Scarification is a permanent body modification that uses scar tissue produced by the body to form designs, pictures, or words in the skin. Scars are most often formed by cutting or branding the skin. Scarification is sometimes called cicatrization (from the French equivalent).
Scarification has been used for many reasons in many different cultures:
- Scarification has been used as a rite of passage in adolescence, or to denote the emotional state of the wearer of the scars, such as times of sorrow or well-being. This is common among Australian Aboriginal and Sepik River tribes in New Guinea, amongst others.
- Scarification by deliberately burning skin is called branding and has historically been used to mark slaves and criminals, usually with the brand being visible and often letter-coded to reflect the crime.
- The authochthonous Māori of New Zealand used a form of ink rubbing scarification to produce facial tattoos known as "(Tā) moko." Mokos were considered to make the body complete, and Māori's bodies were considered to be naked without these marks. Moko were unique to each person, and served as a sort of signature. Some Māori chiefs even used the pattern of their moko as their signatures on land treaties with the Europeans.
- In some cultures, the willingness of a woman to receive scarification shows her maturity and willingness to bear children.
- Scarification is fairly common in West Africa and New Guinea.<ref name=Awake>Awake correspondant (1999). [http://www.watchtower.org/library/g/1999/1/8/article_01.htm "Facial Marks
Nigeria's Fading 'Identity Card'"] Awake! magazine (accessed July 5, 2006)</ref>
- Facial scarring was a popular practice among the Huns.
- Facial scarring resulting from academic fencing was regarded as a badge of honour among the 19th century European duelling fraternities.
- Scarification is also associated with the body modification movement.
- Scarifications are usually more visible on darker skinned people than tattoos.
- Endorphins are released in the process of obtaining the scarification that can put a person into a high or euphoria.
- Unlike tattoos, scarifications are a product of one's own body.
Scarification is not a precise art; there are many variables, such as skin type, depth of the cut, and how the wound is treated while healing, that make the outcome somewhat unpredictable. The body creates the scar, not the artist; it is important to keep in mind that a method that works well on one person may not work so well on another. Also, the scars tend to spread a bit as they heal, so scarifications are usually relatively simple designs -- small details can easily get swallowed up in the healing process.
- Cautery branding -- This is a less common form of branding that uses a tool similar to a cautery-iron to cause the burns.
- Laser branding -- The technical term for laser branding is "electrocautery branding." The electrocautery unit is more like an arc welder for skin than a medical laser (though it is possible to use a medical laser for scarification). Electric sparks jump from the device to the skin, vaporizing the skin. This is a more precise form of scarification, because it is possible to regulate the depth and nature of the skin damage being done.
- Cold branding -- This rare method of branding is the same thing as strike branding, except that the metal branding tool is subjected to extreme cold (such as liquid nitrogen) rather than extreme heat. This method will cause the hair on the brand to grow back white and will not cause any keloiding.
Many modern scarification methods were developed by an artist known as Blair working out of Toronto, Canada.
Cutting of the skin for cosmetic purposes is not to be confused with self-injury, which is also referred to by the euphemism "cutting."
Lines are cut with surgical blades. Extended cutting techniques include:
- Ink rubbing -- This is where tattoo ink (or another sterile coloring agent) is rubbed into a fresh cut. Most of this ink will remain in the skin as the cut heals, and will have the same basic effect as a tattoo. As with tattoos, it is important not to pick the scabs as this will pull out the ink. The general public often interprets ink-rubbings as poorly done tattoos.
- Skin removal/skinning -- Cutting in single lines produces relatively thin scars, and skin removal is a way to get a larger area of scar tissue. The outlines of the area of skin to be removed will be cut, and then the skin to be removed will be peeled away. Scars from this method often have an inconsistent texture.
- Packing -- This method is uncommon in the West, but has traditionally been used in Africa. A cut is made diagonally and an inert material such as clay or ash is packed into the wound; massive keloids are formed during healing as the wound pushes out the substance that had been inserted into the wound. Cigar ash is commonly used in the United States for more raised and purple scars; people may also use ashes of deceased loved ones.
Scars can be formed by removing layers of skin through abrasion. This can be achieved using a tattooing device (with no ink), or any object that can remove skin through friction (such as sandpaper). It is somewhat common for people who wish to experiment with performing their own scarifications to scrape away skin into a desired pattern with a needle or pin. This method of self-scarification is not recommended as it is unsafe.
Chemical scarification uses corrosive chemicals to remove skin and induce scarring. The effects of this method are typically very similar to other, simpler forms of scarification; as a result there has been little research undertaken on this method.
The common opinion on healing a scarification wound is that it should be treated with irritation.
- Irritation -- Generally, the longer it takes a wound to heal, the more pronounced (the darker or more raised) the scar will be. Therefore, in order to have very pronounced scars, the goal is to keep the wound open and healing for the longest time possible. This is done by picking or scrubbing away scabs and irritating the wound with chemical or natural irritants such as toothpaste or citrus juice. With this method, a wound may take months to heal; however the scar may be inconsistent.
- Keloids -- Keloids are raised scars. Keloiding can be a result of genetics, skin color (darker skin types are more prone to keloiding), or irritation. Keloids are often desired for the visual, 3-D effect they provide and for the way they feel to the touch.
- If an enclosed space --such as a circle -- is cut or branded, it is possible that the skin inside of the closed space will die off and scar due to a lack of blood flow to the area.
- Touch-ups -- If a scarification does not heal in the desired fashion, secondary scarifications may be done to help achieve the desired effect, such as even scarring, or detail.
An alternative view is described by the acronym LITHA, meaning Leave It The Hell Alone. In body modification this is often considered the best way to reduce the risk of infection and the pain of healing.
Scarification is intentionally causing harm/trauma to the skin -- it is not safe. However, assuming that the scarification artist and the person getting the scarification are well informed, scarification falls within the category of "acceptable risks."
- Infection is obviously a concern. Not only the materials for inducing the wounds must be sanitary, but the wound needs to be kept clean, using anti-bacterial solutions or soaps often, and having good hygiene in general. It is not uncommon, especially if the wound is being irritated, for a local infection to develop around the wound. A strong immune system will heal this local infection in due time, but the bearer of the wound/scar needs to pay close attention to make sure the infection is not spreading and that they are not showing any signs that the infection has spread into their bloodstream, in which case a doctor needs to be contacted.
- The scarification artist needs to have a working knowledge of the anatomy of human skin, in order to prevent cutting too deep, burning too hot (or cold), or burning for too long.
- Scarification isn't nearly as popular as tattooing, so it is harder to find experienced artists, and for artists to get experience.
- Precautions are made for brandings, such as wearing masks, because it is possible for diseases to be passed from the skin into the fumes produced when the skin is burning.