Piercings, Tattoos, and Scars

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For some LGBT communities, piercing, tattooing, and scarification play important roles as forms of investment in the erotic and somatic potential of the body and as physical markers of social difference and marginalization. Body modification has become a zone of interest for scholars seeking to understand how and why certain groups define themselves through modifications of their bodies. While essentially an individual activity, body modifications like piercing, tattooing, and scarification have come to be recognized as having particular meanings in marginalized subcultures. As markers of difference, celebrations of pride, and, vehicles for embodied pleasure, body modifications in LGBT communities are best read in relation to each community's understanding of the symbols of the physical markings and their relationship to marked bodies. Reading marked bodies must take into account the body, its links to group identity, the symbolism of the markings, and the historical moment at which these markings emerged. While piercing, tattooing, and scarification have come to have similar meanings for LGBT communities in North America, they have different genealogies insofar as they migrated into and were then utilized by those communities in distinct ways.


In Western societies, tattooing is traditionally a form of body expression for male-dominated groups like sailors, bikers, and soldiers. The tattoo has, according to Clinton R. Sanders, been used to inscribe the working-class male body with a kind of rebellious masculinity. As North American bourgeois culture sought to define the appropriate middle-class body in the nineteenth century, individuals who remained outside of this project because of their occupation or status sought to define themselves with body markings in opposition to the middle-class idealized unmarked body. In the twentieth century, the emergence of gay male (and some masculinized forms of lesbian) identity has been closely tied to these representations of masculinity.

The tattoo as a form of self-decoration and self-expression for masculine groups that were ostracized by mainstream society became for many gay men a symbol of hypermasculinized sexuality. The early beefcake photographs of the 1950s and 1960s attest to the gay male desire for the tattooed bodies of sailors, bikers, and soldiers. Such tattooed bodies were desired because of their coding as hypermasculinized males who remained rebelliously outside the confines of mainstream society. Samuel M. Steward's personal musings on the relationship between gay male desire and tattooing address the transition of the tattoo from an object on the bodies that gay males desired to an object of self-identification among the emerging LGBT communities of the 1960s and 1970s.

While the tattoo has come to be an accepted form of self-expression in LGBT communities, it has also come to be a means of expressing both resistance to mainstream society and pride in a sexualized identity. This can be seen especially in the number of LGBT tattoos making use of symbols of LGBT identity (female-female and male-male symbols, lambdas, pink triangles, and so on). During the height of the AIDS epidemic, from the early 1980s into the 1990s, this form of rebellious self-identification reached its height with many HIV-positive individuals tattooing themselves with symbols of their status (the biohazard symbol, the acronym for Person with AIDS, and others). While LGBT communities have integrated the tattoo as a mark of difference, sometimes based on resistance or pride, the tattoo has in popular culture witnessed what Arnold Rubin terms a "tattoo renaissance," making the tattooed body more acceptable to mainstream society.


Piercing in LGBT communities in North America emerged, like the tattoo, as a form of resistance, pride, and eroticism. However, unlike the hypermasculinized symbolism associated with mid-century forms of the tattoo, piercing in early LGBT communities was favored by young gay men who adapted feminized forms of ear piercing into their ideal of a feminized gay male image. Young gay men in the 1950s and 1960s pierced their ears to ornament themselves in a more feminine manner. Given the prevailing atmosphere of the preliberation period, these acts were charged with transgressive symbolism in that pierced male bodies were read as feminine and/or homosexual by mainstream culture.

With the flowering of lesbian and gay liberation in the 1970s, body piercing and body play (a term denoting the mutability and erotic potential of the body to explore pain, pleasure, desire, and transgression) became more important among the LGBT sadomasochism (S/M) subcultures of larger urban centers. Borrowing body piercing from so-called primitive cultures, in which the piercing was usually part of a rite of passage, LGBT S/M subcultures integrated it into their sexualized body play as a form of sexual and erotic exploration. Jim Ward, a body piercer in San Francisco, is often credited with the growth and popularity of piercing in these communities.

While LGBT S/M communities were exploring the erotic potential of body piercing, the "modern primitives"—part of an emerging Western subculture that uses practices, techniques, and modifications from so-called primitive cultures to explore the modern body and its relationship to the modern world—began utilizing body piercings as a form of spirituality, physical transgression, and ritual of passage. In the late 1970s the emerging punk movement in Great Britain and the U.S., which emphasized the rejection of modern Western cultural values, borrowed these symbols from the LGBT S/M and "primitive" communities to use body piercing as a form of defiance and resistance to the middle-class idealized unmarked body. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, body piercing again crossed cultural lines, this time from the punk and S/M communities into popular LGBT culture, as non–S/M LGBT people began piercing their bodies for public display. These piercings were a celebration of the erotic potential of different erogenous zones like ears, nipples, or genitals with designated names emerging for specific piercings. Like tattooing, body piercing had a renaissance in the 1990s as mainstream society accepted and integrated pierced bodies into popular culture.


Scarification or branding, like body piercing, emerged from the subcultures of the LGBT S/M and "primitive" communities in the 1970s. However, there is also another, more covert, tradition of physical self-mutilation that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s among young LGBT individuals who marked their bodies with scars as physical outlets for and manifestations of their psychological pain. Like the physical markings of tattoos and piercings of the body, scarification and ritual branding have come to be seen as a rite of passage, a form of physical play with the body's erotic and transgressive possibilities, and a marker of difference, defiance, and celebration. Although never experiencing the popular acceptance and approval of mainstream society that has been accorded to tattooed and pierced bodies, scarification and branding has in LGBT communities come to be recognized as a form of body play that is heavily invested with a transgressive spiritual and erotic power.


DeMello, Margo. Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Rubin, Arnold, ed. Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California Press, 1988.

Sanders, Clinton R. Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Steward, Samuel M. Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks, 1950–1965. London: Haworth Press, 1990.

Thompson, Mark, ed. Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice. Boston: Alyson, 1991.

R. J. Gilmour

see alsoeichelberger, ethyl; leather sex and sexuality; sadomasochism, sadists, and masochists.