It’s happened to most of us. Your record store browsing is briefly interrupted by an accidental glance at the guy next to you who is thumbing through old Quiet Riot LPs. You stare — perhaps a little too long — at his blown-out earlobes. They almost flap in the breeze from the box fan in the corner of the store. As you look through the 1.5-inch-diameter hole in this guy’s head, you notice a stealthy view of the cashier across the way. It’s enough to make you think to yourself, among other things, “Man, that earring is clearly too big for that guy’s ear.” And then you look away before he catches you staring.
It’s OK. There’s no shame in conformity, is there?
On the other hand, it doesn’t make you a twisted freak or a sex fiend to be especially titillated by a friend’s nipple ring, or to learn the receptionist at work has a diamond-studded labia she’s not too shy to confess to after a few too many eggnogs at the company Christmas party, or to find out your trusted middle-aged accountant sports one of those curious Prince Albert piercings.
It’s not that you’re too old or even out of touch if the record store guy draws mental memories of a photo from the pages of your sixth-grade World History book — the one of a topless tribal woman bathing in a murky river with earlobes stretching down to her breasts. Don’t start trading in your Ramones Ts for Cliff Huxtable sweater vests just yet. You’re not old fashioned or unhip when you feel your face curl around your nose in an involuntary wince at the sight of someone’s titanium “third eye” bar (that’s the spot at the bridge of the nose or between the eyebrows) staring back at you.
As statements go, body piercing has all but shed its Goth, emo and punk affiliations, grandfathering in one of fashion and chicness. Don’t tell the hardcore bikers, but piercing shops are more like boutiques these days, where ladies can gossip together over glasses of wine while having a needle driven through some choice cartilage. Gone are the seedy, smoky back-door parlors of the past.
“Everybody wants to explain something that they don’t understand in their head, and they do so by drawing their own conclusions. What one sees as mutilation, another sees as beautiful,” said Leo Ziebol, piercing manager at 5 Point Studios in Clive.
Only a few minutes into a conversation with Ziebol, and “beautiful” becomes almost too generic of a word to describe him, inside and out. The home-schooled son of God-fearing and otherwise “normal” Iowans one day came home with permanent gauges in his ears and a new job as a jewelry manufacturer at an Ames piercing shop at the age of 17. Did his parents “get it?” Not quite.
“They were pissed,” Ziebol laughed. “They were not excited about it by any means.”
Times have changed, though, especially in the last decade or so.
FROM TRIBAL TO TRENDY
The oldest piercings found in a human grave were dated 2500 B.C., according to a recent Northwestern University study, yet somehow the ancient practice has been saddled with superficial and even ignorant untruths, especially once it hit the Western hemisphere following World War II. Back then, body piercing was reserved primarily for gay men. American women didn’t even wear earrings until after the 1960s, thanks to the hippie revolution. The subsequent punk rebellion brought safety pins to eyebrows, and producer Fakir Musafar, who began popularizing body piercing as a form of Modern Primitivism, including the aforementioned practice of stretching.
Then came Hollywood, and as most Midwesterners know but perhaps hesitate to admit, when it comes to TV, art doesn’t so much imitate life as vice versa.
It’s no longer “a freak’s fetish” exemplified by the Marilyn Mansons and Lady Gagas of the scene. With pop stars like Scarlett Johansson, Emma Watson, Mylie Cyrus, (OK, maybe not Mylie Cyrus), and even sports stars like Dennis Rodman adorned in this now fashion trend, teenagers lining up at the mall kiosks looking to wear theirs seems less faux pa.
“People are losing that pre-conceived notion about piercing and accepting it more for what it is — something pretty,” Ziebol said. “It’s become more socially acceptable. There’s more of a high-end market open now, and clientele are people who are usually a little bit older.”
Nowadays people are just as un-phased by a grandma’s nose ring as they are by a hairy Harley-clad biker’s bull-ring septum. In fact, Ziebol said, in contrast to its history in America, women have all but hijacked body art completely.
“What once was a symbol of aggressive masculinity — the septum piercing — now has become a feminine and beautiful accent,” Ziebol said. “Ninety percent of our clientele are women age 16-50 who don’t want a drastic change. They just want something subtle, an accent, something cute. Women make up more of our clientele, I think, simply because women like to accessorize more.
“There are no new piercings. Everywhere that’s safe has already been done. But there are hundreds of options for each piercing that are safe and simple. We find our innovations with the jewelry.”
GOTTA BE AMERICAN-MADE
As with any other fashion, it’s all about the name brands in piercing, too. And if it’s not American-made and at the higher price end, it’s not quality, Ziebol said.
“What’s hot right now is the jewelry,” he said. “BVLA makes the finest jewelry in the world using only solid gold and precious and semi-precious stones, made by hand by people who care about what they’re doing.”
Body Vision L.A., Industrial Strength and ANATOMETAL are the three stand-out jewelry manufactures touted by high-end piercing shops such as 5 Point Studio in Clive and Prysm Body Piercing in West Des Moines. All three are in California.
“They’re at a level that no one can compete with. They’re established, their quality is great, so what’s the point in doing it yourself when you know you’re already dealing with the best in the world, and that’s what our clients want?” Ziebol said.
Such jewelry can run consumers anywhere from $50 to $1,000 at places like 5 Point and Prysm. That’s because the jewelry manufacturers use only solid gold and titanium, genuine diamonds, amethyst and pearls.
That means, to do it right, a consumer must be willing to commit and invest in his or her piercing choices, which explains why older adults make up the majority of the clientele at high-end establishments like Prysm and 5 Point. So why does it seem the high school hallways have become a catwalk of body art modeled by teens who are likely on a part-time burger joint budget, if any at all? Perhaps more shocking than a 15-year-old with stretched earlobes and a navel piercing is the fact that they can get the procedures with or without parental consent.
IOWA LAW… OR LACK THEREOF
Piercers like Ziebol and Prysm’s Rob Hill don’t usually see such teens until it’s too late. First, that’s because both of them adhere to a house-rule not to pierce minors without parental consent. But that’s merely their policies — not state mandate — and it’s one not shared by every piercing parlor.
“A lot of them are repeat customers trying to get things done properly. They had it done one or two times already, and it went bad,” Hill said. “So they finally learned their lesson, and this time decided to spend the money to do it right.”
Other than those bad repair cases, neither Hill nor Ziebol will even consider humoring a minor’s piercing fantasies without parental approval.
“Every single day I have at least one person come in with a bad experience, and it’s usually chalked up to bad placement, poor quality jewelry and poor after-care instructions and products,” Hill said. “Clients are a reflection of the piercer. The client’s not wrong; they’re just getting bad information.”
Hill said anytime a piercer advises a client to use peroxide or alcohol to clean a fresh piercing, he or she’s being ill-advised. A good rule of the thumb is just to leave it alone, he said, and Ziebol seconds that.
“I mean, we’re taking a foreign object and putting it inside your body — a foreign substance that is going to interact with your blood and thus interact with your brain,” Hill added. “Consumers need to expect — and demand — quality. If you’re going to bargain shop, than you get what you pay for. If you’re going to quality shop, then you’re going to pay more.”
Cheap jewelry is merely one reason a client might suffer bad post-piercing side-effects, such as infection, scabbing, swelling and scarring. Bad advice from under-qualified piercers is another, Hill warns.
“Forty-two states have regulations in place for body piercers. Iowa is one that doesn’t, and I think we should,” he said. “All our bordering states do. If piercers don’t want to follow those regulations, they can just come here to Iowa. So we get an influx of poorly-educated piercers. I can’t prove that as fact, but I can say the lack of regulations in the State of Iowa can be attractive to those who don’t want to put forth the effort.
“People say ‘buyer beware,’ and that’s the truth. It’s a scary thing here in Iowa. Really scary.”
From his shop in Valley West Mall, he points out the window at the hair salon across the way: “Those guys over there cut your hair, and they have to have a license to cut hair. We’re putting foreign objects in a person’s body and are required to have no such license or regulations whatsoever.”
Like Ziebol, Hill urges that body piercing is a cosmetic choice that is just as much a reflection of the artist as a tattoo or hair style. So you should go to someone whose taste matches yours and whom you trust, he advised.
“A good piercer is like a stylist,” he said. “They’ll help guide the customer to pick something that will flatter his or her natural features.”
So stare as you might at the snake bite, spider bite, angel bite or plethora of other facial piercings that all fall under the term “body art,” it’s OK to be taken aback. It’s OK to be curious, grossed out or turned on. But despite those natural reactions to this cultural trend, it’s also important to be informed. If you ask someone sporting the look or someone who works in the industry, it’s less of an image, a rebellion or even a form of expression than it is an art form — an accent to one’s physical form, an aesthetic appeal.
“It’s become so fashion-forward. It’s not about being crazy and rebellious,” Ziebol urged. “It’s about being beautiful and loving what you see when you look in the mirror.” CV