"Now Offering Needle Piercing"- The Reality of Mall Kiosks Performing Body Piercing
The piercing industry has seen an incredible amount of growth over the last 10 years, and we’ve watched the popularity of piercings skyrocket. Piercings were once something that just punks and rockstars sported- and now you can spot sparkling earrings and nose studs on celebrities, politicians, teachers, and teens. Despite this surge in popularity, your options for going and getting a piercing have traditionally been a bit limited. For many years your choices with piercings were a kiosk or shop at the mall with a piercing gun for your ears or a tattoo studio for everything else. And this worked! The money to be made was of course in ear piercings- not facial and body piercings (only the weirdos wanted those). So these kiosks and stores were content doing all the ear piercings and letting the studios do the rest. However, this increase in popularity has made many of those large chains take notice and consider that it could be lucrative to offer more services.
About 7 years ago we began to hear rumors in the piercing industry that some of these large chains that pierced with guns were considering trying to offer more services than just ears. They wanted to branch out to offer body piercings and facial piercings- they were even trying to get into needle piercing. For most piercers, this was met with concern. These companies had been using guns we knew were unsafe for decades, and in many states, they had lobbied for laxer piercing regulations and downright unsafe conditions. Ear lobe piercings are often legally not considered body piercing so these kiosks can continue to use guns and not follow the requirements for body piercing. They had a history of cutting corners- why would we assume this would be any different?
An Example of one such law in Florida, where lobbyists pushed for piercing guns not to qualify as body piercing so they didn’t need to be licensed, have Bloodbourne pathogens training or have access to a sink.
Well, some of them came out offering needle piercing. And on paper, it all sounded good. They promised high-quality jewelry, and skilled, trained piercers. They assured the industry that they were switching to using safe needles for piercings, getting autoclaves, and producing quality jewelry. They insisted they had listed to all the education we had given them and they were going to do this the right way. The company was in piercing groups trying to hire- offering corporate benefits and structure while being able to do the job of piercing. They promised great salaries and safe environments to work in. I’ll be honest- it sounded like a great setup that could be a solid opportunity for many. Good money, stable structure, safe piercing, and making it accessible to more clients. What could be bad about that?
If it was all exactly how it sounded on paper.
A few weeks ago I got in contact with an anonymous piercer, A, who has been working for the company for a few years. A had started piercing in 2016 with your classic “work unpaid and do everything I tell you” kind of apprenticeship. When covid hit, the world shut down including piercing studios. Many piercers were out of work and struggling to make ends meet. It was a very difficult time, and for this particular piercer, they were left wondering how they would pay their bills, put food on the table, and survive another few weeks. Enter, the company.
“I saw some postings from the company and out of curiosity I applied. Because it was work, and you know when you are young and naive and it sounds too good to be true…it draws you in. They promised they were upping their piercing game by offering actual piercing with hollow needles, and quality jewelry, titanium and 14k gold. Instead of sitting around at a shop all day waiting for customers, you’ll have a steady clientele. You’ll be paid as a regular employee, you get benefits, you don’t have to worry about supply orders. They really emphasized that it pays well and that they wanted to offer safe, quality services.”
When many studios were kept closed due to covid restrictions and health department policies, these kiosks and mall stores had never been licensed as actual body piercing in many states. Meaning they were open and working, even when studios were not. This is a multi-million dollar corporation- even in locations where they couldn’t be open, they could afford to find things for staff to do. And they really needed piercers. So, A applied. “The hiring process was…interesting. They wanted a portfolio from me, and I did a phone interview on general knowledge. Questions like what size goes in this piercing? What would you suggest for aftercare? Then you go on a panel with people who don’t know anything about piercing and have never worked in the industry at all, and interview with them. There are a few interviews and then you are hired. There is no practical interview, they don’t watch you pierce or watch how you work. They did not ask me for any videos of me working, they didn’t ask me to pierce in from of them. They only asked for a portfolio.”
This was A’s first sign of some red flags. In most studios in the world, you must demonstrate your technical skill before you can be hired. It’s very easy to say the right things and say you’ll do good, straight, clean piercings. But it’s another thing entirely to actually do that. In most fields similar to piercing, a working interview is standard. A hairstylist must cut hair to show they can do good haircuts. A chef must cook food and work with the team to determine if they can measure up to the needs of the restaurant. And a piercer usually pierces for a day or two in the studio so their work, cross-contamination, and bedside manner can all be assessed. A more experienced piercer watches them work, gives them feedback on their piercings, and ensures they will take care of clients correctly and safely. “I did not need to demonstrate any technical knowledge. I just needed to talk about how to do things and what sizing I would use. No one had seen me do any piercing, sterilization, setup and breakdown, anything before I was hired.”
But this was mid covid, and A needed the money. They assumed, perhaps, once they were hired someone would come around to watch them work or they would get the opportunity to work with other piercers eventually. And the stability this company offered was too good to pass up. So they took the job. “When I started I was working in a kiosk in the middle of the mall. Not an actual store, just a kiosk. I showed up to work on my first day and I was appalled at the space they were giving me to pierce in. They expected me to work in probably the size of a very small bathroom, and the piercing chair was outside the kiosk. Passerbys could walk up to where we were piercing and working, and touch me, my client, or my setup. I was in the middle of a mall hallway.”
The company had always had locations in the middle of the mall kiosks. As part of their new needle piercing initiative, they opened some storefronts, but many of their kiosks remained. Something left out of their online hiring ads- some piercers would be required to work at these kiosks. Piercing in the center of the mall, surrounded by shoppers and strangers. But it didn’t stop there. A was hired in the early stages of the company hiring piercers, and there was still a lot of setup to do. “I was given no training or refresher on skin prep or anatomy. They had me go in and set up a sink and an autoclave and everything. Some folks hired on have never set up an autoclave or had to use one or use the types they provide. There were piercers there who were asking me how do I use this autoclave? I don’t know how. And they didn’t really provide us with much education or training about this. “
The company had listened to some things safe piercers had been trying to educate about for years. They knew they needed autoclaves to sterilize tools and jewelry. They knew they needed chemicals designed to prep the skin. But they assumed that any piercers they hired would just know how to work with what they provided. Piercers who had been hired after no working interview were then given no additional training. They were simply assigned to a location and instructed to set it up. Setting it up included getting the autoclave running and working, but for many, it went even further.
See, many piercers were assigned to these mall kiosks. And before they ever pierced clients they had to set the kiosk up for piercing. In multiple states, a sink with hot running water is required by law for piercers to have access to, to wash their hands between clients. That’s always been a major issue for these kiosks- no place to wash your hands. Because of this, this company has spent thousands lobbying to not be considered body piercing, and they were very successful at that. They were able to continue piercing ears with guns without washing their hands between clients, even in states that required a sink. But now they were offering needle piercings- which means they were required by law to have that sink. But how do you get a sink to a booth in the middle of a mall?
“They had a utility sink, but we used one sink for hand washing, tool processing, and anything else we needed. I would have to scrub tools in the sink and wipe it down, and then wash my hands in that same sink before doing a client's piercings. It was just a utility sink so it wasn’t plumbed. This means we have a clean water tank and a dirty water tank, and we had to go and empty out the waste water…somewhere in the mall. Sometimes we dumped it in another shop's mop sink. Sometimes just general sinks. We had to take contaminated water that had blood and bodily fluids and do this. The sink was only required to be cleaned bi-weekly, and we were just told to pour bleach down it. We were also not given PPE for processing- only gloves. No arm sleeves or aprons. You are also processing tools in the middle of the mall- sometimes you are scrubbing tools with customers shopping near you or at the kiosk.”
Hand washing in your contaminated sink is one of the most dangerous practices we as piercers can do. When we wash used tools and instruments in a sink it becomes contaminated with blood and bodily fluids. If we also use that sink to wash out hands between clients, we could potentially take bacteria from one client's blood and transfer it to another. This could spread infection and even Blood Bourne diseases like hepatitis and HIV. It’s an incredibly dangerous practice that goes against the minimum association of professional piercers standards and even hand washing standards set forth by the medical community. Dumping this contaminated water randomly around the mall also creates a possibility of infecting workers at other stores. It’s a very dangerous practice, and sadly for A, that’s not where it ended.
They worked in a kiosk, and they had to pierce at a table placed outside of the kiosk. Meaning they were in the middle of the mall at the mercy of anyone who happened by. “When it comes to piercing the environment was very dangerous. You have people walking all around you in the kiosk who can bump you when you are doing a piercing. There’s no wall or barrier between people selling, clients walking up, and where you are doing the piercing. It was very easy to get bumped into.
I have had people come up into the area where I’m piercing and try to watch what I’m doing and get uncomfortably close to my client. I’ve had people come up while I’m actively piercing and touch my client or get way too close to them. People have touched my tray while working. I brought some of this up in the beginning, because I knew it wasn’t right and wasn’t safe, and it fell on people who didn’t care. I was just told “Oh we will work on that” for months and years. I kept telling them about the unsafe situations I found myself in and I always get told “We are working on it.” It’s been 3 years and these same situations are happening. “
As a piercer, it’s terrifying to imagine strangers being able to walk up and interfere with your piercing while you are performing it. But it’s even scarier for the client. To be laying down ready to get pierced and have strangers walking up, touching you, touching your piercer, or touching the jewelry you are about to be pierced with. Not only is it a huge health risk, but it’s also just very scary for the client. No one should have to be in a situation where a stranger could come up and potentially mess up your entire piercing experience. And it wasn’t just the client and piercer who were at risk- they weren’t even properly set up to allow for the piercing supplies to stay clean while working. “Some locations get a mayo stand and some don’t. I wasn’t given a stand so my setup was a tray on top of a display case- a jewelry case. Sometimes customers would walk up and try to look at jewelry under my tray while I was piercing.”
For A, everything was going downhill quickly. They had been promised a safe environment to pierce, continuing education, and a workplace where they were valued. “Our Body Piercers are responsible for creating a positive and innovative piercing experience at our retail stores.” That was the hiring tagline. But when they found themselves having to work under unsafe conditions and provide clients with potentially dangerous services, their concerns were brushed aside. They were also promised to work with quality jewelry, a huge selling point.
“The jewelry was not what I was promised at all. It was titanium and it was gold, but it was very low quality. I was told it would be all high quality but much of the gold was lower 10k gold, and there were many plated or painted pieces. They didn’t tell us what grade the jewelry was, but the polish was very poor. There were some locations using externally threaded jewelry and some using internal. The company made mostly externally threaded pieces and said they were for “healed piercings only” but at many locations, they pierced with those pieces as well.
They don’t stock jewelry in multiple sizes, and we don’t have downsize sizes. We have to use one size fits all jewelry for everyone. It’s all 16g 5/16 titanium posts with small backings. If a client needs 1/4 or shorter…we just don’t have it. For tongue piercings, you are given a 14g 1-inch barbell, which is too long for a lot of people. And we have 5/8 for a downsize but that’s it. If someone needs a different size…we don’t have it. “
After being promised quality…that was the furthest thing from what was provided. You can see in these photos a rough, unfinished surface and poor polish on the back. Poor surface finishes like this can create issues for healing piercings. And having limited sizes meant having to treat clients like they have one size fits all bodies- often leading to pieces that were too short embedding and too long migrating. These pieces did not meet any minimum standards for body piercing, and when A tried to bring this to the company they got the same response. “We’re working on it.”
The mention of tongue jewelry gave me pause- was the company offering tongue piercings? Tongue piercings, while very popular, also carry high risk. If not done or placed correctly they can seriously damage people's teeth and gums, including losing your teeth. “We offer tongue piercings and navels at some locations. We aren’t given any jewelry for floating navels or other body types- we are told to just turn those clients away or pierce them anyway with jewelry that’s wrong for their bodies. It’s been 2 years since I’ve asked for jewelry for all bodies, and I just keep being told “we are working on it.”
We’ve never had any technical calls about tongue piercings. We’ve never discussed the anatomy or the risks or anything. Some piercers do offer horizontal tongue piercings. Even though these piercings are more dangerous for clients and can damage their teeth…we have never talked about it. We have aftercare pamphlets for clients but that’s it. There’s no education for the piercers. We are never shown proper anatomy or how to minimize clients chipping their teeth or how to check for veins in a tongue. It’s scary…”
In three years of working there and offering piercings, not one discussion about anatomy or minimizing the risks of one of the most high-risk piercings they offer. And at the end of the day, it isn’t the piercers who suffer most from this lack of education. It’s the clients who trust that someone who knows what they are doing is taking care of their body- and it’s the clients who end up with chipped or damaged teeth. But the company does offer some training work, although it looks very different from education elsewhere in the industry.
“Our only training is our team calls. Basically, a piercer with some training or knowledge gets on a group call with all the piercers and talks about how to do certain things and how to work on piercings. But it’s all on a call, none of it is in person. We don’t get any in-person training on anatomy, or technique, or anything. Some of the questions people would ask on the call were…very basic. It’s an echo chamber of the same information, and a lot of the information was wrong or incomplete. “
In every other area of the piercing and tattoo industry, the standard for education is hands-on and in-person. There is just a limitation to what you can learn online and learn over the phone. We work on people's bodies- and it's so important to work with care and learn the proper techniques on a person. However, in-person learning is much more expensive and logistically difficult, especially for a nationwide company. But not only does this company not offer hands on training…they actively discourage their piercers from seeking it out.
“We are discouraged from getting any education or training outside of the company. The company is very anti-APP, there are actually printouts for piercers that says not to interact with anything APP. If anyone asks about it just tell them we aren’t members. But it blatantly said not to interact with any APP members or anything from the origination. We are discouraged from getting continuing education through the APP, even taking their classes online. They don’t want us to attend conference either. It’s basically a free for all of different skill levels, with one person appointed by corporate as the “head piercer” who leads the calls. We also don’t get clear disclosure on credentials, qualifiers, or past positions held by these head piercers. They just want an echo chamber of piercers in the company who don’t push for better standards or safety for us or our clients. “
Piercers are actively discouraged from interacting with health and safety organizations in the industry. Organizations whose minimum standards as we showed above this company knows they are not meeting. They say the APP is “a bunch of bullies” and tell their piercers not to bother with them. But it seems to me they know that they don’t meet minimum standards and they know piercers who are members will call them out on these unsafe and dangerous practices. So they encourage their piercers not to even interact with it. Not to learn what else is out there, and what else they could be doing.
“I describe working here as an abusive relationship. I was totally gaslit about what this job would be like and what I would be doing. I had to ghost my peers and the community I had as a piercer, I ceased contact with everyone because I was ashamed of where I was and what we were doing, but we are also discouraged from talking to anyone outside of the company.
I’ve seen the turnover rate of piercers at this company and it's ridiculous. Many people work here and quickly realize how bad this is and go on to try to work somewhere that’s safer. Somewhere that takes care of their clients properly. It’s hard to work here- I have to put my ethics and morals aside all the time. A lot of us who work here aren’t happy- we want to do safe good piercing and we were promised this would be a way to do that and work with quality jewelry. And we aren’t…and we are hurting clients.”
This company has lied to dozens of piercers about what working here would be like, what opportunities they would be given, and the quality of the work they would be given. They lured piercers in with the promise of stability and money- as long as you are willing to set your ethics aside and work in unsafe environments and potentially do unsafe work on clients. But with so many piercers realizing that this isn’t ok and leaving, the company had to turn to new tactics to keep up staffing. Apprentices.
“This company also trains people and encourages us to take apprentices. We are required to do this in 6 months, under a year. There are limited requirements to be a mentor, you just have to verbally explain how you do piercings and have a good portfolio. There are no in-person tests or determination- they let people with any level of skill train apprentices as long saw their portfolio looks ok. No one in this company has ever watched me pierce or met me in person- they have no idea if I am doing clean safe work or not. They just trust what I say on the phone. They don’t offer us any training on how to be a mentor or teach someone- we just get a checklist of things we need to teach our apprentice before 6 months. It’s one sheet of paper and you just check it off when you are done teaching someone, and they accept that they learned. There aren’t really any tests or any training. Some of the apprentices they sign off on as full piercers are not remotely fully trained…I have seen some of the work they do and it’s not good. They require many folks to sign contracts, apprentices, and new piercers, saying if they leave they will owe 3 grand. Many apprentices end up trapped- they have to stay and work."
As piercer turnover remains high, the company has begone to train in-house. For many, they believe this is at least a way to get this foot in the door of the piercing industry. But we have untrained piercers, who have never been observed in person or checked for skill level, training new piercers. And who ends up suffering the most in this situation? Clients. Clients who believe they will be getting a piercing from a qualified, fully trained, and educated piercer. Clients who trust their bodies to these people. Who then often end up with incorrectly done piercings, jewelry that isn’t the right size or style for their body, and even permanent scarring and issues. It’s the clients who suffer most in situations like this.
“You are paid a livable wage and that is huge. I am one of their highest-paid piercers working in a store, I currently make 80,000 a year. That’s what draws so many people in, it’s a lot more than many of us have ever made at the studios they are used to. My store manager was amazing, and that was great. But the people in charge of the piercing initiative? They make people feel heard but they won’t do anything. They say they are addressing your concerns but then they’ll say it's the first time they’ve heard of it when it’s been happening for ages. We had piercers who weren’t getting matacide or Sani cloths, who didn’t have anything to clean between clients, and they were ignored for months. You are going up this corporate ladder of communication and if it’s not going to make them money right away it doesn’t matter. You are very small to them. It’s all about the money, not clients getting good piercings. Not even clients getting clean piercings. They only care about the money. “
(Authors note: many high-quality studios hiring currently offer 70-80k a year as their salary.)
Sadly, after 5 years of offering needle piercings, it seems this company is doing exactly what many piercers predicted they would do from the start. Cut corners, offer below the bare minimum, and focus on the profits they make over the people they work on. Their advertising is good, it makes piercers think they will truly be getting a great opportunity and it makes clients feel they will genuinely be getting safe piercings. But it’s just that- advertising. Pull back the curtain even a little bit and the situation is a scary and unsafe one that no one deserves. What makes it worse is knowing that piercers who are working there recognize how unsafe this is and have repeatedly brought these concerns to management- only to have nothing be done. Corporations have proven time and time again that they care about profits over people- and we shouldn’t be surprised anymore by that.
“Something I really wanna say to someone who reads this is that if they are interested in going into piercing and they see these companies as a way in there are so many studios and places that are willing to teach you. You don’t need to go down this route if piercing is something that makes you happy and brings you joy and that you have respect and reverence for, this is not the avenue to take. For piercers, I know it's a paycheck and it's tempting but…it’s not worth it.”
A has fortunately been able to leave the company recently and get back into offering safe quality piercings in a studio environment. They are reconnecting with the community, their clients, and their love of piercings. Our hope in writing this piece together is to make other piercers and clients aware of what’s really happening at these large corporate piercing jobs. To hopefully allow other piercers to see through the cheery advertising and tempting numbers and realize that their client's bodies need to come first. And to remind clients why doing their research and being careful who they trust with their body is so important.