Beyond the surface: The deeper story of tattoos and body modification

By: Katie Auwaerter | Assistant Features Editor

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

We teach our children that, but often times don’t practice what we preach. We reengineer our exteriors through hair dye, clothing and makeup to mirror our personalities, thereby merging the contents of the book with the front cover. And though the fashion trends and the haircuts may change, others decided to take a more permanent approach.

Tattoos may fade and body modifications can be removed, but these permanent choices open up the world of extreme body modification. While both fields are growing and becoming more accepted, one is growing in a very public way while the latter has an underground culture to it.


(Katie Auwaerter / The Duquesne Duke)- The hand tattoos of Travis Courtemanche
(Katie Auwaerter / The Duquesne Duke)- The hand tattoos of Travis Courtemanche


Done are the days where tattoos are reserved for sailors and biker gangs. We now live in a world where tattoos are part of the mainstream culture thanks to their presence in the media and television shows like Miami Ink and Ink Masters.

With the spotlight that the media is casting on the tattoo world, those in the field are welcoming the attention.

“I think it’s great for the industry,” said Amy Ausiello, owner of The Pittsburgh Tattoo Studio in Dormont. “I think it’s great that it put it out there for people. It’s not scary anymore for the average person; they’ve seen it on TV, they know what it looks like, so they know what it looks like when they’re coming in here.”

With tattoos being more prevalent in society, the clientele of tattoo shops is expanding to bible huggers and pediatric

(Aaron Warnick / Photo Editor)- Tattoos on the legs of Twitch
(Aaron Warnick / Photo Editor)- Tattoos on the legs of Twitch

doctors. With this customer shift, the atmosphere of tattoo shops is starting to change as well.

“When I first started tattooing I would say 95 percent of the people walking through the door were picking something off the wall, exactly what it was, don’t change the color, don’t change anything. Now I would say 90 percent of the people are bringing stuff in,” Ausiello said.

Most often, the stuff that’s being brought in was found on the Internet. But despite the ease of using Google Images or social media sites like Pinterest, the subject matter hasn’t changed, according to Travis Courtemanche, owner of Rogue Tattoo in Lawrenceville.

“You do have an endless amount of s*** to choose from online, but it also funnels down into the same stuff for the most part… But as an artist we tend to change them around quite a bit too,” Courtemanche said. “If you bring in a picture of a tattoo on someone else and say ‘I want this’ then you want his tattoo, it’s not your tattoo, so we will change it around and do whatever to try and fit like, your style.”

One of the biggest concerns with getting a tattoo is the negative stigma in the workplace. But with tattoos becoming more common in our culture, society is becoming more accepting of having a tattoo, especially when it comes to getting a job.

“More and more people are getting them so you can’t be picky, you can’t say ‘well you have a tattoo on your hand, I’m not hiring you just based on that, even though you’re way more qualified’… but they’re becoming accepted because they’re being forced,” Courtemanche said.

Ausiello feels that the reason that the work force accepts employees with tattoos is because those doing the hiring are tatted themselves. The young adults who were getting tattoos during the late 1990s now are in their 30s with steady careers, making them more accepting when they’re hiring.

“Back when they were younger, the older people didn’t have them therefore they weren’t accepted. That’s kind of why I think they’re more accepted now,” Ausiello said.

As the acceptance in the workplace grows for tattoos, more people may take the plunge and permanently alter their bodies with artwork. But as more tattoos will be out in the public, other fields of body modification are on the rise as well, but not in such a public way.


(Aaron Warnick / Photo Editor)- The split tongue and other facial piercings of Twitch
(Aaron Warnick / Photo Editor)- The split tongue and other facial piercings of Twitch

Body Modification

As having piercings is becoming more prevalent in society, people are taking the idea of modifying their bodies to the next level. With tattoos and body jewelry becoming “normal,” some are pushing the field to more extreme levels through scarification and implants.

But while these seem new to the public, the culture has existed for a while, according to Twitch, who pierces at Artisan Piercing Boutique in Garfield.

“A lot of the heavier work started back in like the old gay and lesbian BDSM [Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission and Sadism and Masochism] scene in the late 70’s early 80’s,” Twitch said.

Twitch’s first interest in body modification started when he was 10 years old, looking through National Geographic at the African tribes that had different piercings and lip plates. After that, he took to the Internet, finding sources like Body Modification Ezine, an online magazine that hooked him into the culture.

While the Internet can help connect those in the body modification culture, it also makes the information readily available to those who have no experience in the field. This causes everyday people to think they can successfully tattoo or pierce themselves, which can cause problems.

“Now you have all these crazy practitioners, and that meaning even 16-year-old kids, at home doing some wack s*** to themselves just because they saw it online,” Twitch said. “I think it’s getting a lot of people in trouble and it’s a lot of people hurt.”

Tim Girone has been involved in body modification for almost six years, though he has has been a professional piercer

(Aaron Warnick / Photo Editor)- Helix tunnels in the ear of Twitch
(Aaron Warnick / Photo Editor)- Helix tunnels in the ear of Twitch

for 23 years at his Hot Rod Piercing Company, with locations in Oakland and South Side. According to Girone, those who enter the realm of heavier body modification are looking for a more radical form of expression.

“A lot of the people that get this stuff are pretty extreme, you know what I mean, and they want to stand out and…they don’t want to be just like everyone else. At this point there are so many people that are so heavily tattooed that that’s [heavier body modification] just kind of like the next step for the extreme people,” Girone said.

Girone’s work with body modification ranges from 3D implants put under the skin to scarification, where the skin is etched or burned to leave the desired design. But he is best known as “The Pittsburgh Magnet Guy” for his work with magnetic implants.

“The magnets are…it’s kind of like a little hidden secret, you know what I mean, that people have,” explained Girone.

The magnetic implants give customers the ability of a sixth sense, where they can feel sensations such as magnetism and electricity. The clients that get the magnetic implants aren’t the heavily-modified extremists; Tech and computer people get them for their functional purposes. With a good amount of practice, Girone explained that people can hold their hand over a hard drive and sense if it’s running properly thanks to the magnetic implants.

Though the world of heavy body modification seems secret and selective, those in the culture explain that if you want in, then you’re a part of the culture already.

“If that’s something that’s inside of you, that you want to be a part of, you’ll be a part of it because you already are a part of it at that point. That’s who you are,” Twitch said.

“It’s just normal people doing their thing that just so happen to be a part of this community that everybody is absolutely welcome to. It’s an open door policy, you know, you are who you are, and that’s all we want you to be.”

(Aaron Warnick / Photo Editor)- Three silicone sub-dermal implants in the arm of Twitch
(Aaron Warnick / Photo Editor)- Three silicone sub-dermal implants in the arm of Twitch

For some, it can be hard to understand why people make the decision to get tattoos or modify their body. It can be hard to relate to the desire to have a permanent picture on your skin or to implant a magnet into your finger.

But every person takes steps to make their body their own, be it working out and losing weight, getting a bold haircut, while others wear a specific clothing style to make them feel confident. Tattoos and body modification have the same end result; it makes a person feel comfortable in the vessel of your body.

“It’s 100 percent about your comfort level, it’s all about you that’s the main point about any type of body modification. And that seriously goes into, you know, waking up in the morning and doing your hair and putting makeup on…changing your clothes, doing your nails, anything,” Twitch said.

“It’s any simple way that you want to change your physical appearance in order to feel pretty, to feel good about yourself so, it’s all relative.”

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