BSTA: Bethrah Szumski

Ari – Did you feel like going through a tattoo apprenticeship, and being so enmeshed in the tattoo industry, influenced you as a piercer?

Bethrah – Oh yeah, it influenced the entire piercing community in some really interesting ways that people don’t know. I think they’re really different sensibilities – I think there are some interesting up and down sides of both disciplines. The downside of tattooing is you’re judged exclusively for your capacity to make really beautiful art, or really interesting art, and how well you’re applying it to the skin. But you’re not necessarily critiqued on other aspects of what you do like health and safety and general sanitation; the burden of you as a professional isn’t placed on that. You can do amazing art and just be the most dirty, grimy tattoo artist and people aren’t going to worry about it very much. You won’t get blasted for it in the community. I see that in tattoo shops – I can’t even tell you how many times the owner has been super proud and their shop is really beautiful, but the biohazard is in a closet on the way to the bathroom where from a health and safety perspective it’s like, “Oh this place is horrible! I would never get tattooed here.” – but they’re famous! Granted these are sweeping generalizations, and not always the case. There are plenty of tattoo artists who are amazing who are super clean and conscientious and have well thought out studios in all aspects of what they’re doing. It’s just a pitfall based on what’s considered a value. It’s almost the opposite on the piercing end. People are so heavily critiqued on their method that the aesthetic of what they’re doing is almost completely under-addressed. Does it look straight or does it seem even can be addressed at times but whether or not it’s on the right place in the body falls by the wayside. I had this discussion with a guy from Russia – is it art or is it technique? – and I said it’s both. If you don’t know about art or understand color theory and don’t understand spacial perception and composition, it shows in your work. It’s clear in your work if you don’t have these things.

People who have an untrained eye may not initially notice it but the concept of correct composition is not just necessarily this aesthetic choice. If you have a particular piece of anatomy that’s shaped a certain way and you’ve placed something badly on it that’s not an artistic choice. That’s no choice. That’s just bad training, that’s, “I don’t really know what I’m doing so I don’t know how to space this to make it the most aesthetically pleasing”. There’s no thought put into it. If you’re that sort of artistic and intellectual advance where you’re intentionally creating discord with this project you’re such a minority that you don’t even exist; that’s just not a thing in piercing. Now there’s this sense of if it’s all gold even if It looks like a fucking dumpster fire. I call it the gold dumpster fire, where somebody has just shredded a bunch of catalogues, loaded it into a gun and shotgunned it out all over someone. No sense of aesthetic whatsoever, no continuity. I recently did a class on viewing things with an artist’s eye. It was an initial jewelry class I was asked to do at LBP in Mexico, and I haven’t done that class in like fifteen years. I decided I was just gonna do what I want! I literally made the whole class about anatomical suitability and composition, and what that means. The fundamentals of what it means to review a shape and how do you separate from ego when you’re deciding on jewelry with people. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, or just because someone’s got a fat wallet. Again, to me it’s just bad workmanship. It doesn’t matter how nice the piercings are; clearly this person can afford gold and you’ve just done this person a huge disservice because it looks like garbage. I’m not talking about heal-ability either. When I was trolling Instagram I was mining images and you can consistently tell some people have that brain where they understand spacial perception even if they aren’t aware of it consciously. You can see it in their work, some might even be artistically trained, and it’s typically pretty clear. The images I used were consistently from a few people where it was like oh, another one from this guy, this guy gets it. This person has an inherent understanding, and this person doesn’t. You see their work and this person is clueless, they just work in a nice shop and have access to nice jewelry.

Ari – I thought you were going to go in another direction initially with that, more in context to the amount of insanity that can come with piercing in regards to cleanliness. Or just the misunderstanding of what an actual appropriate level of cleanliness is with piercing.

Bethrah – Part of it is where do the accolades come from? Human beings are inherently reward based creatures. The reward in tattoo is aesthetic so that’s what people cling to as their sense of value. Piercing is technique and product usage, so that’s the purism people cling to at the expense of all else. Alongside how much gold can you sell. Goldslingers, thats the new measuring stick that’s occurring. There are always new things – how many events can I attend? The cool kids are traveling so how many pictures of me in other places can I post? If we’re reward based, people inherently go to these reward systems. People don’t just want to show their great piercing that they did or this challenging anatomy they had to face; it’s this long diatribe about how I used iodine and then alcohol and I did this and this and shit, like who gives a fuck? Again, the police of the status quo are going to ask those questions and be more inclined to worry about that stuff then whether this person could deal with the challenge of anatomy they faced. Not to say health and safety isn’t important, just like in tattooing aesthetic is important – it’s just not everything. It’s not the whole story, but rather it’s how you get there. Where you get to is equally as important.

Ari – Since your beginnings in 1995 have you found arbitrary rules or trends to be prevalent the whole time, or has that been a newer development?

Bethrah – It’s exactly the same but it has evolved. I mean the idea that you have a list of things that make you in the “in-club” and a list of things that make you a “hack.” You have the guardians of the mediocrity there are present in any culture or profession, and those people make sure to punish the people who do things in the hack column and edify or fear anyone who aren’t checking all the right boxes. Those lists change but the behaviors attached and associated with them doesn’t. What I have is the benefit of getting to see a lot of those transitions where now people are shitting themselves over a pair of solid silver weights where previously people were getting laughed off the expo floor if they sold anything with silver that was meant to be in any part of the body for any amount of time. Those people and I chuckle seeing things like that, and yet there’s the new champions, the new things. Back when you were just so passé if you were using iodine. I mean I hate iodine so much, it’s so messy. That’s one of those flip-flop things, there’ve been lots and lots of those. It’s one of my soapboxes. Another one of my soapboxes is, and this issue just doesn’t get better, I did a talk APP thing for conference and I love it because they’re opinion pieces so I get a soapbox for twenty minutes and it’s really enjoyable. I enjoy blowing peoples minds so they’re just slack-jawed for a minute. I did one on how we assess personality traits in others and cognitive dissonance. The way those two things work is we believe certain things about ourselves – one of them tends to be we believe the best about ourselves and rationalize our life choices and behaviors and our choices of people. I started off saying do you think you have good judgement, and of course everyone thinks they have pretty good judgement. If you have good judgement it stands to reason you’ll make pretty good decisions about other people but we consistently don’t. We make ill-informed decisions about people based on the belief that we have good judgement when actually judgement has nothing to do with it. We give people a pass on a lot of their behaviors because we believe about ourselves that we have good judgement so we select only great people to be in our lives. So we miss out on a lot of things and behavior traits because of what they believe about themselves, not the other person, so we see these recent events that are proving that like Richard Ivy. People judge based on internet presence. People equate a prevalent internet presence with importance in the industry and don’t discern any other ideas about anyone. Are they writing blogs about piercing? Are they volunteering at events or teaching? None of that factors in; it’s about their internet presence, and that’s a really weird way to judge who someone is, or if someone is a contributing part of the community.

Paul King and Bethrah.

Ari – Piercing has such a sordid history, the people within it really run the gamut. I brought up in a few early interviews the divide I feel about Todd Bertrang, where this kind of scandalous dude also brought a lot to the table that ended up becoming industry standards.

Bethrah – I knew Bertrang before he was involved with piercing. He was a friend of my ex-husband’s from the valley. My ex-husband took him to the Gauntlet for the first time. He was a trust fund baby who had taken his money and put it into a bike shop, he always had the parts Cap ever needed. Cap was always working on his old bikes at Todd’s place because it was some kind of big warehouse and Todd lived there and worked there. Apparently one day he came in and was having sex with some hooker and it had taken him forever, and Cap asked him what the problem was and Todd said he didn’t know, so Cap took him to the Gauntlet to get a PA and from there Todd became obsessed. Cap, to his dying day, was ashamed he had been the catalyst with Todd becoming involved in the industry. Cap used to go to the Gauntlet in LA when it was only studio besides Silver Anchor. However, this idea of judging on superficial things is also not new. I’ve seen it happen with Board members where someone who has horrible financial integrity are given lines of credit just because they were on the board. Companies would do this and end up getting fucked over because being a board member didn’t endow them with financial integrity. Being a board member doesn’t give you anything special, you’re just somebody doing a service for the organization. If you have flaws those still exist. Being on the board is not the same as a credit check! Everyone is just a person who comes to the table with their set of baggage. I’m constantly amazed. I try not to speak out too much so I don’t become a hypocrite – a lot of what you say can typically also be said about you. One of the things I’ve been thinking about the last couple days is Beware the White Knight. Almost every single one of these dudes that’s on blast right now for being a creeper fondler dick-pic asshole have all at once point, including Richard Ivy, have done these huge attacks on people considered immoral, or done big moral posts trying to proclaim moral authority. This white knight routine of “I’m the good guy!” But as the good guy, the backlash can be more aggressive then the person it’s geared towards!

Ari – We just have to accept that our industry, like any industry, contains shitty people, but with so few regulations there might be more then other fields.

Bethrah – I think our community is a lot smaller then we give it credit for. In the city of Atlanta there’s about six million people. There are more hairdressers in this city then piercers in the world. We’re really little; it’s hard to say whether we’re extra fucked up or we have more of a front row seat because there’s fewer of us. It’s a microcosm. People come from all different places – we’re unified by profession and not geography. People don’t really end up knowing each other’s shit until they’ve been around a long time. When the bulk of your interactions are long distance you rely on things like Facebook and telephones, and you don’t necessarily intersect with peoples lives until you’re in the same town. I know the people here in this town, we’ve all been here a long time, but for someone across the globe they won’t know about their personal integrity or if they’re a creeper or a sheister. People zero in on aspects like “Oh this person is this way”, not realizing that a lot of the people we deal with are that way, we just don’t know it because they’re carefully keeping it. The guys right now are fucking around with piercers, specifically targeting piercers, and thats why we know. If they behave inappropriately out of the community how do we ever know that unless they get charged? It’s a tricky thing, and luckily I have the benefit of time. I remember when we were actually outing nazis, but now I see someone in a flame war because a guy didn’t know his fucking gas cap cover was offensive. Their fucking kid is mixed, they have mixed grandkids, they’re not racist, but those people got flamed for no reason. The validation of why people felt that was ok, they linked it to the product they sell, and for one, silicone treatment for scars has been around for thirty years, it’s not new technology – they’re just tailoring it to our business. People complain no one wants to do anything for our business but take a shit on them when they do. All of that combined turned into “your product sucks and you’re a nazi”, and neither of those were true! They ended up not coming to Vegas because of it because people threatened them.

Ari – Do you think we’d be held more accountable if we were all APP members?

Bethrah– No. People often misunderstand what the APP is, which is a health and safety organization that teaches, that provides education, provides information to specific groups of people. It provides information to the general public, to healthcare providers, to regulators, and to body piercers. That is what the organization does. It is not a policing agency. A policing agency is a policing agency! If someone has bad behavior, customers won’t frequent them and they will lose their business. Unless you’re like the guy who wouldn’t make the wedding cake for the gay couple, then all the other gay hating pieces of shit will go there to get their cakes. That’s a free market economy. If you have enough racists in your community who will cosign your bullshit because you cater to that demand you’ll stay afloat, that’s how it works. In that way, things are self-regulating. The other policing agency is the police. If someone does something illegal they should go to jail. That is their job, not the job of the APP, ever. Also, I want to say this – morality is a rabbit hole. I always go back to this conversation from my first term on the board within the first two years, it was a New Orleans board meeting, and I was president at this point. We were having a conversation about ethical sourcing of jewelry, and the problem with that is somewhere down the line every single thing you do is going to have a potentially morally objectionable earmark – there is no avoiding it. When you try and champion certainly things, more often then not you’ll have unintended negative consequences. Example – child labor. Heaven forbid we have children weave our blankets, so now they’re just all sex workers. See what I’m saying? It’s a fucking rabbit hole man. I’d much rather have a kid weaving a blanket. We only want American made – yeah, but there’s going to be a thing!

Kendra and Bethrah, Camp APP. Photo courtesy of Kendra Jane.

Ari – It’s silly when I take the syntax of the question I asked, which is is there a way to curb extremist behavior, and as I say it I know the answer is no.

Bethrah – Right, it’s a no. Again, it’s a microcosm of the bigger culture. I watched this movie called The Rise of the Troll, this idea of group lynching and public execution, all of those go back to early small villages. The arbiters of what is appropriate social conduct. Once the torches are lit, that’s it. People never come down for the reason they should though – it’s always some other reason. You never know how someones going to get the take down. I have a lot of empathy for it too though, I’ve been at the receiving end of the flames, I get it. That’s why I just do Camp now, fifty people will come and it’s great.

Ari – In all the early Gauntlet piercer interviews, we’ve gotten some great material about actual clitoral piercings, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the disappearance of those in modern culture, why it faded out?

Bethrah – You know not that many of them were ever done. I’ve had mine done twice, even Elayne (Angel) who’s like the reigning queen of genital work, she only does one or two a year, and that’s generous. I don’t think there were ever a whole lot of them done. Part of that is things used to be a lot more experimental then they are now, that’s probably part of it. A lot of people just don’t have the anatomy for it. I don’t know that it was ever very much done, it’s not that there are so little of them being done but so much of everything else being done, just feels disproportionate. More piercers were experimental at that time as well, people were giving everything a try.

Ari – I know Elyane has been a mentor figure for you, but any other favorite female piercers who you feel were particular pivotal?

Bethrah– Karen (Hurt) is awesome. People don’t understand that the modern curved barbell in a navel standard is because of Karen. Back when I started everyone used rings, and then Elayne came up with a way to do it where the ring lays flat so it wouldn’t migrate so much, so then we did side placement navels. Karen was going around promoting this curved barbell concept, she was going around with these little cards that explained it, she would hand them out to any shops she’d visit, she’d pass them out and it was how to measure a navel piercing with a curved barbell. It wasn’t quite what we do now but it’s close, and people don’t even know to credit her for that! She is the reason we do this! She promoted the transition, and it was a total game changer. This would’ve been 97-98ish.

Ari – That’s fucking rad, I’ve never heard anyone mention that.

Bethrah– You were asking about tattoo stuff earlier, I had been a member of National Tattoo Association for years, and when we were doing changes to APP conference a lot of the changes were because of Nationals and my experiences with them. They had a banquet dinner, they had awards, things like that, and thats where all of that came about. We’ve evolved obviously, Nationals banquet is still like seven fucking hours long, we figured out early on we couldn’t do that at Vegas, or rather didn’t want to. That stuff was directly inspired from NTA.

Ari – What have your experiences been with tattooers who work for a piercer?

Bethrah– I have one guy who apprenticed here that’s been with me eighteen years, another artist who’s been here twelve years, six years – people stay. We bought the shop in 2000 and staffed it, some of the staff has moved on obviously but when my ex-husband and I were getting a divorce I sat everyone down and he was the tattooer, he was the virtuoso, and the tattooers said if Mom and Dad are getting a divorce we want to go with Mom. They weren’t concerned that I wasn’t a tattoo artist. I ran the studio, they were concerned with someone who ran the studio correctly and cared, so they asked me to go for the shop during the divorce. One of the things I said coming in was I’m not a rockstar tattooer, I can’t help you in that regard, but what I can do is help you figure out your artistic goals. People early on didn’t want to take direction from a woman. They were fine working for Cap, he could scream and yell at them and it wasn’t a problem but if I asked them to do something it would be a problem. What I found was when you hire someone, one of the conversations to have was do you have an issue taking direction from a woman? Because if you do this is not the place for you to work. I’m not going to be rude to you but there will times I’m going to ask you to do something or I’ll have an opinion for you, and if you have an issue with woman this won’t work. It helps establishing this parameter ahead of time.

Ari – What was the nature of how your work running the studio and running the APP influenced one another?

Bethrah– Nothing is business, everything is personal. I was working really hard in the shop and getting no credit. I was really young, I wasn’t treated very well, so I worked my ass off and was getting no credit. Suddenly I had the opportunity to do a similar amount of work with the organization, the same amount of work with APP as my studio but people were giving me a lot of credit for it, people were seeing what I was doing. People were appreciating that I was doing the work. Because we’re reward based, I was working really really hard for the organization because it was the only place I felt visible as a human being, felt my effort mattered. Then it kind of flipped. I was in a different position, and through competence and time I became less appreciated by the community and more appreciated in the shop. They were so good to me in my studio and so awful in the community, so it flip flopped. Sometimes it’s just about staying power. Knowing when it’s time to go.

Ari – In 2005 you taught a Fraud Prevention Class. Can you tell me more about that?

Bethrah– I taught that class with Jeff Goldblatt. We covered standard fraud and how fraud starts, because usually it starts with a sense of entitlement. I think we deal with internal fraud more then people actually robbing us. We all deal with fucked up credit card returns, I’ve seen a couple of scams lately, We covered email scams, scams from utility companies like people who call saying “You owe the IRS money” or “You owe the gas company money and we’re gonna cut you off right now if you don’t pay.” There was another one going around at the time with like, “We want to come and get tattooed, we’re gonna bring x amount of people, if you just do this and this with a money order”, I don’t quite remember exactly how that one went, but it was something targeting studios. The hotel scam has been around a long time, and they’ll get names off an attendance list for an event and call saying they’re from the hotel and if you don’t book now they’re going to run out of rooms. As far as employee scams certain behaviors can fly under the radar really really easily. One of the big red flags are people that are over-accommodating or never taking time off – people won’t take time off because it increases the chance that someone will audit their work, or see how they’re doing things in a way they wouldn’t normally. That’s how a lot of people get busted, it’s when they take a vacation. The other issue that’s really common is a sense of entitlement, like I never get any time off, I work like a dog, and I’m owed this extra whatever, whether it’s a deposit or a piece of jewelry or whatever, whatever low hanging fruit that someone can take without it really being noticed. Some people are just kleptos. I mean thats a thing – someone just compelled to say fuck you in a really passive aggressive way. Some people will take a roll of toilet paper because they’re out at their house, which is sort of the ok variety, but then there’s people who will nickel and dime you for as long as they can get away with it.

One of the things you can do to cut down on that sense of entitlement is mandatory vacation. If someone has time off it’s not optional, they take it, it’s paid vacation, but you make them take it, for all of those reasons. People need time off to avoid a sense of entitlement, to have work checked out, to not burn out, all of those are good reasons. I did bring up, just because it’s common with tattoos and people who work at tattoo shops, there’s an entitlement that will often happen with older tattoo artists, if someones been with you a long time they’re more likely to do this, they’ll undercharge the client to get a bigger tip. One way to watch out for that is if you see someones getting a $100 tip on a $200 tattoo but that happens all the time, it’s more likely they’ll scamming in some form then they just have the most amazing customer service. It’s more like when it happens too much, thats something to look out for. It wasn’t a real long class, I think it was only an hour.

Ari – This leads into the idea of long term customers, people who have supported you since the beginning or are really big spenders, and you want to slice them a little something off the top. How do you as an owner address to employees coming on where the parameters are for what they can and can’t do?

Bethrah– This comes up with work trade as well, especially artists, work trade with all kinds of people like hairdressers or chiropractors or whatever, who fucking knows. That’s really common. As a business owner it’s also really common to want to trade out tattoo work for workmanship, like to contractors or whomever, and that’s fine if you tattoo but I don’t tattoo and I don’t expect my employees to tattoo for the shop for free, even though a lot of them would if I asked them. It’s not a matter of that – it’s a matter of ethics, it’s a matter of being clean about your money. Basically the way my shop works is if you want to trade with someone for work that’s fine, but you can only trade your own commission. If you’re going to trade $200 tattoo for services, and your cut is 50%, you have to pay the studio that 50%, so you’ll get that $200 service for $100. The other side of that is I will trade out work in gift certificates so the tattooers still get paid, so I don’t get work for free, I get it for a discount. My worker isn’t doing free shit for me and vice versa, it allows for a wheel or deal type shit, and you get a discount, but you don’t get it for free and neither do I, and I think that’s an ethical way. If you don’t have a policy standing it goes downhill quickly.

Ari – What about piercing clientele that want the homie hook-up?

Bethrah– We don’t do it. Our prices, we don’t triple or quadruple anything, the most anything will be is two and a half. You can come in and get your tongue pierced for $5 less then you could in 1995. I’m not giving anybody a discount ever. You have a discount when you walk into my shop, you already have a discount. Go down the street and price check, find out. There is one group of guys, if the main guy comes in, he’s the head of a house full of boy slaves, and he gets a 25% discount, but he sends us so much business it doesn’t even matter. If it was just him he wouldn’t get a discount, but I’d say 90% of the male genitals that we have coming in are referred from them. It’s like nothing compared to the business they bring us, but he’s like the only one. Things change when your shop gets busier. For years we did free jewelry changes and we had people just abuse the fuck out that, they’d have ten pieces of jewelry they needed put back in and tip the piercer a dollar. We had this one client who came in every week for us to put her lip jewelry back in because she had to take it out when she went to work, and it was for that abuse we finally established a glove fee. Those handful of people were angry about that. It was like we’re too busy, those same people would never have this concept of I’ll come in on a slow shift or if the lobby is packed full of paying customers I expect to be taken care of right away, but they didn’t, they were assholes. This one woman hadn’t bought jewelry in two years, you aren’t even really our customer! You get a free change out if you buy jewelry though. Ways of doing business that are fine when you do four or five piercings a day, but an average of twenty a day and forty to fifty on the weekends, thats a different conversation. Figure out your shit – we aren’t doing it unless you pay!

Ari – It’s tough enough to expend that energy to that many piercings in a day, the jewelry changes and extra stuff can really sort of weigh that all down.

Bethrah– Absolutely, some people only feel comfortable doing twenty piercings a day, not because they aren’t fast enough or they can’t do it, but mentally they can’t do it, mentally it does something to you to deal with that many humans. But around 50 I’m like ugh, it’s like I have expended so much of my chi or whatever the fuck and I feel worn the fuck out. I’m not even like a real woo-woo energy type person but it kicks your ass. As long as I’m in motion I’m ok, but at the end of the night when I sit down, then I feel what’s going on with my body, I feel how much it’s kicked my ass. I think one of the least appreciated things we do is energy management, and energy management on so many levels. People expend energy on drama, or being pissed off at their coworkers, they didn’t do this or that – but what takes more energy? Leaving a shitty note about cleaning the microwave, or just cleaning the microwave? I can tell you the least amount of energy to use is just clean the microwave. People don’t know how to balance energy in a way that gets them through the day. What am I willing to get mad about, what makes me tired, how can I conserve energy that allows me to still give good customer service? People don’t even have it or look at it as a value. People cultivate things as piercers, or anything as they do, as perceived value. All humans do this. This idea of perceived value of tattoos being the image itself, and the perceived value for piercers based on product usage or jewelry, etc, where the aesthetic isn’t as important. We look to see if it’s straight, but that doesn’t include whether or not it’s in the right place. People get so hung up on how they’re doing something that they forget what they’re doing. At the Gauntlet seminars they had this one little section about energy exchange, during bedside manner, but that was one of the most useful exercises I ever had in my learning process. People take energy through anxiety, and that impacts people whether they’re conscious of it or not. A pet peeve of mine is for years I would teach grounding and bedside manner from a practical standpoint and not a woo-woo standpoint, because I think when things get too woo-woo people miss the practical nature of proper energy management. The concept of why it matters can go over a lot of peoples heads.

Bethrah and Elayne Angel.

Ari – Maybe people could use some more woo-woo. Look online-everyone’s got a fucking bone to pick.

Bethrah– The whole social media piercing scene is about a handful of people who are the arbiters of mediocrity and status quo, who encourage people to only believe one thing and never investigate what is correct or best for their clients, when it comes to sell anything like products – immediately, if a product is new it’s like somehow heresy. It’s like do your own fucking homework, don’t just listen to someone on the internet because they’re afraid of new things. How is that helpful to clients? I’m not fast to pick up new things because I think a lot of it is snake oil, so I’ll wait and let people try it and listen to feedback, and then based on that I’ll try it. A lot of times shit is really helpful. We have several products to help with the bumps, right? I’ll see people post pictures of these terrible bumps and go, “Oh, the angle is wrong or the size is wrong or this or that”, and it’s like sometimes human beings get a fucking bump on their piercings! You know what? That’s how human bodies are. It can be the most perfectly done piercing with the most perfect jewelry but because it’s this rabbit hole like sure, those are things that are important to consider and look at, but when people only follow that, like oh it must be a bad angle – no! It’s fine! People are so closed to new ideas, but they will never ever admit to that. We’ll complain endlessly that nobody makes products for our industry, and as soon as someone makes a product thats potentially useful we take a big shit on it without doing any investigation. People do not have the courage to step out of the fold – people want to know what they’re doing is acceptable, and they don’t want to garner any negative attention, so they stick to the check-off list.

Ari – But that brings up one of my pet peeves, which is rather then asking questions during a check up we just throw a product at someone.

Bethrah– Well, you can’t have one thing without the other, right? We need to ensure the fundamentals are there as well. One of the big things about wound care is debris removal. For debris removal though, if too much accumulates or becomes this hardened bulb at the end of a barbell, a little spray isn’t going to remove it. I get offended when people will summarily dismiss an idea – we don’t do any kind of horizontal tongue piercings at my shop. But someone came in the other day with a scoop piercing and they had lost the ball – they had gotten it done elsewhere, it was a 14g 3/8th or 7/16th curved barbell, externally threaded garbage, I swapped it out for a better piece of jewelry but man – that piercing was perfectly healed. It kind of made me think twice, like maybe this is a feasible piercing.

Ari – Totally, I had a coworker who did those all the time, never the tip of the tongue but a curved barbell running horizontally on top, he did them all the time, they healed up totally fine. And for all the screaming and bitching about them, we never saw a single health issue or problem pop up with any of them exception occasionally someone losing their jewelry. This is the embodiment about how presently it’s not about experience – it’s not about I’ve done a ton of these and they don’t heal. It’s about reading it online, taking it as truth, and staying close-minded regardless if sufficient evidence otherwise is presented.

Bethrah– Exactly! I mean I get that I can be skeptical of things, but I’m also willing to be proven wrong about stuff.

Bethrah and Sean, 2010.

Ari – What’s remained a constant from when you started piercing to present?

Bethrah– That things take time to heal. That you can do everything correctly, have no angle issues or jewelry issues or general issues and still people can have trouble healing. Patience and diligence is required – that’s all remained a constant. The way we talk about that or rationalize that likes to change, but the reality doesn’t change.

Ari – What’s been a good lesson you’ve pulled from owning a studio?

Bethrah– I’ll work whatever shifts, I’ll work counter shifts – shit rolls uphill. This is what I’ve found as a business owner – if you don’t at some point, with regularity, work every single job there is to work in your business, you will lose touch with what your business is doing. I learn more about what needs to change and what issues I need to address working particular shifts. I’ve had more innovation filling in for people, those a-ha moments, but if you’re not stuck there a whole shift, you just go in, write checks, whatever, and get out, – you don’t have the time to pay attention to things in that shop that aren’t your job, and that’s a weakness, that’s a deficit.

Ari – That would require a ton of humility for someone to say I’m going to work a counter shift just to make sure I’m in touch with what’s going on.

Bethrah– Like I said, shit rolls uphill if you’re a business owner, or at least it’s supposed to. If you won’t do that, you’re saying it’s ok for my business to suffer as long as I don’t have to do a job I don’t want to do. I mean would I rather not work counter? Of course, people are fucking exhausting. But sometimes it’s needed, and that’s how you innovate. I try and have humility about owning businesses. If you have this mindset that it’s about winning and losing with your competitors, if it’s about owning and controlling or not, you’re living a life with a monkey on your back – you’ll never be fully in control because that’s not how life is. Really, I’m renting this space, I’m one natural disaster or financial crises away from losing everything. We all are – I think about refugees and people who spend generations building a little mom and pop shop, like what I have, to lose it all and have their families killed. I’m not different then those people, I’m just luckier. I am just fucking luckier. I make sure I don’t lose sight of that. Every day I am gifted with the responsibility to hold the livelihood of so many other people. It’s not cake and ice cream, it’s a fucking responsibility, so I try and hold on to that. It’s not about being baller or better then anyone else, it’s meeting my obligations. I mean on the other hand, there’s this very dry, cunty side to me that needs to blow off steam! That’s how you cope with the fact that people burn you in this industry. I’m sure lots of people I’ve fired don’t think I’m this altruistic, high minded person, they just think I’m this fucking asshole who fired them – but whatever, sometimes you gotta fire a motherfucker!

Ari – How did you get involved with Wildcat?

Bethrah– It was just luck, happenstance! How did I meet those people? Amsterdam, I met them in Amsterdam. Wildcat was the conglomerate in a way, there was Wildcat Australia, Wildcat Germany, Wildcat UK, they were sort of franchises. Basically you had a supply chain from a few different companies that you worked with, so you plugged in everything you needed in a system and the orders go separately to different people. That’s how that company worked at the time, it’s a little bit more centralized now. It was 2005, I had already stepped down from being the president of APP, I was freshly divorced, and my financial burden had multiplied by 10. Mortgage on the house, and even then coming into the financial crisis it wasn’t even as bad as it was going to get, so 2006-7-8, in that range. I had a long standing relationship and still have an enormous amount of respect for Martin Siedler, the owner of the german division. One of his producers turned out to be the biggest fucking schmuck on the fucking earth, I mean this guy – what a piece of shit! He was their titanium producer and they were all kind of beholden to him because he was making this incredibly good product, he was making a consistent product, he was making good product – they all kind of loved him and hated him just because he was so horrible to deal with. He had decided he was going to open a division in the United States, and he did it in a very arrogant german way, which was to come to the United States and move to the most expensive part of the country, hire the most expensive people, and of course it collapsed almost immediately. He called in the favor to Martin and said, “Look, do you know of anyone in the US who would be willing to help me get this thing off the ground?” and Martin contacted me because he felt I was the most competent person. We were friends and had mutual respect and all of that stuff. They kind of talked me into it and the money was good – I was an employee the first two or three years and was making enough to float me. It was survival in a way. It was interesting, people have this idea, they’re very black and white thinkers, the thing is there are still things in that product line that I order from Germany because they aren’t made in the US and the quality is great. People have this us and them mentality when it comes to jewelry production.

People act like everything is perfect but I’ve had production issues with all these premium companies. I have gotten jewelry where I’m like “Holy shit, where was the polisher?” and you send it back for them to fix. But this idea that only Grade B companies have production issues? It’s bullshit. The stuff that I used in my shop from that company were fucking dynamite, and some of those things still aren’t being made in the US. Enamel and porcelain for teeth is painted and baked on, layered and baked on almost like ceramic glaze, and they had figured out a way to laser etch surfaces onto titanium balls where you could layer or paint on this ceramic and then polish it to smooth where it was something fully hardened, biocompatible, colorful (really bright, like the whole rainbow of colors), and fully autoclavable. They had smooth finishes, mirror finishes, and they were amazing! Suddenly I get to use a titanium ball in a lime green thats perfectly fine to use in the body. It wasn’t on the shaft, only on the ball, but it was a really unique product and we sold the shit out of those things hand over fist. We still have clients coming in to look for matches but we can’t get them internally threaded anymore because that was a US market thing. Basic titanium shafts, screw in ball rings going up to like 7/16″ thick in TI that was perfect with no fucking gap. I mean perfect. I couldn’t find anything from any company at that time that didn’t have a gap in it, so show me this other better product that I can buy in the US and I’ll buy it. But it’s still not! There are still things I stock exclusively from Europe and they have a mirror finish. People scoff and ho-hum and all this shit, and then they’ll go pierce someone with a seam ring. It’s hypocrisy. For me, it’s I have a clientele and my clientele has needs. I’m going to source the best product I can for that clientele and I’m going to check out the finish, and if the finish is good I”m going to fucking stock it. People are lemmings. They don’t want to do the wrong thing. They’re worried about if something is considered substandard. They want to check all the boxes, “I only buy from these companies” – fuck that! I’ll buy from anyone producing something thats worth a shit that my customers need.

Bethrah and Shawn Porter. Photo courtesy of Diablo Organics.

Ari – Has that elitism with jewelry always been a prevalent issue?

Bethrah– Always always always – the funniest thing about it is the puritanical perspective is not different but the things people complain about are different. Back in the 1990s or early 2000s Jimmy Buddha did these amazing silver swan weights – I think they were swans – and they were gorgeous. They were solid sterling, and people were scoffing and putting him down, “How can silver be sold on the APP floor, blah blah blah!”. Now, fast forward, people are dropping small fucking fortunes on fucking plated shit! Plated! $350 wholesale shit thats going to fall apart within a year! There’s always this small faction of puritans, the the guardians of mediocrity and status quo, and that’s not changed. The status quo is just different. For me, my fundamental concern is my clientele. If I can get this fuckin mirror finish 6g 5/16″ clicker for their septum from some company that people don’t care about, I’m gonna do it. That was the beginning of Wildcat though, I ended up Martins partner after a while and then I just couldn’t do it, I made a deal to where I could get out of it and went ahead and got out of it. It was too much; my businesses were starting to get much busier, it was starting to cause a little of a time issue, the currency exchange was fucking me up – there were a few things fucking me up so I had to buy my way out. What was interesting about working with Wildcat was selling shitloads of externally threaded jewelry, and who was buying that jewelry. There other thing, like Metal Mafia, the internally threaded line was lower priced, there were shops that were transitioning that could go internal and still afford the titanium line from Wildcat and make that transition in an affordable way. Once they were making more money they went over to the premium companies. A lot of these midlevel companies get a bad rap because in a lot of ways they’re stepping stones. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. I think you really undermine people when you tell them there’s only one way to get to a place.


This interview has been interviewed for content and clarity.  All photos courtesy of Bethrah Szumski unless otherwise noted.

To find out more about the Better Safe than Ari series, click here.

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

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