Fifty years ago, Mikel and the many other pierced and tattooed people like him in America, would have been featured in travelling sideshows as "Human Oddities". Today, Mikel is part of a cultural movement that has exploded in the last decade, as Americans turn to tattooing, piercing and other, more extreme body markings as both experiential rites and symbols of their particular spiritual path. "Many people are not sure where they fit in, in terms of community," says Enid Schildkrout, curator of "Body Art: Marks of Identity," an exhibit running at The American Museum of Natural History in New York through May. "There is so much mobility, including spiritual affiliation. In a fairly open society people can re-invent themselves. Body modification is a process of deciding who you are and who you want to be."
Tattooing and its allied arts, in other words, are increasingly understood as substitutes for more traditional religious rites of passage, equivalent to confirmation or Bar Mitzvah. "The end results are the same", says Matty Jankowski, director of The New York Body Archives and owner of The Sacred Body Art Emporium in downtown Manhattan. "It changes people's lives, they become accountable, they engage further in their situation, they become vocal about their beliefs--consciously or unconsciously people know that they need to do this."
Mikel, whose work is featured in the museum's comprehensive exhibit, stresses that his body art is his individual expression. But body modification is as often used to identify a person with a particular community. Fraternities, groups of friends, people associated with a certain type of music, all use body art as way of signifying their affiliation to each other and the outside world.
Many of today's tattoo images and piercings reflect a fascination with these ancient cultures, and the rituals and religions of those cultures. Says Dr. Elias Farajaje-Jones, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, "Body piercing, branding, and tattooing is a cultural movement of people reclaiming their bodies in a way which links them to traditional cultures. It is connected to the modern tribal or neo-tribal phenomenon."
Rituals, or newly devised "neo-rituals," are a growing trend in tattooing and piercing. The smell of incense fills Matty Jankowski's tattoo and piercing shop and the walls are covered with sacred images. Mikel routinely asks clients if they are interested in medical or ritual piercing. Both routinely perform ritualistic piercings that require fasting and meditation prior to the event.
Oneze Lafontant, one of the Museum of Natural History's explainers, thinks the tattooed ought to make the connection with the long history of marking the body. "People have to know that what they are doing is coming from somewhere. This exhibit is an open door to cultures where these rituals were a part of life. Only through entering that door can somebody realize that there is history behind what they are doing and that it is meaningful."
According to Dr. Farajaje-Jones, it's impossible to generalize about why, or with what people mark themselves--or where they do. "Some people say this part of my body wants to be pierced. People can be very specific about what they do pierce or tattoo or not, as a signifier to their community or the world."
Tattooing is not accepted everywhere as a part of spiritual growth. The practice is taboo today in some Christian denominations. (There is evidence, however, that Christians tattooed themselves in medieval times to prepare themselves for pilgrimages and crusades.) Judaism and Islam have historically discouraged body art, citing prohibitive statements in the Hebrew scriptures and the Qu'ran (Leviticus 19:28, and Surah Nisa'I verses 119-120, and Surah infitar verses 6-9).
But Daniel "Hoss" Ostrowski thinks tattoos can draw people to faith. Ostrowski heads the Christian Tattoo Association, a group of more than 150 Christians involved in the tattoo world. The association is primarily social but there is also an important evangelical outreach element. Ostrowski has the name Jesus tattooed on his right elbow, with blood dripping from the letters. Many people ask him about the design, which is an opening for evangelizing. "Tattooing is a unique way to express your faith" he explains, "it shows on the outside what you got on the inside-if it is real."