Ryan Ouellette: Lord of the Blade [Guest Column]


Ryan Ouellette

Lord of the Blade

“I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want — an adorable pancreas?”

- Jean Kerr

There’s something quite profound about scarification that marks it apart from other forms of aesthetic body modification. Whereas tattoos and piercings augment and decorate the body by adding ink or metal, a scar is created merely by interacting with what’s already there, harnessing one of the peculiarities of the skin and channelling it to decorative ends. By using a scalpel, branding iron or cautery pen, it is possible to create intricate patterns in the skin, which, when healed, form distinctive and permanent scars. I really see this as body modification in its purest form — the body itself is producing the artwork, sealing over the inflicted wound and leaving an enduring mark that is actually part of the skin, not an inorganic addition.

Unfortunately, the idiosyncratic nature of an individual’s healing often makes the results of scarification fairly unpredictable, and as such the designs attempted have usually been fairly simplistic. In the West, scarification has tended to be either pieces made up of single line scalpel incisions for fine work or large, heavier scars produced by branding. Over the last few years, however, a number of scarification artists across the globe, feeling artistically constrained by the limited results and narrow range of designs that can be produced by single-line cuttings and the unpredictable and brutal scars left by brands, have begun to experiment with skin removal techniques, using their tools to actually remove areas of the upper layers for skin to produce larger, bolder and more predictable results.

Fresh skin removal scarification Healed skin removal scarification
Fresh and healed skin removal by Ryan Ouellette

Skin-removal really is in its infancy, and this article is in no way intended to be a how-to or instruction manual on the intricacies of this invasive and potentially dangerous procedure. Please do not try this at home. Instead, I hope it will illustrate what it is possible to do with the human body’s largest organ and germinate a few ideas in your head. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to interview one of this community’s most prominent, prolific and talented scarifiers, and this article is in many ways both a portrait of him and an introduction to his often astonishing work.

Although not the ‘inventor’ of this technique by any means, Ryan Oullette (IAM:The Fog), a twenty-five year old artist working out of Precision Body Arts in Nashua, New Hampshire, is widely regarded by his peers as one of the best scarification artists currently practising skin removal. Photos of his scars were recently showcased in National Geographic magazine, the patterns and motifs he produces are brave and original, and his work — both fresh and healed — is simply stunning. Chatting with other scarification artists, Ryan’s name comes up again and again when they’re asked whose work they particularly admire.

Ryan Ouellette Ryan Ouellette at work
BME:  Where are you from originally, Ryan?
RYAN:  I grew up in a small rural town called Pepperell — it’s just over the border in Massachusetts only about a half hour from the little city I live and work in now, Nashua. BME:  What got you interested in body-modification in the first place?

RYAN:  I have no idea to be honest. It was never a choice, it just felt natural. Like shaving or eating. I ‘play-pierced’ myself a lot when I was younger, with sewing needles and things like that. I used to do crude scarification on myself with needle heads in my bedroom. I never thought it was unusual behaviour and I didn’t see it as ‘self harm’ or anything. It just felt natural. I started getting actual piercings in my mid teens and it just grew from there.

BME:  How long have you been ‘in the business’ as a piercer and practitioner?

RYAN:  I’ve been piercing professionally for about five years. I had hopped around part-time at some shops for another year or so before then but I would say that was more of an amateur thing. I took over my shop about four years ago and I started cutting maybe six months after that.

BME:  Did you apprentice?

RYAN:  I’m completely self-taught as far as technique goes, although I’ve done a lot of formal training for piercing (Association of Professional Piercers anatomy classes, aseptic technique, and so on). I got some little pointers here and there from talking to guys like Lukas Zpira over the internet. I try to soak up all the ideas I can from watching videos and looking at pictures of other artists’ work. But mostly it was just trial and error.

One of the bigger things that sticks out in my head is reading an interview about Blair and his branding. He talked about how a lot of branders were scared to hit the same line multiple times and he said something along the lines of “work it until you’re satisfied”. And that really influenced my cutting style. Instead of trying to get a perfect line in one pass I hit and re-hit the same multiple times until I got it looking exactly how I wanted it. My cuttings are actually influenced most by Blair’s brandings if that makes any sense.

BME:  When did you start doing cuttings, and how did you develop?

RYAN:  Aside from the little chicken scratches I did as a teen I started professional cutting about three-and-a-half years ago, early 2001 I think. Originally I only bought scalpels to do work on myself. I never intended to work on other people at first. I did some small pieces on myself over the course of a few months. After that I did one on a guy I worked with, then my girlfriend. Gradually, it grew to regular customers, and once word got out on the internet I started to get a lot more people coming in asking about it.

BME:  Do you perform other forms of scarification such as branding or electrocautery?

RYAN:  I only do cutting. I’ve never even attempted any form of branding. At first I looked at scarification as the name for any scar procedure and I looked at things like scalpels, cautery pens, hyfrecators, and so on as different brushes used for one kind of art. Now that I’m experienced with a scalpel I see cutting and branding as two completely separate art forms. I might get into branding in the future but right now I feel most comfortable with a blade.

BME:  Why and when would you choose skin removal as a method of scarification as opposed to simple scalpel cutting or any other methods?

RYAN:  It all depends on the design. My earlier work was basic geometric designs — lines and curves. No solid or bold sections. After a while, I got bored and I felt that in order for my designs to evolve I needed to have larger sections, so that’s when I tried out flesh removal. My first one came out terribly. I cut it the way I would a single line piece and it ended up being way too deep and it healed really unevenly and didn’t look good at all. I gave up on flesh removal for about a year and then decided to try it out again, this time on myself. I changed what I thought was wrong with my last one and the piece came out to my satisfaction. After that it just felt as comfortable as anything else, so I incorporate it into most of my designs these days.

BME:  How do the results differ, in your view?

RYAN:  I just like the bold sections more than single line work. There is only so much you can do with single line pieces. After doing single line pieces for a year or two I was getting a lot of requests for designs that just couldn’t be done without flesh removal. Also, it’s easier to get a nice distinctly healed scar with flesh removal. I seem to get more consistency with them. I try to push myself each time. I think I do my best work when it’s something that looks too complicated for me.

Skin removal scarification by Ryan Ouellette Skin removal scarification by Ryan Ouellette Skin removal scarification by Ryan Ouellette
BME:  Can you talk me through the procedure, from start to finish?

RYAN:  Well it’s actually pretty similar to a tattoo for set up. The skin is shaved when needed, cleaned (sometimes with iodine, sometimes with Technicare), and then I put on a stencil. After all the prep stuff I usually make a quick pass over the entire design with a #11 blade scalpel. I basically consider it guide-lining. It’s not very deep, and it looks pretty uneven at first. It’s basically just opening up the skin over the whole piece very shallowly; the depth isn’t evened out until the next step.

    Number 11 scalpel blade
Number 15 scalpel blade

Next I’ll usually change blades to keep it sharp, and then I’ll go back over the design and slowly even out the depth and width. The depth and width varies depending on the design. If it’s single line I tend to go a bit deeper and wider. If I was doing removal I would go a bit shallower because I’ve learned that if you do flesh removal too deep it tends to blob out and heal unevenly. For removal sections I get my outlining done and then I use some haemostats to basically just pull up a corner. Then I use a #15 blade and slowly separate the tissue up and away while I lift with the clamps. I try to go as even as possible because you obviously want a uniform removed section for good healing. I try to make my removed sections as small as possible because I’ve noticed that if you try to remove too large of an area the center of it tends to be excessively deep. I’ll often split a removed area into smaller sections or strips and remove them individually instead of just on one large hunk.

As far as the depth goes I’ve talked to a lot of very good scarification artists and their techniques all vary. Depth is really just whatever works for the individual. Generally you’re going into the tissue below the cutaneous layer but not through the fascia. And I’d say that good flesh removal is typically slightly shallower than single line scarification. You really want to keep it uniform. You don’t want to see pits and valleys because that means different tissue layers, hence different scar production.

Ryan Ouellette at work

In terms of blood control, basically I just pat my field with paper towels as I work, again similar to tattooing. I really like to keep my lines clean and as dry as possible. Some people bleed more than others, obviously, so sometimes it’s hard to keep things as clean as I like but I generally don’t like blood to leave my immediate field. I don’t just let it drip all over the place like some people tend to do. It’s partially for contamination control but it’s mostly just so I can clearly see the cut depth and width clearly. The bleeding tends to stop within five minutes of finishing a line. So by the time I move on to a new line my previous ones are usually dry.

I’ll occasionally clean the field during the procedure, typically between steps. So maybe once after all the outlining is done, and then again when the piece is completed. I typically clean the field with green soap solution, again like a tattoo. After I’m done I’ll bandage the area with a sterile non-stick dressing. I usually tell the person to keep it bandaged for at least four to six hours. Sometimes, particularly for flesh removal, I’ll just have them keep it bandaged overnight. As for removed skin it’s basically nothing by the time I’m cleaning everything up post-cutting. Without blood supply it shrivels up within just a few minutes.

BME:  What are the benefits of skin removal — what can be done, and what are the limitations — what can’t be done?

RYAN:  I think the main benefit with flesh removal is additional control. With a single line cut you make a cut and basically just widen it out and change the depth. So if you make a slight error all the cuts from that point on are going to have to work around that one mistake or even it out. With flesh removal you can control both the outline and center of all lines and sections. If I want to do a grouping of small tight lines, especially with angles or curves I’ll almost always do it with removal. If you do single line you are basically splitting the skin open so that can sometimes limit what you can do right next to a line. With flesh removal you are going shallower so the skin tends to open less. So I can do tightly compacted lines and feel confident that they’ll heal where I put them. If I tried to do lots of small lines within an eighth of an inch they would tend to scar outward and probably blend together during the healing process. The lines are more straight down and tend to heal in their original location unless they keloid a significant amount.

As far as what can’t be done I guess I would push people away from very large sections of removal. If someone wanted a removed section bigger than maybe two inches wide I would probably try to change their design or flat out turn them down. As far as complexity I’ve never had to turn something down because it’s too complex. I’ve had to rework designs to simplify them slightly in order to be able to cut it into someone. Obviously you can’t do shading, so I have to redraw things to make them bolder, kind of like a solid black tattoo.

There are some areas I would prefer to not work on like hands, wrists, necks, and so on. But I’m sure if someone really wanted a piece there I could figure out a way to do it safely. I’d just have to do it a little shallower than average. I did some flesh removal stars on the side of my girlfriend’s hand and it was very difficult. Two little coin-sized sections took me about two hours because I had to be so careful with my depth and remove the tissue at the exact same shallow level.

Skin removal scarification by iam:The Fog Skin removal scarification by iam:The Fog
BME:  What are the risks?

RYAN:  Risks are similar to any comparable procedure like tattooing or branding. The biggest risk would be infection but I’ve never had a problem with that. I give very clear aftercare instructions so it hasn’t been an issue. That’s the only thing I would call a risk. There are more complications that could come up like uneven healing and scarring mostly. Occasionally a person can get kind of a rash around the piece, depending on aftercare. It’s usually from wrapping it the wrong way or not cleaning it often enough.

BME:  What aftercare do you generally recommend?

RYAN:  My basic aftercare is that they keep it covered with plastic wrap and Vaseline for about seven to ten days. It keeps the body from forming a scab which makes it heal more from the bottom up instead of from the sides inward. It’s just important with wrapping that you keep the piece clean and somewhat dry. So I tell the person to unwrap and clean it throughout the day. I usually just have them use an antimicrobial soap like Satin or Provon. If they don’t clean it often enough the fluid under the wrap can cause irritation or a rash. The rashes are more frequent if I have to shave the person before the cutting.

I basically just worked out my aftercare with trial and error. I also talk to a lot of other artists about technique so I steal a lot of ideas from them. Sometimes I’ll suggest using a mild irritant like lemon juice mixed with the Vaseline. It can tend to make the body heal with either a darker hypertrophic scar or, with a little luck, raised keloid tissue.

BME:  How long is the healing period, generally, and what are the stages of healing?

RYAN:  Complete healing varies on how they take care of it. With the wrap I’d say that the body will form a new layer of skin over the whole design within around two weeks. If they keep it unwrapped the body will scab slowing the healing process to maybe three weeks. If you add in agitation, picking, or scrubbing it could lengthen it out to a month or more.

healing skin removal scarification
2 days old

healing skin removal scarification
5 weeks old

healing skin removal scarification
3.5 months old
BME:  What kind of results does skin removal produce — what do the resulting scars look like compared to other forms of scarification?

RYAN:  With my removal it’s not really making the body heal in a specific way. It’s really just emphasizing the way an individual’s body will heal a cut. I’d say on a whole removals tend to give a better more distinct scar. But it’s very difficult to force the body to heal one way or another. Keloid tissue is more of a raised pinkish tissue. It’s basically what most people hope for with healing but it’s actually not that forthcoming in a lot of pieces. I’ve notice that the body heals more commonly with hypertrophic tissue. This tends to be more of a darker granulated, less raised tissue. What I shoot for with aftercare is either a very dark distinct hypertrophic scar or an evenly raised keloid scar. I never guarantee a certain look though, that would just be impossible.

As for how it looks compared to other scars I’d say flesh removals don’t scar outward as much as some other techniques. Brandings tend to heal outward a lot more due to the heat damaging surrounding tissue. A lot of single line scarification tends to be deeper than removal so the line can heal a little wider due to it having a tendency to heal in more of a V-shape then wide U like some removals.

BME:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?


Yes! It’s really important that people remember that these procedures can be extremely dangerous if not done by a skilled professional with a decent amount of anatomical knowledge and experience working with skin. If not, people could end up in hospital! The difference between single line and removal can be compared to the difference between punch-and-taper piercing and transdermal implants. They might be similar but the latter is a lot more advanced and dangerous.

If you’re interested in getting work done by Ryan, his shop Precision Body Arts is located at 109 West Pearl Street, Nashua, New Hampshire (or call 603-889-5788). You can also see more of his work in his gallery on BME (and of course you can view other artists working in similar styles in the general scarification galleries as well).

As scarification techniques evolve, designs which previously would not have produced good, clear, dramatic looking scars become possible. The only limits are those of your imagination and of your artist’s skill. Choose wisely.

– Matt Lodder   (iam:volatile)

Matt Lodder is a 24 year old native of London England. He wrote his Masters dissertation for the University of Reading on “The Post-Modified Body: Invasive corporeal transformation and its effects on subjective identity”.

Thanks so much to Ryan for agreeing to be interviewed, and for being so eloquent and forthcoming with information. Thanks also to Quentin (iam:kalima) and Vampy (iam:vampy) for their help in answering my questions, and also to Shell (iam:stunt_girl) for her last-minute assistance!

Online presentation copyright © 2005 BMEzine.com LLC. Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published online January 7th, 2005 by BMEzine.com LLC from La Paz, Mexico.


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