Holy journey

A Reno business owner led piercing expeditions to the Middle East

The staff of Reno’s Black Hole Body Piercing visited Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

The staff of Reno’s Black Hole Body Piercing visited Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

courtesy/Angela Watson

Angela Watson presents a slideshow lecture about her experiences in the Middle East at the Holland Project, 140 Vesta St., on June 6 at 7 p.m.

Months before Donald Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia to sign a massive multi-billion dollar weapons deal, Reno business owner Angela Watson traveled to the country to punch some holes in skin. More precisely, she was there to meet behind closed doors with some of the region’s affluent women and pierce holes in noses, navels and ears—mostly ears.

Lamb & Lu is a jewelry retail company based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The company is owned by two women, still in their early 20s, and it sells curated jewelry online and at pop-up shops. Among the jewelry sold is earrings, and the owners had the idea to host a piercing event. Piercing is not widely available in Saudi Arabia—at least not piercing that adheres to contemporary standards for sanitation. Sanitary piercing is available at some medical clinics, but there the service is provided by medical technicians who might not understand the finer points of piercing aesthetics, like placement.

Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by its recent 12-digit deal with the U.S. government and American weapons manufacturers, is a wealthy nation. It’s also an absolute monarchy that follows Islamic law. And piercing—especially piercing anywhere other than the earlobes or nose—is frowned upon in some sects of Islam.

The owners of Lamb & Lu wanted to offer the careful sanitation of contemporary American piercing studios, and they also wanted to offer their customers the wild—what one might call “authentic”—experience of being pierced by a heavily tattooed, pierced-up, dyed-hair, heathen, looks-like-trouble American piercer.

They initially contacted Adam Block, a piercer based in Brooklyn. But Saudi Arabia, like many Islamic societies, is, in many ways, heavily segregated by gender. Block and his staff are men, and Lamb & Lu needed female piercers to service their female clientele. So, Block directed them toward Watson and her business, Black Hole Body Piercing.

“Within my own industry, I’m known for the ladies of Black Hole,” said Watson recently. “We’ve always been an all-female shop. It was really odd when we hired a male last year. … It had been about eight years since I had a male on staff.”

Black Hole has been in business for more than 20 years, and has become a local institution and one of the hubs of Reno’s midtown. Watson has owned it since ’94. She got interested in piercing in the early ’90s after she got her belly button pierced. At the time, she was a 21-year-old who had recently gotten divorced, and she now describes that piercing as an act of “rebellion,” but it eventually led to her attending a piercing seminar in Sacramento, which started her career.

“My very first piercing was a penis,” she said. “Not many people can say that.”

On one of her trips to the Arabian Peninsula, Angela Watson, owner of Reno’s Black Hole Body Piercing, visited the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Watson and her business were instrumental in developing the area of town now commonly known as midtown. Thirteen years ago, when Black Hole moved into its current location, 912 S. Virginia St., there was no Junkee Clothing Exchange, no Craft Wine and Beer, no Brasserie Saint James. Recycled Records was several miles away. Now, all those businesses, and dozens of others, are within a block or two of Black Hole, in the most booming section of Reno. Watson was key to the economic and cultural growth of the neighborhood. She served on the board of the Midtown Merchants Association and the Creative Coalition of Midtown. She’s also a mom, who has been active with the PTA at Mount Rose Elementary School. Around the community, she’s known for her perseverance, quick wit and outspoken style.

She and the owners of Lamb & Lu hit it off right away, and Watson has now led her staff on two trips to Saudi Arabia, the second of which also included a sojourn to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, exporting a quintessential Reno cultural experience to the Middle East.

Sex and the city

The first trip was in October of last year. Watson and members of her staff traveled to Riyadh, the capital and most populous city of Saudi Arabia. Following the law of the land, while out in public in the country, they wore the abaya, the loose-fitting cloak, and hajib, the hood, commonly worn by Muslim women. After arriving in the country, they had a couple of days to adjust to the time change and, as much as they could, the culture.

“They have zero tourism, and you can tell,” said Watson. “Being a tourist there, you can tell it’s not set up for tourism at all.”

In the urban core, where Watson and her crew stayed, the city was very clean—with almost no trash or graffiti—although also very new, with many construction projects seemingly abandoned half-finished.

“The people are very peaceful,” said Watson about the overall atmosphere of the city. “I feel a great sense of peace when I’m there. It’s very different. It’s quiet. There’s not loudness or craziness. I know that probably happens in all different types of settings, but none of the ones that I get put in.”

Watson and her staffers had to adjust to the different modes of behavior expected along gender lines in Saudi Arabia. Something as simple as picking up a pizza became a complex navigation of gender norms. Single men and women are not allowed to intermingle, so since the pizza parlor was already being patronized by men, Watson and her crew had to send in their driver to buy the pizza.

They visited an ice cream parlor that had separate entrances for men and women and a partition at the counter. They were allowed to order at a coffee place, but had to get their drinks to go.

Perhaps the most difficult thing was finding a public restroom for women. Many businesses have public restrooms, but most of them, including the American chain restaurants, feature a men-only sign. And any hunt for a much-needed bathroom will quickly start to feel frantic and desperate. Watson recalled once trying half a dozen places, including the U.S. fast food sandwich shop Subway before finding a bathroom.

“Subway is going to have a bathroom,” she remembered saying. “We look through the door, and we can see that there’s only a men’s bathroom. There isn’t a women’s restroom, so obviously women aren’t supposed to go to those places—or can go to those places but aren’t supposed to stay. We weren’t really sure. We went to the burger place next door, and there was no bathroom. Dunkin Donuts—super nice, Starbucks quality, really nice lighting. It only has a men’s bathroom.”

Eventually, she tried a nearby hotel.

She asked the man behind the front desk if she and her friend could use the restroom.

The man answered, “What’s your room number?”

“No, we don’t have a room here,” she said. “We just need to use a restroom!”

He eventually relented and let them use a service bathroom.

“It wasn’t for public use,” said Watson. “It barely had a door.”

The boundaries between public and private space were unclear, and all the more complicated because of the gender divisions—the rules of which were often unwritten.

“There was a restaurant that we ate at several times, and it wasn’t a women-only restaurant, it was just that no men ever came in,” Watson said.

Another fact of Saudi life that took some adjusting for Watson and her crew was that alcohol is illegal in the country. Later, from some of the women that they pierced, they heard rumors about parties—with booze!—at some of the international compounds within the city, where ex-pats from places like Australia and South Africa would host fancy shindigs.

“But we don’t know anybody in those kinds of places,” said Watson. “And the girls we work with don’t. But I pierced girls who were, [high-pitched, excited voice] ’going to a party that night!’ So, it happens, I just wouldn’t know where. Just like I don’t know where to buy heroin in Reno.”

American pierce

The piercing events were women-only events, always tucked away deep in some interior space, behind at least two sets of doors, so that, in Watson’s words, “somebody couldn’t accidentally walk in and see a room full of women without their abaya on.”

The clientele was all women, mostly well-educated, mostly between 18 and 35, and clearly affluent. Many of them were professionals, including doctors and dentists, or college students. They spoke English and, once their abayas were removed, they revealed full makeup, carefully fixed hair, and expensive designer outfits and jewelry.

“There’s nothing casual about it,” said Watson.

On the first trip, four piercers from Black Hole performed more than 450 piercings in four days.

Most of the women had found out about the event through social media—especially Snapchat. Because of the strict social rules for women, social media is an important, and subversive, communication tool for Saudi women. The event was fully booked before the Black Hole crew arrived.

“They’d never had anything like that there,” said Watson. “No one had ever stepped foot in Riyadh and done a professional piercing with bona fide body jewelry.”

Watson and her crew had brought all the piercing equipment over, but all the permitting was taken care of in advance by Lamb & Lu.

“We didn’t do much outside of the ear,” said Watson. “Mostly it was the ear that was popular. And it was the same piercings that are popular here—the forward helix, the rook.”

They only did one tongue piercing, and three navel piercings. (The woman who got her tongue pierced at the first event came by to say hello at the second event, in April, but Watson had to avoid inquiring about the tongue piercing because the woman’s mother was present at the second event—and she didn’t know about her daughter’s pierced tongue.)

“I thought we would do a lot of noses because it’s so popular here,” said Watson. “Because people spread out on the ear, if I had to pick one piercing that’s the most popular in the U.S., it’s the nostril. There, we did three out of 453 [total piercings], because their mothers and their grandmothers did it, so they’re not interested in doing that. So it’s old-fashioned.”

Watson said that the question she heard the most at the event was, “What do you think of Riyadh?” The women wanted to know what the heavily pierced and tattooed Americans thought of them and their city. But for Watson, the big thrill was exporting her business: “I’ve been fighting to bring safe piercing to Reno for so long, and to be able to bring it to the Middle East was really fucking cool,” she said.

At the second event, in April, women were showing Watson and her staff pictures from the first event and saying, “I want this.”

Vegas 2.0

In addition to visiting Riyadh again, the second expedition also included a trip to the extremely wealthy city Dubai, which Watson describes as “Vegas 2.0.” Unlike Riyadh, Dubai is an international tourist destination, but like Riyadh, it’s also a very new city, having only been built up since the 1990s. It’s also a city of tacky superlatives, home to the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest shopping mall.

And although it’s only a two-hour flight from Saudi Arabia to Dubai, the transition between the two places took the Black Hole team an entire day, spent mostly in the Dubai airport.

“Going through customs in Saudi Arabia was a breeze,” said Watson. “We had visas and we were stamped to be there—boom, go in. Going from Saudi Arabia to Dubai, on the other hand, they did not like the way that we looked, they did not like the way were talking about what we were doing in Saudi Arabia, and they stopped us lickety-split. In hindsight, I should have worn my abaya all the way through customs in Dubai. And I will next time—if there is a next time going to Dubai—because I got profiled. They looked at me, and thought tattoos, crazy-looking, dyed hair—let’s talk to her.”

Watson and the other five members of her crew got pulled out of line in the Dubai airport, and their bags were searched. But because only a woman could search their bags, and only one woman was on duty, scouring through one bag at a time, the search took even longer.

“We weren’t doing anything wrong,” said Watson. “We had permits to do what we were doing, but it just becomes a hassle when they start asking you questions and start going through your things. … They wanted to know if we smoked, and they wanted to know if we drink, which neither are illegal, which is interesting since we kept getting asked. I got asked probably five times.”

After two and a half hours in customs, the agent reached into one of Watson’s bags and pulled out a little plastic container of apparently suspicious-looking pills and string.

“What is this?” she demanded.

“Mints and dental floss,” Watson explained.

The agent wasn’t convinced, and showed the container to a man dressed in plain clothes, apparently some kind of supervisor.

He smelled the container. “This smells sweet. What is it?”

“Mints and dental floss,” Watson said again.

“What time did your flight arrive?”

“12:30.” At this point, it was almost 3 p.m.

He said something in Arabic to the other agent, and they closed up all the bags and sent them on their way.

“They never even got to opening my packages that had the piercing needles and all the things that looked like drug paraphernalia,” said Watson. “Because that’s the interesting thing—piercing equipment, an inexperienced person could put two and two together that maybe this could be used as drug paraphernalia. … I wasn’t really concerned about it, because I knew none of it was illegal—I was just afraid that they were going to hold it, and I needed it in three days to do my job.”

In Dubai, for the most part, the “ladies of Black Hole” were treated like celebrities. People on the street asked if they could take pictures with the American women. Most of the people in Dubai are tourists from around the world, including many Saudi men, who behave very differently in gaudy Dubai than in austere Saudi Arabia. Many of them proposed marriage to the American women. One man, after taking a picture with the women, exclaimed, “I’m going to masturbate to this for a hundred nights.”

All over Dubai, as in many monarchies, are large murals depicting the royal family. Watson asked one of the drivers about the murals, and he told her that everyone in the country loves the king.

“Well, not everyone in the U.S. loves our president,” she responded. “Not everyone loves Trump.”

The driver started laughing so hard that car started swerving on the road—coincidentally right in front of a police car, which promptly pulled the vehicle over. The driver got a minor ticket, but the police didn’t even pay attention to the American tourists in the back of the car.

“We had two run-ins with the law in Dubai, and we didn’t do nothing,” said Watson. “We weren’t even up to no good.”

Watson and her crew went up to the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. It actually extends up to 154 floors, plus an antenna, but the top six floors are private. The view from the observation deck on the 148th floor, according to Watson, is surreal.

“You can’t even fathom it,” she said. “It doesn’t even look real. At some point, it just stops being real. … I have vertigo, and it absolutely did not make me feel vertigo at all, and I have it. I can’t go up in buildings that are too high, but it just didn’t seem real.”

After visiting the skyscraper, the Black Hole team came back down to the ground level, which is connected to the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping center, only to discover that the power had gone out in the mall, causing a minor panic as shoppers were being evacuated. There’s got to be some sort of parable about building some of the world’s largest structures and being unable to keep the lights on.