Body modification is certainly unique to humans and, in one form or another, has been practised for as long as 30,000 years by our species' earliest ancestors.
Aboriginal Australians practised penile sub-incision and elongating of the labia. The pre-Egyptian, Nubian civilisation elongated their skulls and used a simple technique to make tattoos. Later, ancient Egyptians practised ear piercing while ancient South American cultures, like the Mayans and Aztecs, ritually pierced their tongues for blood offerings.
Native North American tribes, and the Inuit of what is now Canada, used lip piercings and wore bone jewellery, which has now been reinvented as the labret stud. They also used ear piercing as a status symbol, where even the act of piercing the ear was a celebrated ritual that was undertaken at great cost to the piercee; so showing how wealthy the piercee was.
The peoples of the pacific islands have practised the piercing of ears, noses, genitals and lobe stretching for generations. The men of Borneo, for example, would pierce the Ampallang, as did the men in the early history of the Filipino people, while the women of Borneo (and central Africa) practised piercing and stretching of the labia in an effort to attract a suitable husband.
The discovery of jewellery dating back to the bronze ages in Europe and the British Isles shows that the peoples of that time probably pierced and stretched their lobes with heavy bronze jewellery.
The 'Kama Sutra', which was probably written in India as long as 1,500 years ago, describes the practise of male genital piercing as a sexual aid. The gladiators of ancient Rome and the athletes of ancient Greece pierced the scrotum and the foreskin for the practical purpose of keeping their genitals out of their way while performing in sport and combat. But this practice was also used in ancient Rome, ancient Greece and also in South East Asia (where the horizontal Palang piercing was used) to prevent slaves, and convicts, from engaging in sexual activity.
During Europe's Middle Ages (from around 1000-1300AD), it may have been a combination of poor economy and strict religious dogma, which created a cultural atmosphere that suppressed the individuals freedom to experiment and practise body modification. Those times were also troubled by plague, and so people may have been more wary of physical defects, such as marks on the skin or of sores and perforations on the body. But the following renaissance had Europeans leaving their shores in larger ships to explore further and seek new resources and goods to trade back home. It was from this time that Europe was re-introduced to tattooing and body modifications.
Elizabethan sailors encountered tribes-people, who would pierce their ears, which they believed would help to improve their eyesight; an appealing proposition to seafarers whose eyesight was all-important. Sailors and Explorers would also report and record examples of intricate Polynesian tattoos, now remembered by many descendants of those seafarers on their own skin.
The French began piercing the “Guiche” after seeing it done by the natives of Samoa as a rite of passage. Later, French Legionnaires took up the practice of piercing the “Hafada” which is the crease on the side of the scrotum; a practise influenced by their encounters with the people of the Middle East.
Though it is possible that the Prince Albert was so named after the actual Prince Regent, it’s introduction may be more closely related to the expansion of the British Empire into India and its practise there. It was originally referred to as a ‘dressing-ring’ and was used to hook the penis inside the trousers so they would not create an ‘unsightly’ bulge.
The Victorian age, however, was notorious for its sexual perceptions, which were well documented as being repressive and repulsed by any sexual thought and act. Pornography, fetishism, homosexuality and Sado-masochism were, however, prolific, though always on the ‘hush-hush’. Any reference to body modification always carried the stigma of being primitive, while the Victorians considered themselves to be the very embodiment of the word ‘civilisation’. The sexual undertones in body piercing were an example of its ‘heathen’ and ‘Godless’ origins and so it became an abhorrent act that no ‘normal’ or ‘decent’ person would consider.
The firmly conservative nature of many European Nations, since then, had confined the act of body modification to those ‘undesirable sub-cultures’. It wasn’t until the late 1950’s to the 1960’s, when many social sexual-perceptions were being challenged, and explored, that the opportunity to reintroduce body modification was possible. In fact, it was the members of those ‘undesirable’ sub-cultures that had fanned at the flame of body piercing and not the criminal, uncivilised slice of society’s pie.
Inspired by their involvement in the Gay and Sado-Masochist scenes in the U.S, Jim Ward, Fakir Musafar and Doug Malloy are names most frequently connected to the Body Piercing renaissance. It was their ingenuity (as well as the unique tastes of their clientele) that pushed them to re-explore the boundaries. Where jewellery could be placed; how to do it in the most hygienic way available, and who developed the simplest and most serviceable jewellery to make those piercings last longer, and experience less complications. Though others have played significant roles in developing and expanding the practise, as well as the philosophy of Body piercing.
Many tattoo studios had performed some piercing as a sideline to their business, but when Jim Ward opened ‘Gauntlet’, in the late 1970’s, it was the first studio to provide a piercing service only. He also published
(piercing fans international quarterly) in the late 70's, the first piercing interest magazine.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the British Punk sub-culture used piercing as another means of shocking the social order of the time, but it was almost always with a very D.I.Y approach, using safety pins. By the eighties, this act, performed by primitive man, by fledgling civilisations and mighty empires, was being kept alive in the growing cities of the developed world, not by the criminals and socially outcast, but by bank managers, lawyers, businessmen, musicians, students and fishermen.
Jim Ward is reputed to have made the right kinds of changes to the way that a piercing is performed and the type of jewellery used and he is responsible for developing the jewellery we now use, called the Ball Closure Ring. But making the right type of jewellery was time consuming and expensive. Industry, however, was changing rapidly and it wasn’t until purpose built and carefully finished jewellery, made of medical standard metals, could be produced with greater ease, speed and in increased volume, that body piercing would be accessible to more people.
When Wildcat opened in Brighton, the accessibility to medical quality jewellery and equipment made the practise itself more accessible to people as a whole. Celebrities began to get pierced, so de-sensitising the numb-minded mass of tabloid magazine readers and the drooling zombies of the T.V-nations, which sparked a much more acceptable kind of curiosity.
Parents now, more often than not, eagerly sign the consent form on behalf of their children, while body piercing studios are becoming regulated by, not only their local authorities, but also the stake that a body piercer places on a good reputation. Many old and negative stereotypes do not conform to the current ‘look’ or ‘function’ of a studio, thanks to the endeavours of those people, like Jim Ward, who persisted with their dream, and the dream from the dawn of man.