Recently I've seen several "altered" pieces -- in particular one piece that I received also and when mine arrived it did not say "add and return" or anything like that. Is it always OK to add to or alter other's MA pieces? Should you ask the creator of the piece first? Also, some pieces just feel like fully realized pieces of art as is.

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I think the receiver can always alter as he or she wishes.
Personally spoken, I prefer to keep my received mail as I received it. But sometimes I've seen pieces of my own mail art, sent to others, cut out and used in the receivers new mail art. The first time I noticed that, I thought 'ouch', it hurt in some way. But at the same time I realised - and agreed! - that this is all in the mail art game. That even the art we created by ourselves with love and effort, and thoughts of long lasting 'forever' pieces of mail art, is allowed to be altered and recycled into new art.
So, speaking for myself, I wouldn't dare or even want to alter someone else's mail art (unless it is an add-and-pass or unless he or she explicitly asks for it).
But by sending my mail art to others, I know the 'risk' of the mail art being altered is a reality and I accept that.
thanks for your thoughtful reply, Heleen. I think I agree with you. I will only make changes when invited by the maker of the piece.

My sentiments exactly, Heleen. 

Commonly referred to as "Add and Pass"
However if the item is not add & pass....

i have been asked this before.
To which i alway firmly reply that,
first and foremost,
That there are no rules in mailart, only social etiquette.

I came to mailart because it is a free expression.
To limit the expression of others in a limitless artform is counter productive to the cause.

Sometimes the death art i receive from others needs to be together and it is my job to make what should now be from what exists.

Should you ask before you defile it?

I say no...
They sent it to you & now it inspires you...

When i see my death mail appear randomly,
I smile because i have inspired someone to be creative with my art.

You really miss out if you dont do it IMO
thanks Poison. I like making what should be out of what exists. I will proceed with caution and respect.
Art is a process....
Sometimes it takes a village...

;-)

When I send something out I totally feel it is a gift to that person to do with whatever suits them. We all know there are pieces we receive that we love and treasure and some, well, meh.....why not recycle?? It's true I don't think I've sent anything back to the original creator or even been moved to post it prominently , which maybe feels like there's still something a bit unresolved here about it.....but I especially would never want to feel that I made someone guilty about hanging on to something I've sent that maybe wants to be tossed in the garbage or recycled in some creative (or un-) way. I just received a postcard that says it's a 2002 (I think) recycled piece of mail. I don't know which part of it is original, if any, but I like this idea. 

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