Hellion Magazine - A Scarification Artist and His Client Talk About the Growing Appeal of Scarification

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(Image courtesy of Ryan Ouellette and his client Russell)

A Scarification Artist and His Client Talk About the Growing Appeal of Scarification

By Amy Goldman

October 13th 2015


In the age of Instagram, people are constantly searching for the one thing that will up their cool factor. Now that tattooing is everywhere and rare piercings are less unexpected, what are people yearning to express their individuality to do? It looks as though scarification is the latest trend in body modification. Scarification involves making precise cut into the skin in order to produce scars that form a desired image.

We talked to Ryan Ouellette, one of the country’s top scarification artists, about this form of body modification’s growing appeal. We also talked to one of his clients, Russell, who offered insight into the experience of getting a scarification cutting.


Hellion: What drew you to scarification? What made you realize you wanted to be a scarification artist?

Ryan Ouellette: It’s kind of the same motivation I had for piercing. At the time, it was probably around 1999, 2000 maybe, and I was involved in a website called BME. BME at the time was really the only exposure that I had ever had to scarification. There really wasn’t anyone that I knew of in the US that was really offering it as a service. There were maybe one or two that did it part time, but there was really no one, certainly no one in my region that I could go and talk to. I was already piercing for a few years at the time. I already owned my own studio. I was about twenty at the time. I was like, well, I wanted it for myself so maybe I can get the supplies and just do a practice piece on my leg and kind of see how it goes. I had no aspirations of offering it as a service or performing it on other people at the time. I just wanted it for myself, so, I experimented a little bit, did a few on myself, and it grew into this thing where my friends saw it and so they wanted one and their friends saw it and they wanted one, and after a while I started putting a couple of pictures on the Internet and it grew out of there pretty organically.

What made you more interested in scarification than other forms of body modification, like tattooing?

I have a fair amount of tattooing. I don’t perform it, because I’m not really, I don’t see myself as an artist. Tattoo artists have their skill-set, they can close their eyes and imagine something, and they can put it down on paper and they can put it down on skin. For me, I feel like I’m much more of a technician and I’ve always been drawn to technical things. Through studying anatomy, I look at skin and I don’t see it as a blank canvass like a tattoo artist might. I see it as layers of skin and different kinds of tissue and blood vessels. I see it as a technical kind of thing. I was drawn to working with the body and seeing how the body would heal the wound and all these different aspects that I thought were really neat from a technical angle.

Did you study anatomy when you were in school?

I’ve always been into anatomical features. I’ve always been interested in that stuff when I was in school and we were in health class talking about different anatomical structures. I was always interested, but I didn’t really start studying it until I wanted to become a professional piercer. There was a fair amount of crossover between the training I used for scarification and the training I already had for body piercing. At the time, when I tried my first scarification piece on myself, I had just finished a pretty comprehensive anatomy course and maybe it just was more on my mind at the moment, how to work with the body and the structure of the skin and what you can do with it with scarring.

Do you think your clients are drawn to this for the same reasons?

It’s difficult, I usually ask people why this design, why scarification versus a tattoo versus something else. Sometimes they can’t really give me an exact answer but it usually revolves around the fact that they’re just drawn to it for some reason. I think a lot of people look at scars and they have this natural stigma as being something negative. People see scars from surgeries or accidents or some sort of trauma, so I think they almost see it as a way of overcoming that or recapturing something that people would normally see as ugly and then using it for something that they see as beautiful.

Do your clients tend to have preexisting scars from traumatic incidents or surgeries?

Some people do, but I don’t think it would be any more than the general population. People don’t come in with really bad scars and say explicitly, “I want scarification as a way to recapture a more elegant scar.” I think people are naturally drawn to it because everybody knows what scars are but most people see them as being something negative. I think people who are drawn to scarification want to take that and turn it into a positive.

How would you describe the difference between getting a tattoo and a scarification cutting?

It’s not as static as a tattoo. You finish the tattoo, the tattoo heals, and you have the same tattoo the rest of your life. Scarification is very much evolving and changing as it heals. You’ll start with the initial piece that’s a cut, and then your body has to heal that as a wound and then as it heals it matures into a scar so it’s this constantly changing process. Your scar is going to look different at one month and one year and five years. It’s going to change with the person.

How does it tend to change over time? Does it thicken or change shape?

It can do a lot of different things. Usually scars will slightly expand. Sometimes they can start flat and as they heal and mature they can raise and expand and get puffier. Other times they can indent slightly or they can be the same height but a different coloration or texture. It’s really different from person to person. I think people are drawn to the unpredictability of it. You can’t say, “Alright, I’ll do the exact same scar on ten different people and get the same result,” like with a tattoo. With a scar, every person and every healed piece is going to be very, very different.

What are some of your favorite designs to work on?

For me, it’s mostly going back to more of a technician so I like pieces that are really technically challenging. When clients come to me and say, “Do whatever you want. I really like your style,” usually that will lead me towards really intricate, small lines, little tiny details, things like that. I really try to push myself and see what’s the most complicated thing I can do within the realm of what the client wants. If somebody comes to me and they say they want this piece that requires a lot of artistic skill or artistic creativity, I’ll usually tell them pretty explicitly that’s not really my strength. If you want something artistic, you need to give me reference material or a lot of input. If it’s left to me, I’m always going to lean toward more technical, geometric patterns, depth, and things like that.

What was one of your most memorable experiences working on a piece?

One of the ones that sticks out for me is I had a girl; she was pretty young, maybe around 20. She was very petite and didn’t have any other visible piercings. She didn’t have any tattoos at all. She had never really done much for body art, but she wanted a handprint on her side. The hand that she chose to have put on her was her little brother’s hand. It was a life-size palm print of her brother. It was really interesting because I got to see her at a couple of different points over its healing process. I got to see it short term and long term and it really changed a lot with her and it really grew. She was really happy to see that. Maybe it was something related to her relationship or the age of her brother or growing and changing together with the piece. It was always really interesting to me because that’s the only thing she chose to do to her body, out of anything she could’ve picked, she picked this specific piece. It healed really beautifully and I was always very happy with it. It’s one of my favorite pieces that I’ve done. It always sticks out in my mind as being really simple but really nice.

Can you take me through the scarification process, from the client contacting you, to picking the design, to the actual cutting and healing?

A huge amount of it is very similar to tattooing. If you just replace a needle and ink with a scalpel, the majority of the rest of the process is the same. Most of the pieces I do are on people from outside of my region. I hardly ever work on people that are within an hour of my studio. It’s usually people that drive a few hours. I have a lot of clients that fly in from other parts of the country, or I’ll work on them when I’m in other countries on tour. We’ll almost always start with email. They’ll give me an idea of their design and where they want it on their body. Unlike tattooing, it really changes a lot depending on what they want and where they want it. I always need to have to have a conversation with them, “If you want it on this part of your body with this kind of design, you might want to expect this type of scar, so if you want that or if you want something different, maybe we can plan to work with that.” We’ll do a couple design revisions. Sometimes I’ll have them take a picture of their body location. Then I’ll take the design in Photoshop, put it on there so we can work out the scale. Sometimes we need to go bigger or smaller because of the way their body moves. You don’t want to do a scar really close to something like a belt line or for someone who wears a bra you don’t want to go too close to the straps because that pressure can really affect the way that the scar forms. So body location is probably a little more important than with a tattoo. Once they come in, just like tattoo you would clean the area. You put on a stencil. Once they check it out in the mirror and make sure that they really like it, performing scarification is usually a three-step process. With a tattoo, there’s outlining and then shading and then coloring. With a scarification piece, there would be a very shallow outline and then I would do a detail outline. That’s where I’d put any thick and thin lines and I would clean up corners and I’ll work on depth and line weight. The third step would be if there’s an area removal for a solid bold section. Then I take some pictures, bandage it up, and the rest of it is really just all about how the body heals it.

What are the tools you use for this?

It’s really just a scalpel. The same thing you’d use for arts and crafts. It’s not a super rare tool. It’s just a sterile scalpel blade and a handle. And then sometimes different little tweezer-like tools for removing because you have to change out the blades pretty often. With a tattoo, you can work on one eight hour tattoo with just one needle the whole time and then you dispose of it after you’re completely done with the client. With scarification, sometimes you’re going through a dozen or twenty or maybe thirty blades on a really big piece. It’s a little bit different than a tattoo and you have to freshen it up and change it out every half hour to an hour.

Do you usually perform a cutting in one session or can it be over several?

It usually has to be done in one sitting. If it was something where somebody wanted lettering with four letters, and you did two letters in one session and the other two in another session, you might get a very, very different looking scar from one side to the other. So I always say, even if it’s a big piece, you really want to do it all in one sitting just for consistency. There are so many factors that work into how it heals, it can even be the weather and how much clothing people are wearing and how active they are, how frequently they clean it. All these different things, even just the season that you do it in can change how it heals. So it’s important to do as much of it as possible in one sitting. Once you already have scar tissue you can’t go back into it. With a tattoo, you can outline it in one session and you can color it in another. With scarification, once you start working with the skin you have to finish in that sitting. You can add something next to an existing scar but you wouldn’t be able to go back into the existing scar and work on it more.

Is the pain level significantly higher than other forms of body modification?

No, I wouldn’t say that. I think people look at it and get really freaked out by it. It’s just the natural, inherent stigma to seeing something like that. When people see a cut or they see something similar, they get freaked out. It’s always like, “Oh my god, what happened?” It’s never like, “Oh, hey, that’s cool.” People can look at a six-hour tattoo and be like, “Oh that’s really beautiful. It must have been tough, but that’s great.” If somebody looks at a six-hour scarification piece, they say, “Oh my god, how are you alive?” It’s the same amount of trauma to the body, really. It’s an incredibly superficial trauma and it’s no more difficult to get than a large tattoo. I’ve done a lot of work on people who are heavily tattooed. They say that it’s really similar. It feels kind of like tattoo outlining. It’s not quite as gory or scary as people usually think it is.

That’s different from what I would expect.

Yeah, it can vary from person to person, too. I’ve been doing this a really long time. Most of the time when I interact with people who say they’ve done scarification, most of the time they’ve done three or four or five. There’s a really short list of people in the entire world. I maybe know a dozen people in the world who have done more than a hundred. It’s a small club. Everybody who does a lot of scarification knows each other. We all talk to each other about our techniques, our aftercare, and how we do what we do. We all share information. When I talk to some people, they say, “It can be a little rough for a client because I do this technique,” or, “It can be a little easier for a client because I do this technique.” I feel like my technique is pretty gentle.

What are some of the safety and hygiene procedures that a really good scarification artist will adhere to?

This is where I’d say it probably diverges a little bit more than tattooing. Tattooers don’t have to worry quite as much with a tattoo because it’s just a needle that’s lightly tapping the skin. They have standard hygiene practices—a sterile needle, a sterile tube, a clean work environment. With scarification, I would go a little bit more towards higher levels of hygiene. I’m going to have the entire area masked off. I really clean a lot larger section of the person’s body. If somebody’s getting something small on their back, I’m probably going to clean their entire back, their shoulders, their arms, and anything that might come in contact with it. I’m just really cautious about how I work so I’m not contaminating the are as I work on it because it’s a little bit more exposed before it’s bandaged and healed. You just have to be a little more cautious with hygiene. As someone who’s had a lot of training for body piercing, and now I’m in a phase of my career where I do a lot of instructing for things like hygiene and sterilization, I always try to make the cleanest possible environment for my clients.

What do you think distinguishes a skilled scarification artist from someone who’s less experienced?

Healed results are really just the huge line. If you have a good, intuitive mind, you can look at a picture of well-done scarification and you can probably start to figure it out a little bit. Everybody’s going to fumble with the first couple of ones just like any art form, you know, tattooing or piercing. Nobody’s going to be great with the first one. It’s probably a little bit easier for someone to do a good-looking fresh piece within their first couple of piece, but actually getting a good healed result is where it’s super difficult. You have to see those heal and you have to see a lot of them heal on different people, different body locations, and under different circumstances to really start to figure out what factors really give you a different end result. Trying to narrow it down and being able to talk to the client and say, “You’ve got this part of your body. You have this kind of heritage. You have darker skin or lighter skin. I’ve looked at your other scars from accidents or surgeries and I’ve seen how those have healed. You’ve talked about your lifestyle. I’ve designed your piece in a specific way. Now I want you to do this exact aftercare.” It might start as kind of a boilerplate, basic aftercare, but then you put in a little tweak and say to clean it this many extra times or wrap it this many extra times or do this for this many days. Then you start to see these really impressively healed scars. It’s super difficult to try to manipulate the body one way or the other to have it heal in a way that it didn’t intend to heal. That’s really the benchmark of an experienced scarification artist, being able to get not just a good result but consistently good results piece after piece. That’s the really challenging factor.

What do you think is contributing to the growing popularity of scarification?

I think a lot of it is based on the Internet and how quickly people consume trends and fads on the Internet. With body piercing, five years ago it was a completely different industry worldwide. Then there was this huge boom of social media--Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook—and people were posting these, at the time, very rare piercings. And then it caught on, and then everybody who wanted a cool, interesting piercing had this huge array of stuff they could look at online. They would say, “I want this picture of this really rare piercing so I can have this really rare thing.” Then a thousand people have the exact same idea. So every rare piercing stopped being rare. Now I think people are looking, whether they have honest intentions or whether they’re just collecting something to try to be trendy, I think that’s pushing more people toward scarification. It’s rare. Some body piercers, their motivation to start performing scarification is kind of the same motivation. It’s, “Oh hey I’ve done all these different piercings. People aren’t really noticing me anymore. Maybe I’ll try to offer an implant or scarification or I’ll try to put a weird picture on my portfolio and wow people and get them in the door and spending money. I think that’s just culture now. People need to be different and interesting, and it gets more and more challenging. I think right now scarification is just something people are adding to their arsenal to try to make them a little more unique or interesting.

What are some of the different techniques an artist can perform?

There are successful ones and there are ones that are less successful. As far as the pieces I offer, I’ll say certain terms like single line, removal, shading, and things like that. Single line would just basically be, you make one cut in the skin, and then you can slowly start to build up some width to it. Not depth, because for obvious safety reasons you can’t just cut into somebody. That would be unsafe. When you’re doing something with a lot of detail where it’s just a single line, you’re doing it all with width. It’s really challenging and really interesting and you can get unique artistic results from it, but it can be a little bit more difficult for people. Then there’s removal, where you’re kind of outlining an area and then you’re shaving off a little bit of the top layer. Rather than just an outlined circle, you’re getting a filled in dot. You can use that for details and for some nice pieces but that technique is very difficult. Most people, when they start, they’re starting with all single line pieces. Good removal takes experience to be able to do well. You have to know the body and know the tools you’re working with. There are different kinds of crosshatch shading techniques. Sometimes you can get a decent result, but more often than not you’re probably going to get a bad result because it’s really difficult to make itty bitty little cuts in the skin and then main the proper blood flow needed to have the negative space section that you don’t’ cut heal well without scarring themselves. Those are probably the three main kinds. I’d say the number one most popular style done is just single line techniques. Removal techniques are also more popular but they’re really challenging so you won’t see them quite as often. Shading techniques, maybe some success, maybe some failure. You’re not going to see very much of that in successfully healed pieces.

What are some of the popular designs that are more commonly requested by clients?

It is super varying on the designs. With a tattoo, we can all make the jokes that every three months there’s a new super popular thing. People were getting mandalas, and then they were getting feathers, and then feathers that turned into birds, and then cursive writing and poetry. With scarification, it’s always completely out of left field. When I get an email from someone, I don’t know if it’s going to be, “Hey, I want to recreate an architectural plan for some Roman building,” or, “I want to get this giant lettering piece,” or, “I want to get something that recreates getting clawed by a bear.” It’s so varying and it’s always really fascinating to talk to the person about their motivation of why they’re getting that particular design. They range so much that there’s almost never a trend. There have been times where people have asked me to recreate something similar to a piece I’ve done before but I really try to avoid work like that. I don’t want to be known as someone who does ten of this one same thing. I would much rather have it be that one individual’s piece and it’s never done again.

What do you think a potential client should consider before they get something done?

Really research the person doing it. If someone wants a tattoo, they can probably find a pretty decent tattoo artist within half an hour. Tattooing is really widespread. There was such a boom in apprenticeships over the last ten years that there’s no shortage of good tattoo artist. If you want a really exceptional piece, maybe you have to travel a few hours, but you can probably find someone within driving distance. With scarification, if you want a really top-level piece, the list is really short. Less than twenty names in the world. As far as in the states, there’s a handful, but different states have different laws. In my state, in New Hampshire, it’s managed pretty much like a tattoo. It’s the same license as tattooing for scarification. In other states, it’s completely illegal. That can push people underground, so maybe’ they’re not offering it publicly. Maybe they’re not practicing very much because they’re only doing one piece a year because they can’t advertise it. It’s really intensely important to say that this is not a tattoo. If tattooing goes bad, you just have an ugly-looking tattoo. If scarification goes bad, there are more significant concerns. A really badly healed scar, like a nasty keloid scar, can limit mobility. It can be painful for a long time. It can just be really ugly and thick and knotty on the skin. It can cause all kinds of anatomical issues. So you have to make sure that the person is trained, that they know what they’re doing. You need to see healed results. Don’t look at somebody’s Instagram page, and you find two fresh pieces that look okay, and say, “Sure, they can do this giant piece on my back because they’re twenty minutes down the road and I don’t want to have to fly across the country to pay somebody else to do it.” Be very picky. As picky as you possibly can be. Scrutinize someone. Interview someone. Don’t just find the first person that says yes. Find the best person you can and then find a way to get to them.

How can someone who’s interested in becoming a scarification artist gain the qualifications they need?

That’s difficult because I would never even want to imply that it’s something that just anyone can learn. It’s a very, very rare skill. I’m not going to say that scarification artists have the same kind of skill as a surgeon, but it’s slightly in the same vein. If someone wants to become a plastic surgeon, they have to go to medical school. It’s not as intense with scarification, but it’s not possible to go and get an apprenticeship with somebody. There will never be apprenticeships with scarification. If anybody ever offered a scarification apprenticeship, I would be incredibly terrified of that person and I would be super suspicious of them. It’s such a rare skillset. If people are interested in learning, and they’re already in the professional body art field—they’re already a body piercer or a tattooer, they already have some training—maybe I would talk to them and give them some pointers. My first suggestion is always going to be that you should watch a really good scarification artist perform it first so you can fully understand the process. Any sort of practice you do, if it’s not on something inanimate like a piece of rubber, it should be on yourself. There should never be any body piercer or tattooer or non-industry person who says, “Hey, I’m really drawn to this art form. I’m just going to buy a box of razor blades or scalpels and I’m just going to try to do it off of somebody that I met on the Internet.” That’s really, really irresponsible so I’d always tell people that you have to witness it. You have to fully understand it, and you have to be invested in it. On top of that, you already need a lot of prerequisite training. Usually most people who get into scarification are already going to be experienced body piercers, so they’re already going to have experience with sterilization and anatomy and working the skin. The term “working with the skin” or “knowing the skin” is really difficult to fully explain to someone who isn’t in the industry, but it’s really important to just know how the skin reacts to something like being pierced, being tattooed, or being cut. IT’s a rare, rare, rare, skill. I’d always try to tell people that if they want to get into it, think really hard about it because the chances of someone just coincidentally being able to do it are very, very slim.

What do you wish more people knew about scarification?

I don’t even really think I have an answer for that. I like that scarification is kind of an unknown factor. I still want people to look at it and be a little unsettled by it. Not scared by it. But I wouldn’t ever want scarification to get to the point where someone looks at this really big, impressive piece—somebody picks out something that has this intense meaning to them and they went through all this effort to travel to an artist and get the piece done and they spent weeks taking care of it and months healing it and it’s this really amazingly unique fingerprint or snowflake type thing that only would be possible on that one person—and then somebody just looks at it and they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool. I’ve seen stuff like that before.” I would never want it to get to that point. I kind of like that scarification is still weird to a lot of people. I’m kind of happy with where it is. If people are really, truly interested in scarification, I think it’s not even something I’d have to tell them about. I think they’d be hungry for that information and they would search it out as something for themselves.




Hellion: What made you want to get a scarification cutting?

Russell: I’m probably pretty typical of most people. I started looking at tattoos and everything else, and I didn’t want a tattoo. Scarification is a little more natural, a little more original. For me, the idea of actually having ink under your skin freaks me out a little bit. It’s foreign to your body. At the very least, with scarification it’s your own scar tissue. It’s just in a shape, and so it’s a little bit more natural.

What cuttings have you gotten?

I’ve got Latin across my back from elbow to elbow and this next piece we’re going to do is going to be a continuation of that down my back. It’ll basically look just like lines of text from all over my upper back. Hopefully we’re going to do a collar next year.

Can you talk about what the significance of those cuttings is for you?

They’re both quotes from philosophers. I had them translated into Latin largely because I wasn’t interested in anyone else’s opinion on what I had carved into my body. Translating them into Latin was a pretty easy way of avoiding people’s judgment of my quote. I’m not going to tell you what they mean, sorry. One of the passages is from Emerson, one of the passages is from Niche’s writing.

What was your experience like getting the cuttings you’ve had so far?

It was good. I was scared for sure at first because I didn’t know how it was going to go. The thing for me I was most scared of was quitting after one letter. It was pretty painful for sure. For me, I had the benefit of it not being an area I could see. Throughout the cutting, I wasn’t watching my skin. I never even looked at the scalpel because I didn’t want to think about it. It was painful. It was about six hours of cutting.

What would you tell other people considering scarification?

Go to Ryan. That’s actually it. I fly there from Boise, Idaho because he’s the best there is. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of those things that you don’t go to the guy who’s okay at it. There’s one guy in Seattle who has a small portfolio and he’s not very good at it. There’s one guy locally who claimed to be a scarification guy, but when I talked to him and told him what I wanted, his response was, “I think I can probably do that.” I was like, “Well, I’m going to leave now.”

Do you have any thoughts on why scarification is becoming more popular lately?

Is it? I’ve never met another person that had it. I think maybe just with tattoos becoming increasingly mainstream—I mean soccer moms have full sleeves now—people might be looking for one more way to make their work a little more unique.