What Is Body Branding? Getting a “Branding Tattoo”

Body branding is a type of body modification where burns and scars are used to make designs on the skin. Some people consider body branding can be an alternative to a tattoo, but branding skin is not a tattoo (it does not use tattoo ink), and it comes with its own set of risks. 

As a tattoo artist, it’s important to understand what body branding is, why people might want it, and what the risks are.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

  • How body branding became popular
  • Different kinds of body branding and how they’re done
  • Risks involved with creating and healing body brands

Where Did Body Branding Come From? 

Body brand scars in the shape of leaves

Body branding is an ancient body art leaving burn scars on the skin. It has been used for centuries for tons of different reasons from celebrating cultural belonging or to celebrate rites of passage. May indigenous cultures used body branding as a positive signal to symbolize someone’s standing in a community or their spiritual beliefs.

The Dark Side of Human Branding

Branding has been used by ancient civilizations to punish criminals and identify people as thieves. And during the Atlantic slave trade, slave owners branded people as property.

The Psychology of Body Branding

While human branding is not used often - for positive or negative identification - in modern times, many people have reported that enduring the pain of being branded can release dopamine, the pleasure chemical, which gives them a feeling of extreme happiness.

Types of Body Branding

Scarification is the general term used to describe creating scars on the body as artwork, but there are several specific types of scarification. While tattooing pushes ink into the skin, scarification uses burning or cutting in order for scar tissue to form in the desired shape.

Strike Branding

Wrist brands done with strike scarification

Striking is the most common method of scarification. In strike branding, small pieces of stainless steel are heated and applied to the skin like a hot iron to create second-degree burn scars. While one larger piece of metal can be used for striking, it’s more intricate, custom designs can be done with smaller pieces of metal, burning the skin one piece at a time. 

A common issue seen with striking is that the heat will spread out and scar the area around the strike rather than in one specific spot. This can lead to the design spreading out and not maintaining precise lines and shapes. 

Cold Branding

Healed brand done with cold burns

This is similar to the strike method because pieces of metal are used to make a design in the flesh. The difference between striking and cold burns is that, where strike branding is done with hot metal, cold branding is done by freezing the metal strips with liquid nitrogen. 

This creates a cold burn on the skin rather than a heat burn.

Laser Branding 

Small hand designs done with laser branding

Electrosurgical branding, or laser branding, uses electricity to burn or cut the skin. 

This process allows the artist to be more precise with the design with the depth of the burn. In this process, the artist uses an electrosurgical laser to vaporize the skin, which causes less damage to the surrounding tissue than with the strike method.

Electrosurgical branding is similar to electrocautery, which is when an artist sends electrical currents through a cautery tool which is then pressed to the skin to encourage scarring.

Solar Branding

An artist using concentrated sunlight through a crystal ball to create a burn

Solar branding is another type of scarification that uses burning. However, instead of a laser or branding irons, it uses a focusing lens like a small crystal ball to direct sunlight to the skin. This directed sunlight burns the skin and creates branding scars.

Moxibustion

Incense being used to burn the skin

Moxibustion is a form of body branding where incense is applied to the skin until it creates a burn.

Cutting

Body modification done by cutting away the skin in the shape of a mandala

Cutting is another branding process where skin is removed to create designs. With cutting, the artist cuts away skin with a scalpel or razor after making initial cuts in the desired shape.

Risks of Body Branding

There are several risks involved with body branding, especially infection. 

Like with tattoos, skin irritation and allergic reactions are common. Infections can be caused by the materials used to create the brand or by not keeping the brand clean while it heals. 

Some of the more serious risks of these body modifications are herpes simplex virus, tetanus, staph, fungal infections, some forms of hepatitis, tuberculosis, and HIV. In order to avoid infections and disease transmission, artists should be sure to use sterile, single-use equipment.

A non-medical risk involved with branding is criminal liability. The legality of extreme body modification like branding hasn’t been tested very much in court, and it’s usually left up to local authorities to issue licenses for body modifications. If you are considering offering body branding, it’s important to look up and follow local laws, as well as receive proper training as it is an entirely different process from tattooing.

Healing Body Brands  

Healing body modifications made by branding is a difficult process, because the goal is for the injury to scar in the right design. 

Historically, a person would pack their brand with ash or clay to encourage keloid scars, which are thick, raised scars that are easily visible on the skin. As branding has spread to the Western world, wound packing has become less common because of the risk of infection. 

Body brands can take as long as six months to a year to heal, and the healing process can be very painful. 

After a body brand, the artist should apply an antiseptic ointment and cover the brand in cellophane wrap. The client will need to wash the brand a couple of times per day, because it will be very vulnerable to infection, especially with brands that involve second or even third-degree burns.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning the different kinds of body modification is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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