Bad Piercer Gone Good: A Step by Step Approach to Improving as a Piercer
Todays blog post is for piercers, and apprentices. Specifically those who have realized that they are perhaps not in the best situation. This is a place I’ve been in myself, and it can be a very hard place to find oneself. Doing something like piercing that you love and are excited and motivated about. This is your dream job! And in that excitement you are hungry for more education and knowledge and so you seek to learn and grow. But sadly what you learn is that everything you do, from how you pierce to the jewelry you use….is wrong. You are doing unsafe and possibly dangerous work. Often, you are bad at your job. What then? How do we navigate becoming the piercer of our dreams? It is one thing to need a little improvement on one piercing or some small technical tweaks. It's another entirely to realize everything you have been doing is wrong. It feels like standing at the base of the worlds tallest mountain- insurmountable, impossible, and overwhelming. Let’s talk about it, and break down how you can go about improving.
There’s No Replacing a Quality Apprenticeship
I am not known for mincing words, and I will not do so here. There is no replacement for a proper apprenticeship and proper training. Full Stop. If you realize that you have been trained incorrectly and your skills are lacking, the only true, safe, correct way to remedy that is to get a new apprenticeship and be trained correctly. Online seminars, conference, podcasts and blogs do not and can not replace hands on training and education. I have this blog here that goes into this concept in depth, but if you choose to stay on as a full time piercer or apprentice in a bad studio or learning bad methods you are going to hurt clients. At best you may need to take a junior piercer role at a quality studio and be brought up to speed by your coworkers. At worst, you may need a full apprenticeship.
I say this as someone who did start off as a bad piercer (you can actually watch me talk about my story here) and when I realized I quit my studio, and ended up working through 2 different apprenticeships. Because I was not willing to take my learning curve out on clients and potentially hurt them. And truthfully it was one of the best choices I have ever made for my career, and I would not be the piercer I am today if I had not done that.
That being said many people can’t or won’t reapprentice. Pride is a big factor, people are not willing to sacrifice being in this industry, or admitting they need to be fully retrained. Some people financially can’t afford it. Some are trapped by family obligations. Whatever the reason, this may not be a path you take. So let’s look at the alternatives.
Quality Jewelry- The Popular Starting Point
Quality jewelry is undoubtedly the common starting point for piercers who realize they aren’t working to the best levels. And with reason- there is a lot of very accessible information about what makes quality jewelry (You can read some blogs from me about what makes quality jewelry, why threading matters, and the association of professional piercers has a great guide too.) Jewelry is a huge factor in piercings healing well and safely. It’s also a very tangible thing you can change and improve, and its very rewarding to watch your stock switch from poorly made, cheap pieces to gorgeous high end pieces.
I won’t speak at length here exactly why quality matters, as I do in all the blogs linked above. But in short, most low quality jewelry contains nickel which clients can often be allergic to. A poor surface finish can make it impossible for piercing to heal and harbor bacteria, and poorly made jewelry tends to fall apart easily and just look gross over time. It’s well proven thanks to medical studies on implantable materials in the body just how important the quality, material, and surface finish of what we use in piercings is. It’s absolutely a huge factor in doing correct, safe piercings.
That said, I see two very common mistakes when piercers realize they aren’t doing things correctly and begin to tackle stocking better jewelry. The first, is focusing on the pretty stuff. After all, aside from all the safety and health benefits of quality jewelry, it also just looks really pretty. Gold and diamonds are beautiful, and they are also more expensive, and tend to do better on social media. It’s very easy as a young or inexperienced piercer to get caught up in the instagram world of popular piercers and beautiful pieces. So many piercers fixate on these gorgeous brands, they want to carry and sell the gold! The pretty, fun stuff! Often times the first quality jewelry they purchase is gold ends. But- this isn’t about being a piercer who does cool stuff on the internet. This is about being an actually good piercer. And that means the most important part of the jewelry we use and carry isn’t the pretty gold piece on the front. It’s the jewelry that’s actually inside the clients body. That is what effects healing and health for the client. And that should be your first priority when you are looking at swapping to quality jewelry.
Gold is great, its pretty, and its popular online. But it means nothing if you are using the same low quality poorly made posts to install it on, and your clients will experience the same issues with healing they did before, just with a more expensive piece. Neometal produces an amazing introduction kit that gets you a good amount of quality basics, along with some pretty fronts. Peoples Jewelry has affordable, fast to ship basics. And Anatometal, Industrial Strength, and Leroi all also offer some of the top quality basics on the market. If you are dead set on starting with some gold, Juniper offers affordable titanium threadless posts along with their gold ends.
But if the first thing you do when you learn you are lacking is purchase expensive, pretty, but largely needless jewelry and charge your clients a premium for gold only to install it on the cheapest, worst quality posts out there, you are still a bad piercer. In fact, you are honestly a worse piercer, misleading clients into believing they are getting a totally quality piece while only prioritizing profit and looking pretty online. Basics should be the first priority, and then once you have a good selection of basics, you can work on the pretty fun stuff.
The other common mistake I see is jewelry quality being the end all be all focus of becoming a good piercer. I can not tell you how many times I have seen someone post in a group who is using low quality jewelry, but also improper sterilization, skin prep, does crooked or poorly placed piercings, does piercings known to be unsafe, and often doesn’t correctly understand anatomy. And a few months later they will post celebrating their stock being swapped over to quality! Which is a huge accomplishment! But they are still doing crooked poorly placed piercings, they still haven’t learned about proper anatomy, and still aren’t cleaning things correctly.
A piercer can do good piercings with bad jewelry, but if you are doing bad piercings, it doesn’t matter what jewelry you install in them. They still won’t heal, they’ll still have issues, and ultimately a client paid a premium for the same poor work. This leads us to our next subject…
Working Well Means Working Clean
A very important and very overlooked step to being a truly fantastic piercer is working cleanly and safely. This can be split into two major categories- working well in the piercing room and with clients, and working well in the studio, when it comes to reprocessing and tools. There’s thousands of threads with discussion of quality jewelry since jewelry is pretty and fun and exciting. Surface disinfectants and skin prep is often much less exciting, and often less talked about.
A great resource for this is the working clean within your studio series offered via the Association of Professional Piercers. Originally an in person course at conference, in recent years it is also occasionally offered online, and is an absolute wealth of knowledge about working cleanly. Likewise, they offer an industry specific bloodbourne pathogens class which also has a ton of amazing information about these subjects. I also suggest reading over the APP procedural manual, which will go in-depth about important subjects like breaking the chain of infection, proper tool reprocessing, glove materials and glove donning, and proper skin prep. The procedural manual also cites great medical studies and research papers which can further be a resource in this area.
That being said, this is a mountain of knowledge to digest and some if it is quite advanced. If you were never taught anything about any of this, suddenly having to learn about particulate evaporation and osmosis is overwhelming. A great way to make this more palatable would be to reach out to a local piercer who is already operating at this level about shadowing. When many piercers consider shadowing their minds jump right to learning different techniques and placement. But some of the most valuable information you can learn shadowing is actually more like sterilization concepts, proper skin prep technique, and how to maintain a sterile field. And many piercers are more comfortable explaining basics like than they are their piercing techniques and methods to pierce.
Beyond that, being willing to admit a lack of knowledge about sterilization and safety basics is a very humble admission. This is an area where many piercers struggle- after all no one wants to admit “I’m a dirty piercer.” But the sad fact is, many are. If you already aren’t using quality jewelry or methods I can almost guarantee you likely aren’t washing your hands, cleaning skin, or sterilizing tools correctly. And as important as quality jewelry is, it means very little if you are being unclean or unsafe when you install it. I would argue that working cleaner and safer is really the place folks should start, more so than with jewelry.
Good Piercer, Good Piercings
This all leads into the next big point- being a good piercer means doing good piercings! That means technically sound, well placed piercings in appropriate anatomy. And for many piercers who realize how behind they are, this is also one of the hardest skills to improve upon. And that’s because like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there’s no replacement for hands on learning and education. A doctor doesn’t read a forum or listen to a podcast about doing heart surgery and do it. They learn through years of assisting, watching, and studying under experienced surgeons. And piercing is much the same. All the online theory and discourse doesn’t change being in person and being hands on. For someone in a bad spot with education, there’s three main areas to work on.
Anatomy is the first, as you need to strong basic anatomical understanding to begin with a correct placement. Most piercings are anatomy dependent, meaning a client must have the correct anatomy to get a piercing done. If you aren’t able to tell if someones anatomy is correct or not, you are already starting off with a bad piercing. Most local colleges offer anatomy courses that are worth taking to get a foundational knowledge. From there, you can supplement with forums, classes online, podcasts, and blogs. But nothing will replace getting to shadow and work in person with an experienced piercer and see and feel the anatomy in question.
Technique is the next area. Technique encompasses the tools we use (or don’t use), how we use them, and how we actually preform the piercing. It’s a piercers technique that provides straight, correct piercings. This is also a place where sure, you can read and learn online. But without a mentor actually in the room with you correcting your issues and guiding your form, you’ll be making a lot of preventable mistakes. And when you make those mistakes, it’s not you that suffers. It’s your client.
While discussing technique I want to take a moment to address a common debate, tools vs freehand. There is a prevalent and toxic “Freehand is better” mentality in the piercing community that leads to piercers, particularly inexperienced piercers, feeling insecure or bad for using tools. And that should never be the case. Tools, like anything else, are great if used correctly. At the end of the day what matters is that a well placed, straight, correct piercing leaves with a client. If you need to use a tool to do that, then use the tool! If freehand is more comfortable for you, then do that! Those needs may change depending on the client or the anatomy, and I might do a freehand philtrum, a clamped philtrum, and a philtrum with a piercing stick all in one day. There is no shame in using tools, and if those get you the best results, use them!
Since technique covers tools, this also includes things like using quality needles (it makes a huge difference), understanding bevel theory, and the ability to source and stock quality tools, supplies, and utilize concepts around these things to use them as best as possible. Technique is more than just pushing a needle, it’s also all the skills surrounding that moment that make a piercing smooth.
Beyond anatomical knowledge and technical skill, the third most important area most inexperienced piercers need work on is bedside manner. A skill I feel deserves it’s own section.
Bedside Manner and Client Comfort
Bedside manner is defined as a doctors approach or attitude to a patient, but it also applies to a piercer and our clients. Our bedside manner is our ability to guide clients through piercings in a safe, comfortable, and respectful way. Often clients may be scared or nervous for a piercing, and it’s our job to comfort them. A piercing can be a powerful, cathartic, and healing moment for many, and the range of emotions that piercing can bring up can be overwhelming for a client. As piercers, something that sets truly great piercers apart is their ability to guide a client through these emotions and experiences.
Bedside manner covers a range of skills. The most practical of them being keeping clients calm through piercing. Being able to explain what is happening, walk the client through the process, and also explain proper aftercare and cleaning for said piercing. A great way to work on this still is to watch videos of experienced piercers piercing and working (Luis and Myself have YouTube channels with great video examples, and Ryan Ouellette features some on his podcast. Colin O has a number on his TikTok!) But obviously shadowing and hands on work is the best to lean this skill.
From there, we have functional bedside manner skills. Do you know what to do if a client faints? Has a seizure? Has a bleeding disorder? Needs a service animal? Needs a wheelchair? Functional bedside manner is our ability to adapt in different situations and also handle emergencies. Brush up on CPR and First Aid skills, and learn about disability accommodations from local and federal requirements as well as disability advocates.
And lastly we have trauma informed bedside manner. Piercing is intrinsically enmeshed in POC, LGBTQIA, disabled, and minority cultures. And as such, a large number of clients seek out piercing in relation to both direct trauma healing and work, and indirect trauma coping. Being able to work in a trauma informed manner and being able to hold space for these experiences is one of the most rewarding aspects of our job. It’s also essential to doing the work to decolonize body piercing at it’s core. Trauma informed work can be learned in courses at conference, reading books and courses about trauma informed work, and shadowing and working with someone experienced in trauma work.
Who Pays the Cost
All of this improvement is not without a cost. And I don’t mean the money needed to get quality jewelry and supplies or the time needed to learn about safe work habits or proper technique. I mean the cost of your learning curve. For anyone who chooses not to get a proper apprenticeship and train correctly is going to have a steep learning curve. You won’t wake up one day doing perfectly straight piercings, knowing everything about anatomy, and with a brand new autoclave. All of these things will take time. And while you are learning and growing, your clients will pay the cost for your growth. And they will pay it with their bodies. Still learning how to assess anatomy for a navel? You are going to do a lot of incorrect and poorly placed navels that are going to cause clients pain and leave them with scarring. Still learning to reprocess tools correctly? You are potentially exposing clients to hepatitis and MRSA.
There is no way to safely become a good piercer without proper training that doesn’t sacrifice your clients bodies and health. We would never justify a doctor or nurse experimenting and learning on patients like this. And we shouldn’t justify piercers doing the same.
This is in no way intended to discourage you from working on bettering yourself and your craft. It is simply the honest truth, and a reminder that at the end of the day the most important person in piercing, and often the most wronged, is the client. If reading this makes you uncomfortable, angry, or upset, I would encourage you to sit with those feelings and examine why you feel that way. And remember, clients bodies should come before piercers egos.
Becoming a truly amazing piercer starts with a truly amazing foundation. It’s not about how many followers you have online, how cool your portfolio is, or how many unique piercings you do. At the end of the day being an amazing piercer is about doing safe, clean, simple piercings that turn out correct, and have clients leaving feeling happy, satisfied, and respected. Nothing matters more than your clients, their experiences, and their piercings. It’s very easy in this industry to get caught up in a focus on other piercers and compare ourselves to our peers. But they aren’t who matters- our clients are. And everything we do should be to become the best and safest piercer for our clients.