Non Fiction


Body Piercing

Is It the New Form of Modern Art?

By: Anne T. Merriman

Blake Perlingieri, a 29 year-old business man in San Francisco, wears his long dread locks tied back behind his ears which are adorned with three-inch ivory ear plugs. Rings of various shapes and sizes hang from his face. Much of the rest of his body is festooned with tattoos of tribal designs.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Perlingieri, the co-founder of San Francisco’s Nomad Piercing Studio, as he emerged from behind a brightly colored hanging tapestry.

“We just finished a difficult genital piercing,” said Perlingieri.

“She was certainly screaming,” said one customer waiting in Nomad’s small foyer.

“She said she liked it,” retorted Perlingieri. Nomad studio, which opened in February 1994, is one of the growing number of parlors opening in the Bay Area and across the country to meet the growing demand for body piercings. More and more men and women are turning to various forms of body art to express their individuality, mark a rite of passage or spiritual experience in their lives, enhance their sexuality or simply to make a fashion statement.

For many years body piercing was limited to a few studios servicing the homosexual, underground community. It entered the mainstream in the early 90’s, when it became fashionable with rock bands, athletes and celebrities. Singer Axil Rose displayed his nipple ring in an MTV video. Madonna, actress Drew Barrymore and Chicago Bulls basketball player Dennis Rodman all sport rings in their belly buttons.

The studios offer an array of body art options. Some use needles to tattoo permanent colored personalized symbols on their customer’s bodies, or to pierce noses, eyebrows, navels and even genitalia with exotic jewelry. More extreme forms of body art, such as branding and scarification, require the use of knives and hot irons to force the formation of raised scars in specific patterns on the skin. As demand for piercing grew, so did the business. Today there are workshops across the country to train people in piercing techniques to enable them to open their own parlors. New businesses that market body piercing jewelry and body art magazines have sprung up, and there is even a National Association of Professional Piercers and World Wide Web “body art” site.

The first body piercing studio was opened in Los Angeles in 1975 by The Gauntlet Corp., the largest piercing chain in America with parlors now in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, to pierce “masters”and their “slaves” in the homosexual, sadomasochist community. As the interest in piercing disseminated across the country The Gauntlet Corp.opened two new studios in San Francisco and New York. Last year, the three piercing parlors grossed over $3 million, and its clientele has doubled annually for the past three years.

“We do over 20,000 piercings a year,” said Michaela Grey, associate director of The Gauntlet Body Piercing Studio in San Francisco’s Castro district. The Gauntlet publishes a quarterly newsletter and catalogue called Piercing Fans International that markets more than 1,200 variations of body piercing jewelry — ranging from stainless steel to 14K gold — to more than 30,000 subscribers around the world, said Marcus Wonacott, director of customer services, who has been involved in piercing for 10 years. “For me it’s the adornment. I love the way it looks,” said Wonacott, of his own seven pierces, which include the nipple, ear and septum — the cartilage between the nostrils.

“For some it can be an erotic and spiritual rite of passage. I think people have a natural urge to decorate themselves in this way,” said Grey, who refers to her own piercings as spiritual experiences too personal to discuss.

For others, body piercing is merely an impulse decision. “Impulse drove me to do it,” said Fred (who prefers not to use his last name), 30, a computer technician in the Bay Area. “In Borneo, the ampallang [the most risky male genital piercing] is a rite of passage — and I was curious.” In addition to his ampallang, Fred has pierced both his nipples and his ear. Fred says he is part of the cybergroup underground and is fascinated by the idea of implanting something into his body.

Located off Ashbury Street, Nomad resembles a jungle with its African decor, overgrown plants and sounds of tribal music.”We seek to preserve the ancient customs of body modification,” said Perlingieri, who speaks of his “tribal aesthetic,” which combines different cultural perceptions of beauty into unique forms of body art for himself and for the thousands of customers who will come to his studio to be pierced this year. “We’re interpreting an ancient beauty in a modern way.”

Perlingieri’s business partner Kristian White wears fragments of elephant tusks through his stretched earlobes to honor the Masaai warriors of East Africa. His face is adorned with various piercings, a tattooed beard and a black and white spear that transects his nostrils.

Nomad’s Perlingieri and White view themselves as helping people to “liberate” themselves by cutting and piercing their flesh. “I’m here to teach people they can use their bodies to go beyond our society’s narrow conceptions of beauty,” said Perlingieri, whose fascination with piercing began as a child when he drove safety pins through his skin. “This is a crazy world we live in and the one thing we have is our bodies. It makes people feel good to adorn themselves.”

The man who introduced this piercing phenomenon to American culture is Fakir Musofar — commonly known as the grandfather of the exotic piercing revival. Musofar, 65, has engraved his body with all kinds of blades, hooks and pins. He found his calling as a child when he went to a freak show at the circus in his home town in South Dakota. “Every human being has the need to decorate their body,” said Musofar in a letter that he posted on the World Wide Web body art site, explaining why he reveres tribal systems in India, Africa and South America, where piercing and scarification are used as rites of passage into adulthood. To meet the needs of his fellow piercees, Musofar created Dakota Steel, a company that makes jewelry specifically designed for body piercing and recently launched the magazine “Body Play” in which he chronicles his personal adventures in body modification. “If it isn’t sanctioned by society in general, then we’ll make our own society and rituals and sanctions — our own subculture,” he said.

Many new initiates welcome Musofar’s unique sub-culture, which ignores all constraints and societal expectations. “Every time I look at my piercings they say to me, ‘This is your body, not your parent’s or society’s,'” said Susan, a Nomad customer who prefers not to use her last name. “I love my pierces, they define me and the picture I want the world to see of me.”

Those considering piercing should understand that the process can be dangerous and expensive. Unsanitary piercing enviornments can promote the spread of infection and disease and scrupilous after-care is necessary to prevent infections. The cost of piercings run from $25 for a simple ear or nose ring to more than $65 for more complicated piercings. Depending on the quality of jewelry, people can spend hundreds of dollars on their bodily adornment.

In 1993 Perlingieri joined together with piercing leaders from The Gauntlet and other leading studios across the country and created the Association of Professional Pierces (APP), an organization committed to distributing safety and health information to piercers and piercees.

“People need to know there are studios that provide expert services under conditions which exceed hospital sterilization procedures,” said the APP in their World Wide Web home page. Browsers can find personalized piercing accounts, studio home pages as well as a recent survey which concluded that the majority of body piercing enthusiasts are atheist, college educated, heterosexual white men under 34 years old.

Although the APP was unsucessful in getting a bill passed to regulate the practice of body piercing in California, members of the APP are working to educate the public and set their own regulatory standards. The group’s quarterly newsletter, “The Point,” discusses the dangers involved with piercing and the need for a hygienic environment. It also offers monthly five-day seminars for $995 with The Gauntlet Corporation in New York, Italy and San Francisco on basic safety procedures. “Two instructors teach approximately 12 students which jewelry is appropriate for different types of pierces, anatomy, technique, bedside manner — things like that,” said Grey, who organizes the seminars.

Once pierced, it is essential that people take proper care to prevent infection. “If you use the proper antiseptic techniques, you should be O.K.,” said Dr. Jerry Daszko, 32, a family practitioner at Davies Medical Center in San Francisco who has engaged in body piercing. Over the last nine months Dasko has pierced himself seven times from his eyebrows, septum and tongue to his nipples and urethra. “For me it is an expression of my own individuality. To my patients, it reflects my own adventurous spirit and willingness to think about newer experimental treatments and be open to alternative therapies and tolerant of people’s idiosyncrasies.”

Anne T. Merriman, was a Graduate Student at the University of California at Berkeley when this article was submitted.