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Blair McLean shows off his scarification, which is 20 years old and similar to tattooing, but instead you burn your skin to create scar tissue as a work of art.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

When Holly Mosienko decided to cover up an unsightly scar on her leg, she strayed away from typical solutions, like plastic surgery or makeup. Instead, she opted for more scarring – this time, in the shape of a tribal dragon.

The procedure, known as scarification, is a form of extreme and permanent body modification that is offered in many tattoo and piercing stores across the country and is gaining popularity.

It involves a process in which one's skin is cut, etched, burned or branded into a design to create a inkless tattoo-like scar. Though it is not as widely practised as tattooing or piercing, it has been around for just as long.

"Branding and cutting is not all that different from tattooing," said Mosienko, 51, who runs a piercing store in Peterborough, Ont.

"It's popular. I'd say it's even more interesting than getting a tattoo."

Mosienko says she chose scarification for practical reasons. A lover of body art, she knew covering up her scar – caused by surgery – with a tattoo would be too painful, the constant pressure of a needle over scar tissue would be unbearable. Rather, she chose to have the design etched into her skin.

The entire process – from sketching the design on her leg to the actual cutting – took about an hour.

Mosienko's artist, 45-year-old Blair McLean of New Tribe Tattoos and Piercings in Toronto, says there are many misconceptions about the practice.

He says scarification often hurts less than a tattoo; in fact, all forms of scarification occur on the same level of the skin as tattoos: on the dermis, far above fatty tissues and muscle matter.

The practice is illegal in some countries such as Britain and several U.S. states. Most recently, the practice was banned in Arkansas, though that bill was overturned after public outcry against the decision. Winnipeg declared the practice illegal in 2008.

A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care says there can be severe health risks that result from having these procedures.

"Because certain body modification practices break intact skin and mucus membranes through cutting, burning and piercing, there is an increase in the risk of scarring, hemorrhaging and psychological trauma as well as exposure and infection with blood borne pathogens, such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV," David Jensen said.

In Toronto, the public-health board monitors tattoo and piercing parlours through regular inspections, though officials say they have yet to come across the practice of scarification, which is considered a "personal service."

"We inspect (the practice) as part of the Personal Service Settings program. We would follow the same Infectious Prevention and Control principles as any other invasive service," said agency spokesman Kris Scheuer.

"Toronto Public Health does inspect a number of places for control and to stop the spread of infection," she added.

McLean, who has practised scarification for decades in Canada and around the world, including Tokyo, London and New York, says prohibition poses more health risks to the public.

"It sends people into the underground to practice on their friends," he says. "That increases the risk for infection or problems."

Scarification was not always an alternative practice: It has roots in tribal culture, in which members would brand themselves as a rite of passage to either their tribes or the gods. But with the body modification movement of the 1980s came a resurgence in scarification, during which fraternity brothers would brand their house letters on their body to symbolize eternal membership.

While it is historically a symbolic practice, McLean says those opting for scarification today typically do it for aesthetic reasons or to gain status.

"In the past, fraternity brothers didn't care what the scar looked like," McLean said. "It was about brotherhood."

"Today, (clients) seem to be vainer."

For clients who are "in it for the right reasons," McLean says the decision to be scarified runs deeper than plain aesthetics.

"Some people don't want ink or foreign pigments in their body, like from tattoos," he said. "With scarification, the design is from your body only."

Others, he adds, want an intense, euphoric experience, making the body art all the more important.

"At the end of the day, it's not just about me getting paid," McLean said. "I want it to be mean a lot, to be special."

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