It's lobe defined by the absence of lobe.

It's a hole, the product of months or years of patience and soreness and ointments and not a little bundle of money and hopefully, no ripping.

In art, it might be known as negative space. In the piercing world, it's called stretching.

The stretch, an impressive demonstration of the skin's elasticity, is one of the more recent trends within the local body modification culture. While it was first sported in the District between five and eight years ago, those in the scene say it has become more common in the last couple of years.

By placing wooden, steel, bone, glass or Lucite plugs of increasing size into a pierced hole over the course of time, stretchers can increase a 20-gauge hole (the size of a standard earring post) to half-an-inch, an inch-and-a-half or more in diameter. They may also stretch pierces at home by using heavy jewelry or with the help of professional piercers, who expand holes by inserting sterilized, blunt metal tapers into existing piercings.

Done right, says Lou Stoilas, a piercer with the Hawthorne, N.J.-based Pleasurable Piercings company, a stretch at first produces a "smooth burning sensation." If you try to stretch too much at once, however, you can tear or split the lobe.

To show it off, a stretcher can frame the inner wall of the hole with a doughnut-like "earlet." Thus flaunted in the midst of the ear lobe, it is a striking display of framed absence, an exercise in nullity.

Passers-by can see clear through to the neck.

Ears, while perhaps the most popular, are not the only stretchable body parts. Some people stretch piercings in their tongues and nipples and, some claim, elsewhere. Motivations vary from the simple to the seemingly sublime.

"I get off on my freakiness," says Emily Devers, 25, a Fairfax resident who got her first tattoo at 14. She has a total of 16 piercings, including eight-gauge stretchings (one-eighth of an inch each) in her ears and a green stud on her upper lip which she calls a "reverse Monroe" -- because it's on the right side of her face.

"She's shock value. I go for the aesthetic appeal," says her 23-year-old sister Keri, who has piercings and a tattoo but no stretchings.

Luis Garcia also goes for the aesthetics. It's a cliche, he knows, but Garcia, a 20-year-old piercer who works in the District, used to love gazing at National Geographic photos when he was young. When he saw pictures of stretchings in other countries, he liked the look.

Garcia feels it also informs his "spirituality." "It's a whole patience exercise," he says of the twice-daily cleanings and the gradual pace of the process. It took him two years to stretch his ear holes to their present size, at a little over one-half-inch each.

It could be more than a hole. It could be a means of doing with your body what you wish to do with your life. Think of the possibilities -- all that space.

Jason Simmons, a 27-year-old District piercer, says he started his 3/8-inch stretchings (big enough to fit a cigarette "with room to spare") when he felt the need to turn inward and rethink his life. He was "stripping away some of the more nonessential things in my life." He says the holes symbolized a "blank space for creation" and change.

At the same time, Simmons conceived of starting his own piercing salon, which is slated to open next week in Dupont Circle.

There's a cost, of course. The expense per ear plug can range from $12 to $50 or more, and stretchers buy plugs for each increasing size. For those who don't wish to do it at home, there's also the cost of stretching sessions in a salon: about $30 on average, according to Simmons.

But people are paying. "It seems like it keeps on peaking," says Wendy Red, an owner of Commander Salamander and Up Against the Wall, of her stores' combined jewelry sales for stretched holes. These days they sell about 10 eight-gauge ear plugs and about three dozen of the smaller 12- and 14-gauge barbells per week, compared to half those numbers one year ago.

Red suggests that those who start marking their bodies sometimes need to keep going. Call it the more-is-better principle of human nature. Of acquiring a single tattoo or piercing, she says, "It's like trying to eat one potato chip or one M&M."

The risks of these procedures are real. Lisa Kauffman, chief of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center, warns of uneven stretching. "Heavy jewelry in an already thinned skin would probably cause further stretching and possibly tearing," she says.

Infections can be caused by nickel, a common alloy in silver-colored jewelry, and by improperly sterilized equipment. "It's very difficult on something that's not regulated and legislated to know the degree of hygiene," Kauffman says. And since "the ear lobe is nothing but fat and fibrous connective tissue . . . stretching can be permanent."

In other parts of the world, body stretching is not new. In some places, it is downright ancient.

Among the Masai and other pastoral groups of eastern Africa, ivory rings, metal weights, brass coils and beaded leather-work -- all for the ears -- fix wearers firmly within social custom, rather than on the fringe. Past or current body stretching practices, including lip plugs, have also been found among Amazonians, Mexicans, ancient Peruvians and Inuits. The Mayans wore lip and ear plugs and used boards to elongate the shape of the head.

For nomadic peoples like the Masai, "body wealth is ultimately a portable kind of wealth," says Misty Bastian, assistant professor of anthropology at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Markings also denote the status of individuals and provide cultural distinctions among groups.

Yet body modifiers are giving stretching a modern-day meaning. If the practice is disgusting or silly or a bald-faced bid for attention, this is indicative of a culture that continually pushes the lobe of what's acceptable.

Recent technological change may play a part. Bastian suggests that with the advent of cyberspace and virtual realities, people increasingly turn to their bodies "to be centered somewhere."

Simmons seconds that thought. "Everything seems to be speeding up these days," he says. "Cultural changes that used to take 100 years are becoming very rapid now." He suggests that body modification might be a means for some to reinforce ownership of something they know they can control -- their bodies. "In the midst of all this change," Simmons says, through these markers "you have an island of security within yourself." CAPTION: An amply pierced Luis Garcia sports a half-inch ear lobe plug. CAPTION: Jason Simmons demonstrates the progress made in stretching his ear lobe.