Many folks are aware of the path to becoming a piercer- getting an apprenticeship, learning from a mentor, and then working on your own as a piercer! It’s a tale as old as time. But, what about when already existing piercers want to learn or refine new skills or techniques? Learn new piercings? You would’t exactly get an apprenticeship all over again. So how do we continue expanding and learning?
Shadowing! Shadowing is the process of either going to another piercers studio or having another piercer out to your studio and watching them work. Essentially being that person’s “shadow” for the day! Shadowing is an incredible tool for piercers to learn and expand on their existing knowledge and techniques. But, there’s definitely some etiquette to consider when it comes to shadowing and how to approach it correctly. So let’s get into it!
Asking to Shadow
The first step to shadowing is asking if you can! Many piercers are open to having folks come and shadow them, or allowing shadowing during guest spots. To start, determine if you are able to drive or travel out to this piercers studio, or if this is someone guesting and traveling who you want to learn from. From there I would do a little research, search them in professional forums and browse their social media. See if they made any mention about shadowing and learning- often piercers post regularly that they are open to educating. Even if you don’t see them posting about it, it still totally doesn’t hurt to ask.
I suggest starting off with a brief introduction if you aren’t familiar with this piercer. Let them know who you are, you as a piercer, and what you are hoping to gain from shadowing. Then ask if that’s something they are open to.
The worst thing they can say is no, which honestly isn’t that bad. I will say this, if they do decline shadowing please handle that rejection with politeness. I once had someone message me about sitting in on shadowing I was already doing with another piercer. This was during a bad time for COVID, and many of the piercings we were doing were intimate genital work for trans clients. Between studio COVID policy, and the intimate and often emotionally difficult nature of the work, I didn’t want any other extras in the piercing room. One other extra person was already a lot for me, and I feared two would take too much away from my clients experience as well as put us all at a higher covid risk. I explained all this….and the piercer ghosted me. No response. It totally puts me off shadowing to feel like others feel I’m only worth the labor I would provide for them, for free. It’s worth remembering that as exciting as shadowing is, you are not entitled to it. You are not owed it. Other piercers are allowed to be too busy, not feel comfortable, already have folks coming, or not even give an explanation at all. If you receive a rejection, please try not to take it personally and handle that rejection with grace.
But, quite often, you’ll get a yes! Last time I was working in a singular studio there were a few months where I had folks shadowing nearly every other week. I love getting to work with and show other piercers how I work and how we do things at my studios. And that brings us to the second step!
Once you’ve gotten a yes, it’s time to plan for your trip. Obviously, figure out what dates and times work for you and this piercer. And double check the exact studio location and hours. Don’t hesitate to ask things like when you should arrive (I personally like to meet with folks about an hour before open to review the studio and discuss expectations for the day!), where you should park. Etc. Some other things to consider with shadowing are:
-studio dress code. You aren’t working but you are there in a professional capacity. Every studio can be different with their dress requirements.
-lunch and food plans. Is there a scheduled break? Should you bring your own food? Is there food in the area? Make sure you’ve planned that time so you can eat!
-are there specific piercings you want to work on? Often piercers reach out to me because they have a particular client interested in a piercing the don’t offer. They arrange for the client to come see me that day and we get to work on that piercing together and they get to learn!
Once you’ve got your plans set, then you can look forward to the actual day of shadowing!
The best advice I can give comes to the actual day of shadowing! And, worth noting, this is my personal advice based on my preferences when shadowing/having someone shadow. Other piercers may have different preferences and that’s ok!
For me, the biggest element of shadowing is in the name- being a shadow. That been quietly and discreetly following behind and observing the piercer on. Quietly being the key. I know that in the moment of watching a cool piercing or a fun interaction it’s in our nature as piercers to chime in, ask questions, etc. But when I have someone shadowing for a day I am often still working on usual clients and appointments all day. Its incredibly rare I have a day with a shadow of entirely educational clients who understand we’ll be doing training work all day. And frankly, I think you can often learn even more from watching a piercer flow and work naturally in their own space. And those clients are always my top priority. I want to build connections and trust with them the way I usually do. And someone else asking “Wow, why are you holding your needle like that?” right before I pierce someone totally kills the mood.
I think there’s so much to be learned not just from watching the technique a piercer uses as they pierce but watching how they interact with clients. How they talk with them, how they build rapport, how they explain things. These are skills that are often even harder to learn and teach than technique. And getting to observe someones flow for a whole day is an incredible learning opportunity. I love watching other piercers bedside manner.
I always suggest making mental notes of questions you have during the piercing, or even physical notes on a note pad. That way you can still jot down the things you want to ask or expand on, but you don’t interrupt the flow with the client. Then, when the piercing is over and the client leaves, you can follow up with the piercer and ask all your questions! This allows the shadow to still learn as much as possible, but preserves the clients experience getting pierced as well.
When I have folks come in to shadow I usually like them to come in about an hour early. I can give them a tour of the studio, explain generally how things work and flow. Then we can sit down and chat a bit. I like to get a feel for their current experience level, what they are most interested in learning, and what they feel their strengths and weaknesses are as a piercer. This gives me a good baseline and helps me know where to focus for the day. I might help one piercer learn about sterilization and processing for the majority of the day, and show another tricks for using blanks and other tools in their studios. Being open and honest about your strengths and weaknesses and what you hope to gain from shadowing absolutely helps make sure you get the most out of the experience.
Many piercers decide they want to get pierced when they are shadowing someone. Personally, I like to know if this is the plan ahead of time so I can plan for it. Let’s be real, as piercers we rarely want “easy” piercings. Telling the person you are shadowing at 6pm you wanted to get your high nostrils pierced that day is a hell of a curve ball. Discuss piercings you may be interested in during the planning stage, or ask if the person you are shadowing would be open to piercing you! And of course, be respectful if there doesn’t end up being time for that to happen.
And then this is just a little me thing, but when I get to shadow I like to send a small thank you a week or so later. Sometimes I’ll send actual cards (I’m a sucker for physical mail) sometimes just a nice message or email. I like to show appreciation and gratitude to the other piercer for opening their studio to me and allowing me to sit in with their clients, and sharing what they know. As someone who offers shadowing it’s also rewarding to get feedback about what went well and worked, or what I explained poorly or just didn’t make sense at all. This feedback also helps piercers who offer shadowing learn more teaching skills- and eventually helps them prepare to become mentors.
Shadowing is an incredible tool in any piercers toolbox. I would encourage piercers of every skill level and background to try to shadow with someone else at least once a year. Sharing ideas, seeing how people work, and growing together is how we grow as a community and as an industry. I encourage piercers who have the space and the skills to share to consider opening your doors to let others come and learn. For me, shadowing is one of the things I miss most about being in a full time studio and I can’t wait to shadow and learn from all the amazing folks I’ll meet on my travels.