Body art goes skin deep
Erik Sprague’s teeth were filed into sharp fangs and his tongue split. But when he closed his mouth, he still looked like an ordinary man. What he most wanted, though, was to look like a lizard, so he decided to get five tiny Teflon horns implanted underneath his skin above each of his eyes to achieve a horned ridge effect.
“They are a great addition in terms of doing what I wanted—to create lizardman aesthetics,” says Sprague, 36, a conceptual artist in Austin, Texas. “It’s a great, impactful element to transformation.”
Though Sprague is in a less traditional line of work, thousands of Americans ranging from students to businessmen have had this type of body modification done over the past decade using subdermal implants. These implants are objects buried under the skin with the purpose of creating a visible, sculptural change on the surface. The most popular shapes include hearts, horns and stars, with the most desired positions on the body being the forehead, backs of the hands, center of the chest and forearms.
The procedure was invented in 1994 by Steve Haworth, 43, a body artist in Phoenix. It became popular by the end of the 1990s and has retained its attractiveness within the extreme body modification community ever since. Haworth first used medical-grade stainless steel for the implants, then implant-grade Teflon and today mainly silicone. The price of the implants varies from about $200 to $600.
Haworth estimates that he has done between 4,000 and 8,000 subdermal implants. But he doesn’t think subdermal implants will ever become as popular as tattoos or piercings, drawing a parallel to the sports world. “There are some people who like to golf as a sport, and there’s some people who like to do extreme sports like motorcycle jumping,” he says. “Generally, the extreme is fewer in numbers.”
Haworth says he has taught many body artists the procedure and estimates there are around 40 subdermal implant practitioners worldwide. The procedure, Haworth explains, consists of opening the skin to the subcutaneous level, creating a pocket with a subcutaneous elevator (an instrument developed by Haworth for subdermal implanting), placing the implant into the pocket and, finally, suturing the opening. This is where the controversy surrounding the practice begins.
“Anytime you’re making an incision and placing objects under someone’s skin, you’re doing surgery,” says Mary Powers, a board certified plastic surgeon in Los Angeles. “That falls under the category of practicing medicine without a license. That is not considered legal activity.”
The Arizona attorney general’s office declined to weigh in on the legality of the practice, but Michael Black, a criminal defense attorney in Arizona, says that practicing medicine without a license could constitute a felony under Arizona law. Black, however, can’t say whether a body artist who inserts implants under the skin is practicing medicine.
“If charges were brought, that would be a question for the jury,” Black says.
Legal or not, Powers says, the dangers involved with subdermal implants are the same as with any kind of surgical procedure: infection, scarring, deformity, loss of sensation and permanent skin discoloration. Powers says she would never agree to do a subdermal implant if asked by a patient. The goals of plastic surgery are to correct a deformity or loss of a function or to enhance and improve the appearance of what’s considered a normal functioning tissue, she says. Any type of subdermal implants would not be condoned by the mainstream medical community, she adds, certainly not to distort the face to create a “Star Trek” look or to make someone have the appearance of a dragon or lizard.
Haworth says this resistance in the medical community is exactly the reason he does subdermal implants—to cater to people who want to have these implants and understand the risks involved. He claims that he has had only two complications out of the thousands of procedures he’s performed—and they were not deadly—and says that those were related to other medical problems the clients experienced. He also claims to have a 100 percent success rate with a new type of subdermal implant he started doing about four years ago—a magnetic implant.
“There are around 600 people who have magnetic implants, and there hasn’t been a single failure,” Haworth says.
Among the first known clients in the U.S. to implant a magnet in the body for fun—in the ring finger of his left hand—was Todd Huffman, 29, an owner of a company that does research and development for cell phone users.
“The whole purpose of the implant is to perceive an additional part of the world,” says Huffman.
Those additional parts of the world for Huffman include feeling the buzzing of the magnetic sensor in the library and what he says is “a whole electromagnetic topography that’s underneath countertops and behind walls” in department stores. Most people, he points out, are unaware of these magnetic surfaces.
Dr. Phil Haeck, a board certified plastic surgeon in Seattle, agrees with Powers and believes body artists who do subdermal implants are putting their clients at risk by performing “illegal surgery.” Magnetic implants, however, are not dangerous for the human body. They are used for prosthetic implants, says Haeck.
So far, Huffman has not encouraged anyone else to get a magnetic implant. As with any experimental procedure, he says, there are risks involved in this one. He considers those risks to be fewer for him, because he says he personally knows Haworth and plastic surgeons who could quickly remove the implant if something went wrong.
Not knowing any plastic surgeons did not prevent Caeli Weaver-Jones from getting a magnetic implant in the ring finger of her left hand in September 2008. Weaver-Jones, 21, a student in Vancouver, British Columbia, said she wanted to get a sixth sense with the implantation of the magnet.
“When I first walked by a transformer, I held up my hand and felt the surge,” says Weaver-Jones. “It was amazing.”
Weaver-Jones says that these days, she mostly uses the magnet “for tricks” that include picking up safety pins, paper clips or lighters. She carries a magnet of rare earth elements that attracts her implant and uses it to prove to doubters what she can do.
“It’s kind of a nice feeling knowing you are different from other people,” she says.