Scarification is a permanent form of body modification that affects the texture of the skin by cutting through layers to purposefully create a scar. The process can include a number of techniques, including cutting, scratching, or burning.
The process has deep roots in West African history as a practice of placing incisions on the skin—either through branding or cutting—that create permanent scars to communicate cultural expression. When practiced, scarification tended to signify the person’s identity, including status within a community, the passage into adulthood, tribe affiliation, or a spiritual connection. The idea originated not from a desire to hurt the human body, but as an alternative to tattooing.
“Scarification almost always happens in a culture where there is so much melanin in skin that it would be difficult to see a tattoo,” writer and filmmaker Vince Hemingson told National Geographic.
By opening up the skin, scarification allows skin tissue to develop along the drawn lines. Because the tissue is damaged skin, it tends to grow back lighter, meaning it will stand in contrast to darker skin tones. It was also common practice to irritate the healing scars further by rubbing them in an effort to leave a more distinct scar.
However, with time, the traditional scarification practice began to disappear. As the practice became less common, those who had received scarring began to face judgment for their choices, rather than having it be seen as a symbol of identity. Due to pressure from state and religious authorities to modernize, along with clothing being introduced in tribes, scarification began to decline in practice.
Scarification first began popping up in the United States in the mid-1980s, when the LGBTQ+ community began embracing the art in San Francisco. By the early 1990s, however, subcultures like punk and “modern primitive” started adopting the practice as a part of their communities.
"That movement was interested in reviving or reenacting indigenous body rituals from around the world, trying to get in touch with a more authentic or spiritual experience of the body," Victoria Pitts, professor of sociology at the City University of New York, told National Geographic.
For these subgroups, scarification was a way to signify identity in terms of community or spirituality — just as it was used in Africa.
For some, this type of body modification sends the message that they don't want to fit into society in the ordinary sense. However, modern, Western scarification is considered by some to be a form of cultural appropriation, as those getting scarred are often doing so based on a fascination of other cultures—fascination that may lead to romanticization and misrepresentation rather than appreciation. This treatment might be based in nostalgia for a culture that was never experienced as well; Pitts compares this to someone living in the modern age with a traditional Maori tattoo.
"Someone stuck in L.A. traffic, wearing a tribal tattoo, has a cultural nostalgia for something we imagine we've lost," Pitts told National Geographic. "The problem is that we're taking it upon ourselves to represent a whole range of indigenous cultures in ways that they may not agree with—or may violate sacred spiritual ritual."
But whether or not the practice is more appropriation or appreciation, there is a proper way to scar, as well as a proper way to heal the wounds. Safe scarification is performed on the same layer of skin as tattoos: the dermis, just below the epidermis. Scarification can happen either by branding—which involves pressing a heated metal design into the skin—or by cutting, which uses sharp objects to carve into the skin. On top of different processes, the two techniques also get different results: branding often heals into thick-lined, bold designs, whereas cutting tends to have more detail and thinner scars.
What to Know Before Getting Scarified
Regardless of technique, scars change over time. All scars will lighten and become closer to your natural skin tone. Unlike a tattoo, healed scars will always vary in appearance—some heal flat, and some heal raised. Blair McLean, a former body modification artist who practiced scarification for over 20 years, says that there are four main principles to ensuring your scars heal consistently.
Meet the Expert
Blair McClean is a world renowned branding and scarification artist who has appeared in magazines, on television shows, and in documentaries across the globe. He has over 14 years experience offering custom branding and scarification to local body modification enthusiasts and clients from around the world.
The first principle that affects the consistency of your scars is the artist’s skill. Just like a normal tattoo, the ability of the artist—including factors such as skill level, the depth of the needle, and the consistency of their work—will greatly affect how your scars will look during an after healing. It’s important to find an artist you trust and who has been practicing scarring for a long enough time that they have a portfolio of safe and well-done work. An artist who understands the history of the practice is another good sign, as they will not only offer a deep skillset but an understanding of the cultural impact of the practice as well.
The second principle is aftercare, which is almost the opposite of the typical tattoo procedure. Rather than keeping your scar away from any possible irritation, scarification may actually require you to disturb the mark. For people who don’t want their scars to heal flat, irritating the wound will ensure the scar will be raised. Some people, however, will naturally create enough scar tissue that it won’t lay flat, making irritation during healing unnecessary. Certain types of clothing can also irritate a scar, meaning that it may heal inconsistently in areas where the clothing rubbed against it. To ensure that your design heals in a consistent manner, irritation must be done uniformly. When picking at a scar, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly and only use safe products from the drugstore. Most importantly: Keep your new scar clean! Nothing will make your new design look bad like forgetting to wash it regularly as it could get infected.
The third principle to consider when getting scars done is placement. Every part of your body reacts differently to scarification, and the skin is a major component of that. The skin can range broadly from super thin and smooth to thick and rough. People who scar extremely easily will have a difficult time getting a consistent design when placing it in an area with inconsistent skin (i.e. skin that is thick in some areas and thin in others). In general, scars will look the best when placed where the skin of the entire area is the same thickness or roughness.
The final thing to take into account when considering scarification is your own genetics. Genetics actually play a major role in how scars will heal on your body. Depending on your genetics and skin tone, your artist may choose to alter their scarification technique to better serve you. Good practice for scarification involves talking directly with your artist not just about the design, but how they plan to implement it as well. Because every artist is different, it’s all about communication to ensure you’re comfortable and will be content with the results.
“A person’s scarring ability may not always be known; they may or may not have previous scars that can help the artist see their scarring ability,” says McLean in an informational YouTube video. “A great scar is not always flat or raised, but is beautiful to the client and is clear and easy to see years down the road.”