When I set my heart on becoming a body piercer, there were many things in the industry I dreamed of. I imagined becoming a piercer successful enough to guest and travel at other studios. I envisioned using the best quality jewelry that was out there, doing engaging and unique ear projects full of the most cool custom pieces. But most of all, I imagined my apprenticeship and my relationship with my mentor. As I was working to get into the industry everyone talked about what it was to be an apprentice. How much work it would be, how difficult it was, how you had to prove you really wanted it. But all of that was balanced by the nearly sacred relationship of apprentice to mentor. Learning one-on-one under someone who had been doing this for decades longer than I had even been dreaming of it. Getting to have this time-honored craft passed down to me the way it has been for hundreds of years. Being the next in a long line of people passionate and dedicated to body modification. I saw posts online of mentors celebrating their apprentice's graduation to piercer, making long sappy posts as they hit milestones of 5, 10, and 15 years of piercing. I saw piercers talk about the continued relationships they had with their mentors, sending them photos of cool things they did, leaning on them when they needed advice, and seeking them out for critique.
As a kid growing up in a troubled home who never knew my father, and barely had a relationship with my mom, the power of the mentor and apprentice bond really struck me. It wasn’t a parent, but it was a parental-like figure. Someone older and wiser whose job it was to teach me, look out for me, encourage me, and correct me when I made mistakes. I was desperate for someone to fill a role like that in my life, I’d been looking for it ever since I was a small child feeling lonely on Father's Day. It’s no wonder that element of piercing and the process of becoming a piercer appealed to me so strongly, that bond was something I’d always been lacking.
I came to apprenticing more than ready to work. For my first four years in this industry, I worked two jobs- a day job apprenticing at the studio and a night shift stocking shelves. I was unpaid as an apprentice, but of course, I was being paid in my education so it was a fair trade, I convinced myself. This meant working 9-12 hour days at the studio, getting changed in the bathroom, and driving straight to Walmart or sam’s club for another 6 hours of moving heavy pallets and stocking products on shelves. I was lucky to catch 5 hours of sleep before waking up and starting it all over again the next day. But it was worth it- it was me proving to my mentor that I was dedicated. That I wanted this. In return, you would occasionally invite me into the room to watch you pierce. When I asked questions after you told me to write them down, you’d get to them later. Every time I asked about working on some hands-on practice- working with captives or bending nostril screws, you reminded me I had other tasks. There was sweeping to be done. Bathrooms to clean. I was doing your back taxes for the last 4 years, I needed to pick up your dry-cleaning and get your dog from the vet. But that was all fine, it was all worth it for those dayas you would come in and let me mark a nostril for you or insert jewelry on a friend's helix.
I wanted this so badly that I didn’t mind the long hours, the lack of pay. I watched my 19th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd birthdays pass without any celebration, always working. I spent those years without many friends, I didn’t go out to bars and drink or enjoy being a young adult. I didn’t need to- I had piercing, I had this amazing industry that I had fallen head over heels for. And I had my mentor, the person whose job it was to teach me and guide me. I trusted every word and piece of advice you gave. When you said it was a waste to go to a concert, I was better off working, I knew you just had the best interests of my career at heart. When you told me not to talk to any other piercers because they were all mean and full of drama, I thought you were just looking out. When you screamed at me for putting the wrong jewelry in the autoclave by mistake, I knew that you just wanted me to be the best piercer I could be. When you kept me up till 3am on the phone, threatening to fire me if I hung up, ranting about my horrible work ethic and failures as a piercer, I figured you were just really passionate about making sure I did my job right. And when you slammed me against a wall and threatened me over work, I knew you were just motivating me to work harder. Despite all of these things, I still looked at you with admiration. I still would watch you pull off a complicated piercing with skill and be in awe of your knowledge, and the technical application of your craft. When you would allow me to pierce and offer me guidance, I felt impossibly hopeful and excited about the future. When you told me I did a good job on a piercing, I was on cloud nine. It made all the long days, the nights wondering where I would afford my next meal from, and all the moments cowering in the corner as you screamed at me and called me worthless and ungrateful worth it. I would be better next time. I would make fewer mistakes.
Despite all of this, I never stopped dreaming of the life I wanted in this industry. I imagined a time when I left the nest, went out into the world, and pierced as my own, skilled, independent piercer. I imagined you seeing a post about my guest spots and commenting telling me you were excited for me. I wanted to send you pictures of cool piercings I did and have you give me feedback, continue to help me grow and tell me you were proud of me. I imagined a life where even long after my apprenticeship, I could continue to be an honor to your name, to carry the torch of this craft we both love and share in a bond unique to this industry and industries like ours of a mentor and student.
Like many others, that wasn’t what happened. I realized eventually that you never truly had my best interests at heart. That I was just a source of free labor, a way to help your business make more money. The reason why you barely spent time teaching me and mostly had me doing social media posts and inventorying jewelry wasn’t because I was “paying my dues”, I was paying your bills. You took years teaching me not because a proper apprenticeship is slow and thorough, but to get as much free work from me as possible. I redesigned all your business cards and aftercare, built you an online store, grew your social media following, I painted walls and poured floors, mounted televisions and ran plumbing lines. A mountain of work that never taught me piercing, and never helped me get further in this career. Cleaning up after your dog, picking up your child from school, and driving you home drunk from the bar are not the responsibilities of an apprentice. You cautioned me not to talk to other piercers not because they were full of drama and mean, but because they would tell me I was being taken advantage of and treated poorly. Other piercers ended up being some of the kindest, most supportive peers I could have asked for, once I worked up the nerve to reach out. There is never any reason to scream at, throw things at, or threaten an employee or an apprentice. Being treated like this isn’t “paying your dues” it’s abuse, plain and simple.
Unfortunately, many of the dreams I had held for this industry were not things that came true. I’m approaching my 12 year anniversary and I have no contact with any of my previous mentors. I can’t ask them for feedback when I have a question. I can’t find out if they are proud of how far I’ve come. And there will always be a part of me that deeply, deeply mourns the fact that I will never have that relationship with them.
But what I do have is so much better. I have a network of peers and colleagues whom I can lean on for support. I have piercers all over the country I can ask for feedback, critique, or brainstorming. I have managed to gain all the education I was never given while I was apprenticing on my own, through shadowing, attending conferences, taking classes, and growing on my own. I have achieved my dreams of guesting and traveling, of working with great jewelry. And I will never work somewhere where I am treated poorly, where I come home crying after work more days than I don’t. I will never wonder how I will afford my next meal again. I will never find myself falling asleep behind the counter after working over 40 days straight.
And one day I will take an apprentice of my own. I will pay them for the labor they provide and the money they make for the studio. I will teach them at a fair rate, and focus on their education as much as I focus on how much they clean or how many posts they make on Instagram. I will make sure that whether it’s tomorrow or next week or 5 years from now that I am someone they can always come to, always see as a resource, a friend, and someone to lend an ear. I will be the mentor I never had, and make sure that the next generation of apprentices has better experiences than my generation did.