BSTA: Curt Warren

Curt Warren and Erin Figureoa, The Piercing Elf, APP 1999.

Curt – Let me tell you a little bit about my start, I know all your interviews start with that.  I grew up in Ogden, Utah, which is about forty miles outside Salt Lake City.  I started having ear piercings around middle school – I got influenced by heavy metal so I thought, “fuck, I gotta have my ears pierced now!”  After high school I moved to Maui, Hawaii, and while I was living over there a friend of mine got back after having spent the summer in New York.  We were having coffee and she was eating soup, and I kept hearing this clank!  I asked,  “what the hell is that noise?”  And she said, “oh, it’s my tongue piercing!”  This was around 1993, and she showed it to me, and I’d never seen one, or even considered it for that matter!  I became very fixated with it, fascinated by it, and decided I had to have one or else I couldn’t live anymore!  The closest place for me to get one was in Honolulu on Oahu.  This woman who called herself “The Piercing Elf” had a little piercing only studio there, so I flew out, rented a car, and failed to check her hours.  I spent a lot of money to fly out there and hang out and fly back to Maui without a tongue piercing.  So I saved up and a few months later I flew back out, made sure to check her hours first this time, and got it done.  The experience for me – not being involved with the industry, not having any tattoos and only having some ear piercings – I was rather intimidated by her.  She was sleeved and had a lot of piercings, but she had a great bedside manner, which made me feel comfortable.  My first professional piercing experience was a piercing only studio with good jewelry and good bedside manner.

  When I moved back to Utah I was living on Ogden and a friend of mine really wanted his tongue pierced.  I went with him down to Salt Lake for him to get it done.  We went to this place called Susie M’s, which was predominantly a tattoo studio but they also had piercing, and the guy was just an asshole.  I sat there listening and I wound up talking a lot of shit on the way home.  My friend looked at me and said, “Well if you think you can do better, maybe you should.”  That really sat with me for a little bit, so I went to a magazine shop and inside a tattoo magazine there was an ad for Gauntlet’s piercing seminars. The first was January of 1995 and that one was already full, so I got into the second one which was March of 1995, and that’s how I got my start.  People that were at my first workshop, not many of them really went on – I tried to look it up the other day and the only two I know of who are still active today are Crystal Sims, who has a shop in New Mexico called Evolution, and Kent Fazekas.  And Geneva Ledlow who was in Texas at Forbidden Fruit, she was there for a long time and later became the master jewelry for Karen Hurt’s Future Primitives jewelry company, and Thad, who is now a tattoo in Australia.

Kent Fazekas had been to the Fakir workshop, and at the time I had no idea who Fakir was. I hadn’t seen the Modern Primitives book yet, so I spent some time with Kent and Crystal there in San Francisco.  I stayed in contact with Kent, who wound up really helping guide me through my early years.  I even went out and worked at his shop Body Accents in Indianapolis.  Again, going from Blue Boutique to a piercing only studio and being able to work was quite nice, and also to have the respect of a peer. I learned quite a bit from his shop and his people.  After I went down to spend some time with Dave Vidra in Cleveland, and at that time, – wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Went to that workshop, went back to Ogden and I was trying to figure out what I was doing – I knew that I needed some tools and an autoclave, but I didn’t feel that I was ready to be out just piercing anyone and everyone at a studio or anything like that.  I just didn’t feel like I was ready.  Unbeknownst to me was that everyone else from those seminars were doing that exact thing!  Taking the class and hitting the ground running!  I found a doctor that was going out of business in the classified, and not only did he have an autoclave but he had an OBGYN table, pyrex jars with stainless steel lids, a mayo stand, and so I was able to set up a little room in my parents basement.  I printed out some business cards that just said Curt Warren Body Piercing with my phone number and posted those around town, and people would call and I’d ask them what they wanted, told them exactly what my experience was at that point, and I was really raking in the money!  I was charging $30 or $35 for a tongue piercing, and that included your 12g 3/4″ internally threaded barbell.  I was getting them from Lucky Body Jewelry at the time, which Lucky was only rebranding jewelry from Anatometal jewelry, but I didn’t know that at the time.  I was just trying to learn and be out there, and at the end of that summer I had done a couple small guest spots at a tattoo shop called Tattoo Fever, but it wasn’t really the environment I wanted to work in all the time. I didn’t have the ability to open up my own place, which I’m glad for because it would have been a disaster.

Sean Xeon McManus, John Durante & myself at Brian (Puncture Piercing Studios home)

To me, my best option was Blue Boutique.  I called Tony, the owner, told him I was a piercer and he told me they were not hiring but that he would meet with me.  I made a video of myself doing a couple piercings, made a little cover sheet with some information about myself, took some photos of piercings I had done. I met with him and by the end of the interview he said the position was mine and that he was firing the current piercer, a woman named Julie who was self-taught.  I was like ok, there we go – got my first job!  He started me on a Sunday but I had failed to walk through and look at the piercing room when I accepted the job, so my first day of work imagine my surprise when the first thing I notice is there is no autoclave in the room.  All there is is a glass bowl with rubbing alcohol in it and all the tools are sitting in there.  I was like yeah, this is not happening for me, I have an autoclave but it’s back home, I won’t be piercing today but I’ll bring all equipment down with me tomorrow.  I got it all set up and continued to try and work on my technique.  Before Blue Boutique I was working with adults with disabilities, normally at night, and there’d be some quiet time so that’s when I picked up Modern Primitives and practiced piercing on leather.  Gauntlet offered the advanced workshops in 1996, and I signed up for that, and that’s the one that really changed my career and my life because everyone who was at that went on to do good things.  Grant Dempsey from Cold Steel, Dave Vidra, Al D., Jack Rubini from Gorlubb Piercing, Christine who was with Al up in Seattle, McKinley from Anchorage.  That workshop not only gave me a lot of confidence but I met all these people doing greater things.  It was at this point Dave and Al told me I needed to be online, this rec.arts.body.arts is how piercers were communicating, and that really opened things up for me. Between the workshops I had read about the APP meeting that was happening in Vegas, and at the time there was really only one other piercer in Utah that I really knew of that I had much respect for.  I’d never met him but his name was Eric, he had a shop an hour and a half away called Hardware.  I’d heard a lot about him, he was involved in the local S&M scene and powerplay, and one of the girls that I worked with at Blue Boutique was a huge Eric follower, so for her it was constantly, “He’s Fakir, you’re Gauntlet!”

I remember complaining to Tony about her sending everyone to our competition!  It’s a long ways away, I don’t mind good competition, but it felt like she had it out for me.  Finally I reach out to meet this guy and see if he has any interest in coming out to this piercing convention with me, so I drove up to Logan.  He had this piercing shop that also had lowered bicycles and his wife had a little clothing shop inside as well.  Eric was pretty much the rockstar in his own mind at that point – don’t get me wrong, I became a rockstar in my own mind later on, it just hadn’t formed at that point.  I told him about APP and asked if he’d go with me, and we did.  We argued on the plane on what size is correct to pierce an earlobe, and I’m not saying I was correct in my argument, it was just where we were at at that time; it was odd and exciting.  Once we got there it instantly seemed to me people just divided, like you’re on the Fakir side or the Gauntlet side.  I of course had taken the Gauntlet courses, but it was like, “all any of you did was either pay Fakir or pay Gauntlet for some courses, what does it really matter?”  I found pretty fast that the only people it mattered to were the ones who wanted sides anyways.  I quickly made friends with Allen Falkner and Sean McManus, they didn’t give a fuck where I was coming from!  It was just, “what do you do and what are you trying to do?”  I started forming those friendships and that helped me because I could call upon them when I had some questions, because otherwise I felt sort of separated.  Besides the computer interactions and phone calls I’m alone in Salt Lake City.  There were a few other people around who had attended workshops but I didn’t really feel like they were pushing themselves, and at that point John Pratt being the main one.

After that first APP, I did the advanced workshop, then the second APP was coming around which was in Florida – I mean technically it was the third, but it was the second for me.   At the first one for me in Vegas I became a member of the APP, and so the first member in Utah, and in Florida I got nominated for the board for outreach coordinator and I was pretty excited, on Cloud 9.  Kent Fazekas, who was the head of the APP at this time, Michaela Grey was on the board, Brian Skellie, and I believe Al D. and David were just getting on the board.  I was pretty excited about it.  Things were going really well!  The day I got back from that convention my contract with Blue Boutique had expired. I had a contract because after the Gauntlet advanced workshop I was already curious what the Fakir stuff was.  I’d talked to people and seen his training manual but I wanted to meet Fakir and I thought maybe he would offer a more shamanistic style or something like that.  I had a curiosity for it, I really wanted to do it, so I applied for the advanced course  after telling them my experience level and they responded back that I’d have to take the basic class to ensure I was on the same level.  I was pretty irritated but I thought whatever, the hell with it, I’ll take the basic class.  I was the only person in that basic class who had done piercing. Ken Coyote was one of the instructors – him and I didn’t really get along.  We found that out immediately.  I was later told it was because we had been piercing for similar amounts of time but I don’t know for sure – I don’t think I ever saw him again after that.  I learned a lot at the Fakir workshop, and really I learned in a lot of ways about the piercer I didn’t want to be.  Granted I was doing a lot of comparisons to the Gauntlet workshops where Jim Ward, when asked about Fakir, Jim’s comments would be along the lines of, “Fakir has worked for Gauntlet, Fakir has done a lot for the industry.” He never insulted anyone that I heard.  Whereas at the Fakir workshops I heard rants about how Gauntlet was the McDonalds of the piercing world and all this and I didn’t really agree.  This was when the Fakir attitude wasn’t too fond of the APP and here I was a board member!  They argued and talked a little bit about the APP, and at lunch I’d talk to the other students to assure them it was not as negative as they had portrayed it.  Erik Dakota showed up towards the end of the seminar and looked at me and went, “What the hell are you doing here?”  I had met him a few other times, at APP and at Santa Cruz when I was down visiting Barry Blanchard, and this was around the time Erik was starting to pull away from all that.

Kent Fazekas, Tracy Faraschia, Allen Falkner APP 1998.

Ari – Was it a pretty limited interaction with Erik Dakota?  He is always spoke of with such reverence for what a good person he was, did you find it odd for him to be amongst what seems like a somewhat aggressive, or at least competitive, environment?

Curt – Erik stood on his own two feet, and you could tell he had the complete respect by the entire staff there.  The only other person who everyone’s eyes got wide and stopped talking for was Fakir.  Erik was always extremely humble. The first time I really met Erik beyond a simple handshake and “how do you do?” was after the Florida convention when it went back to Vegas.  The first one, the first meeting I ever sat in on as a board member, was about trying to standardize body jewelry.  Internal vs external, and we spoke on that for about an hour.  At the next one in Vegas I was in a room with Erica Skadsen, Sean Christian, and Erik Dakota.  Barry might have been in the room too, and Josh from Good Art.  They were all putting their stuff together for the standardization and one of the funniest things that got said in that hotel room was Erik, Sean, and Josh discussing steel and titanium and Erica starts laughing and says, “You know, I had jewelry thats made out of mud!  How do we regulate that part of it?”  So I spent some time with him there and that’s why he recognized me at the Fakir workshop.  Erik was always super nice, super friendly, and the last time I really sat down with him was after I got back from Asia in 1999 with Erica Skadsen and John Durante and Blair from Canada. I had a bunch of jewelry.  I showed Paul King some, and then was in Santa Cruz and Erik came to meet me and we had some tacos and talked.  At that time he wasn’t with Fakir anymore and was doing the Dakota Steel stuff, but was getting a lot of push-back from the industry.  I know he was feeling betrayed by people.  I never heard him berate anyone, his complaining was subtle, it was never, “Fuck this guy!”,  just really humble and polite.  He really did so much for our industry, not just in technique but with jewelry, definitely in the workshops and the people he first called students.  I don’t really know what he does now.

Ari – Do you remember who the instructors were at the Gauntlet courses?

Curt – The first course, my main instructor was a man named Chance, and Stryker, he was the other one. You had Jim Ward there, Jim showed me how to do my first ear piercings, I was quite happy about that!  On the second one was Michaela (Grey), Michael Mulcahy, Sky Renfro, those are the main ones coming to mind.  Later I went with Barry Blanchard and spoke at one of the Gauntlet beginner classes about being self employed – it made me feel good.  It feels good when you can look at a peer and talk and tell they care, and it makes you feel good that you’re doing something well.

Ari – In the 1990s how would you categorize the general piercing culture in Salt Lake City?  Was it sexually oriented, aesthetically oriented, was there even a label to put on it?

Curt – Where I was at was kind of a gothic area in Salt Lake.  A lot of people called it sexual but realistically it was predominately aesthetic.  That’s what I thought at least.  I’m laughing thinking about when you could wear boots and pull your pants down over the boots because of how big all the clothing was back then.  Even the jewelry was pretty funny.  We had a big straightedge scene at the time and their’s was for sure aesthetic.  Some would claim sexual, and a few for sure were, but some was curiosity as well.  Utah has always been behind most fashion curves and things like that, we’re separated from the other states, but I have been surprised, early on and still to this day, about the ear stretching – there’s quite a bit of that here, especially compared to the East Coast, and I think we have a good little scene here for what scene there is here for piercing.  It’s just amazing how people get to grow up now.  Piercing is just so accepted, same with tattooing; things that were risqué and rebellious are just normal now.  It’s an interesting world for sure.  I remember a time in Salt Lake City where anyone that had over half inch ears I’d probably seen or met at one point. It was small back in the 1990s and you knew most everyone. You weren’t all necessarily buddies but you were aware of each other because it was so small. Salt Lake City being so separated from the next nearest big city, the closest big city was eight hours away, or six if you drove fast enough.  You constantly had the odd competition like, “oh this person stretched their ears bigger, or their tongue bigger!” Instead of a full appreciation of what someone wanted and was aspiring to.  Me personally, I always stretched my ears based on whatever jewelry I wanted to wear.  Some people thrive in competition, some don’t.  When I started, back in those early days, it was Gauntlet vs Fakir, and internal vs external.  Those were the big wars I felt were going on.  It’s interesting to look back on it and see how it’s all grown from there. The APP just had it’s first meeting, I didn’t go to the first one in San Francisco, but I went to the second one in Last Vegas, the third one in Florida, and at some point I stopped going, I believe it was 2003.  I went again in 2005 or 2006 that was the last time I’ve been to an APP convention.  There’s always at least one of the three people from my shop that go, we’ve always maintained that connection, but I personally haven’t gone so I haven’t seen a lot of people from the industry in a long time.  Salt Lake City, I mean I don’t know if a lot of people came to visit you when you lived out here, but it’s off the beaten path for most people.

Ari – It’s so funny, Salt Lake remains one of my favorite places I’ve ever lived but I couldn’t get anyone to come visit when I was there.  I lived in Florida, which by comparison is nowhere near as fun or beautiful, and it was like the second I moved there people hit me up like, “Hey, when can I come visit!?”  I don’t get it.

Curt – The first piercer who came to visit me, I mean it wasn’t like the trip was specifically for that, but it was Keith Alexander.  He was from New York City, he had pierced at Gauntlet NY and then opened his own shop called Modern American.  We’d never met but we were friends from rec.arts. bodyart, which was an early community that I was able to connect with, an online forum. Keith was on there quite frequently.  He was playing guitar for Twisted Sister 1 and they were coming through town so we met up for a couple days.  It was interesting because he came and met me when I was working at Blue Boutique when it was over on 21st and 11th.  He came there and as I’m sure you did while you were there, I made Blue Boutique the best I could for me, for my situation.  But a professional piercer coming in from a piercing only studio, he was like, “I see what you’re doing, maybe work on getting away from the retail sex shop style into a piercing only shop.”  So early on he was a good motivator for me to aspire in getting to the next level.  After that it was a number of years before anyone else came out.

Ari – When Keith was out there with you was he at the shop with you workshopping and swapping techniques and whatnot?

Curt – We weren’t working together.  He came and watched me, which made me nervous. I don’t know if you ever met Keith, but I’m 5’10, I’m not skinny but I’m not fat – Keith was a big dude, and he came from what I looked up to, which was Gauntlet.  He watched me do a few piercings there, discussed technique, and talked about the layout, how it could be improved, and the bedside manner.  Keith pushed bedside manner, which was very important to me and still is.  It’s controlling people and bedside manner is the most difficult thing, understanding your clients and knowing what they’re going through.  I didn’t get to watch him pierce, but I did get to watch him play guitar that night!  That was pretty cool.  We had breakfast the next day, and that was it. We maintained internet connection until he got killed.

Toby? Teri Beasley, Erica Skadsen, John Durante, Shawn, and Curt under the human skulls in the long house at Punan Bah.

Ari – Let’s go back for a moment. Let’s talk about you and Blair in Asia.

Curt – Erica Skadsen, it was her trip, and we all jumped on it.  First we went to Singapore, and then to Borneo, and up the Rajang river.  We had our first encounter with memebers of the Iban tribe in Sibu, then we went further up river to Punan Bah where we stayed with the Penan tribe and celebrated the Bungan (Harvest festival).  We went down the river then travled to Niah, and Mulu Parks.  From there we were all supposed to go to the Kelabit Highlands to meet the elders, but at this point everyone was starting to argue a little bit, and I wasn’t enjoying that.  It seemed like there were little sides happening so John, Teri, and I broke off.  We heard that Cambodia had recently opened up their borders and that we had to go.  So the three of us went to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.  I left those two in Laos to met back up with Erica and some of her friends from Portland back in Indonesia, and she was dropping off horn and amber to be carved.  Ironically, that was back in 1999, and people today are still using her carvers!  When I got back home I had a lot of jewelry that I had collected and I wanted Paul King’s opinion on it. I also wanted Kristian’s opinion on it but I didn’t know where he was at that point.

I always seemed to be in Santa Cruz because my old roommate from Salt Lake, Theresa Lane, Barry had stolen her away to work at Staircase and she was living there.  Her and Sean Christian were roommates so anytime I was down in that area I’d just go stay with them.  That’s where I reached back out the Erik and haven’t seen him since. You could tell he never really wanted the spotlight, he was just so good at what he did, he was someone I looked up to and tried to model myself after.  Again, he was part of that initial group where in a war of sides the people I became friends with didn’t want to be involved in that type of thing.  I always learned some great things and met some great people at the convention, but most of the time at the APP Conference I learned more from the individual people I would meet than the convention itself.  After a while it didn’t really feel like it was evolving that much.  I felt like as the classes went on from year to year and new people would teach them, it wasn’t a continuously progressive agenda of the subject, more just their version of the subject.  I’m not trying to be negative, it is what it is, but for me the APP was pretty important early on, a great community of people. I was starstruck by plenty of those people, but it quickly changed for me when I was on the board and saw a couple other board members in their home towns, and a couple were trying to use it to their advantage.  Like it was put out there that maybe we should pull this persons membership because they aren’t living up to these standards, or something like that. To me, it was like shouldn’t we be trying to get members and keep members, rather then getting rid of them?  But then you see it’s one of their competitors!  I didn’t really like that.  Not long after I joined the board I opened Koi, and it quickly became apparent to me that I didn’t have time for both.  I was still involved with the APP in the community, and then the next time I was really involved with working with the APP Jason King and I were asked to be a committee about a few things that had happened with the current head of the APP at the time. The head of the APP had written some pretty negative things about Allen Falkner in an email and sent them off to all the other APP members, not paying attention to the fact that Steve Joyner was still on the board who was working for Allen! It was over a few emails too, not just one.  Allen fired back to me like, “hey man, what is this?”  Minutes later, the person sends out another email saying, “Oh Allen’s found out about it!”  He made a comment about how it would just be fine if Allen went away and I took a lot of offense to that.  I’d known Allen a lot longer then I’d known this guy, and Allen had done a lot for our industry.  As long as I’d know him he was always trying to better the industry and himself.  The head of the organization should be fighting to keep all the members, especially one as important and who had contributed as much as Allen, and never encourage someone to leave!  Long story short, they heard Jason and I’s opinion which was this person could stay on the board but probably shouldn’t be the head, a President shouldn’t do those type of things. Granted this is before Trump was in office.  They decided to form another committee to get a different answer, because what do you do when you get an answer you don’t like?  You make another committee, and you get the answer you like!  That was kind of the last straw, the political thing, and I wasn’t really loving it.  It made me pull away a bit, and I didn’t not want to be a part of it but I wanted to focus more on my shop.

Ari – Were there any difficulties in opening Koi?  Any opposition from the city, was it hard to get permits, etc?

Curt – July 1st, 1997 is when Koi opened, and the only opposition was from my ex-employer Tony.  My theory is while we were working on building it out, I had looked out the window and saw him and his assistant manager driving by, and the next thing I knew someone from the city was back to check my permits.  But I had everything in order so it was no issue.  I had done the Gauntlet thing, the Fakir thing, Barry had come a few times and he was like, “Hey, why don’t you come work at Staircase?”  I was like maybe, I’d at least come look at it, guest spot to make sure I like the group and they like me, which I’ve always thought was a great way to do it.   I went there out there and worked with Tom, I worked out there for about two weeks, had a lot of fun, but nobody knew me there.  The shop did obviously but none of the clients did, and I had gotten used to people casually know me, so at that time point I was like well I think I want my own studio as opposed to working for someone else.  At the advanced workshop Michaela had offered me a job at Gauntlet, and I did want to do that, but Chance, my instructor from the first workshop really pushed me to do my own thing. When the owner of Blue Boutique found out I was going to go to the Fakir workshop, he was like, “what if I paid for the workshop for you and then you work for me for a year?” I said, “okay, sounds great!”  Never had a paid vacation and I was going to go anyway!  He then drew up a contract, and I put in an addendum that they also couldn’t hire anyone I didn’t approve of and they couldn’t buy jewelry from anyone I didn’t approve of.  Once the contract had ended I was getting back from a conference and Tony had hired some self-taught piercer and fired me.  I was a little surprised by it but it worked out. I had an apprentice at the time, Casey, he’d been with me for around a year – year and a half at that point, and when he came in and talked to me he was like, “fuck it, if you go I go! I’m going with you!”  I’ll never forget how full my heart was as we loaded up this U-haul on the corner of 21st and 11th, and we drove away.  I had no fucking idea what I was going to do, I had the offer to work at Gauntlet in Washington, Gahdi was hiring in San Diego, but I didn’t want to leave all my friends and everything I had here.  Ironically I saw a friend that day I hadn’t seen for a while, and he was pushing me like you should just try your own business.  You’re young enough, you’re twenty-four , if you fail you can try again and try again.  I started looking around for space and found one pretty fast, and things just came together really quickly.  It felt like it was supposed to work out that way.  Sometimes I feel like things are supposed to work out.  My apprentice leaves with me, and the only other piercer there was a piecer named John Pratt, who’d taken some Gauntlet workshop.  I had brought him on board from Southern Thunder, a tattoo and piercing studio, mainly tattoo though.  He was interesting.  The first time I started working with him, which was early on,  I thought he was hungry for it, was pushing himself as far as he could, since he’d gone to the Gauntlet workshop but that was not the case.  I had him pierce my tongue, and this is when he was working with me, and I closed my eyes for the piercing.

APP Board meeting at Body Accents in Indianapolis 1997 Kent Fazekas, Al D, David Vidra, Derek Lowe, Dr. Jack, and Brian Skellie.

Later that night I was talking with my girlfriend, who was in the room when I got pierced, and I was leafing through this APP Point that had just come out and I showed her this picture of a piercer grabbing the forceps with his mouth and I’m like, “Oh my god, can you believe this hack?  What are they doing?” and she said, “Well thats what John did!” and I said, “The fuck are you talking about?” The next day, first tongue piercing that’s occurring, I pop my head in the door to watch and he cleans, marks, and sure enough – holds those clamps with his mouth!  After that I had to become the instructor with him and realized just because someone had a piece of paper didn’t mean they walked away with the same experience.  I remember him being like, “Well, where do you hold the clamps?” so I told him, “I’ll show you exactly where I hold them!  Why would you ever think your mouth was the right place?”  He had amazing bedside manner, and was a good piercer when he wanted to be, now he has his own shop in Vegas and he tattoos.  But again, back to the story, when Koi was coming together John agreed to come work for me, so we opened the shop with him and my apprentice, didn’t have any pushback from the city, but we printed up ten thousand flyers. Had the shop name, my name, John’s name, Casey’s name, a little paragraph, a mission statement, and it said previously from Blue Boutique and the address used to be a head shop called Cosmic Airplane, so by the address it said formerly Cosmic Airplane.  I was surprised to have two people contact me, one lawyer from Blue Boutique saying I couldn’t use their name, the other was the owner from Cosmic Airplane saying we couldn’t use their name either.  I talked to my lawyer and he assured me Blue Boutique was fine because we had worked there so technically it was a resume, but the Cosmic Airplane guy was really stubborn, he wouldn’t work with us at all.  But anytime someone came in looking for Cosmic Airplane I’d tell them and say, “when you get there, go up to the guy with dreadlocks and tell them we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Koi piercing studio.”  I don’t know if anyone actually did, but I’d like to think so.  We just didn’t know what would happen, we didn’t have counter.  When it was your day working you did the piercings and the counter.  Also, it was very tight end because John and Casey both separated from the girlfriends right around the time we opened the shop, so they moved in with me in my apartment, and it was interesting to spend the day working together and at night together as well, living off of credit cards, like Taco Bell and a couple beers, that was that.  Humble beginnings.  But with the humble beginnings I base it off what I’d seen at other shops – we have our little sterility room, we had two piercing rooms that were bigger then our lobby, and we had good quality jewelry – things worked well.

Ari – I know with any start up business it can be all consuming, and you tend to pour your life into it – modern piercing has really adopted the concept of working to death.  From having to start your business to where now you have, and have had for a while, such a fantastic group of piercers, do you try and impress upon them the importance of having a life outside of piercing?  Any preemptive stuff to prevent burn out?

Curt – Not in the way that I have a lecture for everyone, but if you look at Patrick and DJ, they both pierce for me and they both own rental facilities, vacation rental by owner – I learned pretty early on theres no 401k with the piercing industry.  Jason King, when I worked for him for a couple weeks back in 2000, he was the first piercer I knew who was promoting the stock market, so then I got into it a few years later and am still involved in it, a couple of my employees are as well.  Especially when you’re a younger piercer and you eat, sleep, breathe everything piercing – I know for me, it was just learning it.  Trying to figure out each piercing and became very curious in the history of piercing. I found so much great information on it where as with other people, their focus was more on technique or bedside manner or whatever.  I know you didn’t really ask it, but some differences I see from when I started piercing to now, Gauntlet was approaching twenty and that was the oldest piercing studio in the world, and a lot of us were unsure how long we’d be piercing for, how much money we could make, or anything – we just wanted to do it.  It seems to me that a lot of younger piercers now get to view it as a career option, which is really a good thing, but it does make a slightly different – not necessarily better or worse – for people to come up in the piercing industry as opposed so when we started where we were just trying to find that knowledge, and people were trying to charge $5-10,000 for an apprenticeship, things like that.

Curt piercing David Vidra’s ampallang while Al D. watches.

Ari – Any favorite memories with Vidra from your time working at Body Works?

Curt – When I first met Dave it was at the advanced workshop.  We’re all at the same hotel and Al D. was doing a big scarification piece on Dave’s back, so during the day we’d be at the workshop and night we’d all be in the room watching Dave get cut up by Al.  I noticed they had all these funny stories, and Al would talk quite a bit about Body Circle.  Gayle and Tom Finch, that’s where Al always credited his early piercing stuff from.  I went up to visit Al and he took me there to meet Gayle, it was right around when the husband had just passed.  Al D .had learned branding from Tom Finch, and I believe he may have told me Tom showed Fakir that as well, I’m not sure though.  I mean I only spent a few days with Dave, I went to Cleveland and while I was there I pierced Dave’s tragus.  Here’s a funny story; you know how people will come in after getting a piercing and say, “I didn’t realize my work wouldn’t let me have this!?” and you kinda roll your eyes like, “c’mon, isn’t it your responsibility to know if you can or can’t have something like this before you get it?”  So I pierced Dave’s tragus and then I was back home and working again and he calls me saying, “I didn’t even think about it, but I went to put my stethoscope in…” and we just laughed, like you shoulda known goddamnit!  The day Koi opened Dave sent me flowers.  He’s just one of the nicest guys, it was so appreciated that he remembered!  I had stayed at his house with his and his husband, and I always spent some time with him at the APP Conferences.

Ari – Another thing about Salt Lake thats always stuck with me was when I first got out there, the staff at Koi, Iris, and Blue Boutique all seemed very friendly. It didn’t ever feel like, “Fuck you, you’re the competition.”  I always looked at it as a unique environment in that sense. I’d never been in another situation where the major players in town didn’t have this “us vs you” mentality.  Do you feel like this has always been a thing, the inner circle being so friendly towards one another, or is that more circumstantial to a particular group of people?

Curt – I feel like I helped have a part in that as well, not that I was all of it, but when I first started at Blue Boutique the girl who I replaced, we were the same age and I was like where are you coming from?  I showed her my Gauntlet manual, and I’ll never forget when she gave it back three weeks later I asked her, “hey is there anything you really liked in there?” She said,  “Nope, didn’t learn anything!”  I thought, “damn, thats surprising, I feel like every time I read it I find something new in there.” It was more her being standoffish because she didn’t know.  Then Eric was standoffish too but still, I went up and tried to have a friendship with him.  Also John Pratt, like hey, we’re all part of the piercing community.  I was starting to be respected.  I was trying to do a really good job and that kind of stuff made it open for people to be friendly.  We weren’t shunning people, you might be really nice to someone and maybe afterwards discuss what you like or dislike when they leave, but people do that in general.  Dustin, who now owns Enso, we’ve been friends twenty years, we never worked together but we were never enemies, its always been a good competition.  I went to Blue Boutique and I tried to lift the standard, I mean they didn’t even have a fuckin’ autoclave, but after that I felt like there was always kind of a respect.  You know sometimes people will call around and you know they’re price-shopping, and I always used to say, “hey go check out Blue Boutique and ASI and the other shops and come visit ours last.”  I don’t know how many people really did it but that’s how confident we felt in our place and our product and us.  We’ve always maintained a good competition with IRIS and Enso, the piercing only shops are all great shops with great jewelry. You know some people will try to get you to talk shit – someone will be like, “oh my friend got fucked up over here” and I never play into that, and have always encouraged my staff not to play into that.  You never know both sides of the story and I’ve always been thankful that we never had any undercutting here like other places in the country.  I mean we have but they’re hacks with no shop and shitty jewelry, places that were never competition in the first place.  There are people who were clients of mine, now they’re piercers, we always felt it was a good community for piercers.  The last time a large group of us came together was when they were doing the regulations for Utah.  It’s always been pretty friendly, and I’m glad it is.

Derek Lowe, David Vidra, and Curt at Body Work Productions in 97.

Ari – Any finally thoughts?

Curt – I’m pretty proud – twenty years Koi has been open, piercing only, we’ve never swayed – never compromised on jewelry or staff.  It’s been a long road but doesn’t seem like it’s been twenty years!


This interview has been interviewed for content and clarity.  All photos courtesy of Curt Warren unless otherwise noted. For more information on the Better Safe than Ari series, click here. 

Notes:

  1. Keith played guitar for Dee Snider’s other band, SMF, and was the “piercing consultant” for Dee’s movie Strangeland.

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

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