On a projector screen at the front of the Michigan Union’s Pond Room, a woman dangles inches from the ground. She gently sways back and forth from ropes descending from the ceiling, attached to large metal hooks planted deep in her shoulder blades, her skin stretched almost to the breaking point.
This is suspension, an extreme, spiritual and sometimes gory practice — and the topic of the semester’s first meeting of the Students for the Appreciation of Body Modification, founded last winter.
The movie on the projector screen is “Flesh and Blood,” a 2007 documentary about radical body modification artist Steve Haworth. As a man onscreen suspends from metal rings in his nipples, SABM Publicity Chair Jordan Marchese, an Engineering senior, discusses his own suspension experience.
“There was a point in which I was spinning,” Marchese recalls. “I was watching the room spin, and I was just completely free … to look down, see that my feet (weren’t) touching the ground and look at the wall and just slowly watch it move and just be completely weightless.”
Marchese isn’t crazy, and he certainly wouldn’t look out of place on a college campus. A thick wooden earring hangs from each ear, but any other metal or ink Marchese has is covered up by his hoodie and jeans — and from talking to him, one would never suspect his penchant for dangling by the skin on his back from hooks and ropes.
But then again, Ann Arbor’s body modification aficionados have a surprising knack for blending in.
The many faces of modification
After more than a year, Karen Ross’s mother still doesn’t know about her tattoo. Ross, a sophomore in the Residential College, had her late father’s initials inked on her inner wrist at Lucky Monkey on South Ashley Street.
“I thought about getting it for like three years before I actually did it, just so it wasn’t some rash decision,” Ross explained. “This is how he used to write his initials, and then ever since he died I’ve just kind of had it in the back of my mind … part of why I wanted it was so I could look at it every day and be reminded of everything that me and my dad had together.”
When Ross wears an inch-thick bracelet on her wrist, the initials are completely covered up. She used to put on the bracelet every time she went home.
“When I was a little kid (my mom) used to tell me like, ‘Never get a tattoo, you won’t be able to get a job, people will look down on you,’ ” Ross said.
But this isn’t just any old tattoo; it has a special meaning.
“I just want to wait and see if she’ll see it on her own,” Ross said, “and if she sees it on her own, then that’s the time that I’ll talk to her about it.”
Art & Design senior Nae Morris is more conspicuously modified. She has several piercings on her ears and nose. But it’s not until she yawns or makes a funny face that the extent of Morris’s modifications reveals itself: The tip of her tongue is split in two, and she can move the segments independently of each other.
“No one ever notices, because when I talk you don’t see it, you don’t hear it,” Morris said of her tongue bifurcation. “I didn’t want a million piercings in my ear, I didn’t want to be visibly known … but I was really happy having things for myself.”
Besides the bifurcation and her numerous piercings and tattoos, Morris has extensive scarification — purposely carved scars in the shape of cherry and plum blossoms run from her armpits to hips on both sides — and implants in her hands.
“It’s the exact same thing as a breast implant pretty much, except that these are solid instead of being a bag filled with silicone,” Morris explained the process. The flower-shaped implants are soft to the touch, “like a gummy bear … and when I wake up they’re kind of more poofy.”
Although they push out nearly a half-inch from the backs of her hands, the implants aren’t glaringly obvious, and long sleeves can easily cover them.
“I wear hoodies and jeans all the time — nobody even knows I’m tattooed,” Morris said.
Pangea Piercing’s self-described “captain,” j.c. potts (no capitalization, “like ee cummings with punctuation”) regularly interacts with the secretly modified like Ross and those with more noticeable art like Morris.
Since Pangea has a reputation for cleanliness and high-tech sterilization methods, much of potts’s clientele consists of scientists, researchers and doctors — hardly the stereotypical metal-ornamented rebels.
To hide his customers’ piercings from prying eyes, potts sells “retainers,” glass fillings that make the holes less noticeable.
“They’re not going to withstand a Jewish grandma, but your boss, maybe,” he said.
Launching into the gender disparities in piercings (more girls pierce their nostrils or traguses — the triangular flap of cartilage toward the front of the ear — and guys prefer eyebrows), potts stressed that it’s ultimately impossible to predict who has what.
“There’s way more people that look like you that have genital piercings than people that look like me,” he said. “Like, what do you think the percentage is of people that work here that have genital piercings?”
It’s 50 percent. Potts is one of them, but “you wouldn’t be able to guess (the other),” he said.
According to potts, Ann Arbor is a fairly tolerant place for the heavily modified.
“If you want to stand out here, you have to cut your hair and wear a suit and tie, and listen to Rush Limbaugh,” he explained. “But if you want to go along with the mainstream then you get some dreadlocks, you get your nose pierced, you go vegan.”
In a town where so many of the residents are students, it’s not surprising that attitudes toward body modification would be relatively liberal.
Morris was particularly gratified by the University’s response when she had to go to UHS last year for a skin allergy.
“I was really, really impressed that (the doctors) were so friendly to me, that they didn’t give me some sort of parental speech of ‘What are you doing to your body?’ ” she said. “That was really reassuring to me.”
However, Morris has had her share of bad reactions to her body modifications, both in the University and the outside world.
“I think campus is accepting. I think campus still judges,” she said.
During her senior critique in the art school, one professor, upon seeing her hand implants, accused Morris of self-harming. It’s a charge often laid on people with more unorthodox modifications.
“It’s not like I’m doing my scarification work with a razor blade on my arms,” Morris explained.
“I don’t want to make light of situations where people are cutting, because that’s a very serious issue, but it’s not something that I deal with … There’s a big difference from when you do it to yourself, by yourself, than when you find a tattoo artist and spend six months designing something, and then spend a year of your life working with that person for hours every other week to finish something.”
Morris clearly doesn’t do her modifications on a self-desecrating whim. She is extremely picky about cleanliness, recovery time and the state of her health before she gets each new modification. But she recounted an incident in a grocery store, when she saw a mother scold her misbehaving child, “ ‘Stop being trouble, you’re such trouble.’
“And then (the mother) looks at me, ‘She knows what trouble is.’ ”
Morris didn’t just let the comment pass.
“I looked at her, I’m like, ‘Actually, ma’am, I’m putting myself through the University of Michigan, I’m completely drug-free — I’ve never smoked anything — I lead a vegan lifestyle for myself, I’m active in different political organizations, I work with all these different things, I’m on ResStaff, I hold multiple jobs at a time while being a full-time student. If you’d like to know about trouble, I can direct you to some other groups, but I’m not (in) them.’
“And she was dumbfounded.”
Parental reactions to students’ modifications are often the stickiest to deal with. Like Ross, whose mother still doesn’t know about her small tattoo, Morris doesn’t announce her new work to her family. Students often let their parents find out about their modifications when it comes up — in some cases, literally.
LSA sophomore Christina Daniels had a tree tattooed on her hip when she turned 18. Her mother found out when she was driving back to school from fall break last year.
“I was laying down in the car and my shirt came up a little bit and she was like … ‘What is that?’ ” Daniels said.
“ ‘It’s my tattoo, buh-bye Mom, I’ll see you at winter break.’ ”
Remaking the temple
Perhaps more reassuring to parents are the motivations behind tattoos and other modifications — in many cases, it’s a particular fusion of the artistic and the spiritual.
“I got (my tattoo) because of a Bible parable,” said Daniels, who has been religious all her life. The tree, which spreads over nearly a foot of her right hip, is a “metaphor for faith and how it can grow and become a big thing.”
More than a spiritual outlet, Morris sees body modification as “a whole process of, really, adding to yourself.”
“It’s a freeing process, it definitely helps me feel more comfortable with myself,” she said, but “it’s never something you need.”
Marchese agrees that modifications shouldn’t be necessary to feel at home in one’s own skin.
“I have my two or three piercings because I care about them, because they mean a lot to me. I did suspension because it was meaningful to me. … I don’t feel like my piercings complete me; in a sense, it’s just my way of expressing myself at this point in time.”
In doing piercings, potts deals directly with how to turn this self-expression into art.
He described his work as “more of a craft,” in that he turns other people’s concepts into artistic reality rather than directly engaging with his own ideas. He sees himself as an employee of his customer, the real artistic visionary.
“It’s art for you when you’re sitting and they’re making over your body,” he said. “You’re remaking your temple … we just help.”
For potts, body modification is all about decorating the earthly temple.
His own piercings and tattoos are an exercise in “trying to make the outside look like what I think the outside should look like — curb appeal, as it were.”
Potts sees eye to eye with many of the Students for the Appreciation of Body Modification crowd on their reasons for getting into this particular form of art. He described LSA senior Amanda Badger, a co-founder of SABM and frequent visitor to Pangea.
“She’s not a weirdo. She just likes her temple and wants to decorate a little bit. And she’s not sad or self-mutilating or anything like that. It’s about a celebration of her life. … It’s a very empowering thing.”
Modified bodies in the student body
Badger founded SABM last year as a place for students to get together and have an open conversation about body modification.
“I enjoy body modification and body modification accessories, and I noticed that there wasn’t an actual U of M student group that was involved with (that),” Badger said.
Though only the five officers attended the suspension-themed first meeting of the semester, Badger hopes to expand the group. She echoes the sentiments of many modified students in her worries that others sometimes judge them or fear their differences before getting to know them.
“Anything that you don’t know about is scary, and I don’t want people to just chalk (me) off as some sort of freak, because I’m the same as anybody else,” Morris said.
Even Daniels, whose tattoo is only visible when she wears a swimsuit, said her friends are “always really surprised when they find out I have it.”
“They’re like, ‘Oh, you don’t seem like the tattoo type,’ ” she said.
Clearly, the idea of a “tattoo type,” the standard ink-covered and metal-spiked delinquent, is a myth. The body-modified can be anyone; their art is just as likely to be a purely personal expression as a loud public statement.
“It’s not weird … it’s not unacceptable,” Badger said of body modification. “We’re not mean, and we’re not elitist, and — ”
“Speak for yourself!” Morris joked.
Morris mused that with her split tongue, pop-up flowered hands and countless tattoos and piercings, she is “probably the most heavily modified student on campus.” She has traveled across the country to find just the right artists or craftsmen to do her work.
But in Ann Arbor, Morris still admits to a discrepancy between her community at the ‘U’ and her modification community.
“Some of my friends … see me as a novelty,” she said. “I always have this weird feeling that people see me as, ‘Let’s live vicariously through her, because she’s willing to make these choices for her life’ … I think that some people are afraid to step out of their little comfort bubbles.”
The spiritual and artistic outlet of body modification is an essential part of Morris’s life and the lives of many modification practitioners.
And, Morris confessed, “I really want to have more friends that I can share that with.”