“When you kiss someone … it’s like having two tongues,” said Jeremy Lanig, 24, a teaching assistant for the math department at the University of Wisconsin, about his split tongue.
Lanig’s tongue is a visual representation of his drive to push limits. In 2001, he went through a surgical procedure that split his tongue in two.
“It feels like it was supposed to be this way my whole life,” he said. “It’s almost like being born with two of your fingers tied together and then one day just cutting them.”
Upon first glance, Lanig appears to be just an ordinary guy wearing a red Wisconsin hooded sweatshirt; however, it does not take long to notice his stretched earlobes that are about the size of quarters. Although his piercings and tattoos may scare many people, it’s his forked tongue that usually puts people over the edge.
“I like to challenge convention,” Lanig said. “At first I did it for people’s reactions, being the rebellious kid that I was. But I think I’m done with piercings for now.”
Lanig, a graduate student working on his Ph.D. in math, says that his students can relate to him because of his look.
“I think I throw people off because I look completely out of the norm for a math teacher. Everyone’s world is a little shaken up,” Lanig said. “I like to mess with people a little bit.”
It may appear at first glance that Lanig has taken steps toward becoming lizard-like with his split tongue and blue and green tattoos covering his shoulders. However, he claims that is not his goal.
“I just thought it looked really intriguing,” Lanig said.
Lanig pierced his own ear and nose in middle school. He began working as an apprentice and pierced people at High Priestess Piercing in Eugene, Ore., for four years.
“The town is very liberal,” Lanig said. “People walk around with facial tattoos. So something like tongue splitting is not out of the ordinary.”
In Madison, tongue splitting is not as common as it is on the West Coast.
Jeff Arnett, who has been a piercer at Exotica Tattoo Body Piercing in Madison for five years, says it is illegal for piercers to do surgical procedures such as tongue splitting in piercing shops in Madison.
“I have never done any tongue splitting and the topic doesn’t come up at the shop that often. There just hasn’t been a lot of requests or questions about it,” Arnett said. “I don’t even know any piercers around Madison that have ever done it or had it done to themselves.”
In Oregon, Lanig knew eight people in his shop who had their tongues split. He had read about it in a magazine before he started thinking about having it done to his own tongue.
“At first I thought it was way too crazy and before I knew it, the idea started spinning circles in my head and I was slowly working myself up to get it done,” Lanig says. “I finalized my plans when a well-known piercer from San Francisco was in town trying out his new procedure.”
Lanig said tongue splitting is highly controlled in many states, such as Wisconsin. But in Oregon, where Lanig had it done, it is illegal only when it is done by a non-medical practitioner. Because Lanig received his tongue-splitting procedure from a piercer, it had to be performed without any transactions, so Lanig’s procedure was free of charge. Lanig said the piercer should be as discrete as possible, since they are in danger of getting in trouble with the law for their work.
The original procedure for tongue splitting was to tie a string around a tongue piercing and pull it until the tongue split; however, the stretching process was lengthy and painful.
High Priestess Piercing had also tried a different method where the tongue was pierced and a scalpel was placed in the hole and sliced the tongue. As a result, the tongue bled for 15 minutes into a bag tied around the recipient’s neck.
According to Dr. Karol Gutowski, an assistant professor of surgery at UW-Madison and a plastic surgeon, tongue splitting is a very risky procedure, especially if done in improper conditions under non-medical supervision.
“The most dangerous risks of tongue splitting are potential blood loss, infection and speech problems. It’s hard to keep track of complications because very few people report doing it,” Gutowski said. “There is a great danger of contracting diseases from non-sterilized needles or improper instruments. Therefore, it should be handled as a medical operation performed by a doctor with the appropriate equipment, in case something goes wrong.”
Lanig says his tongue-splitting method involved no bleeding. A scalpel was brought to a torch until it was glowing orange. The scalpel was so hot that when it cut, it automatically cauterized the tongue. The tongue gets third-degree burns all along the inside, burning through the connective tissue and capillaries and preventing any bleeding.
“I was so freaked out to have it done,” Lanig said. “The whole environment is insane! I remember someone holding my tongue out with gauze because it’s your first instinct to pull it back in. Time seemed to stop as the flaming torch came closer and closer.”
The procedure lasts only about 30 seconds as they cut and re-torch the scalpel in order to be able to burn through the tongue.
“The whole room smelled of cooked tongue,” Lanig said.
He immediately felt that his tongue was not the same.
“I couldn’t open or close my mouth and my tongue was throbbing. I just sat there putting ice in my mouth and slobbering,” Lanig said.
Although Lanig was able to move his tongue just a day after the splitting, he said that it took three weeks for his tongue to completely heal.
“The healing process involved separating the two open wounds every morning with a q-tip because in the night the tongue wants to heal back together,” Lanig said. “It was really gross removing all the scabs and pus in between. Other than that, it heals like getting a tongue piercing, and you need to keep it clean with sea salt soaks.”
If Lanig ever decided to join his tongue back together, there is a surgical procedure that would re-cut his tongue, allowing the tendrils to heal back together, leaving just a minor scar.
While Gutowski has performed body-piercing alterations and removed tattoos in the past, he has not had any patients requesting the tongue-splitting reversal surgery.
According to doctors at the Madison Oral Maxillofacial Surgery Clinics in Madison, the tongue-splitting reversal surgery has never been performed at their clinic before and they strongly recommend not having the tongue split in the first place.
“Everything is reversible,” Lanig said. “However, I would never have that surgery because I like my tongue this way.”
No one really notices his split tongue, he said, so it’s like his little secret.
“Occasionally someone will ask what is wrong with my tongue, but I have no speech impediment or anything,” Lanig said.
He said he has not lost taste and rarely gets food stuck in between the split. Nothing has really changed for Lanig, except for the fact that he can move both tendrils of his forked tongue separately. He sometimes entertains people by picking up straws and chopsticks.
“When I show people my tongue, I get everything from ‘That is so awesome’ to ‘That is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,'” Lanig said. “It’s funny, my younger siblings tell all their friends about my tongue, but my mom can’t even look at it.”
Lanig said there is one question he gets asked all the time.
“The most popular question is ‘Did it hurt?'” Lanig said. “And the answer is, yes … a lot!”