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Body Modification
courtesy of Instagram/@steve_truitt

Should we be treating body modification as a crime?

The recent arrest of body modification practitioner Dr. Evil has sent shockwaves through the community

Brendan McCarthy – aka Dr Evil – ran Dr. Evil’s Body Modification Emporium in Wolverhampton from 2012 to 2015, where he carried out extreme body modification. In 2015, Wolverhampton Council argued that McCarthy didn’t have licence to perform procedures “akin to cosmetic surgery.” On the 21st of March this year, McCarthy was charged with six accounts of wounding, one being the removal of a customer’s ear, and handed a 40-month prison sentence in a ruling that senior Crown prosecutor Rhiannon Jones has called “a landmark case involving body modification.”

While the case may be unique, body modification has been happening around the world for an estimated 10,000 years — although only began to really take off in the West in the 1960s – and artists have been performing these ‘extreme’ procedures in the UK for decades.

While there are no specific qualifications for body modification procedures such as tongue splitting, scarification, branding and ear pointing, Dr Evil had undertaken what he called “extensive training” in the UK, Europe and America and had trained with some of the top artists in the field. Until this case, body modification had flown completely under the radar in the UK and only now is it coming into the eye of the law.

Body Art (also known by his legal name The King of Ink Land King Body Art The Extreme Ink-Ite) is one of the UK’s most tattooed people. He knows Brendan and has had body modifications performed by him in the past. The transdermal implant in Body Art’s head was one of the procedures undertaken by Brendan. It consists of an object placed partially below and partially above the skin – an anchor is implanted underneath the skin, with a step protruding from the surface of the surrounding skin, so that changeable jewellery can be screwed into the threaded hole in the step of the anchor.

“To me, [body modification] is about overall freedom,” Body Art explains. “Some people say freedom of expression. But for most people, it is also about control over your body. We’re a community. We are transformers of our bodies.”

Body Art thinks that there just isn’t enough understanding around his community. “There’s no Royal College of Body Modification. There are the GMC (General Medical Council) that oversee regulations and stuff. But the medical world, and the judicial world, they just don’t agree with what we do,” he says. “So society formulates a discrimination. It is a type of discrimination because people like ourselves are being ignored. In this case, they didn’t listen to the defence. They don’t listen to us.”

Tattoo artist Hannya Jayne, another former customer, started a petition to drop the charges McCarthy is currently facing. “For us in the West, body modification is more of a fashion thing. It's about self-expression and owning your own body,” explains Hannya. “I feel so much more comfortable in my own body, I mean I’m quite heavily tattooed as well. And I just feel comfortable, I feel, that I look sort of how I should look if that makes any sense.”

As with all surgical procedures, there are very real risks associated with invasive procedures like body modifications. Having a part of your body removed, or a foreign body added, can cause severe trauma and introduce high infection risks. Local infections, transmission of bloodborne pathogens, and distant infections are all high risks with any body modification procedure.

Dr Samantha Pegg, a law lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, told the BBC, "Practitioners have assumed that extreme body modifications, as forms of body adornment, were lawful when consent was given. Although the law has long accepted that tattooing and piercing are lawful activities there has not — until this case — been any consideration of other forms of body modification such as tongue splitting.” The confusion surrounding the practices is what has allowed them to fly under the radar for so long. That is often how the community likes it, too. Body modification is a niche world, and many like to keep it to themselves. Knowing they are often misunderstood, practitioners aren’t always easy to find.

The conviction of Brendan McCarthy has shaken the entire community of body modification fanatics. McCarthy was unapologetically practising something, with written consent, that he genuinely did not believe was illegal. “A friend of mine, he’s having night terrors — he can’t sleep. He keeps having flashbacks to the court itself when Brendan was taken away,” Body Art tells me. “There’s a mixture of deep sadness and sympathy for him and his family, but also a lot of anger because of the way it’s been handled.”

“I think a lot of people are quite angry,” said Hannya Jayne. “I mean, even my mum who hasn’t got any tattoos, she’s not into that kind of stuff, she is annoyed about it and thinks you should be able to choose what you do with your own body, so long as you’re not hurting people. I think we as the public don't like to be told what to do.”

The conviction of McCarthy was described by prosecutors as a ‘deterrent’. But to suggest that following this case, body modification is going to disappear would be vastly ignorant. There is a very real fear that this case will simply serve to drive body modification further underground — meaning that it will take place in more unsanitary environments, and at the hands of those who are inexperienced.

There is currently no recognised body in the UK to monitor body modification. However, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) oversees surgical procedures across the board. In court, it was argued that Brendan McCarthy was essentially practising medical procedures without a licence. But when there is no specific training for tongue splitting or silicone implants, the only option would then to undertake surgical training. A surgical trainee in the UK will spend an average of £18,000 on their training. To become a surgeon generally includes four years of undergraduate study, four years of medical school, and three to eight years of surgical residency in a hospital. McCarthy had none of these qualifications but was a fully trained tattoo artist and piercer. Training to be a piercer averages out at around £400, while training to be a tattoo artist costs around £5000.

“I've always had conversations with Brendan and other practitioners about regulation,” says Body Art. “People don’t always want change because they’re comfortable. But this does need to happen for our community. Brendan is probably the one that, when he comes out, is the best person to help formulate change.”

Whatever the opinions of the law when it comes to body modification, it is clear that this is not a community that is going to disappear. McCarthy never had a single complaint from his customers, who still swear by his work and credit him for making them feel more comfortable in their own skin. To dismiss and outlaw body modification would be to dismiss an entire section of the population for simply wanting to be themselves.