon, not for maybe even twenty years, but they’re already working on it. This is the direction body modification is going.”
Universities offer the funding he needs to develop his ideas and in return he provides them with research papers. He seems an unlikely character to save lives, but he’s currently working on LED implants for a number of health issues – pulse meters that flash LEDs through the skin could serve as early warning devices for people with heart complaints, and others that run off blood sugar which could help diabetics. His self-taught knowledge of the body’s healing process, of its limits, is impressive. As is his exhaustive research into potential power sources for his implants – kinetic energy, wireless charging, micro batteries. But sitting around a grubby reclaimed coffee table, it’s hard to connect the man to his work.
Two depressed scars run down Von Cyborg’s scalp where he’d once had two rows of inch-long metal spikes, a sort of titanium Mohawk. But not all mods last forever, and as his skin had shifted and lumped over time, he’d asked a friend to cut the implants out, taking large chunks of his scalp with them. His first client of the day was interested in a corrective procedure too, what seems to be the bread-and-butter side of the business. James, a young lad from Manchester, had arranged to get his flesh tunnels closed. They were boring, he said, “now everyone has them.”
James took a seat on a repurposed dentist chair in the centre of the room, a surgical lamp pointing down at him. The studio was open plan and doubled up as Von Cyborg’s London home – he spends most of the year doing residencies at various studios around the world. A metal trolley was laid out with implements – scalpels, scissors, swabs – and there were sterilisation units stacked up against the walls, metal boxes that look like microwaves with extra twizzles and knobs.
It was a strange, David Lynch sort of scene: his girlfriend was doing laundry, a flatmate was making a carrot cake in a kitchenette at the back and, a few metres away, we were about to perform surgery, injecting James’ ears with a local anaesthetic, which is currently the only illegal part of performing these consensual procedures.
Over the next few hours the smell of baking permeated the room and at the same time, much of James’ earlobes were cut away. Chunks of flesh were discarded, left sitting on the metal trolley like lumps of human chewing gum, and new lobes were stitched from whatever skin was left. There was little blood due to the anaesthetic so it didn’t look real, like his ear was a rubbery prop from a horror film. But the end result was almost unbelievable; it was so neat and professional. The stitches were tiny and the wrinkly, dangly stretched lobes James had arrived with had become normal again, if a bit red and quite small.
Body modification is, of course, controversial. In most countries – the UK included – it’s neither legal nor illegal. Some people criticise it for glamorising self-harm and fetishising the body. There is an undeniable link with sexual deviance – one of the projects Von Cyborg is most animated about is a vibrating genital implant, a sort of internal sex toy. At its most extreme, people are willing to bind their waist for an exaggerated hourglass figure, inspired by 50s pin-ups, permanently reshaping their own bone structure and risking harm to their organs. Some alter their genitals in various unfathomable ways, often to fulfil sexual fantasies – self-castration, FGM, splitting the penis open, otherwise known as subincision. It’s a fringe culture that is demonised by those who don’t understand, despite surging popularity. But are subdermal implants really any stranger than breast implants?
“We’re getting more and more professional,” said Von Cyborg. “People like me almost have the skill of a plastic surgeon, but without the mainstream qualifications. We’re capable of things that doctors can only dream about.
“I see a lot of people who hate themselves or their bodies. Body art can actually help them learn to love their bodies because it helps them look at them differently. If someone has a fat belly but on this belly they have, for example, a tattoo of a beautiful piece of art, the fat will loose the meaning.”
According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, more than 50,000 cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in the UK last year. It’s a figure that grows each year, with breast augmentation and eyelid surgery among the most popular services. Surgery is fast becoming a normal, socially acceptable, way to maintain your looks. Yet we’ve all seen the pictures of those that take it too far: the indestructible, almost unrecognisable, faces of stars like Joan Rivers (RIP) and Mickey Rourke. Some may call people with heavy mods strange, or shocking – I’ve even heard them described as ‘monsters’ – but social norms aside, their look is no more bizarre than your average TOWIE star. The fact is, humans love to play with their looks – it’s just not natural for us to be ‘natural’.