Tales from the needle trade

A professional piercer explains why poking holes in bodies is dicey work but safe if done right

LIP STICK <br>Curtis Zinn sports a pierced lip and stretched ears—which means that the existing hole has been stretched to accommodate larger jewelry.

Curtis Zinn sports a pierced lip and stretched ears—which means that the existing hole has been stretched to accommodate larger jewelry.

Photo by Tom Angel

In the stark, white-walled piercing room of my shop, a nervous 18-year-old Chico State University freshman reclines in a chair. The tanned flesh of her abdomen contrasts with the maroon vinyl of the seatback. Her navel sports a set of securely clamped forceps.

She’s nervous and taking short, shallow breaths. That’s going to create a problem.

If she restricts the oxygen flow to her brain, she’ll black out. It’s happened before. One woman went out before I could get the forceps on her. She was standing in front of me when she came crashing down. I barely caught her before she hit the floor.

“OK, honey, I need you to slow down,” I tell the young woman. “Take a deep breath in. Hold it for a second, then breathe out.” She nods, and her breathing slows. I guide her through an inhalation and then an exhalation that’s accompanied by a slight push of my right hand on the needle. She tenses sharply and lunges slightly to the left, but I’ve learned to pause before threading the needle through.

This is nothing new. She’s a typical client, young and living away from her parents probably for the first time and understandably nervous about getting her body pierced. She’s healthy and shouldn’t have trouble healing, however. She looks like someone who could have been on her high school basketball, volleyball or track team.

Piercing is no longer the rebellious whim of non-conformists. In earlier years, people might have gasped at someone with a ring through her navel or a barbell stuck through his tongue, but now such displays are often met with indifference.

Hey, nearly everyone’s getting body jewelry. I’ve pierced business people, nurses, dental assistants, cops and homemakers. The mainstream is beginning to embrace piercing, which means the shock value is waning.

As my trade grows more lucrative, however, my job becomes more dangerous. It’s a simple equation, really. With needles comes blood, and with blood can come an assortment of viral menaces: hepatitis B or C, HIV or AIDS. They’re a loaded pistol aimed at my head, and the more bodies that come into my shop, the higher the possibility that I’ll run into an infected person.

I remember one case vividly. It was during my apprenticeship. A man came in to have his nipple pierced. He was short, no taller than 5-foot-8, and very thin. His dark-brown hair was combed back with some sort of grease, and he wore a dark-green, long-sleeved shirt, black jeans and dark sunglasses, even indoors.

After the usual rigmarole of paperwork, the client was asked to take off his shirt, and soon after I sensed tension in the air. His arms were freckled with scabs, pink around their perimeters from scarring.

I watched the piercing process carefully, noting the care my master piercer took in making sure that he didn’t stab himself with the needle and kept blood away from any clean surfaces in the room.

After the man left with his shiny new ring, we frantically sanitized the entire room and washed our hands thoroughly. My master piercer bathed the floors, tables, shelves, chairs and the vinyl couch with anti-viral agents.

READY, AIM… <br>Body piercer Dane Grace double-checks his angle before piercing an ear.

Photo by Tom Angel

“If you do something differently with a person like that than what you do regularly, you’re doing something wrong,” he said sharply.

I could only nod in reply, but the effect was much more profound. The dangers of being a piercer had sunk deep.

A piercer at a reputable shop is as careful as most doctors when it comes to sterility. It’s our first line of self-defense. But how and what a piercer does is entirely up to the individual.

There’s nothing [no laws or regulations] currently in effect,” says Eileen Eastman, a spokeswoman for the California Conference of Local Health Offices. “Back in ‘98, there were standards for safety, sanitation and sterility developed for tattooing, piercing and permanent cosmetics, and these were ready to send to local health departments … but it was determined that local offices had to go through a separate regulatory process under state law.”

Eastman says that the funding and personnel haven’t arrived, but she considers that standards and regulations are “imminent.”

They’ve been imminent for the two and a half years that I’ve been a piercer, and I for one believe they are desperately needed.

A few years ago, the carnival rolled through Chico, and it boasted a piercing booth manned, apparently, by untrained people who’d been handed jewelry and a piercing gun (which is generally looked down upon by professional body piercers) and put to work. For the next two or three weeks my shop cleaned up after the messes they’d made. Nearly every piercing was crooked or infected or had the wrong jewelry in it. Had a regulatory body been in place, something like this wouldn’t have happened.

But a piercing shop is a strange combination of doctor’s office, dentist’s office, hair salon and jeweler’s shop. There are no easily applied sets of standards.

Good piercers take special care to keep their areas free of anything that will poorly affect a piercing. After all, every navel, tongue, nostril or other kind of piercing is an advertisement for the piercer’s technique, and in this industry reputation is everything. If a shop is well run, any infection that results is because of something the customer has done (or failed to do) after being pierced.

It takes courage to get a piercing, and some people get that courage from a bottle. But alcohol and piercing don’t mix.

One year I was working during the A Taste of Chico festival. A woman in her early 40s came in to get her navel pierced. But every time I stopped the bleeding, she would move and start bleeding again. I finally got fed up and held her navel with a paper towel, applying direct pressure for nearly three minutes. She finally stopped bleeding. Before she left, she said something like, “I’m going to go another beer sampler.”

“Another?” I replied.

SOME LIKE IT HOT <br>The final touches are put on to a “Monroe piercing,” so named because the actress Marilyn Monroe had a beauty mark in the same area.

Photo by Tom Angel

“Well, yeah, I had to get good and ready for this before I came in,” she said.

For the most part, I’m concerned with what I call the “morning-after syndrome,” where a person wakes up after a “big night on the town” to find that he or she isn’t exactly thrilled to discover a new hole somewhere in his or her body.

But, more than that, alcohol is a blood thinner. A little bleeding after a piercing is to be expected, but after even a single pint of beer, I notice, it takes longer for a person’s blood to clot.

So I don’t pierce anyone who’s been drinking, a fact clearly stated in the release forms my clients sign.

On Saint Patrick’ Day this year, I turned away numerous people who were drunk. One woman hung onto her friend, her legs buckling under her, as she stammered about how she’d wanted “to get her navel pierced since she was 16.” A man stood shirtless in my lobby, yelling about how he and his friends had been drinking since 8 that morning and it would be “a great idea to get a nipple ring.” I had to disagree.

Myself, I’ve been sober for every one of my piercings. I wanted to be pierced for the sake of being pierced and not because of a drunken whim. Then again, I’d spent years in punk rock and other subcultures where piercings were not only acceptable, but even preferred. In a sense, I owe my career as a piercer to music.

Punk rockers form a community, a web of friends, and one of my friends became a piercer. I became a fixture in her shop, and when it needed another piercer, I became a candidate. I was a familiar face to begin with, and it’s a more-than-600-hour time investment to properly teach someone to pierce.

I went through a formal apprenticeship, which had me taking notes, vacuuming, mopping, cleaning tools and doing general janitorial work at first. Later, I moved on to replacing jewelry and preparing clients, but I’d step out when the time came to clamp and pierce them.

My first piercing was of the ear cartilage of one of the piercers I worked with. I cleaned and marked her as I had others countless times before, but this time it was different. My heart was in my throat, and my hands shook uncontrollably.

My teacher stood by my shoulder, guiding me through the process step by step. I told my client to inhale, and on her exhalation I pushed the needle through. The sensation telegraphed like electricity up the surgical-steel shaft of the needle to my fingertips. It felt like pushing a sewing needle through the thick part of a leaf of iceberg lettuce.

The memory gives me sympathy for the Chico State freshman when she asks if the piercing will hurt and whether it will leave a scar. I smile when she giggles at herself for “making a big deal” of the process when it “really wasn’t that bad.”

After I explain how to care for the piercing and accept my payment, I watch as she steps down the stairs and back onto the street.

She’ll be going to classes or shopping and showing her friend the new jewelry glinting in her navel, effectively oblivious to the time, efforts and concern it took to pierce her safely.