Tattoo You

Eye of the Beholder demonstrates that beauty may be only skin-deep.

The Illustrated Man

Tune in to tonight’s debut of Eye of the Beholder (Travel Channel, Mondays, March 1, 8, and 15, 9 p.m. ET)—a three-part survey of the world of body modification, tattooing, and bodybuilding—if only to get a load of “piercing artist” Bear Belmares, who has stretched his earlobes so far that they brush against his shoulders. A metal hoop keeps the flesh nice and taut, making each lobe so swollen they almost seem pornographic. Belmares also has extensive tribal tattooing on his face, too many eyebrow studs to count, and a “lip plug,” which is essentially a stake driven through his bottom lip. Sadly, we don’t get to see Belmares out in public—he is filmed at a convention against a black backdrop—but host Serena Yang does her best to put him in social context. “What would you say is [people’s] biggest misconception about you?” she asks. “That I’ll eat them,” he replies.

But Belmares is no cannibal. In fact, as he talks, it becomes clear that he’s not scary at all but a big, burly sweetie pie who was born without any metal in his face and is doing his best to rectify that fact. According to Belmares, he thought these additions would make him look better, but why exactly remains fuzzy. In fact, as outré as all this skin puncturing, flesh searing, and organ cinching is, many of the subjects in tonight’s episode of Eye of the Beholder come across as pretty ordinary. With the youthful, earnest Yang as our guide, we travel to London, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Sydney and hang out with perfectly pleasant people as they run needles through their nipples, bind themselves until their waists are only as big around as a jar of spaghetti sauce, and have elaborate patterns burned into their skin with a surgical cauterizing tool. The show’s deadpan tone reminded me of HBO’s Real Sex, which makes underwater pornography, oral-sex classes, and Guinness Book of Records gangbangs seem like a day running errands. Drive a stake through your head if you want; Eye of the Beholder makes you seem like just folks.

Pins and needles in the hands …

As a primer on the mechanics of body modification, Eye of the Beholder satisfies, but when it comes to offering any aesthetic insight—Is it beautiful? Is it art?—the show falls short. For a program that bills itself as a global, cross-cultural interrogation into the meaning of beauty, Eye of the Beholder’s strengths are visual, not intellectual. Yang takes us to a piercing convention, a corset party, a branding salon, and a body modification intensive led by guru and “modern primitive” Fakir Musafar. The footage is evocative, but the show’s ultimate message is banal and familiar: It’s what’s on the inside that matters. When Musafar says “a beautiful person just radiates something that a not-beautiful person doesn’t radiate,” you want to ask: So, why the nose thing?

I would have liked to see Yang dig a little deeper and get her subjects talking about the details of their body art. In other words, the show could have included a bit of art appreciation. Once you get over the shock of Belmares, for example, you can marvel at the classic symmetry and proportion of his tattoos and his piercings. The curve of his face tattoos stand in for high cheekbones on his round face while the lip plug gives it length. And while I wouldn’t want to have my legs tattooed to look like fish scales, I applaud piercing artist Elayne Angel’s sense of color. True, these subjects may also be beautiful on the inside, but in this case it’s the outside we want to hear about: What distinguishes an artful face tattoo from a bad one?

But because Yang’s approach is so meandering and conversational, the show ends up bogged down in unenlightening self-justification. Musafar discusses spirituality, pain, and Native-American body norms in some depth, but most of the subjects talk about their body art in the bland therapeutic language of self-empowerment. “My body is so very much my own,” says Angel, who has 40 piercings. “There is no doubt that I’m a woman in charge of my destiny. My life, my body. In every way. I’m very empowered by it.” Marcia Venema, a mechanic at a San Francisco corset party, has similar feelings. “I can be alone and put on a corset, and I am a fully empowered woman,” she says. If you substituted “Tony Robbins tape” for corset, the sentiment would be the same. Yang spends a lot of time trying to convince viewers that body modification has become mainstream; at first I thought she was reaching, but perhaps transgressive body art has been folded into the self-help culture along with everything else. Which is too bad. If a woman with 40 piercings can’t be defiant, what hope is there for the rest of us?