Controversial body art form gaining popularity on college campuses
Published: Friday, January 5, 2007
Updated: Friday, June 15, 2012 22:06
Nick Wolak pulled a white-hot iron from a blazing flame and pressed it into Jennifer Bucholz's chest.
Bucholz is among a growing number of young people from white, middle class families burning designs into their skin, according to Wolak and others who specialize in the form of body art.
As Wolak, who owns Evolved Body Art on North High Street, used the hot metal to etch a spiral design into her skin, Bucholz tried not to focus on the pain. The first year graduate student in Russian studies said she concentrated on keeping still by occupying her thoughts with a song her friend was singing earlier.
"Nick kept asking if I needed to take a break," she said. "But I knew if I took a break, I wouldn't want to come back from it, so we went straight through and did the whole thing at once. By the end I started shaking and crying because it hurt like hell.It was more intense than a tattoo, but nothing someone can't handle. As soon as it was over, I was fine again."
Branding, a technique in which a mark or symbol is burned into the flesh, has been around for centuries - beginning with cattlemen who marked the flesh of their animals to show ownership. Later the process was adopted to identify criminals, and members of black fraternities have been burning Greek letters into their flesh for years.
A small but growing number of people are now choosing to decorate their skin - not with tattoos or piercings - but with scarring caused by burns.
Tim Curry, associate professor of Sociology at Ohio State, said branding isn't a new ritual; it's been done since as early as 1850. Curry said one of the founding fathers of sociology, Emile Durkheim, studied Australian tribes and wrote about their way of denoting their bodies. These people would mark themselves to show which tribe they belonged to, much like modern fraternities.
"Fraternities exist in people's minds, a social organization people have created," he said. "Meanings come to have power over individuals."
When a person feels strong emotion in a group, they can feel the power of the group. Curry said the significance of marking the bodies is to keep the sense of intense emotion and attachment to the group.
"You feel pride and other strong feelings that the brand didn't create, the group did. But the brand is a way to objectify the emotion," he said.
The feeling will weaken after the members of the group leave, but the brand will give them something to connect their memories to. It symbolizes who they are and evokes memories in a positive light. If it's strong enough, it will keep the group going.
"Imagine paying an incredible amount of money to see your favorite rock band," Curry said. "You go to the concert and have an amazing time. Eventually, your memories of the concert will fade away, so you keep the ticket from the concert. Now every time you see the ticket you think about your experience at the show."
Although some consider it a form of hazing, Marcus Morris, a 2006 Ohio State graduate and member of Kappa Alpha Psi, decided to participate in the deepest level of commitment by getting a Greek brand.
A cattle prod shaped into a diamond with the letter "K" in the center rested over a flame in an electric stove on a table in a room filled with jittery Kappas. Morris said he walked up to the table, calm and confident. He unbuttoned his white shirt and slipped it down his left arm. He dragged a soapy rag over his shoulder then rinsed it with warm water. After he dried it, he took deep breaths and concentrated on being completely still. A man picked up the glowing prod, and showed it to Morris. With a nod of Morris' head, the man pressed the prod into his skin for four to five seconds.
"I made sure my arm was loose and relaxed," he said. "I could tell it was pressed on me, but before I realized it was hot, it was gone."
A controversial art
Wolak has two brands and also practices the art on others. But don't expect to walk into Evolved and get a brand; the shop does not offer this service. He was even advised to remove images of brandings he'd done from the Evolved Web site.
Body modification continues to push the envelope, and public tolerance. Almost everyone knows someone with a tattoo. Wolak said he hopes branding will stay an underground trend. To keep it that way, he doesn't charge money for his artistry, he barters it.
"I don't want to commercialize branding," he said. "I want it to remain ritualistic by nature and spiritually motivated."
Bucholz said a brand might be easy or hard to get depending on whether you're part of the body modification community. Since Bucholz has established not only a friendship with Wolak, but also a connection, an agreement to barter for a branding was made. In exchange for the inverted spiral stretched across Bucholz's chest, she is putting together a scrapbook of her branding ceremony for him. When she first mentioned the idea to Wolak, she meant it light-heartedly, but Wolak loved the idea.
"For him, it's not so much a monetary trade, it's about a fair trade," she said.
In the following five days, the healing process began for Bucholz. After the first week, the entire scab hell off and a fresh white line outlined her scar. She said she continued to use ointment to loosen the scar, but was in physical pain all summer. She endured excruciating pain from simple movement of her arms by just putting her hair up.
"I honestly don't know if I would've gotten it done if I'd known how intense the healing process was," she said.
As for Morris, he nursed his arm meticulously for the several weeks. He made minor adjustments to accommodate his new addition including loose clothing and sleeping on his right side. As the skin reacted to the heat trauma, a cycle of scabs, puss, drying up and crusting over continued. Morris' only defense was cleaning it, which incorporated using peroxide every morning in the shower.