For a fraction of a second, you can feel the heat before it touches your skin. Your heart races and instinctively you want to draw back. But you don't. Because you want your brand to be sweet. Or if you think you'll move, you brace yourself, holding onto a sink or table; or perhaps you get somebody else to hold you down.
Then comes the "hit," a quick "Pssssssst." Or maybe it's a "crackle" or "pop," not unlike the sound of Rice Krispies soaking in a bowl of milk. They say it doesn't really hurt. But the smell of burning flesh can be weird. Especially when it's yours.
Imagine being branded.
Many people watching this year's NCAA Final Four tournament caught sight of the big horseshoe-shaped scar on the left arm of University of North Carolina point guard Shammond Williams. Michael Jordan's brand, hidden on his chest, is more discreet. Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith sported a brand on his left arm for a 1993 cover of Sports Illustrated. Other folks have Greek letters melted into their calves or seared into their forearms.
Although doctors warn there can be complications infection, excessive scarring, designs gone wrong around the country lots of people get branded. For some black Greek fraternity members (and fewer white ones) it's a long-standing tradition, but experts say it's also become something of a fad.
Gang members brand themselves to claim their set, while for others, brands are an extension of green Mohawks and multiple nose rings. Branding can forge a connection. But while brands might be spiritual, sexual or ceremonial, they're always hot.
Till the Day I Die
As Myyucca Sherman strolls across the Howard University campus, his baby dreadlocks standing at attention, he stops occasionally to slap hands with a buddy or trade barks with another "Que dog" who spots his bright purple sweat shirt emblazoned with gold Greek letters.
Sherman, 19, has been a "Que," a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, since spring of last year, and he's got three brands double, interlocking Omegas on his chest, and a large Omega with a small Greek A inside, for Alpha chapter, in the middle of his left arm. Of his initiation class of nine men, all chose to get branded.
It was the second time an organization had made a permanent impression on him.
Sherman is reluctant to show the three-inch, five-point star that rides high on his left hip. He got that one at 13 to mark his membership in the Black Gangster Disciple Nation, a gang in his Akron, Ohio, home town. "The way our sect ran, you could get prayed in or beat in. I got beat in. Then there's celebrating with drink and I was branded the day after with thick paper clips."
Sherman credits the pre-college program Upward Bound and rites of passage activities in high school with turning him from his gangster ways. He entered the University of Akron at 16 and transferred to Howard a year later.
After joining the fraternity at Howard, he says, "initially, I wasn't going to get a brand, but I thought about it and equated the whole fraternity life as another rite of passage. This was more ritualistic and traditional than the juvenile self-mutilation. This brand wouldn't be like it was in a gang. It had deeper meaning, more history."
In the last 10 years, branding has become a typical form of gang "tagging," says Michael Borrero, a professor and director of the Institute for Violence Reduction at the University of Connecticut who has worked in gang outreach for more than 30 years. "It's a ritual to say we are brothers, we are sisters, you are officially part of us," Borrero says.
Michael Lyles, 35, a Washington child welfare attorney who also heads his own Maryland law practice, has studied the historical origins of fraternity branding and its relation to African scarification practices and says burning carries a symbolism that crosses many cultures.
"Historically, branding probably came in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s," says Lyles, an Omega since he was 17 who has brands on his right biceps and over his heart. "It took on a kind of widespread usage mainly among the Omegas first, then the Kappas [Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity] and Alphas [Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity] began to do it also. One of the things that I guess solidified branding as something to do is the things that our fraternity is based on manhood, scholarship, etc. It seemed to signify the 'till the day I die-ness' of it all, because supposedly you can't remove it."
Typically, according to Lyles, each chapter has somebody to turn to for branding. At Howard, most folks call him "Nut" for his willingness to go to extremes. But the brothers of Omega Psi Phi also know the 6-foot-3 graduating senior majoring in sculpture and psychology by another name. Sherman and others went looking for him when they wanted a lasting way to punctuate their allegiance to the frat.
Because everybody knows Nut is a "hit man."
Nut, who asks that his name not be used so that his branding and his art career remain separate, has perfected his craft; he'll fashion a wire coat hanger into a plain Omega, make it asymmetrical for the "stepping Que" effect, or customize it with a dramatic thunderbolt.
Although there's a certain artistry in the design, the skill is in the hit. After his 1995 initiation, Nut learned by carefully watching another hit man. And by being branded. Repeatedly. One time for each of his fellow Omega initiates.
Seven brands for seven brothers.
Of his seven brands, three are on his back and four run diagonally across the left side of his behind: big, interlocking Ques that seem to want to dance their way to his spine.
He usually makes his brands on the spot, but he happens to have a few on hand in his kitchen cabinet. Big ones. "If you really want to show you're a Que, I'm not going to use some little circle," he says. "If your arm isn't big enough, I'm going to have to use your chest, but something is going to be big enough."
Although fraternity members with brands talk about their brotherhood as sacrosanct, branding has also become a pop culture expression of machismo, according to Walter Kimbrough, a director of student activities and leadership at Old Dominion University who wrote his dissertation on black Greek letter organizations.
Kimbrough stresses that while some black Greek letter organizations have been censured for excessive hazing practices most recently Kappa pledges at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore branding is not involved. It is not sanctioned by the governing bodies of any of the national Greek letter organizations, and is "offered" only after initiation. It can make for a special kind of party featuring bravado, testosterone, and perhaps a couple of brews. After all, hot irons can sometimes melt the steeliest resolve.
"I was young and thought it was a cool thing to do," Filey says. "I was like 'I'm in Florida, I can have my shirt off and the babes will look at it.' Women are into that. The brand, the frat . . . it was a conversation piece, they wanted to touch it."
He now calls the practice barbaric. "As I got older, I started thinking about slavery and that sort of thing. I can't even find the words to describe how ill it was to get a brand to identify you as a slave. This clearly isn't for that purpose, but now I think people have just gotten out of control. It's a big fad right now."
When Suitland High School math teacher and basketball coach Eric Jeter, 31, first came home with his Phi Beta Sigma brands he has three, including one on his left calf he says, "my parents were like, 'Do you think you're a piece of meat or something?' They said, 'We fought so hard to get away from slavery and branding and you go ahead and brand yourself.' "
Jeter says he understood their concern, but disagreed. He calls it a personal choice. "It's not slavery. It's basically something you want done. It's more of a pride thing. You want people to know which fraternity you belong to without asking. When they see the brand, they know."
Just down the hall, Suitland's vice principal, Mark Fossett, 30, who has Kappa brands on his chest and arm, says, "The first question everybody always asks is, 'Did it hurt?' When I first got branded, it didn't really hurt. But when it was healing, then it hurt. The actual brand was a quick 'pssssssst.' It was like an instant of pain."
Fossett got branded in a hotel during the annual summer Greek picnic in Philadelphia. "This was a Kappa brother who was hitting other brothers.There were about 10 to 15 of us. He hit me on my arm straight from the fire to my arm then he heated the brand back up and hit the next guy behind me. Then he went from his arm to my chest. The iron couldn't be as hot, it's not like you have all that meat there so you don't want it to be too deep."
Both Jeter and Filey have seen students at their school who've burned initials into their arms or tried to brand themselves with cigarettes or super-heated erasers, but they say it's not the same thing. "I have three brands, because we had three founders," Jeter says. "It had meaning to me. The kids nowadays carve out their names with an eraser and call it a brand when it's not. It's more of a fad now, like tattoos."
And although Fossett pledged a fraternity that plays on a national reputation for having good-looking guys, he sees his brand as keeping with that.
"Basically," he says, "I'm just pretty, and the K on my arm is pretty, too."
"When the skin is branded, the skin is actually burned. The degree of the burn depends on how hot the brand is," says Rebat Halder, a professor and chairman of Howard's Department of Dermatology. "If the burn is deep enough, then the normal skin comes off, and it is replaced by scar tissue. If it's a first- or second-degree burn, skin doesn't come off but you can have a blister develop in the area of a brand."
Of course there can be nasty complications. They include, Halder says, infection, pain, hyper- or hypo-pigmentation, where the skin actually changes color, and itchy or hypersensitive keloids, raised scar tissue that spreads beyond the actual boundaries of the original injury.
Halder, who has been at Howard since 1982, says he's treated upward of 300 people with brands, mostly men who got fraternity brands in college, but at least 50 to 75 women, some former gang members and others.
He says a number of his patients inquire about brand removal, which can be done surgically. "I remember one who had it done for a frat. He had an Omega brand and as he got older and entered the job market he decided he needed to have it removed."
While the vast majority of black Greeks who get branded are men, increasingly a number of sorority women have chosen to adopt the practice.
Depending on how she sits, you may just be able to make out the Delta Sigma Theta initials on Pamela Dickinson's right outer thigh. The 21-year-old Dickinson, a psychology and human services counseling major at Old Dominion University, says that of her initiation class of 13, two got branded.
"I always wanted to get a brand. In my case, other than the fact that I think some of them look nice, for me it's a certain rush that you get. . . . It kind of excited me in a sense."
She says, "A lot of people were like, 'Are you crazy?' But once it actually healed, a lot of people told me it looked nice. I think the frats think it's sexy, especially where I got it. It's not like it's on my arm and it's a big keloid. It's kind of ladylike in a sense."
While branding is not as prevalent among white fraternities, Mary Cameron ZanGraaseiland got branded as a guest at a Zeta Psi fraternity party at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a few years ago.
ZanGraasseiland, who is 23 and works for a Manhattan public relations firm, had a few drinks, decided it would be "the greatest thing in the world to get a brand," and woke up with one on the inside of her right ankle.
Jamie Black, a second-year law student at Wake Forest, was the Zeta Psi member who branded ZanGraaseiland. He says he shouldn't have done it, but acknowledges that the fraternity has a history of branding members that stretches back to the 1800s.
Black has the small Greek letters zeta and psi, "ZY," branded into the top of his forearm. "My dad has a brand. He was in the same frat. It was just kinda expected, at least at Carolina." He says he's also heard of "Zetes" at the Universities of California and Virginia being branded.
Although branding is against national fraternity rules, Black says getting one "was an honor. It's always a good icebreaker. Girls would always ask 'What's that?' and you could tell them the whole story about getting a brand. And after we got branded a bunch of girls would kiss them for luck."
Keith Alexander, a guitar player for the hard rock band Dee Snider, and owner and senior piercer at Modern American Body Arts in Brooklyn, says he won't brand just anybody. Alexander, who writes a monthly column for Tattoo Savage magazine, has been branding since the early 1990s and calls the practice "spiritual."
"I turn down a lot of people if I don't like the symbol," Alexander says. "I get a lot of white kids who want to get a brand for faddish reasons, people who want their horoscope symbol. To me, that's not important enough a symbol to wear for the rest of your life."
Alexander says he does a number of fraternity brands, but adds there is no typical client profile. "I got everybody from 21-year-old frat boys to 70-year-old S&M leather daddies."
Although Alexander realizes that most branding goes on informally, he says he's gone to great pains to learn about the nuances of scarring and practiced his technique on potatoes or chicken breasts. "It's not like the Alpo commercial," he says. "It sounds very brutal, but it's not. It's done lovingly and caringly. If I get a hint of it being self-mutilation, you're out the door. I've been called an elitist because of that."
Alexander says when he brands, he has candles and soft music in the background. "It's getting in touch with the innate urge to customize your body," he says. And while the 34-year-old says he's been branded, he won't tell where. "It's in a very private place and I really don't care to discuss it," he says.
Nancy Heitzeg, a sociology professor at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., who wrote a textbook on the sociology of style subcultures, says branding is a growing phenomenon among white, "hard-core" kids who usually tend to be affiliated with a music subculture.
"In the continuum from clothing and hair, to tattooing and multiple piercing, scarification and branding seem to be the new edge. . . . They say, 'These are my marks, my style, my individual thing that nobody else has,' " Heitzeg says.
Kirk Blackman, 30, a senior manager with the KPMG accounting and consulting firm in Washington, says that even though he works in a highly professional setting, he's never regretted getting the Que branded on his left arm.
When folks who are unfamiliar with branding see it, he says, they are often overwhelmed by a certain tactile urge. They gotta touch it. They want to know why. "Why would someone subject themselves to what they perceive to be very painful?" he's asked. "You explain it to them and they say, 'Oh, okay.' It's kind of like a 'Man, that's really deep' kind of response. I don't know if they ever really grasp it fully, or if they're afraid to ask more questions."
Probably a good thing, since Blackman isn't sure he has all the answers anyway.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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