Branding Their Bodies

Not just for cattle: Age-old tradition becoming a "hot" new trend.

Nov.29, 2007 — -- In the good old days of cutting-edge rebellion, getting a tattoo was a sign of rebellion for ordinary men.

But times have changed, and so have the trends. Tattoos have become commonplace, and body modification has become weirder and wilder than ever before. The latest fad in England is new and hot -- literally.

As seen in the movie "Jarhead," branding is traditionally associated with severe physical pain and, of course, with livestock. Now people are paying anywhere from $150 to upward of $1,000 to have the procedure done on themselves.

The Web site YouTube offers quite a selection of video on the topic -- kids at home, using the crudest of methods to permanently scar themselves has got people curious and concerned.

"Nightline" went up to the city of Manchester, to visit one of the only tattoo studios in Great Britain that offers branding, and to find out why it is so popular.

"People have become desensitized to what was once quite uncommon and alternative, and they're looking for the next step," said Graham Smith, owner of the Holier Than Though.

He's got two brands himself.

'A Sharp Sensation'

Smith's employee Marcus also has a pair. But what does it feel like?

"Intense," said Marcus. "Painful I find is the wrong word for it. It's a sharp sensation. The first couple of strikes is the worst, and then your body becomes accustomed."

So who are the people branding themselves?

"Between 20-[year-old] to 25-year-old people," said Smith, "generally alternative people, are the most common clients. But we have had policemen, teachers, nurses, students -- a whole range of people."

Some have argued that the appeal of branding comes from an attraction to pain and the desire to have the ability to withstand it.

"Pain's really important in body art," said Professor Pitts Taylor. "People don't usually get anaesthetized when they undergo body art procedures -- mainly because part of the ritual is to be able to undergo a really painful experience."

But at Smith's studio, he focuses on what he feels is the spiritual side of the procedure.

"When I've looked into the past," he said, "I've always seen the tribal aspect and the sense of belonging, rather than the negative connotations that are often portrayed."

1,000 Degrees and Ready to Strike!

There is no oversight or legislation on the branding of humans. And while the health risks are a major concern to doctors, Smith said he adheres to the highest standards of hygiene.

It takes about 20 minutes just to prepare for the procedure. Then it's time to heat the metal ball bearing that will be used to imprint the flesh. Once it hits 1,000 degrees, he's ready to strike.

Despite its current trendiness, branding is not a new phenomenon. Body modification has been around for some 10,000 years and symbolizes different things for different cultures.

In New Zealand, the Maoris tattooed their faces with intricate designs that were a sign of status and were also to attract the opposite sex.

In New Guinea and Africa, certain tribes used scarification as a rite of passage for teenage boys. In Britain in the Middle Ages, gypsies and vagabonds were branded with a large "V" on their chests to mark their lowly status. Today, tattoos are often simply sentimental.

As people continue looking for new ways to modify their bodies, some wonder what's next.

"I think people are looking into electronic implants," said Smith. In the not-too-distant future, branding may look pretty quaint.

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