Scarification is a form of body modification. The scarification process involves someone purposefully cutting into the skin to create scars in specific designs, patterns, or markings.

Many indigenous cultures have traditionally used scarification as a ritualistic practice. Today, people of all backgrounds and cultures worldwide may also use scarification as a form of self-expression, similar to tattoos or piercings.

Scarification involves cutting scars into the skin to create certain patterns or designs, often with symbolic meaning.

In this article, we look at the history of scarification and what the process involves. We also discuss the safety of the practice and the recovery period.

a body modification artist stands over a client preparing to perform scarification on herShare on Pinterest
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Scarification is a form of permanent body modification that involves cutting or burning a pattern or design onto the skin.

Traditionally, within indigenous cultures, people may perform scarification for ritualistic purposes, such as rites of passage or to prepare children for adulthood. The procedure may involve repeatedly using a wooden hook, thorn, or razor blade on the skin to create a design. The artists may then pack the wound with ash or mud to prevent wound healing and to deepen scarring.

In other cultures, people may choose scarification for aesthetic reasons or self-expression.

A scarification artist may cut, burn, or brand a design into the skin with a scalpel, electric current, abrasion, or heated or frozen metal tools.

Traditionally, certain indigenous cultures and ethnicities have used scarification.

Indigenous peoples who have traditionally practiced it include those in Africa, Melanesia, Amazonia, Asia, and Australia. They also include the Maori in New Zealand and the Carajá Indians in Brazil.

Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Congo also have a history of ritual scarification. Archeologists have dated scarification back to 2000 BC.

Scarification may now be less common amongst indigenous communities, as there seems to be less acceptance of it as traditional practices die out.

Scarification may have appeared in other cultures throughout the 1990s and 2000s as a movement to connect to a more spiritual existence and revive rituals from indigenous cultures.

People may traditionally have used scarification to show membership of a tribe or religious group.

According to a 2017 article, some indigenous cultures may perform scarification for the following reasons:

  • hardening the body, a belief that physical and emotional stress on children will prepare them for the demands of adulthood
  • a rite of passage, as initiation into an adult tribal community, after giving birth to a child, or hunting success
  • to enhance strength and improve physical and intellectual development
  • to symbolize dignity and social status
  • to treat certain medical conditions or ailments, such as epilepsy and headaches, or to apply traditional remedies

Dark-skinned peoples may have also chosen scarification over tattooing, as scarring appears more visible on dark skin tones than on light skin tones.

Forms of body modification such as scarification may also have been a way to label criminals, convicts, and enslaved people.

Modern scarification may occur in Western countries for various reasons, as part of body modification culture. Body modification includes tattoos, piercings, and body branding procedures such as scarification.

A 2021 article suggests that people may decide to undergo body modification for:

  • self-expression
  • sense of identity
  • uniqueness or individuality
  • beautifying
  • connecting themselves to a specific group
  • to nonconform or go against social conventions or

Groups of people may also use it to increase a sense of community, membership, and acceptance within a group.

Individuals in certain subcultures may practice scarification as a spiritual, transformative, or transcendent experience.

People may choose scarification as a way to “reclaim” the body from gender or beauty standards or release themselves from societal pressures. The Modern Primitivism movement that started in the 1990s was a subculture where individuals chose to live a simpler life and used scarification as a spiritual experience.

Although less common than tattoo artists and body piercers, many scarification artists in Western countries offer their procedures.

According to scarification artist websites, these methods include:

  • Cutting: A scarification artist will use a sharp tool, such as a scalpel, to cut a design into the skin. They may apply tattoo ink to the wounds to darken the marks or apply liquid skin adhesive to keep the wound open and increase the scarring.
  • Strike branding: Applying heated metal to brand the skin to create a design.
  • Cold branding: A scarification artist will freeze a piece of metal using liquid nitrogen to burn a design into the skin.
  • Electrocautery: An electric current heats a cautery tool, which a scarification artist will use to burn a design onto the skin.
  • Electrosurgical branding: A handheld electrical device burns a design onto the skin by vaporizing the skin when it touches it.
  • Abrasion: A scarification artist will use an abrasive tool to apply friction to remove layers of skin.

Some scarification artists may use techniques to increase the scarring to create a more defined design. These techniques include scraping off scabs or irritating the wound with substances, such as iodine, citrus juice, or toothpaste, to slow wound healing,

Traditionally, people may have applied clay or ash to a wound to slow the healing process, but this may not occur as frequently in Western practices due to infection concerns.

Some individuals may consider Western scarification a type of cultural appropriation, which may depend on the intention and circumstance behind the procedure.

People’s bodies may respond to scarification differently, and scarification may not always provide consistent results or the desired outcome.

There is also less demand for scarification than other body modifications, such as tattoos or body piercings. Therefore, a scarification artist may not have as much experience as other body art practitioners.

Raised scars, called keloids, can be a complication of scarification. Keloids can gradually grow over months or years and may feel painful or itchy.

If people have a personal or family history of keloid scars, the final appearance and outcome of scarification may not be certain.

There is also a risk of infection with scarification, particularly with the use of unsterile equipment. Scarification is also permanent, so there is no way to reverse the procedure after having it.

In the United States, there is little regulation of scarification, although it has increased over the years.

There are four states that have prohibited scarification, while 16 other states have legislation that may regulate or prohibit scarification. In 11 states, there is some regulation regarding scarification, and 19 states do not address it at all.

This means scarification practices and procedures may vary greatly from state to state. Therefore, people may have to make their own decisions about the safety of a scarification artist and their procedures. They may also have to travel to find a reputable scarification artist.

Scarification can be painful, and the more scarification people have, the more pain they may experience. The entire process may take a few years to complete.

Individuals need to avoid wearing any tightfitting clothing around the area of scarification while the wounds heal.

They also need to follow aftercare instructions carefully after scarification. This may involve keeping the wound clean and sterile to prevent infection. Scarification artist websites recommend:

  • covering the scarification wounds with antibiotic cream, then use a cling film and a bandage for the first few days of healing
  • avoid using any other topical lotions on the wound
  • apply a suitable irritant, such as sesame oil, to the wounds as an artist recommends
  • avoid alcohol, excessive caffeine, aspirin, or illegal drugs during the healing process
  • avoid touching the wounds without first cleaning the hands with soap and water

If people notice any signs of an infection, they will need to contact the scarification artist or their doctor.

Scarification is the cutting, burning, or branding of the skin to create scars in a set pattern or design.

Some indigenous cultures have used scarification for centuries as a ritualistic practice. People in Western practices may choose the practice as a body modification method for aesthetic or self-expression reasons.

Risks of scarification include keloid scars, infection, and inconsistent results.

Regulation of scarification procedures varies from state to state, so people will need to search for reputable artists and check their hygiene and safety measures.