Piercing - history, distribution and forms

Piercing - history, distribution and forms

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Piercing refers to the piercing of the skin, fat and cartilage tissue, especially to put jewelry through it. There is evidence of this from the Stone Age of Europe and Africa. In addition to aesthetics, the main focus was on demarcation from other groups, tribes and ethnic groups, religious rites, initiation and the definition of status in society. Today's piercing in western countries has only become a mass culture since the 1990s.

A global phenomenon

Indigenous people in America, Africa and Eurasia adorned themselves with sticks and rings in earlobes, nostrils, lips or genitals. To do this, they used materials such as wood, mother-of-pearl, clay or bone, gold or silver. Indians in South America pierced the tongue, cheeks, ears and genitals explicitly as an offering to the gods.

Native sun dancers in North America pierce the skin on the chest and back, pass stringed wooden sticks through them, tie them to a tree and dance without food or water until they break down with exhaustion. This is also a religious act.

Piercing in the west

In the USA and Europe, piercings, apart from earrings for women, remained a hallmark of subcultures until the 1980s. For example, earrings in the right earlobe have been a feature of male homosexuals since the 1970s. In Aschaffenburg, the tattoo artist Horst Heinrich Linienbach practiced piercing parts of the body and then inserting jewelry as early as the 1940s.

In the 1980s, the subculture of modern primitives established itself in the United States, which related to the customs of so-called primitive peoples. Piercing, but also decorative scars, cutting or branding, not only quoted indigenous cultures, but also served explicitly to distinguish themselves from the western industrial culture as “city Indians”.

These modern primitives were in contact with American natives, whose elder ones were skeptical about the appropriation of traditional aspects of Indian cultures. Later, supporters of the so-called crust punk movement deliberately withdrew from American mainstream culture, founded construction site settlements on the Mexican border, lived vegan, had their hair matted and pierced their skin.

In the BDSM culture, the motive of pain when piercing skin and body areas was in the foreground, and until the 1990s it was largely carried out in secret because this subculture had the nimbus of the "pervert". In the 1990s, however, BDSM emerged from the niche of the infamous and mingled with the punk, metal and Gothic scene. Piercings have now become a fashion of the masses.

In the early 1990s, nipple and navel piercing was still considered unusual, and this extraordinary body jewelry also attracted more and more "normalos". Jewelry on the genitals and tongue, however, remained largely limited to subcultures.

Piercings, cuttings, brandings

In the USA, on the other hand, the development was more advanced, and in the local subcultures the development went in an increasingly extreme direction also because of the spread of piercings in the mainstream: Anyone who was "Gothic", "SM-Freak" or "Vampire" was a little self-conscious , tried now with cuttings, brandings, balls inserted under the skin or at least with jewelry that pierced the acorn or clitoris. At the latest when Tekkno reached millions of young people, piercings and tattoos were a must-have.

Today this form of body jewelry is widespread in Germany. According to surveys, 9% of women wear at least one on their bodies and at least 3% of men, 9.3% of all 25 to 34 year olds. The most common piercing is still the earring, followed by rings, rods, balls etc. in the navel and nostrils.

Differences among the pierced

The selection, quantity and shape is again subject to trends within the general piercing fashion. For one thing, there are big differences between individuals. These range from the clerk at the public order office, who wears a navel piercing, of which only her intimate partner knows, to the street punk, who wears dozens of pieces of metal on her face and thus signals from the outset that he is not available for a civil career.

While the piercing of the eyebrow, navel and tongue became modern in the 1990s, whereby the latter expresses a special “hardness”, brow and tongue piercings are currently not in great demand. Many wearers also removed the pieces of jewelry at these places, as they permanently disturbed them. On the other hand, expanded earlobes are fashion today, as is the labret and septum piercing. Especially genital piercings are increasing.

Virtual nudity

Intimate piercings go hand in hand with the widespread fashion of shaving off not only the armpit but also the pubic hair. Sociologists explain this, among other things, with the ubiquity of pornography on the Internet.

In contrast to the 1990s, the genitals are therefore no longer seen as an area that is hidden from the public, but as an accessible area that is therefore also aestheticized. Genital piercings are part of the public appearance as well as makeup or hairstyle. Piercings on the Venus hill are popular among women, who in the 1990s were still part of the BDSM scene.

The paradox is that the piercing covers the nudity in a certain way: the pieces of jewelry used by indigenous people who only wear little clothing serve precisely to cultivate their bodies in the literal sense, i.e. to raise them to the object of cultural design and especially not being "like animals" naked.

Mass culture and demarcation

Piercings today lack the essential element for puncturing the skin of the body in punks, crust punks or modern primitives: they are not part of the counterculture, but of the "normal culture".

The counterculture connects many things with indigenous cultures: Here too, the members of a subculture differentiate themselves from others; piercing skin and body areas and attaching jewelry is also a rite of initiation; in both, piercings define social status. Having arrived in the mainstream, on the other hand, they are “only”: jewelry. Only in combination with other symbols and / or through extreme forms do they enable delimitation and self-expression. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


  • Michael Laukien: All about piercing: history, culture, practical tips, Huber Verlag, 1st edition, 2003
  • Marcel Feige: Das Tattoo- und Piercing-Lexikon: Kult und Kultur der Körperkunst, Schwarzkopf Verlag, 2nd edition, 2004

Video: We Got Custom Ear Piercings (December 2022).