Erl Van Aken, RIP (1939 – Jan 17, 2013)

I’m sorry for waiting longer than I should have to write this; after the recent deaths of other body modification figures like ManWoman and Stalking Cat it’s difficult to have to follow those up with the loss of another significant body modification pioneer. Unfortunately I must write that Erl Douglas Van Aken II (see Erl on the BME wiki and his web page) passed away at his home after a richer life than anyone could ask for.

Erl was born in Brewer, Maine, and then moved to California at age four where he grew up in Orange County, a region he characterized as having “a very narrow band of perception, and being a person of ‘different’ thinking, not subject to peer pressure, I was not well… tolerated.” Always forward thinking, in the early sixties he worked in the space program at NASA, Bell Labs, JPL, and similar institutions where he worked on some of the first satellite programs, as well as Mercury, Gemini, and the Apollo program where he contributed significantly to the rover (moon buggy) — “in that sense I’m on the moon,” he said.

Wanting to explore a wider range of expression and not really fitting in to an increasingly “professional” environment, Erl left to become a multi-media artist, working in nearly every medium — as well as doing a lot of “motorcycle riding and hell raising during this period as well — you know, sex, drugs and rock’n'roll”, a dangerous lifestyle that would nearly cost him his life “on more than one occasion”. In the mid-90s (by which point he was a well-established body modification icon already) he began modelling for fine art, which lead to him joining the Screen Actors Guild (usually credited as Erl Van Douglas, although many of his non-speaking roles are uncredited, such as his 1996 appearance in The Cable Guy, the first movie I remember seeing him in — and my favorite thing about that movie). Lance Richlin, an artist who recently painted a series of portraits of Erl wrote me saying,

“Erl was no ordinary man. He was a Mystic. He had deep insight. The body modification was literally only the surface of the man. I didn’t even notice it after the first few encounters. When he was younger, he was a dangerous fellow. But he became a very gentle and compassionate man in old age.”

Although body modification was only a small part of a much more complex personality, Erl’s role in the world of body modification was significant. While the name has fallen out of fashion in favor of the anatomical moniker “bridge piercing”, for a long time “Erl” was what the piercing was called (as in “I’d like to get an Erl piercing”), as Erl was the first person known to wear it (done for him by The Gauntlet). Erl wasn’t only an early piercing and tattoo fan and innovator — he was also one of the first heavy body modification enthusiasts whose focus was significantly aesthetic. There have always been heavy mod practitioners, but the vast majority until the mid-nineties were doing it in private, almost exclusively in a sexual realm. Erl on the other hand was not only one of the first people in the West to explore surgical body mods on an artistic level, but also to do it “out”, sharing his love for it with those around him — for example, his radical and way, way, ahead of its time bipedical flap procedure was documented in Body Art magazine. Thereby he influenced many of the early body modification artists, as well as inspiring other serious enthusiasts, and changed culture more than he probably realized.

On the left, a recent painting of Erl by artist Lance Richlin (visit him at, and on the right, a pre-firing sculpture of Erl by Nicholas Mestanas (visit him on Facebook) — note that the piece includes Erl’s chest implants and bipedical flap (the artist was planning on adding the piercings post-firing).

erl1t erl2t

Finally a few photoshoot images from Erl’s webpage — visit to explore more.

erlphoto1t erlphoto2t erlphoto3t

Whether the name “Erl piercing” returns or falls out of our language, Erl’s pioneering exploration of body modification and the impact it had on popular culture lives on in hundreds of thousands of people’s lives — to say nothing of the myriad of other positive ways he touched those around him.

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About Shannon Larratt

Shannon Larratt is the founder of BME (1994) and its former editor and publisher. After a four year hiatus between 2008 and 2012, Shannon is back adding his commentary to ModBlog. It should be noted that any comments in these entries are the opinion of Shannon Larratt and may or may not be shared by LLC or the other staff or members of BME. Entry text Copyright © Shannon Larratt. Reproduced under license by LLC. Pictures may be copyright to their respective owners. You can also find Shannon at Zentastic or on Facebook.

7 thoughts on “Erl Van Aken, RIP (1939 – Jan 17, 2013)

  1. Erl will be missed! He was ahead of his time and was always a heck of an interesting guy. Erl was definitely one of the more unusual characters from back in the day at Gauntlet. He got one of the first nape piercings we did in the late 80s and he had it for decades. I recall him coming in one day after it had healed and he was wearing his ponytail through a large ring in his nape. I believe we used weed eater line in it initially (literally from the garden department with the seam manually filed “smooth).” Amazing that it healed.

    He also had me do piercings on the front and back of of his axillae on both sides. He was heavily into body building by that time, but still managed to heal them pretty well–though he didn’t wear them for that long.
    His own technique was to care for his piercings with the topical application of Bacardi 151 rum! We’ll miss you, Erl!


  3. Hi Melody,

    I am so very for your loss. I was google-ing your dad because my friend and I had recently been trying to remember if the nose bar was called the Van Aken or the Erl…. Years ago, she and I taught preschool very near where your dad lived (and if I recall correctly, worked out). He was a fascinating man, and absolutely one of the most kind and gentle people I’ve known. I don’t have tons of stories about your dad, but can certainly tell you what I saw and knew of him through casual conversation over a few years. I give the webmaster permission to give you my email address should you wish to contact me.

  4. Erl was a figure model when I attended the Art Institute of Southern California (now Laguna Academy of Design) in Laguna Beach. He was everyone’s favorite model not only because he was unique with his tattoos and piercings, but also because he was an incredible model, he would pose still as a statue, and loved to see the students’ (and instructors’) work. I talked with him several times either before, after, or between classes, and he was always extremely friendly, polite, intelligent and generally great to be around.

    I remember the license plate on his Corvette: “JUST ERL”!

    RIP friend! I know I speak for all the people at LCAD who knew, and drew or painted you: “We love you and wish you the best!”

  5. ERL WAS a wonderful friend. He renewed our vows for our 30th wedding anniversary. He was also my personnel trainer at the gym. He is trully missed. Such a incredible and wonderful man in our lives

  6. He also did our 25th wedding renewal 2005. I have some pictures if you would like them. Please drop me an email at [email protected]. our 30th was July 2010. ERL WAS a great friend to us. Our son actually did a few of his tattoos on his hands for him

  7. Very good to see this page is still up. Erl officiated our 25th anniversary. Erl was a good man and an even better friend.

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