Ears with two, three, even five piercings are ancient history. Studs in tongues and navels are, for many, no big deal. And who doesn’t have a tattoo? These days, the attention-grabbing look is tongue-splitting: cutting the tongue to make it forked.
Some say the practice, still relatively uncommon but edging up in popularity, is nothing short of mutilation. Lawmakers in Illinois are considering regulations that would all but outlaw it.
And earlier this year, several branches of the armed services banned tongue-splitting. Officials at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina say one airman had the tissue in his split tongue reopened and sewn back together in February to avoid being kicked out.
Those who’ve had their tongues split call it a body modification and see it as an enhancement. A few do it for shock value. Others describe the experience as spiritual. And many say they simply like how it looks and feels.
“When I first saw it, I thought tongue-splitting was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life,” said James Keen, 19, of Scottsville, Ky. He got his tongue cut by a body piercer after a surgeon declined to do it.
Keen, who now speaks with a slight lisp, says most people don’t know that he’s had it done unless he shows them. When he does, he demonstrates how both forks of his tongue can move independently. And it’s a plus, he says, when it comes to kissing.
“People are very curious about how it feels,” said Keen, whose parents gave him their blessing -- and the $500 it took to do it. He says the cutting was done in three sessions with a scalpel heated by a blowtorch and no anesthetic.
Keen’s story is what Illinois Rep. David Miller, a dentist, had in mind when he wrote a bill requiring that tongue-splitting be done by a doctor or dentist, and only for medical reasons.
The bill passed nearly unanimously in the Illinois House and awaits a vote in the Senate.
Last summer, state lawmakers in Michigan narrowly defeated a similar bill.
“Ultimately, it came down to an individual rights issue,” said Tom Kochheiser, spokesman for the Michigan Dental Assn., which supported that state’s unsuccessful measure.
Miller, a Democrat from Chicago’s south suburbs, says he understands the notion of personal freedom.
“But I’m not sure the people getting this done understand the risks,” he said. “We’re choosing safety over cosmetics.”
One of the main worries, Miller says, is risk of infection from bacteria in the mouth. He also says a person’s speech could be affected by scar tissue and the splitting itself.
Essie Hakim, 30, a New Yorker who had her tongue split by a surgeon in 1998, says she had to learn how to speak again. But she says she knew what she was getting into.
“I’m an adult making a decision that’s not harming anybody. And I’m not harming me,” said Hakim, who believes that piercing and tongue-splitting are no different than plastic surgery.
Beauty, she says, is simply in the eye of the beholder.
“People get breast implants. People do body building,” Hakim said. “People do so many things that are never questioned.”
She and others believe that the Illinois bill, if it passes, would actually do more harm by making it difficult for the most qualified people -- doctors -- to do the procedure.
Shannon Larratt, 29, a Canadian who had his tongue split by a surgeon, worries that many people will simply go to underground parlors to have it done in unsafe conditions.
“It means only the hacks will be left doing it,” said Larratt, editor of the Body Modification E-zine, a Web site he publishes from a farm in rural Ontario.
Although Larratt estimates that about 2,000 people in the Western world have split tongues, that’s “almost commonplace, as heavy ‘mods’ go,” he said, using the abbreviated term for body modification.
And curiosity about having it done is growing, says Scott Jania, a senior piercer at Progressive Piercing in Chicago.
Jania says he now gets seven to 10 inquiries a week from customers who want to know if he’ll split their tongues. But, afraid that he’ll hurt someone or get in trouble with city regulators, he turns them down flat.
Said Jania: “My career is far too important to risk it.”