By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Few human physical acts capture the imagination or wrench the emotions like branding, the "kiss of fire."
--Fakir Musafar in Body Play magazine
Some like it hot--red-hot.
Like, for instance, Jennifer Saunders, a 20-year-old "modern primitive" who doesn't mind making contact with small pieces of metal heated to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. One Saturday afternoon last month, the fearless convenience-store clerk is willingly playing guinea pig in a human branding demonstration held at El Rancho de los Muertos (The Ranch of the Dead"), an inner-city, alternative art space located in a warehouse district near 18th Street and Madison.
For those who are not among the four dozen or so arty curiosity seekers who had the stamina to witness the bizarre ritual, the marked woman will later happily show off the results of the torrid, hourlong session. Today, her right ankle is ringed by an angry, red band of "decorative" scars--a repetitive (if painful-looking) pattern of small dots, dashes and arcs that might have been doodled on a notebook cover by a bored student during a particularly dull lecture. Each of the individual marks--roughly 40 of them, in all--represents a separate brand (or "strike") by the brander's miniature "iron."
As 38-year-old brander Steve Haworth prepares the young clerk for the procedure by methodically sketching the design on his client's ankle with a surgical marker, Saunders is seemingly no more apprehensive about the torturous ordeal she is about to undergo than if she were merely waiting for a bus. That might be because this is her second time to go under the iron; Haworth branded her other ankle in a separate ceremony several months ago. Asked why she was being branded again, Saunders quickly explains that she wants designs on both ankles--you wouldn't wear just one sock, would you? But she is far less effusive when questioned about why she decided to be branded at all. Pondering her bare feet, Saunders shrugs. "Why not?" she answers. Saunders may be verbally clueless about her fascination with the "kiss of fire," but the man who is about to mark her for life rapidly warms up to the subject.
"Jennifer is doing this to be different from her friends, and stand apart from the rest of the world," answers Haworth, a self-described "body artist" who runs a piercing and branding salon as a sideline to the combination body jewelry/liposuction-nozzle-manufacturing plant he operates in a west Phoenix industrial park.
Resorting to rhetoric that's been used to justify every anticonformist fad since 1967, Haworth attempts to explain branding's burgeoning popularity in terms of creative self-expression. "We've been in a society that values conformity for so long that everybody is finally breaking loose now, trying to be an individual," he says. "Even schools are beginning to get the message. Now they're telling our kids, 'Be your own person!'"
Still, it's got to be tough for the anatomically adventurous body-modification buff to be his or her own person when today's nonconformity is tomorrow's norm. "Anyone can get tattooed," continues Haworth, as he fires up the propane torch that promises to help melt America's shackles of conformity. "Let's face it--once you've looked at three or four tattoos, everything starts to blend together. They're just not that interesting to look at, especially when everyone's got one." Haworth's comments might as well be directed at body piercing, since virtually everybody who has come to witness the branding exhibition is sporting some combination of metal and/or ink. A walking Whitman's Sampler of body-modification techniques, Jennifer Saunders herself is already tattooed (a bat hovers over her left breast) and pierced (rings dangle from a perforated nipple and regions "down there"), and she has even been "scarified" (a horrific-sounding process in which ink is rubbed into a design etched into the skin, producing a reasonable facsimile of a 3-D tattoo). That's probably as good an explanation as any for why she's decided to be branded--the latest, most extreme and (for the time being, at least) most attention-grabbing form of epidermal exotica available. @rule:
@body:"This is an art form--you cannot brand a person like you'd brand a cow," announces Steve Haworth, believed to be the only human-branding practitioner operating in the Valley. "People are not animals."
Few individuals would argue the point. In addition to the obvious differences between branding a man and a beast, when was the last time anyone saw livestock lining up, cash in hooves, for the pleasure of having their hides maimed with a searing iron?
Haworth smiles weakly. Painfully aware that the average person equates branding with cattle drives, the opening credits of Bonanza and Mighty Dog commercials, he explains that the sizzling, new, human-branding phenomenon is just beginning to heat up for America's faddish fringe. Any resemblance to animal branding and what Haworth and his fellow branders are doing is strictly in the eye of the beholder. "This is nothing like cattle branding," insists Haworth, whose salon is outfitted with a dentist's chair, neon, and twin terrariums containing a boa constrictor and an iguana. "If you were to use a standard, cattle-style branding iron on a person, all you're going to wind up with is a big blob with no definition."