I don't have any tattoos. I don't even have my ears pierced, and when I tell Luna Cobra this, his eyebrows dart up, scrunching the crescent moon tattoo on his forehead. He suggests I start with ear pointing, or maybe a subtle scleral tattoo that would wash the whites of my eyes a light blue.
In the body modification world, Luna Cobra is a legend. People fly him around the world to split their tongues, place implants under their skin, and tattoo their eyeballs—a technique he invented.
Lately, there's been a lot of nipple and belly button removals he explains, scrolling through photos of recent procedures on his phone. Many people get them because of tattoos—no one wants a nipple poking through his or her chest piece. "This girl just didn't like her belly button," Luna explains, flipping the phone around to reveal something that looks like an umbilical cord. I realize, it kind of is. "She had an outie," he says.
I'm here to watch a scarification, a procedure where Luna uses a scalpel to cut a design into someone's skin, which will heal and leave a scarred pattern. "It kind of looks like a white ink tattoo," he explains.
The guy getting the scarification done today is Sam, a freehand tattoo artist who tells me he's already had it done three times before. I squint, trying to see where. He lists off his scars: a long cut down the left-hand-side of his face, a triangle under his right eye, and—tipping his head—some crop circles on top, cutting into his own crescent moon tattoo.
He also has an implant in his finger, in the shape of the Southern Cross. I'm not sure if it's a joke.
This time, Luna will be cutting into Sam's chin with a pyramid design. When I ask him if he's nervous, he shakes his head and laughs. It seems like the only thing Sam is worried about is that he told his girlfriend he'd be getting the scarification on his chest. The chin, he promised her, was off limits.
But soon Luna is playing with a pyramid stencil, trying to get the positioning right on Sam's chin, which proves difficult because of the mentolabial sulcus, the groove that dips in below your lower lip before the chin bulges out. Sam squints at his reflection in the mirror, sure the pyramid is flicking out to the left. Luna thinks it's just that his face isn't symmetrical. It looks fine to me, which probably means it's a good thing I'm never going to permanently alter someone's looks.
When they finally get the positioning right, Luna asks Sam to get down on the bed, as he sets out his tools on a trolley. There are tweezers, gauze, and a scalpel that he's slotting a fresh blade into. Luna tells me that he'll only be cutting into the very superficial layers of skin—only a few millimeters—so there shouldn't be much blood.
He starts with a long incision along the left side of the pyramid. Sam sucks in air, like someone who knew pain was coming but forgot the specific feeling that was about to hit. The mentolabial sulcus, the point of the pyramid, seems to be the most sensitive part.
Warning: Some graphic images below.
Next, Luna makes a parallel cut just a few millimeters away from the first. At the corners, he slices between the two lines, and uses the scalpel and a set of tweezers to tease the flap of skin away. Below there's cherry red—blood, a lot of it. Luna dabs it away with gauze and keeps working.
He's been doing this for decades, first getting into modification back in college in Canada. His brother Aaron—now a famed plastic surgeon in Los Angeles—was his roommate. Body modification was a scene that existed, but it was still very early days. The movement's bible, BMEzine, only launched in 1994. While Luna was studying religion and psychology, he'd pour through anatomy textbooks with his brother's med school friends, inventing new techniques.
Even now Luna, shrouded in tattoos, talks like a med student—dotting his sentences with scientific names. He's strict on himself, even though there aren't regulations that tell him to be, closely following medical procedure guidelines. Body modification exists in a gray zone: It definitely feels like there should be tight laws around what can and can't be done, but really there aren't.
What Luna won't do are nullifications. It's perhaps body modification's most outwardly shocking procedure—people will have their nipples and genitals removed entirely. But wading into the psychology of why someone wants to become essentially a eunuch is a step beyond what he wants to spend his days doing. "I tell them to go to Southeast Asia," Luna says, where the procedures are legal and cheaper.
Back on the bed, Luna is cleaning up the final side of Sam's pyramid, running the scalpel along the wound to ensure the line is even and will heal straight. There's an audible sound as the blade passes through the skin. "It's cutting the hair follicles," Luna explains. Sam's chin is streaked with blood. Luna drips pure adrenalin on the wound to cauterize it.
It's only then, maybe half an hour in, that I realize it's kind of weird that I'm standing in an empty tattoo studio, watching a stranger get his face cut up. From the outside, body modification seems like this dark, bizarre practice. Up close, it's harder to see where that line is between what society deems acceptable, and what is beyond the pale.
Every second person on my tram has a septum piercing. My not having tattoos is enough to raise eyebrows and yet anything on the face, the neck or hands—that's still a step too far? Watching Luna clean up the wound, I wonder whether body modification is just the next thing that will be normalized. The more we see it, the less sensational it will become.
Sam is up, squinting at his pyramid in the mirror again. Luna stands at his shoulder, inspecting his work. Both seem happy with it, although I still wonder what Sam's girlfriend is going to think. At least from here it looks straight to me.
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