Semi-Precious Teeth – The BME Cultural Corner

I am happy to present the next article in the Cultural Corner series by my colleague Christian Noni. He has a great love and respect for ancient culture and its attending rituals. He is also a collector of ancient jewelry and artifacts relating to body modification. Christian has undergone some serious surgical modifications to his mouth and has documented them for us here in his own words.

In a related note, the Museum of Man in San Diego is completing the hosting of a body modification special exhibit which runs through March. Art from San Diego’s piercing studio, Church of Steel, is primarily responsible for putting it together. I have known Art for some fifteen years, and know of his great love of tribal culture. Along with photos of many familiars in the piercing industry, there is a small but relevant display of jewelry. Art has my respects for orchestrating this exhibit and helping to educate not just piercers, but the public in general.

With modified people no longer considered a “fringe” culture, many large museums are following suit, and presenting similar exhibitions. For those modified individuals in and outside of the industry, I highly recommend visiting the museum if you are in Southern California. You might even score a copy of my book, A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment in Western Culture, at the museum’s gift shop. The limited edition body mod book is nearly sold out. Also check out my new DVD for you hardcore traditional bodymod fans.

- Blake

Semi-Precious Teeth

“To embrace our future, we must first embody our past.”
          – Christian Noni

As a professional piercer, I have always been interested in the historical aspects of body modification. Since I was nearly ten years old, I have collected ethnographic pieces. Anything from traditional Native American dream catchers and weapons, to my mid teens collecting antique piercing jewelry. I feel it is essential to not only respect what tribal cultures around the world created but to also embody it. Thus, I felt using the word “embody” would be the perfect name for the piercing studio that I am opening up. My studio not only performs traditional body piercing and tattooing, but we also plan to have a mini museum of ancient tribal artifacts, primarly focusing on ancient body piercing jewelry and other forms of ritualistic objects. We encourage all people from all walks of life to come and visit us.

From the beginnings of human culture as well as in the present, body modification has served its purpose in our bodies through many different aspects. Aside from common body piercing and tattooing, we as modern beings practise the beauty of adornment through in many other ways — cosmetic surgery, wearing make up, weight lifting, and so on. One large form of body modification with a beautiful history is tooth modifications. In this modern age in body modification, it may be interesting to look back at what the Mayans did in particular.

With a highly developed culture, the Mayans were peaceful people who inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula as well as present-day Guatemala and Honduras. The nation’s history began about 2500 B.C. and the culture flourished from about 300 A.D. to about 900 A.D. They were accomplished smelters and forgers of gold, silver, and bronze, in addition to being highly skilled in cutting, polishing, and engraving semi-precious stones. Many of these skills can be seen in Pre-Columbian earrings, necklaces, and masks.

One form of Mayan stonework that was widely popular was inlaying polished stones into teeth. The Mayans were skilled in the fabrication and placement of beautifully carved stone inlays in precisely prepared cavities in the front teeth. These inlays were made of various minerals, including jadeite, iron pyrites, hematite, turquoise, quartz, opal, serpentine, and cinnabar. The purpose of enhancing teeth blossomed for ritual or religious purposes — some believed that inserting gems into their teeth and filing them in elaborate designs would enhance the voice spiritually, thus resulting in direct communication with God(s).

The tools illustrated above are examples of what kind of tools the Mayans may have used for gem inlaying. Illustrations courtesy of Dr. Schilling.

A round, hard tube was spun between the hands, or in a rope drill, with a slurry of powdered quartz in water as an abrasive, to cut a perfectly round hole through the tooth enamel. The stone inlay was ground to fit the cavity so precisely that many have remained in the teeth for thousands of years. Human skull remains can still be seen in museums today with gems still intact in the tooth.

Not only did the Mayans insert beautiful stones into their teeth, but they too also decorated their teeth in other ways. Some forms of tooth adornment that they performed included carving their teeth in various shapes (which you can see above and in the skull at the top of the article). One of the most extroardinary forms of tooth adornment were their inventive techniques in replacing teeth. Modern oral surgeons now have only just scratched the surface of what was commonly practised over two thousand years ago. Replacing their own teeth with those from animals (and other humans) as well as shells and other implants — not only was this form of adornment was widely practiced but was greatly achieved, with archaeological evidence that the human bone anatomically bonded to the implants and healed.

The teeth of this Mayan skull of the ninth century A.D. have numerous inlays of jade and turquoise. Also note how the upper front teeth have been filed, particularly the decorative front two teeth. Photo courtesy of Dr. Schilling.

Personally growing up with crooked teeth, I had spent more than half of my life trying to achieve that “perfect smile”, undergoing through my youth having braces, headgear, permanent retainers, and temporary retainers. After somewhat achieving that nice smile in my early teens, I assumed the ongoing procedures were coming to an end. Without knowing what the future held in store for me, I ended up finding that I had a rare disease. My father and my uncle have it as well, and I got it early — because of this, I had to undergo more extreme procedures to save my teeth. I underwent numerous tooth extractions, over twenty-five root canals, and lastly dental implants. Dr. Downey quoted that I “have literally gone through more dental work in the last five years than roughly thirty people added up would in their entire lifetime”. All in the name of beauty… After going through well over five years of procedures in trying to achieve that perfect smile, I became very attentive towards other peoples smiles, and with that, I became even more self-conscious of my smile. I already got enough attention for my modifications, and I was receiving even more attention with my ugly smile. Over time I trained myself to smile in a certain way where my bad teeth were not as visible. People typically don’t realize how much a person’s smile can make all of the difference in the world. My smile was affecting my job, dating, and even making friends.

Since I was having all of my teeth fixed, I wanted to add a spice of historical traditional adornment to my teeth. I had always been fascinated by what the Mayans did to their teeth, and as time went by, I felt it was time to embody what our neighboring culture created. My friend and dentist, Dr. Downey, was well aware of the historical culture of Mayan dentistry. As open-minded as he is, he was more than happy to help me achieve this ancient form of beauty. Typically his clientel would insert diamonds or rubies in their teeth, so he was experienced in the procedure. However, I wanted my teeth to be as beautiful and traditional as the Mayans did. Thus, I made plans to have solid opal gems inlayed into my upper and lower canine teeth.

The procedure was not as simple as the one the Mayans used. Considering my teeth are porcelain, the procedure required more delicate techniques when inlaying the stones. Despite the beautiful appearance opal stones have, it is a naturally formed crystal glass. Thus, major preparations were involved to make sure the stones would be inlayed correctly and appear beautiful, and also last for years to come as well. Preparing the teeth and gems took much longer than than actually insert them. The upper and lower canines were prepped in a lab, then hollowed out. On the front of the tooth was a hole for where the gem would be inserted and be visible. The gems were actually not inlayed from the front as most people would assume. They were inlayed from the inside of the new tooth, then supported from behind with porcelain. This is to prevent the opal stone from falling out from the front. Thus, the gem is encased entirely in porcelain with a clear epoxy encased on the front of the gem for extra support (click for a closeup). Once my new gem teeth were ready for insertion, a localized anesthesia was injected. Dr. Downey removed my upper and lower temporary canines and prepped the surrounding gums for my new canines. A dental instrument silimar to a surgical elevator instrument was used to push down on the gums to make room. Once that was achieved, the new tooth was prepped and inserted with a cement epoxy agent to bond permanently. The actual procedure took no more than ten minutes per canine set. Both Dr. Downey and myself were very pleased with the results of how everything looked.

Dr. Downey has not only changed my life with my great new smile, but he too has brought me a step closer to the essence of body adornment. For that, words can not express my gratitude on how thankful I am to have him not only as my dentist, but as a friend who I will never forget.

For more information, you may contact me directly at [email protected]. If you would like to contact Dr. Downey, please go to for more information.

TEETH RULE – The BME Cultural Corner

Teeth Rule
Alicia Cardenas

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I only think of how to solve the problem. But, when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

- Buckminster Fuller

Welcome back to the BME Cultural Corner. I’d like to introduce my friend and colleague, Alicia Cardenas. She and her partner have operated Twisted Sol ( in Denver, Colorado for eight years. Alicia is also serving a term as cultural liaison on the board of the APP. She is deeply involved with indigenous groups, and practices and teaches traditional Aztec and Mayan dance, and has a profound spiritual appreciation of tribal cultures around the world. Alicia has recently returned from a trip to Central America where she had had her own teeth modified in the traditional style. Alicia is a skilled piercer as well as self-educated anthropologist, and her fascinating journey to her own tribal origins is now here on BME for all cultural enthusiasts and body artists alike to share. Thank you Alicia,

- Blake

This is the first in a series of articles devoted to the ancient practices of tooth modification. To begin this series, I will tell my own story and invite others to share in my experience. Although I believe the history of these practices is important, the evolution of this ritual and its modern day significance plays a huge part in the widespread acceptance of this truly beautiful display of individuality.

I’m not exactly sure when it occurred to me that I wanted to get traditional gold teeth. I just decided it was pretty and divine, and then came to want them for myself. While growing up I remember seeing people with steel or gold caps, and I would assume they had a bad tooth and that was what they put in its place (teeth being one of those things you tend to notice on everyone, and parents pay thousands of dollars to fix in a quest for the perfect American smile). I understood the concept at a young age of “beauty at the price of discomfort,” a theme that would reoccur throughout my adult life. Beautiful straight teeth were something I fought for throughout my youth, regardless of the discomfort. I wanted to be an actress and for that you needed straight teeth. Headgear, headaches, bleeding gums, wax and rubber bands; it was like some sort of torture. Braces were not a sign of beauty, but knowing the end result was beauty, it became widely socially acceptable to have them. After my battle with braces I swore off dentists for life unless completely necessary — little did I know that my tooth saga would continue (and by choice). I would modify my teeth further in search for beauty and for an understanding of the ancient practices of my ancestors.

American culture is so attached to a specific idea of beauty that it is spoon-fed to us on the cover of every magazine, on television, and in the movies. We can’t (or don’t) want to conceive of the different forms of beauty being embraced by neighboring cultures. One great example of this is tooth modification in Mexico — tooth filing, capping, removal, and incrustation are all comonly practiced artforms among the indigenous people of Mesoamerica. In ancient times, these cultures practiced advanced dentistry far beyond what the “savages” were assumed to be capable of.

These people were far from savages, but an advanced culture that excelled at astronomy, mathematics, body modification, and much more. The Maya were the first to apply this adornment and practice it still. Tribes throughout the body of Mexico that came later in history, such as the Toltecs and Mexicahs (Aztecs) followed in their footsteps. While growing up in America, the only people I saw who had gold or steel teeth were the Mexican population (with the exception of people who had very damaged teeth). Since Colorado has such a large Mexican community, I grew up convinced that Mexicans had really bad dental health — little did I know that most gold caps and gold windows being performed in Mexico were inspired by beauty, and not poor dental health!

As I grew older and realized the significance, I became captivated by it. Seeing people with gold teeth began to inspire me to find a deeper, more universal explanation of why this was a healthy part of human history. Modern Mexicans, Mayans, and other indigenous cultures of South and Central America still practice tooth adornment. Mayans can often be identified by their gold caps, usually on the four front teeth (top or bottom). This tradition was so strong that it has survived for thousands of years. If I was going to get my teeth modified it would have to be with the experts. I would travel to Mexico City in search of answers in my quest for tooth modification.

If you go looking in Mexico City for an answer, you will truly find it.

Temple of the Moon.

In a population of twenty million there is always something to learn or do. James (the other piercer at Twisted Sol) and I arrived in Mexico City with nothing but our backpacks and a mission of immersion. We had wanted to travel many times together and had never gotten the opportunity, but now found ourselves in our favorite country and the place of our ancestors. Tenochtlitilan. We were greeted and hosted quite possibly by Tonazin Tlalli (mother earth) and Tonatiuh (father sun) themselves — Ana Paula and Ruso. They have a beautiful body art studio called Tonatiuh ( in Mexico City, and would be our guides and hosts for this ten-day affair. Looking at these two people you are immediately transported into the past — not only do they look like a page out of history, but they live and follow the philosophies of the ancient people. Having guides like these was a blessing. We would see Mexico like we’d never seen it before. Throughout the entire trip teeth were a reoccurring theme. In each museum we visited there were multiple exhibits with tooth incrustations and statues that had teeth that were filed.

Left: With Alfredo and Ana. Right: With Ana and Ruso from Tonatiuh.

While standing out front of the Museo De Anthropologia we ran into four Maya women that all had all front four uppers in gold and gold windows. I explained my fascination and they agreed to allow me to photograph them (in the photo only one of them smiled enough to show her teeth though). Of the four women only one of them needed the gold teeth because of problems with her natural teeth. This concept would present itself again and again, assuring me that my urge to change my teeth was a normal one.

With ladies from the Yucatan.

I had arranged ahead of time to get an appointment with a dentist. Ana warned me that as a board member of the APP, visiting a dentist in Mexico was going to be a hardcore awakening to the realities of cleanliness. I reminded her that the only difference between a dentist in America and one in Mexico is that dentists in America have nicer equipment, but are still just as dirty. I prefered to visit one that had more of a family feel, and had experience with this type of procedure. To my surprise, Ana had an aunt, Pilar, who was a dentist, and I could have an appointment with her. It would require two appointments; possibly three. My first one was to consult with her and really talk about what we were doing. James and Ana helped as I couldn’t understand — my Spanish is very limited and she was using a lot of dental terms.

Pilar was your typical family dentist and was definitely surprised to be asked to perform such an unusual request. Even though it is the style in many rural parts of Mexico and the Yucatan, Pilar was a middle to upper-class city dentist that was more often putting on porcelain caps to fit in with the mainstream, rather than the gold ones which are the style for older generations. She asked why and I told her it was tradition, and she simply mentioned doing incrustations with jewels would take far longer. She also mentioned that it was strange for her to work on perfectly good teeth. I reminded her she was making them better.

I immediately knew when I sat with her that she would be the dentist to do my teeth. I did like the fact that she was a woman. She also seemed to become more and more fascinated with the project as we talked. It was as if she was being reminded that the trade of dentistry was ancient, and she too was carrying on the tradition by performing the procedure. She gave me many opportunities to back out but I became more and more convinced that I was ready to do this, and this was the time to do it.

She began by taking the first and last molds of my teeth and bite — the way they were when I arrived in Mexico. She was very concerned with details and took several impressions to make sure that it was accurate. I must have had a gallon of spit sucked out of my mouth and it was very difficult to hold open my mouth for two hours. She then came at me with a syringe that was much older than I, and numbed only the section of my face necessary to grind down my teeth without pain. She gloved and masked up and ground my teeth down. It took about two hours total. The cleanliness (or lack thereof) only bothered me for the first twenty-five minutes, until I gave in to the experience. Then it was just funny. I am of the strong belief that good intention kills germs*, and in this case it would have to!

* Note: in one piercing I go through eight pairs of gloves. Pilar used one pair for two hours, handling everything in the room. I asked James to take photos, but as these things often happen, I had one bag not arrive back in Denver and it was the one with all the film in it… so I have only the photos James took on his camera.

At the end she fit fake plastic teeth called provisionals over my new stubs. They looked just like oversized teeth except they were only there to protect my stubs from causing me pain from their sensitivity. I would wear the provisionals for three days until my new gold caps where made, having them fall off every time I ate and making me feel like Goofy. The next few days were a surreal period of reflection, as it was too late to turn back, but I was not there yet.

Before the operation, making molds, and the ancient syringe.

The final appointment would be the day before we were scheduled to leave. It was very important that everything went well in getting the gold ones made because I would have to extend my trip if they didn’t fit.

When I arrived back at the office to get my new gold caps I was so excited I felt as if I had been without a part of my body I was about to get back. As she fit them on I knew everything had gone great and I would be able to leave with them in place. Pilar had become obsessed with their perfection and she was worried, not so much if I liked them, but more if she thought they were perfect. In the small amount of time we shared together she was no longer a stranger but like a part of my extended family in Mexico. She would be in my memories as a fine practitioner of an ancient art forever. With some minor adjustments I was reborn. My smile could have not gotten bigger! It would take a few weeks before I stopped tonguing them and wishing I had made more time for an incrustation but eventually I would acclimate. What I could not stop thinking though was how the ancient ones did it and why.

Before and After.

The quest for beauty and status was definitely a motivating factor but certainly not the only reason why teeth were modified. In Pre-Columbian Mexico teeth were not only adorned with gold and precious stones (jade, obsidian, hematite, turquoise), but they were filed, stained, notched, and even removed and used in other adornments. Often conch beads were made in the shape of teeth and strung together with jade and coral for large ceremonial necklaces. These items were reserved for royal death offerings. The teeth themselves were a symbol of much more than just physical aesthetics. They symbolized strength and would survive into the afterlife, unlike flesh.

The removal or notching of teeth was done to represent devotion to deities and had special meaning (it was not given out to just anyone). There are many spiritual significances and rituals that surrounded these practices, but when medicine men or shaman performed them, they used virtually the same techniques as are used today — tight fit or cements. However, today if an inlay is done it would require an artificial cap being inlayed and then placed over the tooth (or in place of the tooth), whereas the ancient people did inlays in teeth that were still healthy and attached, making the procedure much more difficult than the one modern dentists usually use.

What I identified most with in these ancient practices was that they were used as a type of medicine to cure a different kind of ailment. For me there was medicine in getting my teeth worked on. It lightened my spirit and brought me a new found love of a once dreaded part of my body. After all the years with braces, my teeth were never perfect, and I often neglected to give teeth-baring smiles. My gold teeth now overshadow any insecurity I ever had about smiling as big as I can. Simply by having them I am setting an example of ancient traditional beauty in modern culture and how adorning teeth is not only about fixing something that is broken, but adding to something making it even better.

My studies have gone on to all continents in search for all the explanations given for this type of bodywork. I have begun to collect and catalog each case of tooth modification done in history and today. I look forward to presenting an article on each continent and the modern day stories of tooth adornment. Thank you to my friends James, Ana, and Ruso for guiding me through this experience. Without them I would have not been able to get them done. Thank you as well to Blake, for planting the seed and helping it grow.

Alicia Cardenas
twistedsoldier at hotmail dot com

AMPUTEE ART – The BME Cultural Corner

Amputee Art

Our masters (the spirits) keep a zealous watch over us, and woe betide us afterwards if we do not satisfy them! We cannot quit it; we cannot cease to practise shamanic rites.

- Shaman quoted by Wenceslas Sieroshevksi, 1896

Welcome to the BME Cultural Corner.

My name is Blake of The Nomad Precision Body Adornment and Tribal Art Museum. This new section of BME/News will focus exclusively on the historical and cultural aspects of bodymod in a traditional context. Personal narratives, stories, articles, rare photos, and new scientific discoveries relating to the endless human need to alter the body will be found here.

In introduction, I am a piercer of fifteen years, museum curator, and self-educated anthropologist. I have also authored a new book (A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment in Western Culture) which is available here on BME. My interests are purely traditional culture — one might call me a conservative democrat, as far as bodymod goes.

The subject of this first article of the Cultural Corner will be amputation — a subject, I admit, I never thought I would be writing about in a historic context. Only lately associated with the bodymod community, and profiled in a recent one-hour Discovery Channel special as well as Shannon’s book Modcon, deliberate amputation is generally misunderstood. It can be said that amputation is not ornamentation (unless you wear a severed digit in your earlobe), more exactly, it is augmentation.

Randomly ask any amputee today about the nature of their “disfigurement” (ignoring all of the social idiums on couth), and expect one of several primary answers — assuming you haven’t pissed them off or trodden on some painful part of their life better left alone.

Our first hypothetical example: A legless man in a wheelchair — mid 50’s — perhaps he lost them on a mine in Vietnam, his “mobility and vitality” stolen from him in his youth by the “enemy”… non-consentually.

Next, an older man (yes, women can be amputees too) missing a forearm and a hand… his whole life haunted by the feeling that with both hands he is incomplete as a person until that appendage is sacrificed. Consumed with a deep, unnameable need to remove part of the anatomy considered essential — perhaps an “accident” with a Skilsaw — and now he is content… an indescribable inner part of himself somehow satiated.

For our third example we turn back the hands of time (no pun intended)… about 30,000 years! The place is a dark cave in Paleolithic Europe. With the entire clan in attendance — spellbound — an elder shaman severs a digit from his hand. Does he hate himself? No. Does he have issues? No. The primitive mind and developing psyche of humanity is consumed wih offerings of magic, sacrifice, the spirit-world, and the animal kingdom, upon which he depends for survival.

Amputated finger tips. Left: 30,000 years old (© Pawel Valde-Nowak), right: 6 years old (from BME’s collection).

What is transpiring in the cave is one of earliest known forms of “religious rite” or spiritual practice and enactment of ritual. In fact, discoveries at Oblazowa, a Paleolithic site in Poland have sparked a huge controversy in the world of prehistoric art. Known to science, yet rare, are hand-stencils on the walls of Paleolithic European caves with missing digits. This “Amputee Art” was previously regarded as examples of illness, accidents or a strange system of communication — until now.

New evidence has unearthed (in the same caves that housed the amputee art): a thumb phalanx, and other human finger bones found in association with shell pendants, stone beads, the perforated teeth of an Arctic fox, a Mammoth tusk boomerang (the oldest boomerang ever found), and other ritual objects. They date to more than 30,000 years ago.

Pawel Valde-Nowak, the scientist who excavated the site believes that this proves that “fingers were amputated in a ceremonial context” and that amputee art gives “depictions of hands (with missing digits) a very particular symbolic meaning”.

Even with our imaginary time-travel, early language, grammar, and syntax prevent the modern mind (if we could ask) from communication with the shaman in the cave. “Why?” we might inquire, yet the ritual context of this ancient amputation lets the scientific mind extrapolate, respect, and appreciate the ceremonial, even religious rite associated with the ancient amputation.

Amputations. Left to right: Performance artist Roger Kaufman who has changed the length of nearly all his fingers and toes (photo: Efrain Gonzalez), healed amputation with original finger tip (photo and model: Jerome Abramovitch), and an “amputation party” in Russia (both photos: BME archives).

With scientific evidence substantiating this new theory, further conjecture will be limited only by lack of further archaeological evidence… in the art world, the controversy will likely continue for decades to come. Now science has established ritual amputation to the earliest days of modern man and dated the practice to Paleolithic times, paralleling the emergence of humanity’s oldest forms of ritualized ornamentation and adornment; piercing and tattooing.

Amputation, drugs, religion, meditation or ritualized body adornment are means by which we may glimpse the divine, or, that which is greater than the sum of our “parts”. These vehicles of transcendental experience are doorways to an ancient state of mind. To borrow a quote from my book, “the ways by which we find release and transcendence as a species are varied, indeed.


Blake Perlingieri is a body piercer of fifteen years, a museum curator, and a self-educated anthropologist. He is the author of A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment in Western Culture and can be found online (and offline) at

Copyright © 2003 LLC. Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published December 17th, 2003 by LLC in Tweed, Ontario, Canada.