Photo by Sal Ingram

After dipping her feet in the water of body modification, UC Santa Cruz third-year Emily Kneeter wanted something a bit less conventional.

Energetically moving her hands, Kneeter displays different body modifications as she talks. Drawing her hands to her face and tapping the stud centered on her upper lip, a small anchor is visible on her hand, and as she kicks out her legs, a vividly colored rose can be seen on her foot.

While tattoos and piercings are among the more common modifying procedures, there are a variety of other options to choose from, including but not limited to tongue splitting, aesthetic implants like horns, and expanding previously pierced holes — more commonly known as stretching.

Such procedures are becoming increasingly more popular and accepted. Surveys conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology have shown a rise in Americans with tattoos — 24 percent of Americans aged 18 to 50 have at least one. That number increases for the younger age range from 18 to 29, for which 36 percent are found to have at least one tattoo.

Kneeter finds herself among that number and has elected to get a variety of body modifications, including tattoos, piercings and the less common procedure of scarification.

“I originally wanted a branding. It’s not like a cattle brand — it’s electro-cautery, a pen they use for surgery,” said Kneeter as she draws her shirt up to display the puffy, dark heart on her abdomen. “But when I went to get it, they told me scarification would be more precise because they use a scalpel to do it.”

Similar to tattooing, scarification is a procedure that permanently places an image or words on the body and can be done by cutting or burning, or through other less common practices such as chemicals or abrasion.

“I like the idea of having something you’re so interested in permanently on your body,” Kneeter said. “I just like having a decorated body. It’s so much more interesting than having nothing.”

Santa Cruzan Eric Swanson-Dexel displays a colorful montage of images on his arms and body as he walks through the streets of downtown Santa Cruz. Swanson-Dexel also said tattoos can be deeply meaningful ways to express life experiences.

“The human skin is an incredibly sensitive canvas, so being able to put ink on the body is a beautiful expression of art displayed through humanity,” Swanson-Dexel said. “A lot of things [inspired me to get body modifications] — spirituality, life story — each of my markings has specific stories to them and value of events or relationships and the expression of my beliefs.”

Photo by Sal Ingram

For piercer Samantha Robles — co-owner of Way Body Arts, which is located by New Leaf Community Market in Westside– Santa Cruz — body modifications have been a huge part of her life. Robles and her business partner ended up in Santa Cruz after deciding to strike out on their own and open a body art studio.

She said the more extensive or unique the modification, the more her interest grows.

“All of a sudden that was all I could think about, and I would spend hours on the Internet or in books trying to find things I had never seen before and just finding out as much as I could,” Robles said. “And not just getting it, but how to do it, what it should look like as opposed to what it could look like, things done properly and the history of them, too.”

Robles’ interest in body-modifications has led her to even try human suspension, which she has said was one of the most intense and amazing experiences of her life. Suspension involves piercing hooks through an individual’s flesh — most commonly through the back or knees — then lifting and supporting the individual by those hooks and a system of ropes.

Similar to suspension, magnet implantations are virtually invisible and used only for entertainment.

UCSC transfer student Paule Conte felt the call of body modifications — getting stretched earlobes, labrets and a magnet surgically implanted in his finger.

“I definitely got a much stronger interest in body modifications being friends with piercers,” Conte said. “I kind of became a shop rat.”

Conte got the magnet implanted because he said it seemed interesting and relatively soft-core compared to other procedures he’s seen friends get.

Responses to body modifications vary greatly. Body-modifying enthusiast Kneeter said people usually like her modifications, but she has also experienced outright disdain toward her chosen appearance. Her family threatened to cease paying for school, and a romantic prospect also found her modifications unappealing. But Kneeter said that her modifications are no different than any other form of appearance-altering people engage in on a daily basis.

“Body modifications are literally anything you do to change your appearance — dying your hair is a modification to your personal appearance.

“Styling your hair a certain way, or putting makeup on is modifying your appearance,” Kneeter said. “People always freak out about those who are crazy modified, like the man that looks like a cat, [but] if it makes you more comfortable with your body it shouldn’t be frowned upon.”

Northern California model Kathryn Dalbeck showcases a mural of ornate images on her body — a delicate rosevine flowing from her hips up her side. Her last name runs across her shoulder blades, surrounded by intricate patterns with the image of the traditional Irish claddagh below and a richly colored lotus on her lower back, among others.

Dalbeck said all of her tattoos symbolically represent different parts of her life, and that displaying images that represent her individuality is deeply important to her.

“It’s referring to something you look at that is beautiful and [it] can explain it in a different way,” Dalbeck said. “Maybe it tells a story as you’re going through your tattoos, so if anybody looks at your tattoos and asks why you have it, you can explain all the meaning. Maybe it’s for your grandpa, it reminded you of this, you lived here — whatever is most important to you.”

Dalbeck’s tattoos prove challenging in her modeling career. In a profession famous for strict physical standards — to which agencies have commented on Dalbeck’s hair, height and eyes already — standing out isn’t always an advantage.

Photo by Sal Ingram

“I never even thought I’d make it this far and have the ability to approach an agency to say, ‘This is something I’m really good at. This is me,’” Dalbeck said. “If I didn’t have my tattoos, I probably could have been taken and they could have worked with my height, but now that I have them? All bets are off.”

As Dalbeck is confined to freelance shooting, she has only had one opportunity to work with a photographer who had a complete team. Dalbeck said she was turned down for many great offers because of her tattoos, so to get the job she decided to wing it and accept the offer without disclosing the nature of her tattoos.

“He was trying to figure out ways to cover my tattoos and he ended up saying, ‘You would have been a beautiful model, but I don’t know how we’re going to clean up this mess you’ve created on your body,’’” Dalbeck said. “It was just so offending. I wanted to walk out and say, ‘You think this is a mess? This represents something that is so much above my love for modeling — which is so incredibly hard to beat — these [tattoos] represent a family member, my life. And for you to call that a mess? You are disgracing me completely.’’”

In addition to professional reasons for not wanting body modifications, there are personal ones as well.

“Think where you want to place it, why you want to place it there, what exactly you’re getting,” Dalbeck said. “Will this mean to you — for the rest of your life — what it means to you when you get it?”

Despite the challenges her tattoos have presented, Dalbeck said she does not regret having them and hopes they will help her find her perfect career. For Dalbeck, her tattoos have helped hone her career into something she said she truly enjoys.

Similar to how Dalbeck’s tattoos have helped guide her career, Way Body Arts employee Adrian Aguayo’s tattoos have directed his.

“I was into tattoos before I was pretty much into any art in general,” Aguayo said. “I gave it some time, I tried school, I tried a lot of different things — but I was always ending up back at the shop. I had a friend there who gave me a job to make some extra money and it was just a hooked high.”

Body modifications range greatly from individual to individual, as does the reason behind them.

“People these days get [body modifications] for more of the right reasons than they ever did,” Aguayo said. “In the beginning, with sailors, it was, ‘Don’t be a pussy — do it,’ but now people get it because something personal happened or they want to show their independence.”

There are degrees to which one can be involved with modifications, spanning from those who have a gallery of piercings and modifications to those who have as few as one tattoo. For UCSC second-year Avery Damon*, her first tattoo may be the end of the line for her modifications.

Damon’s first and only planned experience with tattoos took place on March 1, and she said she found the process to be novel, though a bit uncomfortable, and worthwhile in the end.

“It was a little scary, but really exciting. I’ve never gotten a tattoo before,” Damon said. “[I learned] how long it takes, how you have to take care of it after. I’m excited and I just want it to heal and [to] show my friends.”

Photo by Sal Ingram

After bandaging the fresh ink, Aguayo hugged Damon as they reached the end of their journey together. Aguayo said the favorite part of his job is “making people happy, making them love their body more than they did before.”

Co-owner of Way Body Arts Robles said that although there is no wrong reason to want a piercing or tattoo, there are plenty of wrong ways to go about it.

“I have to deal with people’s bodies, and because I’m not a medical professional, people don’t want to listen sometimes, even when it’s serious,” Robles said. “This is your body, and I’m making holes in it,” Robles said.

Santa Cruzan Swanson-Dexel said he sees modifications as a way of representing one’s self, but not where identity is found. Modifications are a means of communicating what is already true of you, and the same can be done by other non-permanent or non-aesthetic means.

“Each person has a choice in having them or not having them. I don’t place a lot of weight on them in one way or the other,” Swanson-Dexel said. “I would say being the person you are is not about the ink or adornments that you carry on your body, just like clothes or styles is not the person that you are — the value of who you are is so much more.”


*Names have been changed