Risky Business: A Risk Averse Doctor and a ‘Risk Taker’ Talk Body Mods

Here’s a list of things I would never do:

  • Get a tattoo overseas
  • Have unprotected sex with someone whose STI status I didn’t know
  • Drive over the limit
  • Smoke or take recreational drugs
  • Get unnecessary cosmetic surgery

Why? Ten years of studying and working in chemistry and medicine have made be pretty risk-averse when it comes to my body. Without my health my work doesn’t happen, so putting it at risk is just not worth it.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who don’t appear to be as cautious as I am, and have often wondered what enables them to justify their risky behaviour to themselves. Are they motivated by adrenaline, money, beauty, peer pressure or something else entirely? So I decided to investigate a facet of this topic by chatting to someone who I thought might be a risk-taker.

Kylie Garth is a brilliant body piercer and handpoke tattoo artist practicing in Western Australia. Her skill, professionalism and ability to make me laugh exactly when I need it most meant I felt completely comfortable when she pierced my nose last year. Another remarkable thing about Kylie is her body, which is a veritable work of art. Alongside her tattoos and piercings are numerous body modifications (or mods) that include scarification, dermal implants, tongue forking, ear pointing and conch removal (that’s the area of cartilage at the back of the ear). The mod that has recently sent the media into a frenzy however is her eyes: about four years ago she had her sclerae (the whites of her eyes) tattooed a pale ‘sea foam’ blue.

Kylie Garth
Kylie Garth and her ‘seafoam’ blue eyes.

Eyeball tattooing has been described as ‘an alarming new trend’ and ‘experimental, extreme and potentially carcinogenic’ in a recent news.com.au article, and by ophthalmologist Dr. Chandra Bala on Today Tonight as ‘a step too far’ and ‘not worth it’. After hearing these claims, I was keen to learn more about the impacts of so-called ‘risky’ body mods like these. Also, while completely respecting her decision to do so, I wanted to find out why someone like Kylie who relies on excellent vision for her work would be happy to take such a risk?

For Kylie, it’s not adrenaline or peer-pressure that peaked her interest in piercings, tattoos and body mods. Instead, they have always been a natural expression of her personality and a means of crafting her own identity. ‘It comes so naturally. I’ve always been a little bit different and out there.’ Being such a fundamental part of her being, she finds it difficult to explain exactly why she needs these modifications. ‘When people ask why do you do that I can’t give them a proper answer. I don’t know why I did it, it was just something inside me from when I was really young.’ The motivations of her clients vary wildly however, from the thrill and aesthetics to a much needed self-esteem boost.

Even though it was something she had to work up towards, eyeball tattooing almost seems like an inevitable step for Kylie given her internal drive. It was something she decided to do not only because she thought tattooed eyes ‘look fucking cool’, but also because she felt that she could keep the health risks to a minimum. ‘With all of my mods and piercings I know the people, or it’s at the studio I work at, so I know everything’s clean and I know the person’s skill level.’ The only person Kylie trusted to tattoo her eyeballs was colleague Luna Cobra, the artist who developed the technique nearly a decade ago. ‘He’s done so many and is always learning more, as well as coming from a family of surgeons and constantly talking with other medical professionals. I knew it was safe.’

Kylie states that it was ‘one hundred percent’ important for her to see eyes being tattooed successfully before undergoing the procedure herself. ‘There’s people out there that do this kind of stuff and [because of it] people have had to get their eyeballs removed. They can overfill the eyes (introducing too much fluid into the eye can cause long headaches or extreme light sensitivity). There’s so many things that can go wrong with eyeball tattoos. People can go blind. Imagine if I went blind? I’d be fucked! What kind of insurance can you get for that?’ We laugh at this, but even the idea of people having to stop work because of botched eye tattooing makes me feel uncomfortable. None of these complications have ever happened to Luna Cobra’s eye tattooing clients though, and so her confidence in his procedure was unwavering. ‘I’d seen so many being done that nothing was really going to go wrong.’

Having this surety isn’t always necessary for Kylie, and she is definitely a pioneer in some areas of body modification. ‘I am the first for one thing. I’ve got a little capsule that glows in the dark,’ she says as she gestures to a small lump inserted under the skin of her wrist. ‘And I was one of the first girls with coloured eyeballs.’ However, as with her eyeballs there are some situations where she wouldn’t feel comfortable going first. ‘It depends on who was doing it. I’d have to evaluate how badly I want it. What kind of risks are involved, like is there a possibility I could die or get sick? I’d have to really know what they were.’

Many medical professionals are concerned about the possible long-term consequences of eyeball tattooing, and so I was interested to see whether Kylie had thought about this at all. ‘It’s only the tiniest amount of fluid [injected under the conjunctiva]’ she points out before changing tack. ‘Yeah a little [concerned], but there hadn’t been anything talked about. No one was having any issues later on from the first lot (Luna Cobra’s original ‘guinea pigs’ had their eyes tattoos about five years before Kylie), and the method has gotten a lot better since then’. Kylie hasn’t had any problems with her eyes since the procedure, but I’m delighted to learn about a benefit she’s discovered from her conch removal. ‘I can hear better behind me, and If I’m in a room at a loud gig I can open the hole and it makes it a lot easier on my ears’.

Kylie Garth2
Along with tattoos and piercings, Kylie’s mods include include scarification, dermal implants, tongue forking, ear pointing and conch removal.

Kylie likens body mods like eye tattooing to any other operation, and our conversation turns to the frustrating way some body modifications are deemed socially acceptable while others aren’t. ‘The most socially acceptable form of body modification are kid’s braces,’ she points out, before describing the long-term problems braces caused her. ‘I’ve had too many top teeth removed from my front jaw and then it shrunk, so I had to wear something inside my jaw to make it stretch. I have scars on the inside of my cheeks from wires not being cut. But that’s apparently okay because it’s been done by a dentist.’ While I’d still prefer to put my body in the hands of a doctor over a body mod artist, I get where she’s coming from. Risks are inescapable, and even the most straightforward, common and socially acceptable of medical procedures are not risk-free (this medical education video still makes me feel ill: http://emcrit.org/misc/the-new-elaine-bromiley-videos/).

While Kylie didn’t know it at the time, getting her eyes tattooed is the last body modification she thinks she will get. ‘For me I’m done. I look in the mirror and feel complete. I feel real good about myself, and this is it, I don’t want any more.’ This feeling of completion is an important one for her, and is related to the issue of self-esteem. ‘I draw the line at when are you going to be complete? Is it something else inside of you that makes you want to change yourself so much? There’s some people who are really big in the industry that have either committed suicide, or have changed themselves into something completely different. Where do you draw the line between that and body modifications?’ It’s a question I can’t answer, but I wonder whether never feeling complete is another more unspoken risk body modifiers must be willing to take.

At the beginning of our interview I asked Kylie if she considered herself a risk taker, and was surprised that her answer of ‘I guess…’ took a while to come out. Without trying to read too much into it, I feel like this hesitation is two-pronged (just like her tongue!) Firstly, while others might consider some of the things she does ‘risky’, her approach to her body modifications is anything but. In fact, when it comes to making decisions, our methods are not dissimilar. Both Kylie and I take the time to weigh up the pros and cons, we both do our research so we can make informed decisions, and involve the help of trained experts where possible. ‘I consider every mod and tattoo a lot. It’s not like I just rush into stuff.’

Secondly, it seems like it’s people’s reactions to the body mods, rather than the mods themselves, that pose more of a risk to her. ‘Being an alternative strange looking female…. people react on the streets in funny ways. So yeah, I would say it’s a risk and it takes a bit of balls to be tattooed and modified.’ Eyeball tattooing has even more associated ‘emotional risk’ and ‘risk for the future’: ‘it’s risky because I can box myself into a certain career. Some people might judge me in a certain way, and they might stop me from getting opportunities later on. There’s a risk that friends and family might not like it; they might not like it so much that they might not want to be around you. These are all very real things and things that I considered.’

Kylie has also found that the less people know about a procedure, the riskier they tend to believe it is. This has particularly been the case when it comes to her ear modifications. ‘I’m not going to go deaf or anything like that. So many people were like ‘You’re going to go deaf when you’re fifty.’ [I said] ‘Thank you for giving me an exact age!’’ she laughs. ‘It’s not the inside of my ear. People can still hear with no ears. All I’ve done is gone and put a wee hole in it.’

So what did this interview teach me about risk? Well, it’s everywhere and is subjective: everyone has a different threshold, different motivations and a different belief about what constitutes risk. Perceived risk can be reduced by information and making sure any associated people are trained professionals. Finally, while someone with body mods might appear to throw caution to the wind, that isn’t necessarily so, particularly for those who work in that industry. It’s their profession, and something they take pride in; they can’t afford to be too risky.


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