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."
For starters, cattle have wide planes of largely flat flesh that readily lend themselves to the application of large, clean brands. Unlike their bovine counterparts, humans have very few areas on their bodies that are free of curves, and those areas are much smaller than the ones on cows. Just as important, human brands tend to spread to an area two to three times the width of the material used to make the burn.
As a result, Haworth's "branding irons" are actually small pieces of specially formed stainless steel that he holds with vise grips. The steel is usually no wider than 1/16 to 1/32 of an inch. The length of the steel is dictated by the design, but is rarely more than an inch long. The steel is heated with a propane torch until the metal is red-hot, then removed from the flame until it returns to a dark-gray color. After testing the steel's heat on a piece of cardboard (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit is preferable for most subjects), Haworth makes the strike on human flesh, holding the sizzling metal on the skin for no longer than a second or two, when a tiny wisp of smoke appears. Sssssssss!
According to Haworth, the keys to successful branding are the brander's skill at judging correct temperature, the length of time the steel is held to the skin, proper pressure, and correct placement of a brand. Tossing a few more wild cards into this stew pot of variables is the fact that individual skin types differ wildly, making it nearly impossible to predict who is going to scar. A more inexact--and agonizing--trend in body art is hard to imagine.
@body:How does it feel to be branded? "Exactly the way you'd think it'd feel," answers Steve Frankel, Haworth's first branding client. "Like a piece of hot metal burning into my flesh. But a deal's a deal, and I wasn't about to back out of it."
The deal, inequitable as it was, was struck sometime last spring, after Steve Haworth attended a local branding demonstration sponsored by a group of Valley S&M enthusiasts. Following the demonstration (the first he'd ever witnessed), Haworth buttonholed the noted San Francisco Bay area body modifier who'd performed the demonstration. Following her instructions, he spent the next several weeks practicing his craft on cardboard, potatoes, wet leather and even a hunk of rump roast. "Rump roast is pretty similar to human flesh in terms of the way it brands," explains Frankel. "Of course, it doesn't jerk around."
Having mastered the art of branding inanimate objects, Haworth turned to his friend Frankel, a 24-year-old, unemployed taxi driver who agreed to have a pagan symbol branded on his chest. "Steve always finishes everything he starts, so I figured the least I could do was let him finish, even though it hurt like hell," says Frankel of the three-hour ordeal.
"Would I do it again?" asks Frankel. "Not without thinking about it for a long, long time. And I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else, either, until they'd given it some long, hard thought."
A similar story is told by 38-year-old Vicki Grimwood, another Haworth client who recently went under the iron. An S&M buff currently involved in a master-slave relationship, Grimwood decided to please her "master" by permanently embellishing her bottom with his three initials. Or at least that was the original plan.
"I can't begin to describe the pain," says Grimwood of the half-hour session. "I was crying and screaming so much that we never got past the first initial." Grimwood claims she has since amended her plan and that she will now add her master's last initial next year to commemorate their first anniversary together. If there is one, that is--Grimwood sheepishly admits she's been married four times. @rule:
@body:"Different people react very differently to branding," concedes Haworth, who is unbranded. "Some will tell you it feels red-hot, others that it feels freezing cold. Once the endorphins [chemicals manufactured by the brain to deal with extreme-pain situations] kick in, some people claim they get a real 'high,'" he explains. Others, he says, have reportedly reacted with euphoric, out-of-body experiences.
That might have been the case when Jennifer Saunders was branded at El Rancho de los Muertos. The young woman, who scarcely moved, never once cried out in pain. But while one observer enviously marveled that the near-comatose Saunders "was higher than she'd ever get on any drug," some skeptics thought otherwise. Noting her semidazed demeanor and totally dilated eyes immediately following the ordeal, a few witnesses suspected she was actually experiencing some form of shock. In any event, six or seven assistants were required to restrain Saunders. One of the assistants almost retched when she caught a full blast of the scent of Saunders' burning flesh, a stench similar to the odor of a tooth being drilled. And in spite of the human restraints, Saunders still managed to jerk her ankle during one of the initial strikes, requiring a modification of the entire design. The groggy Saunders' first words upon examining her newly scarred ankle?
@body:Not surprisingly, few members of the medical profession would disagree with Saunders' remark. "I certainly wouldn't advocate branding at all," warns Dr. David Blanchard, medical director of the emergency department at Mesa General Hospital. "It may be in vogue or in fashion to do this and, outside of the obvious scarring, most people who do it will probably get by without any permanent damage. However, if they were to do this in an area of bending or a joint area, they could possibly develop a disability involving range of motion." On a more optimistic note, Blanchard points out that brands can be removed via laser. "But it's a trade-off," he warns of laser removal. "What you're doing is spending a lot of money to trade one scar for another scar that doesn't look quite as bad. These people are setting themselves up for scarring, disfigurement and infection. Basically, this is quite a stupid idea."
@body:To the best of anyone's knowledge, the recent spark of interest in recreational branding was fanned by body-modification pioneer Fakir Musafar. A former advertising executive, the 60ish Musafar was catapulted to fame four years ago when he was interviewed for Modern Primitives, a trade paperback investigating the then-revolutionary world of tattooing, body piercing and other anatomical tribal rituals, all subjects dear to Musafar's heart. (One of the book's more disturbing photographs depicted a nude Musafar suspended lengthwise from a horizontal scaffolding by nylon line and fishhooks.)
Today, Musafar conducts workshops and lectures in the San Francisco area, unofficial headquarters for the body-modification movement, a largely West Coast phenomenon that has yet to penetrate the East Coast to any great degree.
Late last year, when Musafar published the first issue of Body Play magazine, thrill-hungry fans discovered that the enterprising pincushion had plenty of other tricks up his sleeve. In addition to a story on the joys of "corseting" (using a specially designed girdle, the adult Musafar once reduced his own midsection to 19 inches), a lengthy, how-to article on branding, based on Musafar's own personal experiments dating back to 1950, was included in the cultish quarterly.
Among his more painful discoveries were that wood burners, soldering irons, red-hot coat hangers and paper clips were far more apt to produce unsightly blisters and/or uneven scars than the small, stainless-steel strips that are standard branding tools today.
Although Musafar is largely responsible for whatever popularity the practice currently enjoys, the bod-mod maverick was not the first to introduce voluntary branding to this country.
Since the turn of the century, branding has been--and continues to be--a ritual among members of black fraternities on university campuses across the country. Still practiced today (though perhaps not as widely as in the past), the rarely publicized but common ceremony has, in recent years, been chronicled in publications ranging from Rolling Stone magazine to the 1986 book Bigger Secrets, a hodgepodge of information that the omnipresent "they" prayed you'd never find out about.
Truth be told, those fraternities probably couldn't have cared less who found out about those brands. "This was something that had been going on for years, and if you were in a fraternity, you didn't give it a second thought," recalls Valley psychologist Dr. Brad Bayless, who witnessed several such brandings while a member of a black fraternity at Arizona State University in the mid-Sixties. Typically performed with heated coat hangers during drunken frat parties, the ritual usually "produced a small brand on the bicep or chest," recalls Bayless. "The whole point was to show your faithfulness and allegiance to the fraternity. I don't drink much, so I could never get drunk enough to do it. Believe me, it just wasn't that big of a deal."
But Bayless points out a big difference between frat-house brands and the elaborate rituals Haworth is involved in. "With us, it was one quick shot with the coat hanger and--ouch!--that was that. What these people are doing with the multiple brandings is something else entirely. I can't even begin to imagine that."
@body:Despite the enthusiasm of branding buffs, most observers doubt that human branding is ever going to set the world on fire, even among hard-core members of the trend-of-the-month club.
"I seriously doubt that branding will ever begin to reach the popularity of, say, piercing or tattooing," says Erik Dakota, 29, a professional piercer who operates in the Santa Cruz, California, area. Dakota's reasoning? A lack of trained branding practitioners. "Take tattooing," says Dakota, who has performed "hundreds" during his five years in the body-modification business. "It's been around forever, so there are a lot of people who really know what they're doing. But branding is relatively new, and if someone doesn't know what he's doing, he can really, really mess someone up. Plus, to a lot of people, the very idea of branding is simply off-putting."
But perhaps a much more obvious stumbling block to a branding bonanza is the very nature of the beast. "Let's put it this way--how many people do you know who've been branded?"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
So says the surnameless Vaughn, proprietor of San Francisco's Body Manipulations, a body-jewelry shop.
"This is not like tattooing," he says. "The first time the needle hits you, you get a little jumpy, but then you get used to it. With branding, there's no getting used to it. Ever. You've got to figure that nobody likes getting burned."
So what new bod-mod techniques are lurking around the corner once the branding craze cools off?
Vaughn claims to already have his finger on the pulse of the next one: elective amputation.
"People are going to start cutting off digits, like fingers, just to look strange," he predicts. "I've already called a number of plastic surgeons and doctors inquiring about having my left little finger removed down to the first knuckle. But no one takes me seriously, even after I tell them I'll sign waivers and release forms," continues Vaughn. "Basically, they thought I was nuts. But given time, I'll find some physician, somewhere, who will do it on request. Amputation isn't going to be real popular, but it is going to happen. You'll see.