Dr. John grabs a scalpel and begins cutting into the arm of a Phi Gamma Delta Syracuse University student.
He leaves the Greek letters as an open wound without stitches, throwing the bloody pieces of skin he chiseled off into the trashcan. After the cuts heal, Dr. John’s customer will have the letters of his fraternity in his arm for the rest of his life.
Unlike a tattoo, scarification is irreversible. And unlike most doctors, John does not have a medical degree – John Joyce is known as ‘Dr. John’ only by those he scars.
During the last two years, cutting has developed into a fad shared mostly among young people. As the trend continues to grow, these chop shops continue to appear across the country.
‘When I first got into scarification, it was only people in the industry,’ said Joyce, a body artist at Scarab Body Arts in Armory Square. ‘Most people getting cuttings now are younger, and I think that’s part of the appeal – it’s new to them.’
Recently, Joyce’s clientele began increasing. College students, the usual customers in a tattoo parlor, have been turning to scarification, Joyce said.
Joyce begins by making light incisions on the skin he’s scaring, which feels like a paper cut, he said. He then numbs the area with a topical anesthetic, and then uses a scalpel to cut into the skin and widen the design.
‘People say it hurts less than a tattoo, and there’s not as much bleeding as you’d think,’ he said.
No formal training is required to be a body artist – and New York State has no regulations on tattoo or scarification parlors. Despite the absence of laws, self-ruling is important to the body art business, Joyce said.
‘Any regulations that are set for tattoo parlors in other places, we carry over for scarification,’ Joyce said.
Joyce will not cut anyone under age 18, anyone who appears to be intoxicated, and usually does not take walk-ins.
‘With scarification, you have to have some lee-way,’ Joyce said. ‘Everyone scars differently, and it’s not like a tattoo where you know how it’s going to turn out, you have to be open about it.’
Every year, Joyce attends tattoo workshops to meet with industry leaders and learn from some of the world’s top tattoo artists. Although these events host hundreds of body artists, Joyce warns some parlors do not try to follow tattoo regulations.
‘As long as you go to a shop that’s up-to-date with industry standards and knows their technique, then there aren’t really any risks,’ Joyce said. ‘But most of the work I’ve seen from people who call themselves scarification artists either cut too shallow or cut too deep – they don’t know what they’re doing.’
Joyce has been a tattoo artist for 11 years and has been practicing scarification for seven. He charges $125 an hour for his work, and has on several occasions spent up to five hours fixing home-jobs done by fraternity brothers at SU.
Scarification is another form of body art to Joyce, making the body more beautiful with design. But to other tattoo artists, scarification is a fad that is young, ill-advised and undeserving.
‘Scars are something that is earned, not bought,’ said D.J. Rose, tattoo artist and co-owner of Halo Tattoo and Piercing.
‘Things come and go as far as people’s interests are concerned,’ Rose said. ‘It’s new and popular now, but people are just looking for something more extreme than tattooing.’
Rose thinks the scar fad will eventually fade because it is not as appealing as other forms of body art.
‘It’s a different urge,’ he said. ‘Tattoos mean a lot more – there’s a purpose behind them more than, ‘I had some extra money’.’
Scarification can be dangerous if the artist is not well-trained, Rose said. Since training for this new body art is not formal, becoming a qualified scar artist is much more difficult than becoming a tattoo artist.
‘You’d have to do your homework and really know what you’re doing,’ he said.
While Rose will not be adding scarification to Halo’s list of services, many parlors across the country already have.
The ScarWars scarification convention in Los Angeles in 2007 was the most successful of all similar conferences, said Joyce. And with scarification becoming a pop-culture fad, as well, branding characters in the popular X-Men and Blade trilogies, it is becoming standard practice at tattoo shops.
Some SU students, like freshman civil engineering major Wes Garlock, agree with Rose and don’t see the trend picking up in the future.
‘From my life experience, I don’t think a lot of people want to scar themselves,’ he said.
Garlock has been a fan of tattoos for several years, frequently adding ideas and designs to his collection of body art.
Garlock appreciates the art of tattooing but feels scarification is a cheaper form of body art, and the risk of an ‘oops’ moment is too much for a scar that might not even settle the way he visions it.
‘I feel that tattoos are an intimate way of expression, but I would not be willing to try scarification,’ he said.
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