BSTA: David Vidra


Ari: I always like to kick these off with an introduction, so tell us a little about you, Mama. 

Vidra: My introduction to the industry was 1978. I met a gentleman by the name of Linus Herrell and he owned a store in Cleveland called Body Language and that store, how do you explain it? It’s like one of the first alternative bookstores.  We didn’t sell any porn, nothing like that, but it had a rubber room and a leather room, where there were all different types of books and little novelties and stuff like that. Also, he had a piercing room. He had magazines like PFIQ, the whole nine yards and I was like, “OK, this is fascinating.” I met him when he was a bartender at one of the little leather bars in Cleveland, in fact the oldest one in Ohio. He had a huge bull’s tether in his septum, and I was just staring at him, because number one it was very attractive and number two I was like, “hmm, how did you do that? How did he get something that thick into his septum?”  I asked him a couple of questions. He explained it to me, explained the process of stretching and piercing.  When I asked him where do you get something like that done he said he’d gotten work done at the Gauntlet in L.A. by a gentlemen called Jim Ward. That was my first introduction to Gauntlet, and even that was through Linus.  He told me about PFIQ and the new shop he’d be opening, etc etc, and then in his psychotic manner he said, “So what are you doing tonight? I get off in two hours.” I said, “eh, probably just going home” and he said, “Well let’s go home and fuck”, and I’m like, “okay.” Now realize back then I was working for a Catholic Church.  I was the rectory cook, as well as directing theatre for the deaf and blind and just about any other handicap you can imagine and normal people all on the same stage.  It was a lot of work, it was a lot of fun, and I loved doing it.  That’s what I did for a living back then. Cooking for a church rectory for the priests and the nuns who ran the Hunger Center in a pretty impoverished area of Cleveland, but it was also the deaf and the blind center for the Diocese of Cleveland. I had worked with almost all types of disabilities really from the time I was 13.

But then I met Linus and went out with him.  The next day was my birthday.  So for my 21st birthday he pierced my right nipple. Five months later my left nipple. This was back in the day when you held your own forceps.  The following year he held everything, because he would learn from Jim at Hellfire, which was a gay male S&M festival. During that Jim would do demonstrations throughout the whole thing. We were learning different techniques from watching Jim at Hellfire, then we’d come back to Cleveland and work on those techniques, and I know he talked to Jim quite a bit on the phone. That’s where I first met Jim – I was helping him during the opening ceremony. Linus wanted to do a rope suspension, and was telling me all the things we would have to do. And then once we got him up he wanted all these candles put down his back and his legs, his arms and wind chimes from all his piercings.  I said, “Oh great!  How many people are going to be at this?”  He told me it was the opening ceremony for the whole week, everyone who signed up for this festival will be watching this. I was like, “holy shit.” No pressure, right? How about if we don’t and say we did?  He said “no you will do this. You guys will do it right.” So that’s the first memory I have of Jim Ward, such a gentle loving man. When we were taking Linus down and getting the candles off of him and the wind chimes, Jim walked by me and patted me on the head and said relax, you did a great job. You know I’d never done anything like that; for God’s sake we were from Ohio! Jim was just so reassuring. It was something I just got so fascinated with, so fascinated and continued with my apprenticeship. It was about two and a half years and the whole time I was also working as an orderly. I was working in home care during the day and at night I’d be at Body Language apprenticing. I never worked just one job. With apprenticing of course you weren’t paid, you worked for nothing to learn the art form.  Linus was one of the few people in the state of Ohio at that time who had any training for piercing.  Back in the 70s and early 80s it was strictly within the gay community and the S&M community,  it wasn’t mainstream at all. I found that out the hard way because you know I had both my nipples pierced and was doing theatre.  So I go to get dressed one day and I take my shirt off without thinking anything of it, and holy hell, people are like staring at my chest, and I’m like, “whats wrong?”  They’re like, “you have metal through your chest!” and I correct them saying, “no, it’s through my nipple.”  The nun was like, “how could you do that in front of these people!” and said, “c’mon, it’s just jewelry.” But they basically told me I had to make some decisions, and I did end up losing my job because of that.  I told them, “I’m not taking them out” and they said, “well we don’t know if we can continue to have you work here.” I told them I’m not going to compromise what I like because it doesn’t fit in their definition. I was always stubborn that way.  I was like, “OK, bye bye.” Linus said “no no no, you don’t quit because of that.” He also taught the deaf there. My little freak. You know he was eccentric. Everything for him was black or white. The older I get the more I’m like that. What’s a gray area?  I don’t have that – it’s black or white. And I think with a lot of nurses things are that way. You know it’s either fact or it’s not, the grey areas in nursing are few and far between.

Ari -Why do you believe that is?

Vidra – Because in nursing the principles of care that we work on, number one are well researched, and number two it’s to improve the health, or the quality of health. Even in hospice care you are giving massive amounts of care to the family and for the patient to make sure they are comfortable with what is happening and what is going to happen, and it’s just black or white.  You don’t look at a dying patient and say well it looks like it’s getting better when they look like crap and things are getting worse and they’re dying, right? It’s part of a normal process and it’s how you present it that makes it good or bad. It’s not a gray area. You have to be able to talk about the fact that they are dying and you know what – they have a right to die with dignity and in a way that makes sense to them. Some things are just very black and white.  I did hospice for at least 25 years and I was doing hospice for AIDS patients before it was popular, meaning hospitals and the nurses had no information, the behaviors were inappropriate.  To get people to take care of an AIDS patient in their home – good luck on that. The stigma was ridiculous.  Just like in the 70s you didn’t come out as a gay man to your family and if you did you’d be disowned; I was disowned by my family. My mother died in 1977 and right after her death by that fall my none of my brothers or sisters wanted anything to do with me because I was very blunt about my sexuality. My dad would still talk to me. But he was an old WW2 Vet and I’m saying, “hey by the way dad, I’m screwing men.”  He just lost his wife and his youngest son is saying I’m queer.  I said, “hey at least I’m not wearing a dress, that’s something that you should be thanking God for!” He said, “that doesn’t make me feel better.” I told him I’m no less of a person and I’m no less of a man and he said, “I don’t know if I can even accept this.” He said, “well what about the rest of the family and what about the relatives” and I told him it’s none of their business. He said, “you know it’s not going to stay that way.” I said, “well whatever dad, if I’m invited to things I’ll come, if I’m not I won’t be there.”  I look back at that now and I wish I would’ve waited. I didn’t have contact with my family until the mid 90s, while my dad died when I was nursing school.  He died three months before my graduation, which about killed me because you know the only thing I kept thinking towards the end is the old man’s going to be shocked because I was president of the class.  I was carrying a four point something grade average.  I had dropped out of high school. I moved out of my house when I was about 16 and I lived in a hotel hooker and junkie place right by the hospital.  I got a room there very cheap. I worked in a restaurant washing dishes and I worked at the hospital transporting bodies. I lived at the hotel where I had a room and a bathroom.  I became dear friends with all the older hookers, we were like a little family. If they had a john that they were a little questionable about I would hide in my bathroom and if they thought something was wrong they would use a word and I would come out. When people say to me well you act just like a black woman, I always say well they helped raise me. They were as much an integral part of my life as my own family was. The one lady she always said to me, “David you shut your mouth about what you like. It’s not accepted. I can sell myself on the street and that’s OK because it’s a tradition.  But for men like you and women like you it’ll always have to be hidden – because you are the devil children.” I said, “what are you?”  She’s say that she was an angel, and we would laugh and joke about it. She’d say, “I know it hurts you, I know it does, but you’ll make it through it. Don’t worry about it.  You continue to make a life for yourself.” I did. I continued working for Linus for quite a while and then I lived with him and his partner.  I apprenticed under him, and you could say he is probably the first man I ever had real strong feelings for. Linus and his partner were in a pretty open relationship and one night they brought home this man named Mark. That’s my lover still to this day. Mark and I have been together since we were in our early 20s. You know his sister’s kids were growing up and they’d ask, “how did you and Uncle Mark meet?”  In the early 80s stuff was rough on all of us. You know piercing in Ohio wasn’t popular right then because you have a whole AIDS crisis, and with the AIDS crisis a lot of piercings were not done – the only two to do it was Linus and this gentleman named John Britton – they were the two people in the community here in Northern Ohio. If they didn’t know the people, they wouldn’t pierce them.

Jim Ward and David Vidra; APP Conference 2015. Photo courtesy of Matte Erickson.

Ari – Was John Britton someone who had also learned from Jim Ward?

Vidra – Probably from PFIQ.  He was a good piercer, all of his jewelry was Gauntlet jewelry and dull ass needles from Jim, because back then they were veterinary needles with the hubs cut off.

They were nasty, let me tell ya!  10g needles took forever to get through! It was what it was. We all used pressure cookers as an autoclave and that’s what you were told to do in PFIQ. That was high technique back then.

Ari – I’ve always been smitten with the overtly sexual nature of those years in piercing

Vidra – That was the one thing with Linus, he would do piercings on people who wanted to get their nipples done while they’re getting fisted. Shit, that’s the only time I’ll go pierce now.  One of the doms call me or whatever, one of the leather groups, like, “Hey Dave can you do a demo with this because this guy really wants to get his quiche done.” I said if he’s getting fucked at the same time then no, that would be too tricky and I’m not getting all involved in that business. They say, “no no no, he wants to be going down on his master with you piercing his guiche” and I said, “oh that’s fine!”  Don’t tell me you’re a master pierce until you can time a nipple piercing with an orgasm – so when that needle goes through they’re going to shoot a wad.

Ari – Piercing history gets a bit murky when you talk about the Midwest – you know the coasts are so documented and clear and the Midwest is not. Do you feel like that’s because there wasn’t so growth in this whole section of the country or are we doing a bad job of documenting what was occurring there?

Vidra – I think it’s a lack of documentation.  When Linus died, two years before he died he gave me permission to go ahead and pierce, and open up a studio.  When I left my apprenticeship I decided to focus more in AIDS activism and I was running an organization called the North Coast AIDS Homecare. I had three people working with me that I trained and we took care of AIDS patients in the home of our patients until they died. They had six months or less. None of us were licensed nurses.  I was the only one with documented experience as an orderly and a technician. I always had worked in hospitals. I’d worked in ERs, I’d worked in surgery because back then doctors trained surgical technicians – you didn’t go to school.  If they liked you, if they thought you were good, they would teach you everything including sterilization. They would put you into the sterilization room and help you learn how to scrub instruments, how to package them, how to wrap them, what they were and how they were used. That was a lot of my medical background at that point up to like the mid 80s. I got my high school diploma I think in 1983, I took a GED. I was kinda shocked – I aced it! I only took a refresher course for a couple of weeks – it bored me. But I knew I was bad in math and everything else I did fine with you know and then I was still working in nursing homes so the time I was at Saint Augustans and then I started North Coast Aids Homecare. Around that time, that’s when the names project out of San Francisco and all over America built the quilt for the AIDS patients.  Back then that was all brand new, and we had made a huge section of it for Linus. The names project was coming to Cleveland. I was at that time sitting on a committee and running my own organization to start the first AIDS hospice in Ohio. We got the property donated to us.  I had some friends I knew who had a good amount of money, a couple of gay men, and I said this is what I want to do.

I said the church is getting involved, there’s a committee, it will be run professionally. I can’t keep doing this alone. It’s getting busy and there’s too many people that have no place for these people to even go to be comfortable to pass. A lot of them were homeless, families just disowned them when they found out they were gay let alone when they found out they had AIDS. You know all hell broke loose. You have the religious people saying this is God’s punishment to your community. That was big in Ohio. But then again look at the President we had at the time – Reagan never even said the word AIDS. 1 Ultra conservative yet so many of the people who he performed with were dying of it and some of them got it from blood transfusions, so on and so forth. And what about the babies who were born with? There’s so many different aspects of it, and back then again we really fought for everything we got for the community.  I got hooked up with the Cleveland Clinic with Dr. Susan Rehm, an amazing lady.  I would take care of some of her patients. She really was the one who got me going hardcore. “What do you mean you don’t have a high school diploma” she said, “what a waste! you’re intelligent!”  I told her I know how to bullshit my way through just about anything and make myself look like an expert. She said, “I don’t believe that!” I told her you got to do what you’ve got to do. I have no formal education. She said you’re not a nurse. I wasn’t. She said you should be. I said that means I have to get a high school diploma and that means I have to go to school. I didn’t like school – see realize when I was in high school. I took care of two kids with muscular dystrophy.  I would take them to the toilet and make sure they could eat and if they were having a hard time eating I would feed them.  Now when they both died I quit school. What was I  there for then? When they were living I had a purpose to be there so I would go to enough classes that I didn’t get straight incomplete so they couldn’t throw me out of school.  That way I could keep volunteering with Terry and his brother. They wanted me to be in the burnt out work program where you went to school part of the day and then you work the rest of the day – it was for the bad kids. And I was one of the bad kids.

I wasn’t bad – I was just eccentric! I was a white boy with an afro bigger than you’ve ever seen. Dressed and danced like I walked off of Soul Train.  A white boy who was six foot three with the afro and an elephant bells that where hip huggers with a very conservative father and mother.  She was conservative but at the same time I was her child and she would tell me just don’t let the crack of your ass show because I will beat you bloody. I got huge bell bottoms and I wore  8″ platforms. That’s what I went to school in and I would walk to my old school in those platforms.  That’s why when women say you don’t know what it’s like to walk in high heels I’m like fuck you, I do too! They were just called platforms!  And I would walk even in the winter, just put shoe covers on them so they wouldn’t get ruined!  I was given a car when I was 16. When I told my brother I was dropping out of school there went the car. In our family if you dropped out of school it was like bye!  That was the rule – go ahead and drop out and you get out.  No grey area. I got away with it a little longer than anyone else because I was the baby. I got away with it and my Dad eventually gave me the car back.  My Mother never knew I was pierced, she’d already passed. My Dad though found out at a family reunion.  My Aunt had a built in pool and I was going to go swimming.  I took off my shirt dove in the pool, came up out of the water and heard my brother  say, “what the hell is this?” It turned into a nightmare. My father asked, “what the hell are you doing?” I told him I was decorating my body, what’s the big deal?   He asked why I wanted to be pierced.  I said because I like them pulled on. It hit on my father’s last nerve.  The more he responded the more I went there.  I told my father I was going to get facial tattoos. I was graduating from nursing school and I really wanted to get a facial tattoo. He told me I was never going to be able to work as a nurse. I said, “yeah Dad, I will because I’m good!” When I think about it now, it wouldn’t have gone over.  On the West Coast you can have sleeves and be a nurse, but try that in Ohio. There’s going to be prejudices, and restrictions on how many piercings you can have and what types of piercings a nurse can have. I think they can still have their nostrils done , and up to two holes in the ears. No eyebrows, no lips, no this, no that. Those laws we were fighting came mostly from the world renowned Cleveland Clinic Foundation. In all seriousness, in the 80s a lot of the midwest was directly tied to the gay community. A lot of our younger generations don’t even realize how tight it was.  That’s where most of my generation came out. We used the word fag and it wasn’t a hideous word. It was nicer than getting your head bashed in with a bat. In Chicago it wasn’t as tied in but that was in the 80s. You had Mad Jack and Mike Leatherman.

Mike Leatherman, 1992. Photograph by Shawn Porter.

There was also Mick Noland in Kansas City, and Leatherman had studied under Mad Jack (Kaplan). Let me tell you, Leatherman, who’s not piercing much anymore if at all –  fabulous piercer.  Him and I hated each other until we finally met because there was always the competition, and the competition in the Midwest was who are the big names. I just didn’t play the game.  I didn’t care about having a big name, I cared about doing what I loved and fighting for it.  I didn’t give a damn about the name, but I did have that name. The CDC and OSHA spent a week at my shop watching procedures.  That included genital procedures and nipple procedures and everything you can imagine – they watched from start to finish. They’d say why do you do it this way, why do you do it that way, why are you using this product? They had us going over exposure control plans and going over how we documented stuff.

Ari – What was what was the first year you had an exposure control plan?

Vidra – My first year of having an exposure control plan was 1991.

Ari – Was that because it was becoming the norm for tattoo shops or was that because of your background and you knew you needed one?

Vidra – The blood borne pathogens standard did not become law until 1991 and it immediately went into effect in the medical field. There was a big thing when the blood born standards went into effect, then it started getting interpreted and everyone just said that’s just for the medical industry. That’s when they introduced universal precautions. Back then the universal precautions was like the big thing!  If you read the old documents from CDC about universal precautions they’ll say there’s a second part of it where standard precautions comes from. And it’s isolation precautions where everything is treated as hazardous.  I mean universal precautions I could clean puke, poop, pee, whatever as long as there wasn’t visible blood. I don’t think so!  Gloves just started being worn in the 80s and that was because of HIV and AIDS. We never used to wear gloves doing dressing changes.  To put in the sterile packing we did, but we didn’t use sterile gloves, we used clean gloves. What went into the wound never was touched by your clean hand. It was still sterile.  It was aseptic technique, which in our community –  I don’t believe it’s known. Everybody now thinks they’re doing sterile technique and they are so full of shit. They’re not.

Ari – You still find there’s a big confusion between aseptic technique and sterile technique?

Vidra – A complete lack of understanding – sterile technique means your hands can’t drop below your waist. You can’t even turn your back on your field.  When these people tell me they’re doing sterile technique I’m like oh please hun, go sit down.  You have made a choice to do aseptic technique using sterile gloves, which nurses do when they do wound care.  Wound care is not completely sterile technique – its asepsis with sterile gloves.

Ari – Lest we forget aseptic technique is totally adequate for our field!

Vidra – Tell that to the people who are completely disposable using sterile gloves and they will tell you you’re full of shit.

Ari – When when did you first start to notice that piercers were confusing themselves with doctors?

Vidra – That started happening in the late 90s. Really late 80’s, even. It started happening in the 90s  especially when BME came about, with Tom Brazda getting well known. I love Tom. Tom and I didn’t always get along. Once I spent a lot of time with him I fell in love with him, and it was just because of how petty and gossip-y our industry is. People were saying we’d said things about one another but we never said any of it! Tom and I agree on a lot of things, although I think Tom is sometimes too over the top that with his aftercare. Some of the recommendations falls into practicing medicine without a license.

Ari – That’s fascinating, because you know the general gist that I always liked about Tom’s aftercare was that if you strip away a lot of the details, it was the concept that general health was more important than an aftercare regiment.

Vidra – You know what – I agree with Tom 500%.  But in America – what’s general health? I’m saying when you look at the general population and even in Canada, most people don’t take care of themselves.   The younger generations now have more vegans,  you have more people eating clean, etc.  But understand when Tom was around, you also had baby Luis (Garcia), and Keith Alexander was still around during that time. Keith was part of the APP board at one point I think.  I went to the Gauntlet workshop when it was brand new, 1993 or something. It was the same class as Mic Rawls and Al D. Paul and Mic are my heroes, Mic especially because he got into Gauntlet right out of our classes. That was something I wanted so badly but I couldn’t have that freedom even if it was offered.  I had just bought a house with my lover and just opened my own shop and had investors to pay back.  To see somebody who got that, I was so excited for Mic, he was the most hyper little punk boy in the whole world.  Al and I were best friends, we were inseparable.  Al and I were the first two appointed board members outside of the founding board to APP.

David, Mic Rawls and Al D. 1990s. Photo courtesy of Mic Rawls.


Ari – Would you do a profile on Al D. for us?

Vidra – When I first met Al I remember he walked in with this guy from the Seattle area, I can’t remember his name, but when they walked in they were in full leather.  They came on motorcycles, and it was my first time in San Francisco – I’m a Midwest boy.  I wasn’t in leather or anything,  I was in my jeans and my T-shirt. But I was in San Francisco for the first time and I was a little nervous. Back then it was an $800 round trip ticket. That was cheap. Plus we were paying close to two grand for the workshop plus your hotel and everything else!  When I met Al I was kind of intimidated – here I am going to this course and I don’t know anyone.  At this point I had already been piercing and I was apprenticing somebody and I told the guy I was apprenticing he was only allowed to change  jewelry out when I was gone and not to piece anybody until I got back from these courses.  I had a lot of questions legally, like will I lose my nursing license because I was advertising myself as a piercer?  Back then nobody was sure! I wrote a letter to the Board of Nursing and they said I could not advertise my license as a nurse. My name was my name, the initials after your name you may not use in advertising at all, because then you would have to have a doctor on staff to give you orders to do what you’re doing. Your license falls under different laws. Nursing law is strict, and still is. A lot of people have found that out in the permanent cosmetic industry.  Al was such a sweet guy. He wasn’t uppity, he was very welcoming, he didn’t make me feel any less than him,  and to me had so much more experience than I did.  When I really look at it now I had just as much as experience, but on the West Coast there was more people than just Gauntlet teaching. Here you had Fakir, and people like Gayle’s husband from Body Circle.  You know Body Circle, next to Gauntlet, they were the only other body jewelry I used for the longest time. People don’t even know who the hell they are.  People don’t realize how deep their roots run. Gayle and her husband, they were the ones in the straight S&M community who made the best jewelry – they still make amazing jewelry, they always have.  They no longer go to APP.

Ari – They’re really one of the few companies that you can see the S&M aspects come out in their jewelry with how thick and large gauge their stocks options are. I don’t think it registers to most younger piercers.

Vidra – It’s gorgeous. Their stuff is amazing. But most of the younger piercers won’t even look at. It’s not the top four or the top three.   But back to Al!  He was the most loving man in the world. I knew Al’s downfalls. In Washington, with those people he competed with, he would do anything to put them down and out of business. I hated that about him.  I hated the fact that I got sucked into it. Him and I disagreed on a lot of things but we always came back to each other with arms open.

Ari – In what ways would you find yourself disagreeing with Al?

Vidra – Ethics. Business ethics.  You don’t try to take somebody else’s business or shut somebody down,  just so nobody can get near you.  He’d say, “you do it to them before they do it to you, it’s been done to me a lot.”  I’d say it’s been done to me too. Why do we have to support that behavior?

Ari – I think that Al’s viewpoint stands as a much more regular viewpoint for most businesses.

Vidra -I mean that’s how it was before it was became so popular – it was just so cutthroat. If you weren’t cutthroat it was hard to survive.  The philosophy of you put them down before they put you down, because whether or not you studied with Gauntlet or whether you studied with Fakir, nobody gave a damn in the Midwest because they didn’t know who the fuck either of them were.  Or because your prices were higher. I was paying Gauntlet wholesale prices – so paying $35 per barbell wholesale. When I did a tongue piercing I charged 100 bucks for it, thirty dollars for my fee, aftercare supplies, and the rest jewelry. I only marked up the jewelry once, not even a full hundred percent. I never could have stayed in business otherwise, and that’s why when I hear people now say they mark up their stuff 300% I’m think damn, we couldn’t have done that. I know that’s typical business but for my business, the local area, I mean it was correlated to the economy where I was. Everybody else would be like, “we charge this much for this” and all I could think was, “how?”  We couldn’t do that in Ohio.  And even when the Gauntlet came out with their piercing courses everyone wanted to imitate them. When Gauntlet started having problems, once Jim had sold it the first thing Al did at that point was say, “c’mon Dave, time to put together our own manual and do our own classes.” We put together a manual using Gauntlet’s manual as a reference. I told him we can only reference it and we have to write down references. I said I want Jim’s name there and Michaela’s name there. He said, “you’re such a baby.”  I told him that you give credit where credit is due. I mean this from the bottom of my heart in this industry – people see somebody being successful and making some money, and they think I can do that; I’ll just steal what that person did. If I change it 25 to 35 percent I can’t get nabbed for copyright. When somebody says it’s a form of flattery it’s bullshit.

You see Michaela was my heart of all hearts. That woman taught me at my basic course. Oh my God I felt like I was on cloud 9 when I left that course.  You know what, she is one of the most brilliant women in the world, and she did so much to pull that organization to where it is and has become today. It’s all because of her. She started it. Period. Michaela got Al involved, Michaela got me involved. Because of Michaela I would learn what I had to do to do real research. See realize piercing was not my only income. I worked full time nursing and ran my piercing shop.  I would take all my piercing money and yes, I did literal research and would spent ten thousand dollars on tests in a lab to prove a point so it could not be questioned. Michaela was doing it with me.  She would say we need this and I’m like OK, we’ve got to get money together, that’s going to cost big bucks. I said we can write a paper on theory but you know how some of the people are about theory – they want to hear a fact because CDC says this.  Then we would start really researching what should be done for the testing and if we could afford it.  Most the time it was no, so then I would find the money or I would take a cash advance off one of my credit cards. I’m not talking about small cash advances. That was part of my first bankruptcy. But I didn’t tell anybody about that – I mean, Al knew it.  Michaela and I would talk about the APP constantly. Al and I competed a lot with each other. He was my best friend, and we fought like it too. I would get mad when we fought because I’m like I don’t want to lose our friendship. He’d go it’s part of being friends, we’re going to disagree.  But it would eat at me.  I would call up him up and go I still don’t agree with you but I love you. He’d be laughing asking why would you think I wouldn’t care about you? Just because we don’t agree on everything?  I’d say I don’t know, but you know how much I respect you. But there were a couple of times where I got really hurt. I always pierce my tongues from the top down, always have, that’s how I was taught by Gauntlet.  Al did his from the bottom up.   I was like well it’s not wrong, there’s more than one way to skin a cat but I prefer to do it my way, the way I’m comfortable.  Well at a piercing class we were teaching together Al suddenly goes let’s see how well David can adjust to doing something differently,  and maybe pierce a tongue from the bottom up.  When we got back to his house I chewed him out from one end to his house to the other. I said don’t you ever embarrass me in front of students again, ever. You cannot do that to another instructor. Did you need to make yourself look better than I? What’s the problem here?  Eventually we both calmed down about it. We had to teach together the next day.  With APP mistakes were made.  When Al and I got on the APP board we were the first board who started traveling with that organization. Michaela and I were the ones who did that whole application process. Jim put some of the money upfront so we could get our membership. I put some of the money in so we can afford to get the booth – I mean the booth alone costs two grand! Gauntlet paid for all the printing of the handouts of the APP, I paid for the printing of a lot of stuff, on different things to get people’s attention and so on and so forth.  When I was on the board the APP paid for nothing; we paid for everything ourselves.  We paid for our hotel rooms, our flight, our food, we were complete volunteers.  I mean it’s not like they had anything at this time, it was just starting to build up a membership.  Now I look at what’s going on and I’ll be the first to admit that I think “kiss my ass!”.  There’s a point where it gets ridiculous, and that’s what I said, and it’s gotten me in trouble a few times.  With Al, his heart was always in the right place. That’s one thing I know for fact.  He loved this art form more than anything in the world.  He loved ritual, he loved the fact that people could find closure or healing through the different things that we performed.  Al was very big on ritual and he was very good at it.

Dallas Suscon, 2016. Photo by/courtesy of Matte Erickson.

Ari – When you say ritual, are you including things like performance and ball dance and whatnot?

Vidra –  Yes. I am also including like when he would be cutting somebody or branding them – he was so good at focusing them and preparing them.  Even if it was somebody he knew, like me, before a branding or cutting he would cleanse them with sage. We would do a little more along with the typical prep and everything. Al and I would always push the edges with that stuff but realized it was considered a little extreme back then.  Everyone thinks I’m so against extreme modification.  I’m not! But a 21 year old who wants to stick a diabetic syringe full of pigment into their eye?  Kiss my fat ass.  I just don’t want it lumped in with piercing. Most of the extreme mod is a group of limited people, it is not commonplace.  I mean there was a time when it became common, yes. But that’s when I was younger and I had to put my foot down when some people said we want you to see what we do. I said I have no desire to watch anything you do because you’re dangerous and you’re a hack and  you will do this on anyone – you need to stop doing this on people! Oh you read an anatomy book?  Well bravo! That people thought I was extreme was always funny to me. I’m not as extreme as I’d like to be, but I always had something holding me back. That was my nursing.  I love nursing as much as I love piercing, and to have both I had to compromise with both.

Ari – That makes sense, I could see a lot of points where it would hit opposing ideologies.

Vidra – Oh god, so many times!  It was hard because I would be so proud of something I accomplished with the body art community, and not just piercing; I worked with tattooists, I worked with permanent cosmetic too. I’d make an accomplishment say with CDC or whatever, and I would share that with nursing and they would be so excited about it. Yet our own industry would be like, “you son of a bitch, you’re going to screw it up for us.” And I’d feel like fuck you – I put my ass on the line for you people?  I’ll just let them do what they want. Why am I spending this money to protect you when you don’t give a fuck?  I spent a lot of money that I shouldn’t have. I got hurt a lot too.  Yet those same standards are still taught today at the classes.  I don’t blame the organization, I blame certain individuals associated with the organization and I’m starting to let go of some of  it now.  What I love is piercing and the body art industry.  I’ve always been very dedicated to the APP, the standards in promoting the organization- not just to other artists but to governments like in the United States, and in Sweden and in other countries that all now have their own APPs. Al D and I were the first two to go to London, alongside Dr. Jack.  We were invited there to teach BBP.  We copied all the manuals at his shop! He said, “we don’t have to have them printed, I have a good copier!” This is what I was just starting to put together my own manual. In the early 90s we went to London, to Camden, at Grant’s studio and Al went there a week before everyone else because he taught a branding course and a scarification course.  Health Educators started out in 1988, it was very small and I didn’t make it official until the early 90s. I already had the concept, and already was kind of doing it with one of the directors of nursing – putting it together from visiting nurse associations. Three weeks ago I was going through some very old files, and I found the first First Aid course for this industry, and the rationales behind why we needed this in it but not these things, and so on and so forth. I just never could get seventy five thousand dollars to get it approved by the powers to be. That’s what it would have cost, seventy five grand, because of course you’re going to turn it into a big business like the Red Cross or American Heart or National Safety Council, right? No! I just wanted to write something for our industry, and I wanted it approved.. That approval process is very expensive because money can be made from it, a lot of money.

Think about how much they make from doing these courses a year like at American Heart or National Safety Council. They make a good bit of money. Even with all of them doing it online now, you still have to go and do demonstrations in person with some, or most, of the better courses.  The ones that you do for First AID and C.P.R. online where you don’t have to go in, like in front of somebody and pump a dummy is not accepted by most people at all.  It’s not accepted for anybody other than people in our industry.  Paramedics cannot take it online, EMTs cannot take it online.   A lot of the online courses that are up there are some of the worst shit I have ever seen. I’ve taken enough of them and that’s why I never get online. With these courses, people think it’s too long and people want it quicker and they want it back on their phones. No – they’re not getting what they want.  They get what they need, and we’re not giving them what they need if we do that because they’re not hearing you explain how to put into their practice. What people don’t understand about Al, if he said he loved you or he would support something, it was with everything in his body. Unconditional.  But when he didn’t like somebody it was just as unconditional. We were known as the inseparable twins, Al and I hung out together when we were at APP, and we would stay in the same room and we usually got to leave room for playtime,  scarification or branding or stuff like that, a bunch of people wanted to watch healthy ritual with me.

Part of ritual is performance, and how to do it appropriately. Al knew how to do it.  See, I don’t scar easily, so what we did was Al cut the tree of life into my sternum and onto my collarbone and then we branded it over the open scars. My legs flew up to my shoulders! My back was screwed up from the time I was 22 because of taking care of patients, and trying to do most of it on my own. I tried to move a 600lb patient on my own.  Everyone is talking about wearing a headlamp  – oh please, I was wearing those in the early 90s! What the hell is your problem? Al saw me wearing one and was like, “hey, that’s a good idea!” It’s over the top, and most people say it’s ridiculous – that I’m trying to make everything medical. I like to see what I’m piercing! You have to have good lighting. You can’t have shadows!  If you have shadows you can screw up. Then what, you blame that on the client?  Tell them they jumped or something? No, you fucked up.  You’re a human being, you’re not a machine, and you will make mistakes. Jim beat that into my head, Michaela beat that into my head, and the thing they said is how you deal with it as a professional is what will make you good. Michaela would take phone calls from me where I was quitting because I screwed up a piercing, she would have to talk me down off the ceiling, stop me from crying. This is while I was driving inbetween patients doing hospice care.  I didn’t want to misrepresent APP, didn’t want it to seem like a Mickey Mouse organization, because we were new and nobody knew us.  We had to get the word out.  Everybody was like, “oh it’s a Gauntlet organization” and we were like, “no it’s not!” I can’t help that Jim and Fakir had a falling out. I didn’t know much about Fakir. Al took Fakir’s course and Jim’s course. I always was curious about taking Fakir’s course, and I actually helped out a bit with some of the safety aspects of it and made suggestions way back in the day. But other than that I never had the opportunity to.  Business got busy and when I finally got to open my own shop where everything was me I was also doing all the fetish balls back then.  The Organ Grinders Ball – Barry used to come in for that, some of Gail’s staff, Al, Michaela, all of them came in for the first one.  The first one was done in honor of the gentleman who taught me how to pierce.  Linus always wanted to have a huge party and invite all the people, from vanilla to the weirdest of the weird, so I added to that a huge show with fashion and music and Al and I did a hook pull. Which back then to do a hook pull in public?  I ripped the hooks out of Al’s back!  He said, “you’re a damn semi!”

Ari – What year was the first Organ Grinder’s ball?

Vidra – 1991 or 1992? We started doing those in the early 90s.  We had bought our house around 1993-1994, back then the board meetings were held at board member’s houses because we couldn’t afford to have them at a hotel. We had it in my house right after Mark and I had just moved in here. Jeff Martin was on the board, Brian Skellie, Kent Fazekas, and Allen Falkner, Rob Petroff (who was the treasurer who ripped us off).  They all stayed at our house.  Going back to when piercers started confusing themselves with doctors, I saw Paul in his interview mention Michaela and the triangle of death. That’s when people started becoming doctors.  Michaela and I took a strong stance on it. Why?  Because we saw the ones not being done right and problems that were occurring, which was because of a lack of training. Luis (Garcia) could do those like there was no tomorrow. But in medical texts that area is actually known as the triangle of death because there are veins that go through the eyebrows back that go right into the brain area and back into the sinuses, major veins and arteries, and if they don’t have loose enough tissue and you can’t really get that tissue away then you don’t pierce.  I mean god forbid if you have to pass up that thirty bucks! I have an issue with people who say every tongue is pierce-able.  No it is not! There are some things that should anatomically not get pierced on every person.

Ari – I think there’s no doubt that there are parts of peoples’ anatomies that would fall into the unsafe or improbable category. But what about for something that has a high probability of not working out but safety isn’t an issue – where does the line blur into adult consent.? Let’s say an incredibly overweight person is just adamant about a navel piercing – are they not entitled to still receive those services after full disclosure is given?

Vidra – You document it on the release form that you explained to them the risks due to anatomy. I believe in adult consent, but then there comes to a point where ethically I have also refused and said I know you can have them somewhere else. The reason I don’t want to do it on you is “this is what I’m afraid of”.  If you get an infection or if it starts to reject you’re going to have a permanent scar. How are you going to get rid of that scar? Then I would offer something else. One girl who came to me had a heart defect and wanted a navel piercing, and I told her I can only do it if you bring in note from your doctor that this can be done safely and there is no risk of you getting infections in your heart.  Then I will pierce you.  I wrote all this down that I must speak with him, not his nurse, with him.  The doctor came with her! And afterwards wrote a letter to our shop saying that he’d been a doctor for all these years and our piercing rooms, hate to say, were cleaner than a surgical center and our sterilization and our explanation, etc. I was just flabbergasted and it was sent to CDC.  It’s a very gray area where you know consensual, safe and sane, even though the odds are stacked against the client.  You document it and have them initial it that there could be large problems. That’s what I tell people  – they are adults, they are consenting.  If you really think it’s going to cause a pretty severe problem it’s up to you how you deal with that. I always say what I would rather do is give you other options because I know that one is not the best for you.  I personally always wanted certain piercings and I know I didn’t have the anatomy for it.  The way I was raised in piercing was if it wasn’t functional I didn’t want it. The only decorative piercings I really had were my tragi.  My septum was very functional because I could put a shoe lace right through or a piece of leather through it and tie it where I want it.  The other thing that people don’t really know about Al is he was an old guard in the S&M community. So am I.  We’d been around for a while and things were done a certain way. Not everyone had a septum because it was pretty. Now septums are a dime a dozen. One of my bank tellers had one, I just kind of chuckled to myself like, god is this mainstream! I remember when having a septum piercing meant you were a freak. When we only pierced with niobium retainers from Good Art.  I mean, they were from Gauntlet but they got them from Good Art. I was a Gauntlet brat, if it wasn’t from them I wouldn’t use it, for the most part. I used some Silver Anchor and Toucan Jewelry.  Derek Lowe managed my shop. He was an amazing manager and he was an amazing friend.  I met him because when he took the Gauntlet workshops and Michaela introduced the two of us over the phone.  Derek would call me if he was having a problem or I would call him and we would exchange information over the phone, talk for hours.

Ari – The dissemination of information is interesting because when you listen to your interview with Shannon (Larratt) you talk about how in 2000 the struggles of getting piercers to disseminate information to newer piercers.  Now we’re at a time where the industry is so enormous that it feels like it’s a reverse problem, there’s too many people to properly disseminate the right information.

Vidra – Some of the problems that I see (I’m not on the Internet a lot) is when I get a phone call and someone says they were told to use Betadine and I have to ask, “why?” Do you know how to use Betadine and do you know how to store it? Do you know how long it has to be in contact for to be effective? If you don’t you shouldn’t be using it, or any other product. I mean it’s just that simple. When Technicare had to close down for six years, people don’t realize it wasn’t because their product was bad.  They have to redo every label and every recipe. Which you’re supposed to do every so many years and they didn’t do it. So FDA crawled up their butts and died because Johnson and Johnson wanted them out so they could buy them (which didn’t happen). Johnson and Johnson got in trouble because their sterile alcohol pads weren’t sterile, they were growing bacteria. This all happened around the same time. Now Technicare is back, a lot of people don’t even know that. Some people are think, “well after what they did to us I would never use it again.”  After what they did to your community? You are a pubic hair in their income!  Our community was the biggest pain in their ass! If it wasn’t for people like Steve, Michaela, and myself – there were a few times they were going to stop selling to our community! Because people were stupid, saying, “well I’ve been buying from you for five years, don’t I get a discount?”  They don’t realize the research and the testing to keep the label the way it was.  It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and still is to this day; it’s not like it stops. What they don’t realize they have spent millions of dollars in lawyer fees to keep their company going, to get all this work done to the new FDA guidelines.  The piercing community isn’t a whole lot different, except with reporting to OSHA rather then the FDA.

Ari Did you find that kind of pettiness has always existed in our community?

Vidra – You got it.  Still is to this day.  My first love of piercing was just being in the shop and how excited the clients would be, or watching the piercers because once they were piercing they were entirely different people. Pettiness went away, bitchiness went away, and they just had fun doing what they were doing and they realized they had a great job making pretty good money and doing something they loved. I never pierced full time, I always worked as a nurse two to three days a week. I had to have both. I couldn’t just do one or the other because I never really took a full check from my piercing studio.  In twenty years I never took a full check so I could pay my employees better.  If you worked for me you started at $23,000 a year, plus three weeks vacation plus your medical benefits were paid for. No one did that. I was one of the first. Half of the forms that people are still using in their shop including releases are based off of mine, including some of your exposure control plans. Chris LaChance was the first shop I ever consulted with, because Health Educators came out of Body Works Productions, which was my shop.  All the classes were held at my shop, and I would show them everything.  How things were stored, what an integrator was, what an indicator was, what was the difference, etc . How were they to be run and with what. We would have 20-30 people per course.

Ari – Why do you think that now in like 2017 with so much accessible information available – for example, I think most of our industry knows you’re supposed to use an ultrasonic but I would say a far fewer percentage understand the actual process of cavitation or what the ultrasonic is actually doing. Why do you think there’s still this block on on information like that?

Vidra –  I think people assume everyone knows everything.  Realize back in the day when I used to get my needles from Industrial Strength, I would clean them in the Ultrasonic before I would bag them and tag them.  I know they were machined but I had no idea what the process was to clean those before they were shipped out. They are guaranteed not hot because they are put through a chemical bath and flushed out and then ultrasonically cleaned. Maria will send you a certificate to prove it’s been done. Her needles are done to medical standard. That woman has more information where needles are concerned then anyone in the world. When people go to these other people who are selling needles and they’re cheap and they’re selling them presterilized and they were done in steam autoclaves – you can not sell needles wholesale in steam packages!

David Vidra and Warren Hiller. Photo courtesy of Warren Hiller.

Ari – Is it complacency or are we just doomed to forever to just accept information at face value rather than digging deeper?

Vidra –  That’s how it is now. If so and so says it, then it’s true and thats all I’m going to do. People don’t think for themselves. I know a bunch of kids in Canada who opened up a shop.  They opened it up with a brand new Statim, a brand new Hydrim, all their jewelry imported from the United States and they went out of business in six months.  But is thatbecause they have no understanding of finance?  No, it’s because they think that’s the only thing you should be using because of the classes they took at APP. I said, “Honey I’m sorry you weren’t given other options.” That whole thing is people have to be given choices. Yes, things change and evolve. However a Tuttnauer is still a good autoclave. MidMark puts out a good cassette autoclave.  It doesn’t have to be a Statim. I support using them now, but I don’t support some of the people using them because everything is wet when it comes out, and anything that comes out of an autoclave wet is not sterile.  That’s what the difference is right now with everything – it’s not what the client wants, it’s what the piercer wants to give you. I used to sell a good amount of gold. In stock we’d only keep a couple of rings, a couple of barbells,  everything else was special order, and we sold a good amount.  But those people came in looking for that quality and we would have it. It would take off but then you’d have three months where you wouldn’t sell a piece of it and you’ve got fifteen thousand dollars tied up in stock? Not everyone has credit cards, or their parent’s credit card.  The piercing room was always like a confession booth to me, I knew way more then I should have, people just felt comfortable enough to open up.  You have to have a gift to make people trust you immediately.  These kids don’t understand that.  They may know good technique but they don’t understand how to touch someone, how to make them feel welcome, not to sound corny but be in tune to the person you are working on.

Brian Skellie wanted me to write a piece on Agism but I declined, thinking people would take it as me whining.  They were starting to question when I was teaching.  Sure, I would tell them stories that are really off color and some not politically correct statements. But you know what – that was part of our industry.  It’s part of your damn history. I cut a lot of back because supposedly I was offending all these people and then crap was going down.  People are always quick to throw in something hurtful, you know.  I forgot some of the words – so sue me.  People were saying OK, he’s too old, he shouldn’t be teaching. You motherfuckers – there was a reason, but it’s not their business. Some of those are the big wigs, honey.  The organization is still doing fantastic work, and I do keep up on what’s going on. But when I have a brand new piercer who’s trained well who says, “why are we using Technicare, shouldn’t we be using betadine?”  Do you realize how hard we fought to get rid of betadine? The past couple of years I haven’t really taught at all. In some situations I was no longer welcome. People said I just lost my edge. Oh yeah, it still hurts my heart.   You know I’ve taken a lot of lumps and bumps over the years and have been smacked down and told I was foolish, or the information that I was giving to people was not scientific.  I just let it roll because what I learned is that it always comes back around and then exactly what I was teaching comes back out. How interesting!  I went for my wound care license as a nurse which, by the way, that license required four letters of recommendation, two from nurses who were specialists in care and two doctors and one from CDC. Usually that certification is only given to an RN, and I took the same course and had to take the same boards.  What a pain in the ass! Fascinating as all hell.  I loved it because you know the bigger, the gooier, and the more tissue you have to cut out the happier I am! I also hired this one woman from a company to go over aftercare for piercing, so on and so forth, and she said, “oh this is fine! I have no problem with this, with just keep it clean, don’t pick at things. Remove the dried matter, use soap and water when you’re washing yourself.” The basic tenants.  Telling them to eat good, to decrease stress and decrease smoking. At that time I showed her some of the products that were out on the market.  She said anything like sterile water or normal saline is fine! She said if they have an immune condition or if they have arthritis they have to be aware that that’s going to affect how they heal and that should be explained to them as part of their informed consent. I said the last time I talked at a conference I was asked when they were going to learn about wound care. She said, “pardon me? You went over how the body heals a wound step by step by step. What more did they want?” I told her they wanted me to say what products I felt were the best. I will never do that again.  Do you know how many people I’ve made rich? Quite a few. It was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.  That is one thing I don’t blame anyone for it – I was never good at business. I was never good at numbers. I knew if something needed to be done, I’d find the money and I’d do it.  Now part of the problem came when I said I can no longer just keep doing this for free.  This is not my livelihood. That’s where I think things went a little south with APP and me, because if there were other problems they didn’t let me know.  I just didn’t feel comfortable with going to conference every year anymore because I didn’t feel like I was wanted. I figured I would just stick with just doing Health Ed if I was no longer needed.  I don’t believe in wasting my time.  It’s politics.

Ari – Any final parting thoughts, Mama?

Vidra – My partner Mark once said to me you just have to be careful what you say to who. Some people use your weakness against you and your weakness is what every person in the world wants – just to feel part of something.


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

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

Notes:

  1. President Ronald Regan said the word AIDS for the first time in September of 1985; by this point over thirteen thousand AIDS related deaths had been recorded in the United States. Source: http://www.factlv.org/timeline.htm 

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

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