Part 2: The History
Since Chuck has been so forthcoming in answering my questions, here’s another installment for your reading pleasure. (And sorry for making you wait, folks, but Monday is my slacker day, and I usually don’t post on Mondays.) He and I share in interest in the history of piercings, so I asked him to talk a little about that.
Q. I think it’s safe to say you’ve been around the piercing scene for a long time. Can you talk about your punk days and your days as a piercer?
A. I got my first tattoo in 1984, my first piercings in 1986. I guess that was a long time ago, LOL. In the punk scene in the early 80s, tattoos were pretty rare and just starting to crop up here and there. I had something like 7 tattoos by 1985 and that was pretty extreme for the time–kind of seems ridiculous these days. By then they had gotten a definite foothold in the scene but still not what I would call
commonplace. Most of the work people got was really shitty, small designs–lots of hand-poked stuff, skulls, band symbols, that kind of thing. You could probably make a very large picture book of people with the Black Flag bars tattooed on them (myself included!). Not much high-quality or large work. Piercings were much more common, but it was typically limited to multiple ear and ear cartilage piercings; nostrils were not unheard of but pretty hard to come by. Only the most committed went that far! Piercings were done with a gun at the mall or a hair salon, or a needle at your friend’s house. You would occasionally see kids try the stereotypical “punk” stuff like pierced septums or cheeks (and sometimes even with actual safety pins, LOL) but they never lasted very long before infection and/or common sense reared their ugly heads. when I got my first body piercing (nipple) professionally done in ’86, I could make the biggest, toughest, most hardcore punks stop dead in their tracks with fear or disgust just by lifting my shirt up. Body piercing just wasn’t known to most in that world at that time. I have written about this extensively both at Tribalectic and Poked, but in a nutshell back then we didn’t even have tattoo magazines. One of my only resources was the occasional “tattoo issue” of any of the various biker rags, or tattoo convention coverage in them.
It was in one of these that I saw a small ad for Gauntlet jewelry supply and PFIQ magazine. It showed a guy with a chest panel tattoo and a pierced nipple–hooked me right the fuck in. I guess if it weren’t for that precise image I might never have gotten pierced. I had just finished my own chest piece and thought a nipple piercing would go well with it. The only problem was finding someone to do it. About the time of my awakening regarding body piercing I graduated college, started working as a professional, and moved from Atlanta to South Florida. I knew of no one who could do body piercings (little did I know there was a very experienced piercing pioneer, plus a practitioner or two, 60 miles south of me, but hey ran in the leather underground which was completely alien to me at the time.) The Gauntlet in LA was the only place in the world that I knew about for piercings. I had ordered their catalog and a copy of PFIQ and that got me no closer, other than showing me the jewelry and some of the other piercings that were available. Back then there were damn few places to get pierced, maybe a dozen or so throughout the country, and most were somewhat shady or sketchy other than Gauntlet, assuming you could even find out about them. The only source for jewelry was Gauntlet and it was VERY expensive, although about this time Silver Anchor started making inferior quality jewelry for less money. (One or two unscrupulous sellers were known to re-package Silver Anchor jewelry in Gauntly bags–I got bit by this once myself.) Anyway . . back then a plain CBR, say 14 ga x 1/2 inch in stainless steel might cost $40 or more!
I finally got my piercing on a trip to New Orleans, when my then-girlfriend and I found a gay leather store in the French Quarter that both sold Gauntlet jewelry and performed piercings ($65) for the ring and the hole!). The funny thing is I had called Gauntlet before I left on the trip and asked if there was anywhere in NOLA to get pierced, and they claimed they knew of no one!
My first body piercing was a bit of an ordeal for me. I was a nightmare customer and kept passing out, multiple times. There was a shitload of blood (I was all jacked up on caffeine, this doubtless was part of the reason why) and I found out that day the sight of blood used to put me under. I was also very scared of the pliers the fellow needed to close the jewelry (obviously non-annealed, as was typical of the time). As a result of this experience, it was several years before I was able to (or even wanted to) get another piercing.
About the time the landmark book Modern Primitives came out, (Cloud’s note: in 1989) I found a woman who pierced in Daytona and had her do a lorum for me. I eventually lost that one, but the dam was broken and I started getting pierced pretty regularly after that. This was the early 90s, and as far as I could tell, piercing was only starting to take hold then with the younger kids in the scene. It certainly wasn’t something folks in my age group were into (late 20s, early 30s at this point).
As far as becoming a piercer, I never really wanted to do it and was basically dragged kicking and screaming into the job (a far cry from most folks in the business, LOL). I had a friend who ran an “alternative” clothing store, and he wanted to expand his business by opening a tattoo and piercing shop along with it. The idea was that his wife would do the piercing, he and I would help run the shop, and we’d hire tattooers. Once I agreed to go in with them, they dropped the bomb on me of wanting me to pierce, too. I had that little issue of passing out at the sight of blood, plus too much respect for the craft, coupled with a fear I would suck at it. But they persisted, and I finally relented. She got her first training at one of the Gauntlet classes, then I started learning through assisting her. Also learned to deal with seeing blood without it affecting me with the help of a sympathetic friend who let me poke a lot of holes in her and just look at the results to get used to it. It turns out I had a strong aptitude for the technical side of the job, and a good head for jewelry and materials, and an interest in the relentless pursuit of ever-better aftercare. I was maybe not so strong with the actual hands-on side of things, but did better as I gained experience.
When we started our shop in the ’95–’96 time frame, things had changed dramatically from a decade prior. Piercing shops were not yet a dime-a-dozen, but they were definitely more common. Most tattoo shops also had someone who would pierce (if not very well). And there were many more jewelry suppliers, some of whom were very high quality and in fact continue to set the standard for quality (Anatometal, Industrial Strength). Prices had come down quite a bit (but still had a ways to go to get to today’s levels) and Gauntlet had even lowered their prices a bit (but were still the most expensive game in town). We eventually closed up shop in 2000 or 2001 or so, for a variety of reasons not really worth getting into. But in that time I saw a huge amount of development and change in aftercare, and a previously unthinkable rise in popularity of piercing and subsequent increase in the number of practitioners. I also saw the sad demise of Gauntlet and PFIQ magazine. I still miss them both. Also during this time, the Internet became a factor in the piercing world. My first exposure to just how freaky it could get was when I learned of the Shawn Porter Collection (Google it, kids). I also saw piercing change from something only the most hardcore punks and sexual freaks did, to being invited into posh homes to pierce 15-year-0ld private-school cheerleaders’ navels while their parents watched. I was also fortunate enough to have had some opportunities to learn with some of the best pierces who have ever picked up a needle.
Q. Modern body piercing has underpinnings of punks, gay leathermen, and teenyboppers, and here we talk about piercings so seriously–it’s a bit ludicrous, don’t you think?
A. Heh . . . yes and no. Remember, to each of those subgroups, their insular worlds are very serious to themselves. I am very happy that there are people who look at piercing with truly scientific eyes, people who seriously explore material alternatives, and people who will constantly push the envelope of what is possible. Because these people do what they do, it allows piercing to be easier and more fun to the average piercee.
Q. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? What are the biggest changes you have seen?
A. A very long way, indeed, in one sense anyway. In another sense, things really haven’t changed much at all. We are still using basically the same or similar jewelry and poking mostly the same holes with pretty much the same tools, with the exception of the newer arts like implants and microdermals. Aftercare has evolved, but from 10,000 feet up it doesn’t look like much different than it did in the 80s (clean ’em and heal ’em). The biggest changes I have seen have been in availability, and in the details.
Availability: From a time when there was only one known commercial piercing establishment, to today’s world where every town with more than, say, five or ten thousand people probably has a place you can go to get pierced by someone at least nominally claiming to be a professional is just mind-boggling to me. The downside to this is that there has not been an equally huge increase in truly professional piercers, just a whole lot more hacks. There are only a few shops I would allow to perform piercings on me today (the two closest being a mere 3.5-hour drive away). My all-time-favorite piercer has retired, for the moment anyway, which makes me very sad.
Details: While many jewelry styles are essentially unchanged for the last 35 years or so, some have been subtly tweaked for better performance in certain piercings. Thoughts on appropriate gauge and sizes for initial piercings have changed. Placements for many piercings have evolved subtly over time for better end results. For example, once upon a time it was just accepted that navel piercings had a 50% probability of surviving. Hopefully we are doing better today! While the goals (successfully heal a piercing) and methods (keep it clean in support of healing) of aftercare have not changed, the methods and products are radically different. In the early days we used Listerine for oral piercings, Betadine, Hibiclens, and BZK for others. I can still remember the first discussions of replacing Betadine and Hibiclens with liquid Dial soap, and concerns that it “wasn’t strong enough.” I remember how shitty it made me feel the first time I heard Hibiclens may be carcinogenic (I used it for YEARS!). I remember the first time I heard that BZK could actually GROW bacteria, that saline solution might be enough with out soap, that perhaps we could get away without cleaning “regularly”–just doing it when truly needed. Plus, the whole change in oral care from Listerine, to watered-down Listerine, to Gly-Oxide/Peroxyl, to saline rinses. The changes to aftercare are definitely in the details, but it has made a world of difference in the quality of the piercing experience (my first nipple piercing took 6-7 YEARS to fully heal, owing in large part no doubt to being scrubbed daily with Hibiclens or Betadine.) I don’t think piercing would be anywhere near as popular as it is today if it hadn’t been for all the evolutions in jewelry, placement, and aftercare, and how much easier they have made the whole process.
Chuck’s experiences are a mini-history of piercing in the more recent years, and a testament to the trial-and-error of early piercees that we are the beneficiaries of. Thanks, Chuck, for your unique viewpoint! I’ll post more about PFIQ, the Gauntlet, and all those early pioneers in later posts.
The “Chuck” image belongs to Wikipedia, or the network that produces the tv show.