A couple of weeks ago Yann Brenyak was telling me about possibly one of the most bizarre modifications that I’ve heard of to date. The job of a body modifier is obviously one where you interact with a vast variety of the human population all wanting to alter their bodies for a broad variety of reasons, so its no surprise that sometimes one story might surprise you more than others.
Most of the modification community who get altered however often share a similar lifestyle or enjoy a notion to look subversive. However this modification which Yann was asked to perform is one where I still can’t really get my head around.
This mystery man who has asked to remain anonymous is a well spoken gentleman of 82 years of age living in South London. He found Yann’s website and contacted him about modifying his ear to replicate the appearance of a cauliflower ear.
In my opinion a cauliflower ear is one of the most uncomfortable looking injuries in existent, even verging on the grotesque. Most commonly it exists as the aftermath of a boxing, martial arts or rugby injury where the cartilage of the ear explodes and essentially makes the ear look totally deformed. Just looking at a cauliflower ears produces a feeling of nausea in me.
So why would a totally non modified, non tattooed, rather softly spoken, conservative English man in his 80s decide to undergo a painful procedure to induce the notion of an injury which does’t actually exist?
I went to Yann’s studio in Hackney Wick while the gentleman was having his ear cast and did a short interview with him to find out why he was going through with this modification.
So what are you getting done?
I’m getting my ear sort of — widened. It’s called a cauliflower ear, have you heard of it?
Yeah, I have heard of cauliflower ear.
Now the thing was, many years ago, long before you were —
— yeah.. [Both laughing]
..I was a pretty well known rugby player. And people knew me for that, which is kind if great. I’m also an artist by profession. Which is a rather odd combination.
A bit of juxtaposition isn’t it?
Yes, exactly! And people can’t quite understand that. But because I loved talking about rugby and watching rugby, people knew me and would come talk to me about it. It doesn’t happen now obviously, because people have gotten out. Everything has changed, the game has changed, everything has changed.
I want, in a rather strange way, to have something which might make people think “Ooh, we’ll chat to this guy. Because he was a rugby player.” A lot of my friends had cauliflower ears. Mine used to come up, but we used to have it drained — which is quite painless. And that’s the reason why I want an ear, like that, slighty in the shape because —
It’s a conversation starter.
That’s the word, that’s exactly what it is!
How long have you been wanting to get that done for?
Only about four or five years. Most of my friends who played rugby with me, are no longer with me. So I can’t go and chat with them, that sort of thing. So it is, as you say, a conversation starter.
So you can pick up on other people who are interested in rugby. It’s like a communication.
It is. That’s the whole point of it. Yann has got a shape for me, and he’s going to do it. But it’s not the sort of thing you — friends of mine have the most, bordering on the obscene, cauliflower ear. You know all shapes, and look like..
What look are you going for?
Just [laughing] I don’t think there is a look — well, just simply, it’s obviously permanently swollen. Like it used to be like, but then you could draw the liquid off. Now you can’t, because there’s none there. All the cartilage is broken, and in my nose, it’s all been taken from. That’s really what I wanted.
How did you find Yann?
I found Yann on the internet. There was someone else I got in touch with first. But he didn’t reply. And then I learned the word ‘modification’, which I never heard of before. And then Yann came up, his website came up, among three or four. But because I’m only in south of London, it’s easy to get here.
Do your family and friends know you’re getting this done?
My immediate family do — and think I’m crackers. That’s alright, that’s their problem not mine. And they won’t have to put up with it for long. [laughs]
It’s your decision.
It’s my choice, yes it’s my decision. So that’s it. Friends don’t know. What do you know? I may be able to tell. Because in the old days it used to come up. Sort of, in the end of the season I can say, “Well it sort of started again..”
And how long did you play rugby for?
Far too long, til I was about 39. 38-39. But in the 20’s, at the sort of very top level, only only for about three or four years. Which was quite long — I couldn’t play it now, because..
It was an important part of your life though?
Well, it got — as I’m saying — all my family are painters and actors and things like that. Not very good actors — they think they are. It got me quite a lot of entrés into art galleries and things like that.
Yep, because of the incongruity. I had a great friend who was pretty known and a very, very good rugby player – he played for Scotland. He was the leading expert, in those days, on Ming pottery. Which is quite obscene isn’t it? Not obscene, quite unusual.
You’d expect something ultra masculine.
Exactly, yes that’s right. And the art came as well. But I mean, I’ve grown up sort of with pictures and art, and galleries and film and things like that. It came natural to me, it didn’t seem strange. You feel good at games at school and you paint as well.
What kind of art were you producing?
Watercolor. Mainly landscapes, sometimes seascapes. And quite a lot of limited editions. You know, things you have to sign. One, five hundred, two five hundred. You put your name.. And also for the Christmas card people. In fact I’m still doing that a little bit now. Only paint for friends now. I just nearly finished a couple of pieces for the Christmas card people. They want them now, for Christmas, it seems strange. But they got to take them around. Presumably for greeting card faires. But I think I know where these are going.
When did the idea come up that you could modify your body to get this done?
When I heard the word ‘modification’ there was a program on telly, which was quite scary, about people having things done — four or five years ago — weird sort of things. But they were modifications.
And that made you think you could get your ear done?
Yes, modified. Rather than, I don’t know it would have been before. What the word would have been. You know, you only heard about stones and rings, that sort of things. Ears dropped and things like that. But I didn’t know the word modification. And you can’t go to somebody in Harley street — not that I could ever afford it — because to them, it’s not making things better.
It’s not making things perfect.
It’s not making things perfect, exactly. It’s the other way around. It’s sort of, damaging things. So that was it.
And why that ear, why not the other ear?
I just decided that ear. It wouldn’t have mattered.
So, how do you think it’s going to look?
Well, I know how it’s going to look. [Shows and explains]
It will be no shape to that [points]. I do know roughly how it will look. Already Yann has done the little plastic bit that’s going in.
How do you feel about the fact that it’s going to be painful? Does that bother you?
Well, I don’t think — suppose an element of pain. Doesn’t really bother me. As long as it doesn’t go wrong. I think you obviously expect a bit of pain for a couple of days.
So there’s an implant that goes into a layer of your skin?
Yes, that’s right. Anything which is intrusive, the stitches and things hurts for a little while. It burns for a little while. But you can just chuck down a few pills.
After this interview took place the man took the overground home back to South London and organised another appointment for the procedure to take place the following week where I also planned to go to follow his reaction. The next week I received an email from Yann saying that the man had chosen to reorganise the appointment for a later date as he wasn’t feeling well, and then a few weeks later Yann told me he completely cancelled the procedure.
For a man of his age any kind of operation would obviously have been a little risky and deciding to put yourself through what I imagine being immense pain for purely aesthetic reasons at his age furthers the strangeness of his story. This modification was purely about receiving attention, but I can’t help but feel a bit sad about it. Most of his friends who played rugby had passed away so he could’t speak to them about it and when he was younger and had an injured ear people would create conversation with him because of it. In a way what this is really about is how invisible the elderly become to society. This man was so thrilled to have this conversation with me and although he obviously had a loving family he wanted to divulge in different types of conversation. And maybe, just the attention he received about making that decision – even though he didn’t go through with it was enough for him. There is also the idea that having something like a cauliflower ears exemplifies a kind of ultra masculinity which eventually fades as men age.
I suppose that we are used to body modification being used in the context of subcultural adornment, something performed by the young but its powers still exist in so may other formats. The possibilities that we all have to modify our bodies are progressing the way we see things and how we all interact with one another. Now with the accessibility of the internet connecting people in a way like no other time, modification will also be performed in more subversive ways than ever before.