Modify at the Tribeca Film Festival

[Originally written on this date in 2005]

No one should dictate to me what I can and cannot do to my body. – Modify

My knowledge of film festivals is limited to the media coverage they get, but when I learned that there was going to be a documentary of sorts about body modifications being shown at Tribeca, my interest was piqued enough.  Though I am not what would be considered active among the community short of having a decent collection of tattoos, piercings and scars, I have constantly spent time reading and researching to gain a better understanding of why any of us change our bodies at all.  There was that piercing apprenticeship where I was so close to being able to pierce customers, but I chose sideshow and pursued other interests on the side.

The two have a long history together though, where heavily tattooed individuals could put their artwork on display and earn a decent amount of money by doing so.  While tattoos become more prominent by the day, I have used mine to an advantage while performing so many times that the thought of them being a hinderance towards anything I want to accomplish becomes laughable.  However, my attitude also comes from being friends with someone who has face tattoos and constantly gets prejudice thrown his way for them.  We often had conversations about how if the colors on his skin wore born and not received, such actions would be called racist; being a white man with tattoos mean he was biker, convict, drug dealer/user, thief, unemployable and so on.  Hearing people shout rude remarks at someone who has never hurt you a day in your life is fairly unpleasant, and the fact that a few of those terms I just mentioned happened to apply to him has nothing to do with his modifications.

By the time I was 18 and graduating high school, I had five tattoos and four piercings I had acquired at shop; two of those were in my face.  The idea may have been implanted by Pulp Fiction and watching those ridiculous ‘makeover shows’ on trashy talk shows where ‘rebellious’ kids were dragged on stage to have their faces scrubbed, hair dyed and put in a new outfit that they suddenly ‘love’ despite having been brooding a moment before over having to change.  There was one episode where a guy came out looking like a GAP ad and was unhappy with the result, though I wonder what they told him to get him on the show, as judging by his reaction he was not really expecting the makeover.  When asked why, he held up a small plastic bag filled with body jewelry as he explained they were a part of who he was, not what they had turned him into, and he had no problem with people having an issue since he was satisfied with himself the way he was and their opinion pretty much didn’t matter.

Wanting them when I was 16 and by then knowing that state law required either parental consent or I had to wait two years to be able to sign the paper myself.  That time was spent browsing the piercing galleries of BME, where I discovered much inspiration provided by photos of individuals with multiple facial piercings – particularly lips – and stories of transformation where the end result was a feeling of elation.  They were a sort of gift to myself for having enduring twelve years of so-called education and I managed to do well enough to get out; there were no immediate plans for college since I did not want to waste time or money.  By then Jon and I had been friends for six months, and he surprised me with a vacation to Wildwood the week before I graduated, which is pretty much when we solidified our relationship and I may have spent hours asking lot of questions about his tattoos and piercings.  He was the one who funded the double lip piercings, though he did in an indirect way on account of being unsure how to approach the whole subject, having slipped a few bills into a box of salt water taffy he gave me after returning from the vacation.  A classmate worked at a local piercing shop, and that is where I went the day before graduation to have two holes poked in my bottom lip, selecting green beads for the hoops to match my eyes.

Then I called Jon to tell him the good news and I spent the night at his house since I had no intention of dealing with my mom’s reaction.  There is more to that story though it’s not relevant to the piercings, but having him be the first person to see them meant a lot.

Anyway, it had been a while since Carny Trash had graced the City with their presence, so just the drive up along with riding the PATH and other subways was exciting.  The evening was a clear one, not too warm or cold as we smoked a blunt and walked with arms linked, light traffic passing by on darkened streets and steam rising from the sewer.  Though we had the name of theater, we were unsure of knowing the exact location the film was being shown, which led to us walking around for about half an hour only to wind up where we had started.  It gave us a good laugh though, and to see Jon smiling makes my heart melt.  He went into a corner store to ask for directions, and forty-five minutes later we were waiting patiently in line with the rest of the folks that had come out for the last showing, fairly impressed at the turn-out.

The theater was absurd and I don’t think I have even been in one that was so big or had multiple levels.  Signs directed us to the screening area and it was already half-filled.  Sitting further back did not bother us, but you have to file in a certain way [no choosing seats], and we were in the middle of the row.  Of course we were absolutely drawn in by the film, sipping on whiskey out of Jon’s flask as figures on the screen discussed all aspects of body modification.  Most people readily assume it’s just tattoos and piercings; the more well-informed individual knows it also spans into branding, scarification, implants and transdermals.  The intellectual knows that anything you do to change your physical appearance is considered a modification: cutting, dying and extending hair; trimming and polishing nails or having fake ones; putting on makeup; getting cosmetic surgery, shaving, tanning, weightlifting; people do these every day yet aim negativity towards those who do something different.

It definitely wasn’t your ordinary Discovery Channel or MTV documentary, which I very much appreciated, and there were great interviews with people like the Lizardman, Steve Haworth, and Fakir Musafar that really sank into my head.  There is not enough room to fully discuss the whole film, but I firmly believe that Modify should be shown to the high school and college populus as means of  serving as information on why people choose to change themselves, and why it that should not be a target for ridicule.  That is about as ridiculous as shouting names at someone for wearing jeans or a red shirt.

Following the credits there was an open Q&A session with a few of the people who made the film, and that went on for about an hour or so.  The whole event was utterly fantastic, and I walked away with more than one memento from the occasion that would certainly be tucked away in a safe spot.

Our trip back to Jersey was filled with much excited chatter and general conversation about everything, making the evening feel a lot shorter than it actually had been.  Sitting in the back seat of the Mercury in some obscure darkened parking lot, I thanked him for having treated me to such a pleasurable experience.  Without his unwavering support, I am uncertain if I would have had the courage to modify myself as extensively, and though my passion for sideshow has shown me that beauty comes in all sorts of packages, I am still human and capable of weak moments where confidence diminishes.  Jon has constantly given me confidence boosts with no ulterior motive and assisted me in building up my self-esteem for no other reason than he wanted me to happy with myself.

The fact of the matter is I could sit here and write for ages about all of this, as it is not a topic I often have an opportunity to discuss with many people, yet I am always seeking knowledge in the quest to learn about the decisions we make as conscious beings when it comes to adorning and otherwise altering our bodies.  Instead, I would like to note our words eventually dwindled and our lips were busy doing something else for quite a while before we finally parted ways.


4 comments on “Modify at the Tribeca Film Festival

  1. Araceli U. Ratliff says:

    What do you tell your kids about piercings and tattoos? Is it something you discuss? Tell us in the comments.

    • Due to personal choices, I do not have children but feel it is definitely a topic that should be open to them. They comprehend a lot more than parents give them credit for, and I have never understood why showing a desire to be modified is a bad thing. Parents take their kids for haircuts all the time – that is modification in simpler terms but it is still on the spectrum and something that most never think of in a negative way, as they do tattoos, piercings, etc.

  2. Unlike some forms of self-expression like hair coloring or clothing, however, piercings and tattoos leave permanent marks, and can have negative side effects. They can also be a sign of deviant behavior or mental health problems in teens. Sometimes piercings or tattoos are a form of self injury or self harm, resulting from teens trying to express their negative feelings or seeking attention or help.

    • “Piercings and tattoos leave permanent mark” – obviously, which is why any reputable artist would recommend any individual considering these types of modifications also take into consideration the long-term affects they will have. The things is, there are a large majority of people who do not care about “negative side effects” since these are usually perpetuated by ignorance and stereotypes rather than just allowing people to do whatever they want since it their choice to do so.

      On the subject of tattoos or piercings of being “a form of self injury or self harm”, I am going to not only strongly disagree with that ridiculous blanket statement but also ask where are your supporting facts? There are countless documented experiences with nothing but positive outcomes that can be found in the BME archives. Cutting due to depression or other mental illness is not the same as paying a professional artist to create a skin removal/scar piece. Do people with modifications have mental health issues? Yes, but that does not meant the two are exclusively tied together and that everyone on this planet who has a tattoo/piercing did it to “express negative feelings”. To the contrary, people modify to feel good about themselves and often have smiles on their faces when they get something new.

      Oh, and if anyone wants to link my mods to “deviant behavior” they can go right ahead since I do not care about other people’s opinions of me, my appearance or how I live my life.

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