Co-Authored by Oluremi MB and Lynn Loheide
For the past few decades the body piercing industry has worked tirelessly to set itself apart as a valid industry worthy of respect. For too long, piercing was seen as a taboo or forbidden practice in recent western culture. It was only associated with rockstars and punks in the mainstream media. Despite this, piercing was thriving in marginalized communities and counter-culture. Piercings were an integral part of the LGBTQIA+ and Leather communities. They were simultaneously a blend of sexuality, sensuality, identity, and community. Afterall, who doesn’t remember hearing about the “gay ear”? Piercings in the modern lens were seen as strange and new, but they had always been a part of marginalized communities.
At the same time, the modern primitive movement was finding its roots across the west, and we saw a return and a resurgence of stretched ears and septums, bold black work tattoos, and “tribal” influences. This was happening in the 70’s-90’s, and there was a glamourization and fetishization of “tribal”, non-White peoples. National Geographic magazines went hand in hand with exploitation films, painting the picture of the exotic tattooed and pierced tribes. They were unique and different, and it took very little for Americans and Europeans to begin to emulate what they saw.
As piercing slowly became more mainstream, it evolved alongside the tattoo industry. However, piercing was often looked down upon by tattooing and never treated as a career or its own independent entity. Due to this, the industry as a whole struggled. From piercers being unable to convince shop managers to invest in safe jewelry to pierced clients facing discrimination in the workplace, piercings were being severely undervalued. Interestingly, as the piercing industry struggled, the tattoo industry was being glamourized in movies, music, and pop culture! Piercers and their patrons sought a way to affirm the importance of the practice to both tattooers and mainstream society. From this effort to legitimize the industry came the practice of branding piercing as a luxury service.
Today the industry is awash in gold and genuine gemstones where high end ear curations are all the rage! All over, studios crop up advertising fine jewelry and “luxury” experiences. The same adornment that was once taboo can now be seen on runways and movie screens. It’s brilliant marketing and it’s also helped piercers explain the cost of quality, safe body piercing. After all, piercing is a luxury- no one needs a piercing. If you can’t afford it, just wait!
Luxury- a condition or situation of great comfort, ease, and wealth, something that is expensive and not necessary.
But does this language really reflect the diverse reality of the industry and its patrons?
Well, not really. One of the issues with presenting piercing as a “luxury” is that we fail to acknowledge the origins of the practice. Piercing has a history that is thousands of years old spanning across many cultures around the globe. The Modern Primitive Movement that laid the foundation for the industry achieved this through appropriating the aesthetics from Black and Brown cultures. Despite the rich histories of body modifications amongst white, European cultures, we can’t thank inked Italian sailors or the pierced French aristocracy for the industry we celebrate today- there's no “Modern Monks” movement in body piercing. Rather than examine their own history, the predominantly white industry took from Brown and Black cultures, inscribed those cultures’ sacred marks and designs on their own bodies, and built an industry of profit off of it.
This is painfully clear when we look at the demographics of body piercers, particularly in the United States. Historically, the industry has been predominantly White men. More recently, it becomes more female and queer, but still just as White. Even as we have studios decorated with images of Black and Brown people, even as we “celebrate” their cultures, we exclude their descendants from the very industry their cultures helped create. Many of these descendants still identify with the beauty standards of their ancestors and their needs deserve to be reflected in the modern piercing industry. Without this inclusion, the piercing industry will continue to isolate the very people whose cultures we can thank for our practice. For these patrons piercing isn’t a luxury, it’s an affirmation of who they are.
As many piercers know–and talk about often–piercings can be incredibly empowering and healing for our clients. Many clients seek out piercings to reclaim their bodies after trauma, particularly sexual assault. Clients also utilize piercings for gender affirmation as part of their gender affirming journeys. For those managing mental illness, a new piercing can be motivation to take care of oneself. People with physical disabilities can use piercings to help reclaim choice and agency in the face of adversity. Can all these positive impacts be justifiably dismissed because the practice is a luxury for others?
Well, not really. So why have we as an industry chosen to limit ourselves and what we do to the strict confines of luxury? It’s an easy yet uncomfortable truth- we did it for ourselves. Piercers were determined to create an industry where they could survive and thrive, where they could make a living and become successful. Yes, we needed a way to profit from the hours we spent committed to learning our craft, but how we’ve done it has left many people behind.
This may feel very uncomfortable for many of you at home reading, so I urge you to take a moment to sit with any discomfort and examine where it’s coming from. Sit with the fact that growth is uncomfortable and that we must face and acknowledge where we as an industry have gone wrong so we can improve and fix it.
Modern body piercing in the United States is built on a structure of cultural appropriation. While some elements of the Modern Primitive Movement were done with care and respect, most of it was White men fetishizing African, South American, and Indigenous American people. These White men then went on to create a counter-culture commodifying the aforementioned cultures for a predominantly White audience. As modern piercers, it’s now our responsibility–especially that of White piercers–to begin working toward an industry whose culture continuously includes the needs of all patrons. We can begin this work by examining the language we use to describe what we do.
A 16-year-old cisgender girl getting her ears pierced won’t experience the same impact as a trans woman getting the exact same piercing to reaffirm her identity will experience. When an indigenous person chooses to get facial tattoos that denote their tribe, their lived experiences, and their place in their tribal structure, that is no luxury service. However, piercings are not limited to existing solely in one category or another nor have they ever been! Historically and today, piercings have always served diverse needs and blurred the line between luxury and identity. One culture can have certain piercings reserved as rites of passages while others have the same piercing as simply status symbols. Because piercing can serve many needs, we need to do the same with the language we use to describe our work. In doing so we can establish a difference between identity-affirming piercings and aesthetic piercings.
Identity-affirming- the affective process of developing positive feelings and a strong sense of belonging to one's social group.
Identity-Affirming Services can include cultural, spiritual, and religious piercings as well as piercings that assist with dysphoria, reclaiming one’s body, healing after trauma, rites of passage, bodily function, kink, and piercings that are socially relevant to the LGBTQIA+ community. This language gives us a new ability to honor clients whose reason(s) for seeking out a piercing cannot be defined as a luxury, as well as better encapsulates the scope of what piercers actually do.
However, our work doesn’t end after we change our language. The examination we applied to our language must be applied throughout the industry in order to decolonize it. Questions we can ask ourselves may sound like:
Who lives in the community I serve and what are their needs?
Piercing has an accessibility issue. More studios can offer payment plans, or do sliding scale pricing with prices more accessible to people of color and/or people with lower incomes. Offer a selection of implant grade steel and titanium basics at a reduced rate. Research what Indigenous land your studio is located on and offer free services to members of those communities. Offer to donate some piercing services to local communities and funds that work with BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and disabled individuals in your community.
Does my studio also invite people who don’t look like or have the same abilities as me?
If someone can’t physically enter your studio, or if there aren’t any accommodations for them when they’re there, that’s a message on its own. Invest in ramps, keeping clear pathways, water, and adequate seating. Make sure your website is user-friendly with high-contrast images and text. Make sure you have accessible forms of payment for clients. Many studios are decorated heavily with images of Indigeous people, while no one who works there is of those cultures. If you’re not BIPOC/POC, try researching your own culture’s history of modification and using their images to decorate your studio. Most European cultures have amazing piercing and tattooing history! France, Spain, Italy, Germany, etc. If your studio possesses artifacts from BIPOC/POC cultures in the form of jewelry- return it.
What can I do to support piercers who don’t look like me or have the same abilities as I do?
Listen to them. Don’t just wait for a complaint, seek out feedback often. Make an effort to hire/apprentice more BIPOC/POC. Consider donating to funds like scholarships for POC piercers to attend educational events and get access to further education. Open your doors for BIPOC piercers to come and shadow and learn from you. Spend money with jewelry companies and supply companies owned and made by BIPOC makers.
Piercers are the ones who have pushed the limited narrative of “luxury” services for many years, so it’s up to us piercers to change this narrative and begin to undo the harm our predecessors caused and that which we perpetuate through exclusion. It is beyond time we do the difficult but necessary work of decolonizing our spaces, starting with the language we use.
A heartfelt thank you to Oluremi MB, my co-author and the person who first applied the language Identity-Affirming Services to piercing. Without her influence, education, and effort, this article would not exist. You can stay up-to-date with her work by visiting: https://linktr.ee/oluremimb
Thank you to Kennie and Lia, whose input, feedback, and review also made this piece possible.