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Myths of Modern Primitives and Tribal Intersections

Myths of Modern Primitives and Tribal Intersections
© Photograph by Manuel Frulio

Christian Klesse defines “Modern Primitives” as “a subcultural movement in the intersection of the tattoo, piercing and sado‐masochism scenes”. This “movement”, he explains, “originated in the 1970s in California, United States of America, growing in numbers and significance in the following decades” (Christian Klesse 2000). Virginia Eubanks’ definition is broader: “Modern Primitives”, she says, “are loosely defined as those who participate in contemporary rituals that include extensive body piercing, constriction (binding), scarification, ‘tribal’ tattooing, and branding” (Virginia Eubanks 1996). Michael Atkinson describes how the neo‐primitives are considered “the most influential of the new groups of tattoo artists and enthusiasts”. (Michael Atkinson 2003, 45). A report by The Institute For Cultural Research floridly describes how “Today’s ‘modern primitives’ use tattoos, piercings and other forms of skin design to perform almost exactly the same functions as that of our ancestors: they use them to forge ‘tribal’ affiliations — and within that circle they have come to represent a collective common language and set of aesthetic values. They may even represent a superstitious or magical belief. More curious still, they do so not in the rainforest, but in the concrete jungles of our inner cities.” (Institute for Cultural Research 2000)

To take such critics at their word would be to assume that there exists or existed a vast community of people coalescing around an organising philosophy, self‐identifying as individuals or groups under the labels “modern primitive”, “neo‐primitive” and “neo‐tribalist”. The movement has dominated the sociological, anthropological and cultural studies literature on contemporary body modification practices in the West and is so pervasive in academic discourse that even works which devote themselves to body modification practices, philosophies and frameworks beyond the “primitive” paradigm (Atkinson 2003; Fenske 2007; MacCormack 2006; Pitts 2003; Sanders 2008; Sullivan 2001) feel compelled to at least make reference to the notion of modern primitivism, if only to comprehensively reject its tenets.

It is my contention that this movement never truly existed. Over the course of this chapter, I want to argue that through a series of fundamental misreadings and due to a number of unfounded assumptions, the idea of “modern primitivism” as a movement has been accorded a status far greater than it legitimately deserves given the ultimately limited influence of the philosophies accorded to it. Furthermore, I will suggest that in making these assumptions, academic writing on body modification, in general, has largely ignored another, more interesting, more vital and more useful set of conceptualisations of the processes and results of corporeal transformation. This marks the beginning of a case for body modification as body art, revealing a core set of explicitly artistic sensibilities in the attitudes and approaches of a number of influential figures in the contemporary body modification community.

The term “modern primitive” was coined in the mid‐1970s by a body modification practitioner known as Fakir Musafar1 (Fakir Musafar 1996; 2002; 2003; Vale and Juno 1989). According to Fakir Musafar, a “modern primitive” is “a non‐ tribal person who responds to primal urges and does something with the body” (Fakir Musafar in Vale and Juno 1989, 15), with “primal urges” understood to mean some aculturally innate drive to mark, decorate or otherwise alter one’s own body. Inspired from childhood by photographs in National Geographic Magazine and by anthropology textbooks to ape and appropriate so‐called “primitive” body‐modification practices including tattooing, piercing, scarification, branding and flesh‐hook suspension, Fakir Musafar and a small clique of associates from southern California developed a philosophy and way of life based on what they called “body play”, which they saw as directly oppositional to and as spiritually, ethically and even psychologically preferable to the “civilized” culture of America and the West. Whilst tattooing was by the 1970s already enjoying something of a renaissance in popularity and artistic ambition (Fleming 2000; Millin 1997; Rubin 1988; Sanders 2008), until Fakir Musafar publicly displayed his body piercings at a tattoo convention in Nevada in 1977 (Fakir Musafar 2002, 9)2 body modifications such as piercings, brandings and sacrifications were still so rare as to be practically unheard of.3 Fakir Musafar’s modern primitivism combines participation in a bewilderingly disparate set of tribal body practices with an ill‐defined and woolly conception of spirituality. From the piercings of the Maasai to the ecstatic dances of Indian sadhus, from Māori tattoos to Native American flesh‐hanging rituals and from the penile implants of Japanese Yakuza gangs to the stretched necks of the Padung women of Thailand, any form of body modification or bodily‐orientated ritual with an appropriately “tribal” lineage is deemed appropriate for appropriation and redeployment in pursuit of self‐discovery.

Of particular importance in Fakir Musafar’s philosophy is a notion of normativity. Tribal precedent confers authority upon specific practices, and he is directly critical of those who modify their bodies in ways not sanctioned by an appropriately “primitive” antecedent. “There is an increasing trend for young people to get pierced and tattooed”, he suggests. Some do it as a “real” response to primal urges and some do it for “kicks” — they are not serious and they do not know what they are doing. People are getting piercings and do not know what they are doing. People are getting piercings in places where no‐one should get them!” (Vale and Juno 1989, 13).

Fakir Musafar demarcates an ethically‐significant difference between the same process used towards “primitive” and “non‐primitive” ends. Moreover, he believes that body modifications should only be undertaken if, firstly, they have been practised outside of Western culture, and secondly if the recipient undergoes the modification with appropriate reverence, ritualism and awareness of the “primitivism” each modification entails.4

The concept came to prominence following the publication in 1989 of ‘Modern Primitives – An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and Ritual’ by V. Vale and Andrea Juno (Vale and Juno 1989) and the book, as Nikki Sullivan explains “has now achieved something of a cult status” (Nikki Sullivan 2001, 36). It is the touchstone text for studies of contemporary Western body modification practices. Every critical engagement with the “modern primitives” or “neo-tribal” movement is grounded in discussions of it; and it is treated by commentators as a manifesto or Bible of a defined movement5 and the ideas expressed within it are often taken for the purposes of criticism as synecdochal of body modification more generally (Turner 2000). The book has been understood and described as both an ethnographic study of an extant movement and as the founding inspiration text of a movement that post-dated it, and, as David Rosenblatt explains, the book itself is often unclear as to whether it is a polemic text or a dispassionate inquiry. “The book itself occupies a somewhat ambiguous space between being a commentary on the phenomenon and a part of it”, David Rosenblatt argues. “It claims to be an ‘objective examination’ of modern primitives (according to the back cover copy), yet at the same time it explicitly endorses their practices as forms of resistance”. (Rosenblatt 1997, 300) .

The problem, as I will go on to examine, is not only that nothing that could truly be called a movement of self‐identified “modern primitives” ever existed either before the book was published or afterwards (and never could have actually existed in the terms in which it has been criticised), but also that the book itself has been repeatedly misrepresented, with analysis of large swathes of the interviews within it almost entirely absent from the literature. Almost every piece of writing I have cited thus far is harshly and, I would argue, justifiably critical of Fakir Musafar’s ideas and ideology. They are idealistic, idealizing and even potentially offensive. They rely on some extraordinarily naïve and muddled conceptions of traditional non‐Western bodily practices. They pick and choose from practices from an enormous range of time‐periods and geographical locations and attempt to mash them together into a coherent set of beliefs and aims. In short, they do not hold up to the sustained scrutiny to which they have been subjected, and cultural critics have taken much care and time to dissect the concept of “modern primitivism” and undermine its legitimacy and its sense. Nevertheless, I want to argue that although this criticism is for the most part entirely correct, it is also almost universally quixotic.

In ‘Modern Primitives’, Fakir Musafar says he coined the term in 1967. Elsewhere, he says 1978 (Fakir Musafar 1996, 325). Given that the later date coincides with the coagulation in Los Angeles of a distinct group of people meeting to share their interest in body piercing and the date at which he has suggested he went “public”, the truth is likely somewhere between the two.
This date is also unclear. Fakir Musafar (1996) suggests 1978 as the date, but the revised version of the same text which appears in ‘A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment in Western Culture’ (Perlingieri 2003) revises this to 1977.
Fakir Musafar claims that “at one meeting in 1975 […] we tried to list everyone we knew of in the subcultures of Western society who had pierced nipples. There were only seven”. (1996, 326).
For a clear‐cut example of this normative attitude, see Fakir Musafar’s conversation with Stelarc about suspensions as described in ‘Body Play and Modern Primitives Quarterly’ (Fakir Musafar 1997).
Nikki Sullivan correctly claims that “for many it represents the Holy Writ of a rapidly growing movement” (Sullivan 2001, 36).

Also published on Medium.


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