Traditionally, in tribes around the world, scarification was used to mark important moments in a person's life, like marriage or puberty. Nowadays—in Europe and America, at least—it tends to be more about aesthetics, but can of course be prompted by anything, and represent whatever the recipient wants it to represent.
The process involves cutting out skin using a scalpel, before rubbing the open wounds with peroxide or lemon juice to keep the wound from becoming a raised scar—the usual aim is for an indented scar. It isn't an exact science—people react differently to the scarring process—but it is an art form that takes great skill.
Facial scarification is less common, but it's gaining popularity with the heavily body-modded crowd. During the healing process, the scars are obvious and extremely visible, but after a few years, they become fainter. Occasionally, they're barely visible at all.
I spoke to four people about facial scarification and what led to them getting their faces cut.
Shiva is one of the most well-respected scarification artists in the industry. He started out as a body piercer, and has now been doing scarification for about six years. "I felt I wanted more, as far as the artistic and ritual sides of body modification goes," he says, adding that he doesn't take the role of scarring people's faces lightly: "It's more pressure—this part of the body being the most visible—but it's an amazing honor to be asked to do it."
The first time Shiva scarred someone's face was nerve-racking, but he's yet to refuse anyone his services, since people who ask tend to already be heavily tattooed or have other body modifications. "I would say to someone, if they were young or didn't have many mods, that maybe it's not a good idea until they are in a position to deal with what they would get," he says, adding that he'd also advise them depending on their work situations.
"Getting facial work, definitely think about what you do, as it's not a thing to be taken lightly," he says. "You might get mixed reactions from people, so be prepared." He also advises that people get work done elsewhere before they start on their face.
For Shiva, the facial scarring work is a spiritual process. "I see it as the most sacred part of the body, closest to God, so it's the most special for me from that point of view," he says.
See more of Shiva's work on his Instagram.
Joe is a self-employed 29-year-old who lives in London. He was working in the corporate headquarters of major bank when he got his scarification done, but left shortly after.
Before moving to his face he'd already had plenty of scarification done on his chest. "At the time, I'd been very much of the idea that I'd never do it again—that the sheer itching and healing I'd been through on my chest would put me off for life," he says. "But, like anything, I felt the pull again eventually to get more done."
He hadn't been planning it, but had stopped in to see his scarification artist, Iestyn Flye, because he'd wanted small circular scars around the transdermal implants on his face. Flye said that, if he were Joe, he'd get something bigger done, and sketched something up on Joe's head right then and there. "It basically just happened like that," says Joe. "I was up for it, had spare cash, and it felt like a thing to do."
Unfortunately, the bank he worked at wasn't so keen: "They didn't take kindly to my suggestion that a bunch of fresh wounds were not really covered in the employee dress code." Bar that, Joe says the scarification didn't affect too much elsewhere. "There was no real social change for me as far as friends were concerned," he says. "I'd always had a kind of 'alternative' look."
Besides the scarification and transdermal implants, Joe also has a forked tongue and plenty of tattoos. He also has other scarification on his back, neck, chest, and shoulders. But he feels passionately about his facial scarification in particular. "I think that despite being somewhat cavalier and spontaneous, it quickly became something that I really loved," he says. "It's almost like a crown, in its own way."
Beto is a body artist from Mexico who now lives in Berlin, where he's a co-owner of Rusty Pig Foot Tattoo. He's 41 now, but his love of scarification dates back to his childhood. "Since I was a kid, I've always been interested in ritualistic scarification in Maya and Aztec cultures, when scarifications were just for warriors," he says. "My mom has a scar on her face due to an accident, and she always considered it ugly. I have always been fascinated by it and found it very beautiful. She is also a warrior."
In fact, Beto says, he had his mother in mind when he got his scarification done: "It was a way to show her how scars, both accidental and intentional, can be beautiful. They are signs and marks of the battle you've won in life."
He admits that he was somewhat afraid in the run-up to getting his scarification, but felt it forced him to face his own fears—to relax and let the pain flow through him. Because of his profession, it hasn't affected him negatively. Instead, his scarification has helped him connect with people. "Funnily enough, most of the time when people approach me, they are mostly curious and they compliment me," he says.
Like Shiva, he would refuse to work on anyone he didn't think was ready to have their life impacted by facial scarification. He also believes the process is a spiritual journey rather than purely aesthetic. "They are part of me, and they are marks of my history and ideology," he says. "It always reminds me of my roots, my own battles, and who I am."
See more of Beto's work on his Instagram.
Elizijah is a 26-year-old body modification artist who works in Punktured Body Piercing, a studio in Brighton, England. He's been working in the body mod industry for seven years, specializing in scarification, advanced body piercing, and ear lobe reconstruction, a procedure for people who want to reverse their stretched lobes.
"I am currently inventing myself into my own version of a tribe—I have always had a huge interest in tribe cultures around the world, and this was just another stepping stone into my dream," he says, adding that he managed to look past the pain while having it done. "The main thing is to focus on how it's going to look afterwards."
Given that Elizijah already had facial and head tattoos, as well as facial piercings, the scarification didn't affect his life much. It helps, too, that most of his friends have body modifications, piercings, or tattoos. "I am quite a stand-out guy as it is," he says. "My friends and family know the industry I'm in and don't really look at the scarification in a different way; it's just one more modification, I guess."
It changed his self-image for the better—"I love it," he says—but he's not as fussed about the work as he once was. "The novelty of the scarification has worn off—same with any modification once you've had it a while," he says. "But I wouldn't change it."
See more of Elizijah's work on his Instagram.