Monday, January 17, 2011

Minister of Modification: The Flesh and Blood Spirituality of David Hahn

You're probably wrong about the Church of Body Modification. They're not a bunch of human pincushions getting together, showing off their latest sweet tats and raving about the newest Lamb of God album. They're not suspending their bodies from hooks in their flesh for shock value. Instead, the Church of Body Modification is exactly that: a church, a religion, and nothing they do is without reason.

Nobody knows this better than David Hahn, board member of the Church of Body Modification. He grew up in a military family, graduated from University of California in Santa Barbara... oh, and participated in a four-and-a-half hour flesh removal ceremony on his right calf and “numerous ritual cuttings and scarifications” by his count. Aside from being a Minister in the Church since 2008, he's also a Wiccan High Priest in the Majestic Tradition, collects board games, and does a little beach combing now and then. Here's this modern day mystic dropping knowledge on misconceptions, intentions, and why “decorating your temple” isn't all about the pain when it comes to body modification.

1. Why do humans have an innate desire to change their bodies into
something other than they are naturally? Is it from trying to assert a
sense of power and control over ourselves, pure aesthetic value, or
something else?

Naturally, the answer to this question varies from individual to
individual. As with most issues related to body modification, there
are no pat simple conclusions. We are dealing with
myriad personal, emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic details relating
to each person and their choices. However, I believe that each of the
possibilities you assert are true alone and in combination. Some
people are modified as part of a ritualistic reclaiming of their own
bodies to heal some hurt from their past, such as self-image issues or
abuse. Others may be trying to mark themselves as apart form the
"norm" in society. Some people that are modified pierce, tattoo,
brand, cut, etc. themselves as "art for art's sake." They are trying
to enhance their beauty and image to the rest of the world. There are
still others for whom body modification is a way to get closer to
their "higher power," whatever or whomever that may be. Through the
process of modification, they offer up the sensations and intent (
blood, sweat, and tears, as some say) as a way of prayer, as a rite of
passage, or as a simple offering. As I mentioned, for each person,
they may change their bodies for any or ALL of these reasons, but it
is impossible to simply assume a reason for any one practitioner of
body modification. The reasons are as varied as the modifications

2. Do you believe there's a point where body modification stops being
about self-expression and starts as a symptom of mental illness? For
instance, some people with apotemnophilia cut off their own limbs
because that's how they see themselves as a person, lacking an arm or
leg. Is that going too far?

You are speaking about two entirely different things, and this is a
common misconception in society at large. Many people believe that
practitioners of body modification like the pain or some such
claptrap. I think I can safely say that MOST of us do NOT like the
pain. We go through what we go through as a means to bring about a
desired end, not for the pain itself. That said, I have made clear to
many people that we accept the pain as part of what we must go through
to achieve our goals in terms of modification...we know that we will
endure a certain amount of discomfort, and we may even use that pain
ritually to evoke a change in our lives, to mark a transition.
However, I believe that very few body modification practitioners and
aficionados are "in it for the pain" or suffer from some mental
illness that sparks them to do such things. Society reacts to nearly
anything that is alien to them, especially something that can be as
dramatic as this, as surely a sign of something wrong. The truth that
they fail so often to understand is that these people are doing
something right for them, something healthy and healing, and not
something that hints at some dark defect at their core. Even if
someone were to want to modify their bodies so dramatically as to want
a digit or limb removed, that is not necessarily a sign of mental
illness. That person simply has reasons for doing so (artistic,
spiritual, etc.) that is completely foreign to society at large, and
what people do not understand they fear. What they fear, they often
brand as abnormal and abhorrent. This is simple-minded thinking. By
these standards, extreme body building or radical cosmetic surgery
could be seen as just as strange and symptomatic of mental illness.
However, the members of this Church and the body modification
community at large tend to cast these activities in the same light as
ours and so see them as just as valid as our own practices.

3. You're very into the spiritual aspects of body modification. What
is it about changing something that is very directly relating to your
body that makes people connect with greater forces than themselves?

We believe that the body, mind, and spirit are facets of what makes
the whole individual. You can't have one without the others. By
acting with pure intent to modify your body as part of a ritual, you
bring yourself into contact with forces greater than yourself, if that
is what you truly believe, and we DO. Some of us mark ourselves with
religious symbols that indicate our relationship with our deities.
Some of us go through body modification knowing full well that we may
bleed and suffer pain, but also wanting to release that energy into
the universe as an offering, as a prayer, or as a symbolic release of
some issue or pain in order to move forward and live better lives.
Many world religions make body modification or intense body ritual a
part of their spirituality. Theological tomes are FULL of such
instances. However, since we live in a "modern" society, such
practices are seen as primitive and of lesser value religiously, for
some strange reason. Cast in the light of world religion as a whole,
however, our practices are far from abnormal. In fact, many
practitioners incorporate body modification practices of other modern
or "primitive" cultures. This is so true, that the term "modern
primitive" was coined some time ago to describe what we do with our
bodies and spirits through modification.

4. Where do you see body modification going in the future? Tattoos and
piercings are becoming much more common and accepted in society.
What's going to be the new frontiers for changing ourselves?

I do not believe there are any frontiers to meet. This is not a
contest. This is personal and religious. Transgression is not the
goal. I've heard it said "my body is a temple and I am merely
decorating my temple." I believe this to be true. Are there
procedures that coming more to the forefront as "the latest and
greatest?" Sure. Currently, one of the fastest growing modification
procedures in terms of popularity is the "microdermal" or "dermal
anchor," a piercing created by implanting a "foot" or "anchor" for a
piece of jewelry that protrudes through the surface of the skin and
serves as a base for a bead or jewel. That's the simple, layman's
description. Also growing in popularity is scarification, including
branding, flesh removal, and cutting, in order to create a permanent
design on the skin as opposed to tattooing. No ink is usually
involved, although it can be. UV inks are becoming more common place
in tattooing. There is also the incorporation of electronics, such as
RFID chips or magnets, as part of other modifications or as artistic
projects all on their own. Truly, there are no boundaries, but again
I say there should be no boundaries, not because some things should
not be done, but because we should not be in a race to see who can do
the most outrageous thing to themselves. I am more interested in the
INTENT of what people do than they drama or intricacy involved.

5. When do you believe the most pressing issue affecting body
modification is today? Any culture or political situations that have
immediate significance?

There is a lot of political pressure regarding standards and practices
in the body modification field. Should shops be regulated by the
state-mandated laws and guidelines? If so, who develops those
standards and does the body modification community get input into
these rules? Another issue is First Amendment applications to body
modification. Lately there has been a lot of attention drawn to those
who are modified and their rights as they apply to school and/or the
work place. This issue has some fairly deep lines drawn in the sand,
and I predict there will be much more litigation and discussion before
the rights of those who are modified are clearly defined.

David Hahn can be reached at

Images from here and here.

1 comment:

  1. Um, I take back everything I said during our meeting. This interview is awesome and you do a very good job pushing him on specifics, especially on things like the commonplace nature of tattoos and piercings and whether apotemnophilia and body modification is a sign of mental illness. A really great interview, though I kinda wished you asked him a question about becoming a dog. No, really.