Better Safe than Ari: Sean Philips

Tell your MOM I said ‘Hey’- A backyard BBQ with Sean Philips.

Sean Philips is a bad motherfucker with a voice that sounds like an angel orgasming at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. For the last two decades he’s been helping shape the industry we have today – there’s hardly a major event or forum he hasn’t participated in. If you’ve ever asked a piercing question online, there’s a good chance he was on the other side answering it. From humble beginnings inside a piercing pagoda to running his own studio with his wife, Sean has seen and done it all. We got up early in the morning to talk about the pre-BME days, history, and why getting your heroes drunk will make your dreams come true.

Ari – Sean, go ahead and give us an introduction.

Sean – My name is Sean Philips and I’ve been piercing 20 years. I started in 1996, so my career will be of legal drinking age in October. I am currently in Round Rock, Texas, right outside Austin where I own and pierce out of Golden Goat Tattoo Company.

Ari – Where did you start piercing?

Sean – I started in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ari – Where you always interested in piercing, or was this something you fell into?

Sean – At 16 I had my high school girlfriend pierce my nipples – it was just a cool punk rock thing to do. My parents wouldn’t have approved of anything of that nature. In the late 90s in South Carolina nipple piercings were a huge fucking deal. After that I got my first piercing job at a Piercing Pagoda in the mall, piercing people with a piercing gun. It was around that same time I was going to punk shows and seeing actual body piercings that were cool and they started interesting me; there was a Harley Davidson custom bike shop that sold back issues of tattoo magazines, and I bought a bunch of them. One of them was In The Flesh, the body piercing only magazine, it was, I believe, the second issue, that had Jon Cobb on the cover of it. I read an interview with him while sitting in the Piercing Pagoda booth at the mall that changed my fucking life; I locked the booth up, closed the shop in the middle of the day, quit, and never went back. That was before I had gotten on the internet or found BME or anything.

Ari – When you look at the Cobb and Brazda aspect, where I think of more ritual or rite of passage, as opposed to the more sexual based roots in Florida or Gauntlet, what was more influential to you when you were coming up?

Sean – Good question, I felt like all of them applied. Haworth described it something to the extent of, “You’re motivated by sexual, ritual, or shock”, and at the time all three described me. I wanted to be the edgy punk kid, thats what most of the clients were, as opposed to now where I pierce soccer moms trying to look like other soccer moms. The sexual thing really appealed to me, my first professional piercing was a Prince Albert. The ritual aspect appealed to me too because it was the single biggest thing in modern society, rituals and rites of passage, so thats what got me into suspension and whatnot. I don’t particularly enjoy the pain of piercings or tattoos, but when you do it in a more ritualized aspect like suspension or ball dance or body play or anything of that nature it’s a different mindset, and that appeals to me. I don’t think I can pick between the three – it’s a little bit of everything

Ari – Was BME the segue into meeting everyone and getting linked into Modcon and the BMEfests?

Sean – Actually it was before that, it was rec.arts.bodyart, the newsgroup. I joined in South Carolina at the same time I was doing a shitty apprenticeship and just started to get my toes in the water piercing. Luis Garcia, CM Hurt, Keith Alexander, Lizard Man, Josh Burdette, there was a bunch of big iconic people in that group, I’m sure theres a ton I’m forgetting, and a ton of young piercing dorks. That was before BME was interactive – at the time, BME was something you went to look at, not something you went to participate in.

Ari – Was the SPC something you’d also been looking at?

Sean – I found the Shawn Porter Collection when it hit BME extreme, I don’t know that I had discovered it on my own before. I had met Shawn at the Richmond Tattoo Convention probably around 2000, he was walking around taking pictures and he came up and started talking to me. We hit it off really well, I ended up spending pretty much every weekend with him for the next two years. He’s how I went to Modcon and all that, I did my meatotomy in his living room and my head split in his kitchen.

Sean visiting the ModCon1 space with Shawn Porter, 2001

Ari – You met Shawn in 2000. Was Mind Over Matter started around the same time? 2001?

Sean – I believe thats when it’s pinpointed at, M.O.M. started after that first Modcon. I went up to a BME BBQ in Shannon’s back yard, where I did my first suspension wearing a diaper after getting a bad transcrotal at Modcon. The suspension was awful but it became something that seemed doable – before online it seemed like a high level expert thing beyond my skill set. Seeing it in person I realized there wasn’t that much to it, so I started doing hook pulls and things of that nature. I was talking to Shannon and he gave me a good chunk of money to buy my first set up, ropes and pulleys and stuff to get started down there, which was awesome. Bruce Wilmot, who just passed a few days ago, he was my right hand man, my partner in crime with M.O.M., with both time and putting up that giant wooden suspension playground we had in the backyard. We kicked it pretty hard for about two years.

Ari – Wasn’t Philip Barbosa initially involved with that project?

Sean – He was a good friend whom I met at the first Modcon trip. He was a photographer and kind of Shannon’s general assistant. We hit it off and he was very helpful and open with information. Him, Badur, Emrys, and Allen too. I was lucky, everyone was very generous with information and wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to do it knew how to do it safely, even though our definition of safety back then is way different then it is now.

Ari – Is M.O.M. still active?

Sean – M.O.M. is not active, I had broken up with the girl who we had the house where everything was at and we didn’t have access to a big yard or good location for suspension after. It kind of fizzled, and then when Bruce got sick and I moved, I just kinda started doing stuff on my own. Currently I’m in the process of starting a team called Lightbody Suspension in Austin. I have a trapeze rig in my backyard, which is a much safer and more efficient set up. It fits in my Kia hatchback when broken down and is 13 feet tall, a when erect. I’m sure we spent just as much money on the old wooden set up except we couldn’t take it with us and it wouldn’t last forever.

Ari – You bring up the flow of information, which I think was critical then in the progression of bringing piercing as a field into an entire new entity. People seemed to unanimously agree on how open things were, the community being really united.

Sean – Every two or three years we were rethinking everything in terms of technique and aftercare and tools. Now its slowing down pace-wise. Obviously BME was huge for that, but it was a way smaller percentage of people back then; by the time IAM came around we had the learning forum, which was probably the single biggest information share situation thats ever been as far as piercing goes. It’s still sort of going on in Facebook but it’s not the same.

Ari – You used to work for the Question of the Day forum on BME, right?

Sean – I’ve been on BME’s Question of the Day, Ask BME, and currently on Ask A Professional Piercer, so pretty much doing things of that nature nonstop since 1999. I just had a girl I spoke to yesterday in her last 20s, and she was thrilled to be talking to me because I’d answered a question for her when she was 13 on Ask BME.

Ari – Now that technology has made it so easy to talk to everyone, with so many pivotal people still alive, if not still in the industry, are people still reaching out to you?

Sean – More so now probably, it blows my mind. AJ at Shannon’s funeral came up to me and told me how helpful I’d been, and I don’t even remember any of that shit, but it’s awesome to be remembered for that. I’ve never been super groundbreaking or extreme or anything on that end, I just want to do solid piercing and do my best to help others who are wanting to learn, and pay my respects to where we came from. The history of it, that’s really dying, so many people now who are obsessed with piercing but don’t even know who Tom Brazda is.

Ari – Do you have some favorite piercers? People that came up around the same time as you?

Sean – Luis Garcia, when I was coming up he was like a hero to me, he was the first piercer I actually sought out to get pierced by specifically. When I met him he was nice and treated me like a friend, and we’ve continued to be friends ever since, so he’s definitely up there. Anybody that stuck around and still communicates and still stays active that I remember from the late 90s early 2000s. It’s not easy to make it past 10 years let alone this long. Tom Brazda was probably my biggest active influence, he reached out and brought so much information to me, a veritable encyclopedia of information.

Ari – Do you have a favorite history book about piercing?

Sean – That’s hard man, I’ll probably go with a generic answer and say Modern Primitives, which was the first book I had access to, or Jim Ward’s book Running the Gauntlet, which is the most concise history book out there. One of the first things I do with any potential apprentice is give them Running the Gauntlet, and if they haven’t finished reading it in a reasonable amount of time I say fuck it and move on.

Ari – Are you currently apprenticing anyone?

Sean – Yes, I am in the beginning phases with a girl named Nicole Rodriguez

Ari – You’ve done a fairly prevalent amount of apprenticing, haven’t you?

Sean – I’ve had three successful apprentices. Ryan Terrillion, who owns Affinity Tattoo in Austin, Texas, Jen Kristoff, who owns Brilliance Body Piercing in Vienna, Virginia, and Tobias Vallone, who has settled into Pure Body Arts inside Sacred Tattoo in New York City, so it turned out pretty well for everyone who stuck with it.

Ari – THat’s a pretty impressive line up right there

Sean – That’s what I shoot for, to leave my legacy quietly and let them shine.

Ari – Did the people who didn’t work out, were they cut off early on? Is it easy to tell when you’re going to move forward with someone or if it just isn’t working out?

Sean – Usually around the 6-9 month range, when people realize there’s a lot of work to it, and piercing isn’t necessarily a get rich quick deal. I tell them constantly you have to treat me like a boss, even if we are friends, if you aren’t going to make it to work on time or if you’re going to be 15 minutes late you’ve got to let me know. If not, after a few of those you’re going to get fired. A lot of people have a real casual attitude towards what they think piercing shops are, but it just doesn’t work like that anymore. We’ve got competition everywhere, if we aren’t open on time, or nice to our customers, or dress well and smell good, we end up broke and have to get real jobs, and nobody wants to do that shit.

Ari – Any favorite ridiculous memories from the BMEfests?

Sean – I learned from valuable lessons. Don’t try to go shot for shot with a person sponsored by Jaggermiester. I drank way too much with the Lizardman and nearly killed myself that day. We did the Pain Olympics another year, there was footage going around composed of BME extreme content but that was never actually a competition, that was a competition. The Pain Olympics was where we did play piercings or things of that nature to people up on stage, to see whoever tapped out first and then move onto the next round. It was a wonderfully horrible idea, I think it was either Shannon or Martini’s idea, or likely their drunken minds together over a round at the pub.

Ari – Now I may be mistaken, but weren’t you were a car salesman at some point?

Sean – My dad was a used car salesman, and that was my backup plan when I was younger career-wise. I got my high school diploma planning for when I needed to get a real job, but I never needed it. When I first started I was thinking theres no way this is going to be a career. When my friends were going off to college I was like well I’m going to start piercing, this’ll be a cool thing to do for four or five years, and then I’ll fall back into my destiny of being a used car salesman. I kept all my tattoos under the short sleeve line for the first five years, I kept my piercings at a smaller gauges so they could be taken out, always keeping a back up plan in place.

Ari – That shatters my next question since I was going to ask if selling cars translated well into selling jewelry.

Sean – Well interestingly enough when I first moved to Austin I needed a job while I looked for a location. I didn’t want to work in a good shop and compete, but I didn’t want to work in a shitty shop and do shitty work, so I got a job selling Harleys. I worked a mile and half from where my shop is now at the dealership. I mean retail is retail, being able to mold your personality to meet the customers personality and energy levels, and being able to appeal to what appeals to them. The big difference is when I started piercing it wasn’t retail. People came to us to get pierced, jewelry was just an afterthought; it wasn’t really a big deal, we didn’t have to have a huge selection. Now we’re more retail then service. People come to us to buy jewelry or new jewelry and they don’t know what they want, we have to help them find it.

Ari – Piercing currently carries a lot of mob mentality, some of it valid, some of it not so valid. The first I can think back to it is the ownership changing hands from Shannon to Rachel for BME – was this sort of thing happening earlier then that? Is this a newer development or has the piercing community always tended to up rear up in a frenzy?

Sean – The only thing before that that was even close were people ganging up on Todd Bertrang. That was fairly justified though.

Ari – Is there not some irony that so much of his teachings are industry standards today though? Being a pillar in this community and being a shitty person can often be synonymous. Piercing has never been a community composed of virtuous people. Is it funny that we whisper certain names rather then outright acknowledge them because they were shitty people in real life?

Sean – Todd was vulgar, dirty in his procedures, persuasive to clients in ways he shouldn’t have been, but technically he had a lot of good points, and was very active online. He made the impact, but you can’t see him for the good without mentioning the bad because it takes away from people who could be considered victims of his, or hurt by him. But you also can’t talk about the bad without mentioning the good either, it’s all about keeping the balance. I met him at Shannon’s memorial service, he was the only person in the modification world I could have been sort of starstruck by. I don’t think anyone had actually seen him in person or met him, except one girl there who was his slave for a minute. We sat down, we had lunch with him, he told us why boxcutters were the preferred method to cut genitals with while our waiter looked over in shock and awe. It was an amazing experience. I’d say him and Jon Cobb are the two people I was in total awe of during a conversation. Cobb is also elusive. When he was in Philly he’d come around to Shawn’s parties but I was always warned to not talk to him about piercings; it was a trigger subject for him. So we hung out a handful of times, not talking about piercing, and then at a wedding we went out drinking afterwards and enough alcohol got into him to where he just talked for hours. It was fucking amazing – this was the reason I’m in the career I’m in, from this silly article I read about him, and he was just rambling on to me. It was fucking beautiful.

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Ari has been a professional jerk since 1987, a professional piercer since 2003, and currently works at High Priestess Piercing.

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