Decorative scars - cutting and branding: backgrounds and methods

Decorative scars - cutting and branding: backgrounds and methods

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Ornamental scars are one of the oldest forms of identifying the human body. We say “branding” for scars from burns, “cutting” for those of cut wounds. The goal is to get permanent scars in the skin - as a rite of initiation, definition of status, to differentiate from others or as jewelry.


When cutting, we cut the desired jewelry pattern into the skin. First, the cutter uses a scalpel to draw the lines of the pattern into the upper layer of skin and then remove them. In branding, the scars are caused by burns, for example with hot metal, laser or electricity.

Dark-skinned technology

Decorative scars developed worldwide, but they were most popular among groups with dark skin tones. The reason: tattoos are more visible the lighter the color of the skin. In any case, it is striking that the countries with the most common decorative scars such as Sudan, Nigeria, Angola, Tanzania or Kenya are regions in which the locals have a dark skin tone. Another argument in favor of the connection to the dark skin color is that these cultures paint themselves colorfully.

Traditional methods

Traditional scarifications in Africa arise by repeatedly cutting the skin in the same place; The natural healing is deliberately delayed, among other things, by staining the wound with ashes, tearing off the scab and tearing open the wound again. These methods are extremely risky and literally challenge life-threatening infections.

Delimitation and distinguishing feature

In Africa, the patterns of scars indicate whether someone is single or married, what tribe he or she belongs to, what rank the person occupies in society, etc. In some cultures, they are expressly not simply jewelry, and individuals are allowed to, comparable to the colors of the kilts of Scottish clans, not for purely aesthetic reasons.

The scars mark the transition from child to adult, the entry into the warrior class or even the ability to marry. The situation is different with the Baluba in the Congo; there the women wear scars on their lower abdomen in order to appear sexually attractive to men.

Many cultures in Chad, Cameroon or Kenya perceive the “naked naked” body as unotic. Cuttings do not stand alone, but go hand in hand with hairstyle, hair, piercings in ears or lips, jewelry, clothing and painted skin.

The scar pattern also shows belonging to the clan and the duty to follow its laws no matter where you go. In large parts of East Africa, this clan law is more important for those affected than the laws of the state in which they live.

Cuttings in girls prove that the person affected is "capable of getting married", ie able to endure the pain of childbirth.

In all cultures, the suffering a person experiences while the wounds become scars is an expression of the sacrifice he brings to the community. So it's not just about the aesthetic result, but also the process of pain.


At Sepik in New Guinea, cuttings are used to connect with animal spirits that people believe in. Boys have to endure thousands of small cuts here. The resulting scars are said to represent the armor skin of a crocodile. The myth behind it: the crocodile spirit eats the child and the man remains. It is therefore a particularly brutal form of an initiation rite.

How does a cutting work?

During a "skin removal", the cutter outlines the surface with a scalpel and then pulls the skin off. He previously drew the pattern on the skin, always following the lines at the same depth and straight. In the meantime, he dabs the escaping blood.

What do doctors say?

Dermatologists are critical of cuttings. They warn that absolute hygiene is necessary and that there is a high risk of infection. Scars can proliferate and cause chronic pain. So-called white skin cancer due to constant irritation of the scar is very rare, but still possible, which can result in skin diseases.

In addition, cutting requires a high degree of professionalism in order not to cut too flat, but above all not to cut too deep into the skin tissue. Few who offer this method of scarification have the necessary knowledge about anatomy.

Decorative scars: attractive or repulsive?

In western societies, cuttings and brandings traditionally have an even worse reputation than tattoos and piercings. Brand marks were a distinguishing feature for the owner of animals or in the Middle Ages a stigma of criminals. But surveys show that scars are also rated positively in Western societies today - with restrictions. You should be discreet.


Branding means branding in English. Here the scars are caused by burning with hot iron. Brandings serve an extraordinary aesthetic of initiation or the carriers have symbolic reasons.

History of branding

Wearing brandings as jewelry is entirely due to their dark past: slaves in ancient times had to bear the brand of their owner, and branding marked a criminal. Brandings as a wanted characteristic prevailed in modernity in subcultures that cultivated their outsider status, that is, indirectly related to the tradition of slavery and justice. In the SM area, the “slaves” could also be “branded” with historical reference.

Like piercings and tattoos, branding is also a fashion today. The need to look for increasingly unusual forms of body modification went hand in hand with the spread of tattoos and certain piercings. Cutting and branding are still not a mass phenomenon - the wounds heal too slowly, the result is too unsafe, and the pain is too great.

Hot and cold fire

We differentiate between hot and cold firing. During a hot fire, the “brand marker” presses a hot iron directly onto the skin. The cold fire is a frost fire. Here the iron cools down to - 80 degrees and then comes on the skin.

In hot firing, the pattern is formed in one or more pieces of iron, then heated to 900 degrees Celsius on a gas flame. Due to the gas, the flame remains free of soot. The iron burns into the epidermis and dermis, not into the subcutis - that would be a malpractice with the consequence of severe burns.

Hot branding is only possible on parts of the body where the iron lies completely on, for example on the back or shoulder, but not on the forearm or neck. Under no circumstances should branding take place on parts of the body where blood vessels, tendons or nerves are located directly under the skin.

Cautery pens

Cautery pens are branding irons that are heated by batteries. The front part gets so hot that it can be used to “write” a brand. However, the result will never be as good as with conventional branding; that is why cautery pens are mainly used in the SM scene.


Brandings and cuttings can never be as fine as a tattoo. No matter how well he works, the artist cannot guarantee that after healing, what the customer wants will come out. It also remains unclear how long the branding can be seen.

Scars can proliferate or be barely visible. That is why brandings usually have to be re-fired after half a year with the original motif.

The wound heals like any other burn. First the spot turns gray, then black. The branding can now be seen very clearly, which leads some wearers to the wrong conclusion, this would be the case in the long run.

But then a layer of scab is created. Under no circumstances should these wear away so as not to destroy the pattern. It will heal in a few weeks and the scab will fall off on its own. A reddish scar remains after about a month. This will fade in the next few months.

What needs to be considered when branding?

1) Even a pattern that has been fired repeatedly can hardly be recognized after about 7 years.

2) There is no certainty that the healed burn will correspond to the wish.

3) Burn wounds infect very easily. Under no circumstances should you go to public baths, saunas or bathing lakes when they heal.

Special aesthetics

Tattoos are pictures on the skin, decorative scars but reliefs - this is how the difference could be expressed. The scar not only has a special color, it should also come out clearly from the skin. In this respect, cutting or branding is clearly recognizable, and many wearers combine it with tattoos and piercings.

Which motifs are suitable for decorative scars?

Tattoo fans who want to be branded have to rethink. Branding cannot show details. The scars are two to four millimeters thick. Ornaments are suitable, intertwined lines, or what is called tribal in tattoos. Closed forms are unsuitable because the scars are spreading, and so mostly little of the original motif is recognizable.

Scarification problems and risks

The same problems can occur with cuttings and brandings as with all larger scars. Scars never really replace the destroyed collagen tissue, but consist of parallel bundles of fibers. They are therefore less flexible than normal skin, hardly resilient and tend to harden. Loss of pigment causes scars to be highly sensitive to solar radiation and pose a risk of skin cancer. Scar tissue shrinks in the long run, which can make the decorative scars unsightly.

Cracks as a symptom of illness

We have to separate cutting as jewelry from cutting as a name for a symptom of psychological complaints. People who cut their skin without an aesthetic purpose behind it often suffer from traumas.

Somayeh Ranjbar writes in her article on "scratching" that people who hurt themselves are often victims of abuse or feel powerless and helpless for other reasons. Cutting into your own skin therefore appears "often as a breakout from overwhelming feelings of isolation, fear, murder or madness". Some sufferers would report that the scratching "gives them a sense of control in a world they cannot control". At the same time, they could find relief from the mental anguish if they inflict physical pain.

The boundaries between this psychiatric symptom and decorative scars as jewelry are clearly drawn, but both forms can go hand in hand. On the one hand, some sufferers who injure themselves later have jewelry scars added to cover the old scars, and on the other hand the motive of injuring themselves also plays a role for some jewelry fans. Cutting cuttings into your skin yourself is always dangerous and can even cost you your life. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

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


  • Spieß, Gerda: Revolution Mensch sein: Success Thereses, Twentysix, 2018
  • Jung, Ernst G .: Small cultural history of the skin, Steinkopff, 2007
  • Kasten, Erich: Body-Modification: psychological and medical aspects of piercing, tattoo, self-harm and other body changes, Ernst Reinhardt, 2006
  • Asserate, Asfa-Wossen: Africa: the 101 most important questions and answers, C.H.Beck, 2010
  • Zeuske, Michael: Slave Traders, Negreros and Atlantic Creoles: A World History of the Slave Trade in the Atlantic Area, De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015
  • Bork, Konrad; Bräuninger, Wolfgang: Skin diseases in practice: diagnostics and therapy; with 6 tables, Schattauer Verlag, 2005

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