When you’re piercing something, it’s like a hot knife through butter.
Piercer | 454 Tattoo and Body Piercing
When I first started thinking about doing something, anything, after high school, I was always interested in body modification and so I made up a list of the studios that were in the area. Google was in its infancy when I was trying to search things so it was really hard to find direction on how to go about taking my first step into what I wanted to do. The information I got online was just to ask for an apprenticeship, sometimes they’re paid and sometimes they’re non-paid and you’re working for free. Other times you have to pay them to teach you. So it could be one of three options: either I get paid, I don’t get paid, or I have to pay them. I wasn’t really in a position where I could shell out money to do something like this. So I called and asked, “Hey, are you taking apprentices? I’m really interested.” The person on the other line was like, “I’m not currently taking apprentices but another piercer here is.” They were off that day so I called back another day and we set up an interview-style phone conversation. I talked to him and he was cool with me coming in, we discussed what the whole job entails. It was non-paid but the payment was that I would be learning.
We didn’t have a lot of communication; like, there was no schedule laid out of what I was doing, how long it was going to take me to apprentice, so I was kind of floating. I was there about nine months, and he was clocking my hours and how long I was there and what I was doing. When I came in, I had a notebook and I would write down everything that he put on the tray getting ready for a piercing. I’d write down which piercing we were doing, which tools we got out, I would make notes about how he would set up things and what the procedure would be like: skin cleaning, things like that. When the client left, we would discuss whether I had any questions about the procedure, why he used something that I wasn’t familiar with or how he was using it.
He had an early schedule; the shop was open from noon to midnight and he was noon to six and another piercer came in six to twelve. I came in one day, went straight to his room, and all of his stuff was gone. I was like, “Did we get robbed? Where is everything?” I turned around and I look at the [tattoo] studio and everything looks fine and he comes from the back room and I was like, “What’s happening?” and he was like, “Oh I didn’t tell you? I’m leaving, today’s my last day.” That would have been nice, at least a week! I had none of my own supplies, so we talked about companies to order from and where to get things. All of the artists are independent contractors so we supplied our own supplies: gloves, tools, jewelry… we have to provide that. Basically the space is just a rented space or we do a percentage where I keep 70% and 30% goes to the shop. I was like, “I have nothing! What am I going to do?” The other piercer who was doing the night shifts had purchased a lot of the supplies from him, so luckily she really helped me out. She let me borrow things that I didn’t have quite yet.
I was at that studio for seven or eight years, so I stayed there for a long time. All of the people there were so great and I didn’t want to leave them. The other piercer that worked there, she ended up getting pregnant and she moved on and she wanted to do something else, so she moved away. I was there for a few years after that just by myself, helping out the shop. We went through a couple of front desk helpers and there were times we didn’t have anybody else helping out sweeping and mopping and stuff so I stepped into those shoes and just made sure everything was fine.
This guy named Brian was a tattooer there, and he bought this studio. The piercer that was here was on her way out and felt like she was between a rock and a hard place, she wasn’t really getting along with Brian. Brian was like, “She’s basically on her way out,” and I was like, “I don’t know if I want to drive all the way to San Diego!” He had actually asked me one other time while I was working in Fullerton and it wasn’t really the best time for me to think about doing that. But he reached out to me a second time, and I was like, “I don’t want this opportunity to pass me by so I might as well come by and see what’s up.” I hung out for a little while and she ended up leaving and I took the piercing side of the studio into my hands. I’m trying to improve it; my goal was originally to help her out because she was the only piercer here and she was working nonstop and she was really overwhelmed. I came in and I wasn’t really planning on being more of a permanent person working here.
I feel like this type of industry has been underground for a really long time and before smartphones it was really hard to access where to do it or how to do it or even think about trying to search for something like that. But there’s a lot of information out now that came with smartphones and social media. I’m thankful for it; there’s a lot of things that can go wrong with infected piercings and things like that. Infections can take hold and make people really sick so I’m glad there’s more information out there, warning people against like… sometimes people are like, “Oh, it’s just an ear piercing, how bad can it be?” But it can get really bad. You’re inflicting a wound and even a simple ear piercing can get infected really badly.
There’s a scale: with earlobes, typically people are more cautious and it’s more common, so if you start noticing something weird about an earlobe piercing, you’re on top of it, like “What’s happening, somebody help me.” Other things that aren’t as popular like cartilage piercings or something that’s a bit more intricate, they’re like, “Maybe this is ok, maybe this is fine,” so they let it go a little bit. The different parts of the ear are made up of different tissues so they heal a little bit differently. And it also depends on how well it’s done and what type of jewelry is being used, so there’s a lot that goes into how things heal. There could be complicated piercings, and there are also piercings that we know won’t heal well, so we’ll advise clients against something. For instance, an industrial piercing is a barbell that goes across the ear so you have to have the specific anatomy for it. You have to have the specific anatomy for most piercings, really. So we’ll say, “Your ear isn’t built for this type of piercing, maybe we can try something else,” and it’s kind of heartbreaking sometimes when someone is dead-set and then they’re like, “No, I don’t want anything else.” And you’re like, “Dang it! I’m sorry. It just won’t work out.” Or a belly button piercing, if a girl’s belly is really flat and they don’t have much of a fold that we can pierce through, the area can be pierced but then you’re left with a nasty scar if it starts to reject or something like that.
We like to consider taking a look at where the person wants to have their piercing done before we do it so we can avoid things that might happen. There are also piercings that just aren’t… this is a really weird example, but there’s an eyelid piercing. And this is a safety hazard, there’s absolutely no way that we’re going to be piercing somebody’s eyelid. Or there’s a specific tongue piercing that connects both sides of the tongue, so it goes horizontally through the tongue instead of vertically. It freaks a lot of people out. A lot of people are comfortable doing it, but the risk of teeth damage and things like that, we stay away from it. So there are different tiers of things where it’s like, could be ok, probably not, and definitely not. It can be pierced, but will it be successful? That’s our goal. We want to make sure that everybody’s safe and comfortable with their piercings.
Back when I was apprenticing, it was really hard for some reason for me to find people who were willing to be my first piercees. I reached out to a lot of high school friends who I knew were more alternative, like, “We can do an ear piercing or something,” and they were like “Yeah, cool!” but then they’d never come in. So it happened to be my cousin, and speaking of industrial piercings, the industrial piercing on her was the first one I had ever done. It was my first piercing. I don’t know how I got through it… I guess her anatomy was great! I didn’t have struggles at all and it came out beautifully; she might still have it. It was like the wild west back then; if you could do it, then it was fine.
Sometimes it’s more of self-empowerment, regaining their sense of self. Recently I did a pair of nipple piercings for a woman and sometimes I like to ask, “What brings you in today?” You feel the energy of people and you feel inclined to ask because it can be awkward in there when people aren’t talking. So I asked her and she said, “I’m going through a really tough divorce right now,” and I was like, “I’m proud of you!” I want her to feel empowered, and it can be emotional. But other times it’s like, “Oh, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, I want to get my earlobes pierced.” It can be fashion… for a long time Tupac was really popular and he has a nostril stud. For a while women were coming in for nostril piercings and Tupac had his nose pierced, so men started coming in and getting their nose pierced. So that’s also something, but it’s hand-in-hand with self-empowerment and making yourself feel like the person who you want to be.
Needle piercings: that’s what they did in ancient times, it’s traditional. But it’s also safest because you can get such a razor-sharp cut on those things and when you’re piercing something, it’s like a hot knife through butter. There’s basically no resistance most of the time. With the gun, on the other hand, most of the time they’re using the actual jewelry, which is very blunt on the back side, just shoving it through with force. It’s rough. I would definitely say, most safe, most sterile, it’s single use, you do the piercing and you throw it into the sharps container. There’s no wiping it down with alcohol or reusing it on somebody else. I read somewhere that there was a really big outbreak of hepatitis from the guns – or, it’s possible that hepatitis could be spread that way – because the guns are just wiped down with alcohol and multiple people. And plus, people who are handling the guns don’t have the most learning under their belt, they don’t have the education. Most of the time they’re just given the gun and like, “Ok, put it here and push the button.” On our side of things there’s a lot of stuff that goes into the background but there are other studios where it’s still like the wild west and you’re thrown out to the wolves. When tattoo studios were getting popular that was one of the ways that tattooers could get their foot in the door, like, “Oh, I’ll learn how to pierce because they don’t have a piercer.” There are a lot of tattooers who kind of know how to pierce, and they’re training piercers and then the piercers kind of know how to pierce because not a lot of education is being passed down.
I started doing an apprenticeship with Jordyn; she’s one of the first girls here that I’ve mentored and I think it’s been over two years that she’s been with me and we’ve been working on a lot of stuff. She’s going into more complicated types of piercings now. I also have another girl, Aaliyah, she’s a few months behind Jordyn but she’s doing more intermediate piercings right now, too. They’re doing really well, I couldn’t be more proud of them. Hopefully one day, they’ll be taking over and then I won’t have to drive as far anymore.
There’s not really a handbook for anything like this, it’s kind of like raising a kid but it’s a little different because it’s a job environment. There really isn’t too much written out on what you have to learn and how long it will take. Everybody learns a little bit differently, everybody’s technique as a piercer is completely different. There’s two aspects of piercing and body modification: the more spiritual and things that feel right to you, and it comes in a lot when you’re dealing with people because everybody’s emotions are different and you have to be really in tune with them to make the experience comfortable. And then there’s also the business aspect of it where you have to make sure that things are getting paid and all of the behind-the-scenes stuff. So it’s not really straightforward in terms of mentoring somebody or teaching somebody how to deal with clients and do all the background stuff.
Mostly it’s passed down verbally and it’s taught through apprentice and mentor. It’s a trade, so you sit down and you watch somebody and you discuss and that’s how you learn. You have to be there and you have to watch it. There’s a lot of risk involved so you have to be really careful and there’s a lot of steps that go into it before you even get into the fire. There is an association called the Association of Professional Piercers. The website is safepiercing.org and they’re awesome. Back in the 90s they were formed from a studio called The Gauntlet, the first piercing-only studio in America. They were in San Francisco – the first one opened up in Los Angeles and then they moved to San Francisco a few years later – and one of the girls that was working there, Michaela Grey, had this idea of getting everybody on the same page and making a manual, essentially. They actually did do that, so there is kind of this piercer manual but it hasn’t ever been revised. There are things in there that are really helpful and I actually use that as a tool to help the girls. When people are thinking about becoming an apprentice, I’m like, “Here’s everything you need to learn, and there’s so much background stuff that you need to learn before you get into the fire.” There’s a lot of time, sometimes, before you’re getting paid to come in to the piercing industry.
As a mentor, I really wanted to write out something that was very clear cut: these are the steps that we’re going to go through. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it. First of all, we’re going to be learning sizes, styles, and memorizing all of this stuff. We have to remember that there are specific lengths of pieces that we work with all the time and you need to know those by sight without measuring it with a tool – you look at it and you know what it is. Because when we’re dealing with people’s bodies, we’re not going to be taking rulers up to their bodies every day; we’d go through so many disposable rulers if we did. You need to look at their body part and know the length that you’re going to be using, what’s going to look good and what is going to be aesthetically pleasing and what is going to be successful for healing. That was one of the things that I learned right away when I started apprenticing, so I wanted that to be number one: you need to know what you’re working with. Then all of the sanitation stuff, you want to make sure that you’re wearing gloves so that you don’t chemical burn your hands. There’s also the risk of needle pricks. When you’re doing a piercing through somebody, there’s a possibility that you poke yourself right after that. So you want to be extra cautious, you want to be careful, very methodical with what you’re doing. I have this huge syllabus laid out for them, and then I also give them the APP handbook. That has basically everything laid out. A lot of people are overwhelmed and they don’t understand how long it will be. For my girls, I said that it would be roughly three years for them to become a full piercer where she doesn’t have to have me around for anything. Right now, Jordyn is a junior piercer. I guess technically they’re both junior piercers because they’re doing piercings without me so they’re both essentially apprentice-piercers because they’re still learning some things.
There’s also things like the county license that we need to have. San Diego County comes around and does health inspections, so we have to be licensed. We pay the county and it states that we are a body art practitioner and they give us a license that says we’re ok in the county of San Diego to work as a piercer. We also have a bloodborne pathogens course that we have to take every year and that’s part of getting our license. That teaches you about STDs that could be transmitted, how to keep your station clean, where things should be – we use needles so we have the sharps containers and they have to be so far off the ground but low enough where your shortest employee can drop something into it. There’s basically a whole year of learning how to work in a studio before you actually touch a client. A lot of people are overwhelmed with that and they’re like, “You know what, maybe this isn’t…” They want something quick, but there’s a lot of stuff that goes into it. I’ve scared numbers of girls away from doing this but I’d rather be safe and make sure they understand how serious things can be. Safety is definitely number one, you don’t want to send a client to the hospital. Personally, I’ve had plenty of needle pricks that I’ve had to go get STD tested just to be sure to make sure my partner is safe. If it happens to me and I don’t have a partner, it happens, but if I gave it to myself and gave it to my partner, that’s not cool, it’s not a good situation for me to be in.
Next week is an annual piercing conference where piercers from all over the States and all over the world come to Vegas and basically it’s like going to piercer school. I went to my first one in 2019, and the year prior was the first year I ever heard of it, but it’s in its 35th year or something like that. Or maybe 25th, it’s been around for a long time. So 2019 was the first time I went and I was just mind-blown, like this is my people, there’s colored hair everywhere, it was amazing. There’s this list of classes that you can choose from, refreshing how to work with your needles, how to be safer in your workspace. There’s also more internal stuff, more therapy-style things, like discussing where I came from and where I hope to be going. There’s so many fun classes. There was a class just on nose piercings. So you have the traditional nostril but also there’s a high nostril which is up higher in the nose and it’s a different tissue to work with on the inside of the nose so there was this whole seminar about what’s actually going on in the nose and the different tissues – it gets really medical in some instances.
Also, I want to make a note of this because a lot of people don’t know that the piercing industry was based on basically gay biker dudes piercing their own junk. It was a huge underground thing. They had a magazine that went around for a long time and they had conferences and conventions and meetups and things but that’s kind of what happened in the late 70s early 80s in America. I think it was based in San Francisco and I think that was why Gauntlet was in that area. There’s a really rich history; that’s another thing when we go to the conference, they have this historical highlight which is a museum that they put together of books, documents, imagery, photographs and drawings from different people’s perspectives. When I went in 2019, there was an exhibit for Fakir Musafar, who’s really well known in the industry and he worked with a lot of the spiritual side of the piercing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with suspension, where people put hooks in their body. He did a lot of corseting and really dramatic body modification. So there was an exhibit dedicated to him because he had passed away I think the year before or a few years prior, so they wanted to honor him by doing that exhibit. Last year there was an exhibit, Alan Oversby. He was a really heavy body modification artist in London, I believe. It’s really cool to learn the history while you’re going to something like this. You wouldn’t ever think that these type of people were doing this kind of stuff, and it’s just passed down generation to generation to where we are now. All of the written stuff, all of the magazines, all of the notes back and forth to people… it’s really fun to see. It’s such a cultural thing. So that’s how you find out it’s really rooted in gay culture and things like that. They were doing it because they didn’t want piercings that were visible so they were doing nipple piercings and genital piercings, and that was how The Gauntlet became such a huge thing is because people were going there and getting those done.
I voiced this to a handful of friends, that once I’m done here, I’m thinking of visiting studios and trying to help educate other piercers because I grew up in a situation that was like, “This is how it’s done, go get ‘em.” I want to be there physically. There’s a lot of support online but you can only learn so much from things that people have typed out. There’s a lot of travelling piercers that do seminars to help piercers; they come into your studio and you sit down and watch their PowerPoint or they do a piercing with a consenting client for educational purposes. I think that would be really interesting to do and help the community grow and be more safe and more knowledgeable. So that’s something I want to do in the future, hopefully soon.
That’s kind of where I was at when I was at my first studio for a long time: I learned from one piercer, I didn’t really learn from the second one and if I did it was just tweaks here and there… just because they’re two different people and they see things a little bit differently. I lived there for like eight years and I’m doing the same thing over and over, and once I started branching out, I’m like, “Wow, I can change this,” or I saw things on Instagram and I was like, “Hold crap! Mind blown, I didn’t know you could do something like that!” That’s what a lot of piercers do; there’s thousands of pierces that go from studio to studio, we call it guest spotting, where they stay there for a week or whatever and they shadow other piercers where they’re just watching, or they come in and use different tools and techniques and that’s how they learn. I think it would be really fun to especially help people who are in a repetitive situation like, “This is what I was taught and so this is how I’m doing it.”
I have considered having my own shop but it just sounds like a lot of work. I don’t own this studio, I’m actually an employee, which is really cool. I grew up as an independent contractor doing this practice and a lot of the studios I had been in, I was an independent contractor which meant that I was supplying my own things, I was making my own hours, I was just hustling and bustling and basically I was a business person. But this studio, and I think only one other studio that I had been in, I was an actual employee, so I don’t have to supply any of the tools, the jewelry, the gloves, I don’t have to do any of that. But on the other hand, it’s very stressful because I place the orders and not that it’s my money that I’m spending, but it’s still really stressful to make sure the stock is good, make sure that everything is taken care of. It’s a lot to do; if I also owned the company and I also had to do all of that… it’s too much for me. I’d be so stressed out. If I had a few friends who were co-owners it might make things a little easier. But I think where I am right now, it’s comfortable. I can walk away, I can leave the studio and not have to worry about it. It’s like having a nephew or niece, you can help them grow up but you can go home at the end of the day.