Report on Branding
A GMSMA Program, November 8, 1995

Although I was raised Catholic, and even went to a Jesuit high school, I have never been able to understand the ceremony of Holy Communion. During Mass, the rest of the faithful seemed to be caught up in it and enthusiastic, but I was just not able to feel anything like that. I could believe that the bread was turned into the body of Christ, but I had trouble understanding why you’d want to eat it. Was it a moral vitamin that gave you the strength to grow more compassionate? It seemed strange to me—even slightly offensive—to eat God’s body, yet all the people around me always looked so sure of themselves that I was so afraid to ask. (I know now that most of them were not as sure of themselves as they appeared.) I didn’t feel that the others should stop their religious excitement; I was just confused about what caused it. I believed then and still believe today that two consenting adults (or in this case, one consenting adult and one consenting eternal omnipotent deity) could do together whatever they wanted as long as they weren’t hurting anyone else.

When I thought about attending the GMSMA program on branding I felt a similar strange kind of confusion, wishing I could understand how a person being branded could get so much pleasure from it. I’ve had my share of fantasies about being hog-tied by a big butch cowboy with a branding iron heating up on the camp fire, but that’s very different from consenting to such an experience in reality. When the president of GMSMA and director of this program, John, asked me whether I wanted to be branded for the demo, I knew he was having trouble finding someone. "A month ago," he said, "half a dozen people volunteered, but now I guess the fantasy of branding has fled and the reality is here."

"Are you doing the branding?" I asked.

"No, a friend of mine from California, Raelyn," he responded.

"A woman?" I asked with surprise.

"Yes, what of it?" he said.

If I had to give a reason for being branded, it would be to eroticize the pain, and a mix-gendered interaction could not provide that for me. I told John I didn’t want to be branded and pointed out I’d never expressed any interest.

"I was grasping at straws, or ... ," he paused.

"Scraping the bottom of the barrel?" I asked.

At the demo, Raelyn was introduced: a California jeweler and body modification artist who specializes in piercing, cutting, and branding. During the first part of the program she spoke about the techniques and practice of branding: "No," she said, "branding doesn’t involve a heavy branding iron heated red hot over coals, and an unwilling victim hog-tied or strapped to a table." Branding, like other body-modification arts, is used to decorate the body and sometimes to transform the inner self.

When Don, sitting in the front row, stood up to be introduced as the person who volunteered to be branded, his eyes, so large and gentle, seemed at the same time anguished and nervous, and I felt something sinister was about to happen, as if Bambi were going to be brutalized before my eyes. He waved half-heartedly to us and then sat down, slouching forward with his elbows on his knees, listening to Raelyn’s lecture.

To make the branding tool, Raelyn uses 1/16-inch thick galvanized metal sheets, cutting and shaping them into linear forms. A branding usually involves a number of "strikes," that is, several separate small brands that build up to a larger pattern. She emphasized that branding is not exact. The 1/16th-inch impression expands to about 1/4-inch after it heals. The scar may have a declivity or it may be raised; it can be darker than the surrounding skin or lighter, and these variations can occur even within the same brand. Raelyn’s plain speaking, her obvious competence and common sense, and some deeper aspect of her personality—a richness, a seriousness—not only held the audience but focused us. She asked Don to come up on the stage, and he showed his first brand, which had been done by another brander. Seeing the brand on his calf, which was of a tree, the audience oohed in admiration. My fear of what was going to happen was dissipating.

Raelyn showed us the design that Don had drawn for his new brand—a simple abstract snake figure that would be done in twelve strikes. Raelyn clamped a branding shape into her jeweler’s pliers and heated it with a blowtorch. With a confident and graceful motion, she struck it onto the pattern she had traced on Don’s back. At each strike, his body tensed for a moment, but this was far from the writhing and screaming I had expected. Like other body-modification arts, branding causes an endorphin rush, so that the pain of branding is overlaid with a morphine-like high. After nine strikes, Raelyn asked Don how he was holding up, and he responded that he thought they were only up to strike number four. I was beginning to feel something approaching what I always thought I should feel during Holy Communion—an awe, a sense that something beyond ordinary life was happening, something profound, for which there were no previous words.

After the branding was complete and the applause had died down, the audience was allowed a closer look and stood around to discuss what they saw. Several people described the experience as "spiritual"; someone even used the word "transforming."

I asked Raelyn why she was a brander. She said that it was a craft like others, like tattooing or creating jewelry, but that branding also has a spiritual aspect. I told her that my view of branding had changed radically, and that I felt as if something magical had happened. She smiled and said, "After a demo, people often tell me that."

I asked Don if at any time during the branding he had wanted to stop the demo. He said that he never thought to stop and that the whole experience had been great. When I asked him why he had gotten his brands, he responded that he thought of branding as a way of connecting with his ancestry, relating to ancient rituals in which scarification and branding were used. He also said that he liked branding because brands themselves are beautiful.

By Charles W.

[GMSMA Logo]

Click the GMSMA logo button to return to the NewsLink Page.