It is written in Leviticus: "Thou shall not cut your flesh nor mark your skin". This is one of the darkest taboos in the Judean-Christian tradition, and as with all taboos the urge to break it is strong. Following the urge to alter ones own body is a unique and powerful demonstration of rebellion against freedom-limiting traditions and institutions; this act puts us in touch with customs that previously belonged only to small and usually primitive ethnic minorities through a modern and urban ritual. These "tribal trends" in modern times result in some physical, recognizable sign on the individuals body (a mark that symbolically trascends those rules of society which attempt to devalue, dilute, and ultimately erase every individuals uniqueness in order to better preserve the community) to celebrate a persons truly unique individuality.
Through the exploration of this shadow zone between the physical (the actual pain/pleasure derived from the actual act of piercing or tattooing) and the spiritual (the highly personal meaning of the symbol on the body and of the ritual itself), each person can create, refine, and/or gain insights into his/her own unique identities. The resultant self awareness not only benefits the individual: the liberating effects of the recognition of previously unknow desires, dreams and creativity can bring a change (even an inexplicable one) to the external social world by moving the individual a step closer to truly realizing his/her unique potential.
What motivates and individual to be tattooed? Perhaps in our constantly changing and chaotic urban culture, only a permanent mark on the flesh is deemed to be peremptory and irrevocable. Tattoos are essentially an affirmation of the freedom we have to enjoy our bodies as we see fit while in this world, to clarify and express some inner truth or conviction, to flout the repression of conservative society, and to celebrate ones uniqueness.
Piercing is an ancient art: Roman centurions practiced perforation of the nipples to wear rings that were seen as symbols of virility (in addition to serving the more pedestrian purpose of fastening their cloaks). In recent times piercing has been an underground phenomenon with the primary motivations being esthetics and eroticism.
Although Judeo-Christian tradition (and the "WASP" -White Anglo Saxon Protestant- culture that still permeates a large portion of the Western world) still frowns on tattoos after a history of exterminating many cultures that practiced this and similarly "unusual" customs, there is presently a powerful renewed interest in the practice of tattooing and piercing throughout our culture.
It has been demonstrated that painful stimulation (even bordering on torture) can be a source of erotic pleasure even for seemingly "average" persons if this is the interpretation given by the brain. Apparently there are emotional traits and deep motivations (possibly unconscious?) that provide the intense enjoyment of piercing: to pierce and tattoo oneself is an action that tends to stimulate the awareness of memory.
Piercings and tattoos can be landmarks - profound rituals that create intense physical memories linked to meaningful episodes of ones personal history. Thus they can become powerful affirmations of a person and of his/her life transformations. As anthropologist David Levi-Strauss wrote in a study on modern primitives (also called neo-primitives): "The body without marks is a unrefined, inarticulate and mute body and it starts to communicate and become an active part of the social body only after obtaining the sign of civilisation".