Grillz, they stoopid, uh, hyphy!...?

"Grillz" the latest example of human decoration

By Jerry Large

My wife dropped a printout of a Web ad for Mr. Bling on my desk the other day.

The advertisement was for grillz. She'd done some research after our son, who is 14, had shown her a video in which flashing grillz left her aghast.
I'm not talking about the grills you saw advertised as ideal Father's Day gifts, but rather grillz: mouth jewelry, inserts of gold usually, sometimes encrusted with diamonds, that fit over a person's front teeth like Halloween fangs. It's a rap thing mostly: a convergence of tribalism and commercialism, a statement about community and the consumer.

The oral inserts have been around for years, but recently have been growing in popularity among young teens, hence my wife's reaction.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that to most adult eyes grillz look ridiculous. Plus they can be efficient incubators of bacteria.

Of course to someone trying to make a statement, none of that would be a deterrent. In fact, adult repulsion would be a bonus and bacteria irrelevant. Women who wear stiletto heels are willing to risk future back problems for immediate oohs and ahs. People want to look cool, whatever cool happens to be in a given place and time.

We shouldn't be surprised by the arrival of decorated teeth. Remember the man who was found frozen and preserved in the Alps in 1991? He was 5,300 years old and he had tattoos. So body decoration is not just for the young — OK, he wasn't that old when he got the tattoos.

People have always decorated themselves. And Americans are always coming up with something new, so tricked-out teeth were inevitable.

Decorative retainers are popular, so why not take things another step?

A couple of generations ago, gold teeth were in with some folks. Years ago, my mother had gold on a couple of front teeth, but a new dentist talked her into letting him remove them. When she was young they were cool with her crowd.

Every group has its own thing: piercings for some, tattoos for others. People tan, dye, enhance and otherwise tinker with just about every body part. Lips get fattened, thighs shrunk.

Some American Indians strapped babies into devices that flattened their heads.

Victorians strapped women into corsets, and even removed ribs to give them tinier waists.

There've been a number of cultures in which people filed their teeth, which is certainly more dramatic than buying grillz.

My son told me about a place near his middle school where a person could get grillz, but he said they are mostly big in the Bay Area with the hyphy (pronounced hy-FEE) crowd. He thumbed his iPod and played a song by Baby Faced Assassins and hooked me up with a tune by Keak Da Sneak, who supposedly coined the term (hyphy = hyper). They was stupid ridiculous; some nice music, though the lyrics could be refined a bit.

Grillz are part of the hyphy group identity, but the look is spreading.

Grill wearers may think of themselves as rebels, but they are the ultimate celebrators of the consumer economy.

You can show off your wealth with grillz that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, just like watches. You know, there are functional watches and there are status-announcement watches. I saw a bunch in The New York Times last week in a photo spread on upscale jewelry. One watch cost $320,000, another $567,000.

Making a statement on your wrist is more subtle than declaring yourself with a blinding smile, but it amounts to the same thing.

And grillz aren't so bad. For one thing, they get gangsta-tough guys to smile — at least until their teeth fall out.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or

His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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