PRINT December 1992

Skin and Bolts

The Video
Multimedia artist Monte Cazazza has made a video of his own genital piercing. There are no titles or credits; we go right to a close-up of a circumcised penis, flaccid in a tangle of pubic hair against a white thigh. Electronic music, is punctuated by the word “surgeon,” repeated over and over in a robotic, heavily synthesized voice.

A needlelike device enters the scene, in the hand of an unseen operator. It pierces the penis head and leaves behind a single small stud, a gold ball identical to those used in piercing ears in malls all over the country. The ball-adorned penis is displayed to the camera for perhaps five seconds. Then it is flipped over, and the procedure is performed two or three times more, at the head and along the shaft, still to the rhythmic chant.

Now, in a sequence that prompts a collective gasp from everybody watching the video, a tweezerlike tool descends on the penis’ head, pulling it out impossibly far, like cotton candy. The organ is pretty much a visual object by now, except that there remains a perception of it as penis, which is what prompts the deep collective gasp.

A broader needle, almost a lance, pierces the stretched and narrowed head. It makes a hole clear through. Into this hole is inserted a metal bolt, which is secured at each end by a gleaming metal hemisphere. The procedure completed, the penis is once again arranged on the thigh. Then the camera pans up to Cazazza’s face. He’s grinning and mouthing words at us—inaudibly, since the only thing on the soundtrack is the taped music; but he seems to be saying, “It was great, man. Unbelievable.”

The Background
This video, Pierce, 1984, which I saw a while ago at a Philadelphia conference on primitivism in contemporary crafts, is part of a quasi-underground phenomenon known as piercing. Before the conference I had known that ear and nose piercing were genuine fads. I had not known how popular genital piercing has become, especially since the issue—in 1989, from San Francisco’s Re/Search Publications—of the book Modern Primitives, an amply illustrated volume devoted to piercing and tattooing, especially on or around the genitals: penis and testicle piercing, labia and clitoris piercing, and nipple piercing for both sexes.

As the title of Modern Primitives suggests, piercing is a form of primitivism, reflecting the West’s long-standing fascination with tribal and archaic cultures. But in its current forms it is first and foremost a post-Modern phenomenon. It may allude to rites of circumcision and clitoridectomy in parts of Africa, and to the decorative practices of certain groups in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, but it also has a heavy overlay of Westernisms: pirates and other outlaw traditions old and new, motorcycle gangs, gay and lesbian fashions, and adolescent “gang” ear-piercings of the kind popular at teenage girls’ sleep-overs.

“Primitive” groups that make a display of piercing the genitals, or of decorating them with tattoos or scars, are actually fairly rare. The Balinese insert penis bells, the Mayans had ritual penile bloodletting. The practices that seem to me closest in spirit to contemporary piercing are the initiation rituals, fairly common in African societies, by which one passes from childhood to adulthood. Some of these ceremonies include alteration of the genitals, intended, scholars say, to confirm one’s awareness of death. But there is a crucial divide: those initiations functioned within locally accepted, broadly organized cultural traditions and religious systems. The solitary, improvised, post-Modern piercing in Cazazza’s video takes place outside the mainstream.

For Lonnette M. Stonitch , an editor at Chicago’s P-Form who showed the video in Philadelphia, post-Modern piercing is a “ritual acted out in seclusion from the outer world yet conditioned by it.” She sees piercing as a return to mystery, to the body, and to sensations. Piercing involves a “crossing of the mineral with the living” and a “sanctification of blood and marks,” using the body as the material for art. Yet Stonitch also recognizes piercing as a form of “alternative-culture provincialism,” and as “compulsively transgressive.”

What would motivate an American man today to pierce his penis, a woman her clitoris, or either the sensitive tissue of the nipple? The incision in part must be decorative, though given its location, usually hidden under clothes, it can only be seen in relatively unusual settings, such as the nude beach, or perhaps certain urban youth-culture nightclubs. The piercing must also provide a charged erotic moment at lovers’ undressings, particularly their first. The mind reels with questions: is the piercer motivated by hatred—self-hatred, or hatred of the culture, as some suggest? Or is love the motivation—self-love unto narcissism, or love for minerals and metals unto love of the flesh or cosmos? Does piercing involve a desire to test and transcend the flesh? Is it related to the imagery of Christian martyrdom? Does it bespeak decay or transcendence?

The piercers and tattooers quoted in Modern Primitives claim to inherit long traditions. Tattooer Don Ed Hardy considers himself “a keeper of the images,” and often bases his designs on tribal patterns. Raelyn Gallina says that “piercing started at a time in my life when I was experiencing a lot of death and grief and transformation. For a lot of people it’s a rite of transformation, when they go from one state to the next.” Gallina says that when “being cut” is surrounded by trust and support, it’s “a very strengthening and powerful experience.”

Ritual, Community, and Death
Modern American culture has no universal rituals to affirm adulthood, which comes in solitude, in the nooks and crannies of our hearts, and often through grief. Graduations, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, sweet 16s, first cars, debuts—all approximate initiation without achieving it. A tribal society may demand an adolescent ceremony of passage, but there is no imperative in America to pierce or be pierced. Indeed, piercing marks a difference from majority culture. An earring per ear—sure, or maybe two, or maybe even a nose stud; in much of the culture you can probably still pass. But five or six earrings plus nose ring make a statement, mark allegiance to some youthful or outsider experience. And when we suspect genital piercing, an important line has been crossed.

In its extreme forms, especially when they are public (as in Cazazza’s video), piercing functions as would-be ritual, by which I mean a stylized, repeatable, public action that tries to give meaning to the flux of experience. The piercer is searching for some bodily marker of man- or womanhood—like the “wildmen” at one of Robert Bly’s retreats. He or she heals old wounds by taking on new ones, searches for an affirmation of the bodily self, for an indelible, recognizable mark of identity; searches as well for ritual itself, and for the essential thing that will get you to the essential.

Piercing is a ritual that aims at the transcendent—a shared posture toward maturity, injury, and death. What contemporary piercing is aiming for through those holes in the body is a new form of community. We who are pierced are one. We establish our common difference, hint at it with the metal we wear in our ears and noses, confirm it with the metal we wear in “private” zones that we wish to give public speech. Modern piercing privatizes what once was communal in an attempt to regain the communal. It eroticizes actions that, in primitive cultures, were never simply erotic. In traditional initiation rituals, adults proudly orchestrate the events that pass the young into adulthood. For young piercers today, piercing has a furtive, arbitrary quality, and usually takes place apart from adult approval.

Is body piercing today what long hair and beards were in the ’60s—just the kids’ way of protesting, of marking their difference? Often in universities where the students practice piercing, teachers advancing this view trail off into a sense that something has changed: that the kids don’t seem filled with adolescent self-love. Stonitch has used the term “compulsive transgression,” and indeed the comforting argument that this is just the ’60s all over again doesn’t work.

Mineral and flesh. Life force and death force. The matter-of-fact acquaintance with death that’s at stake in traditional initiation rituals. These are the real issues. Post-Modern piercing gets to us because it gets at these experiences, and in getting at them we fear that it favors the death force, something repressed in our culture. It’s not just the kids, and even if it were, the kids might not be all right. They would be right, though, in picking this way to get under our skin.

Marianna Torgovnick teaches at Duke University. Her most recent book is Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, and she is currently working on a sequel, Primitivism and the Quest for Ecstasy.