Masterpierce Theatre: Paul King
Paul King is so handsome it takes a continued effort not to rip the skin off my own face.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s be frank; Paul is a motherfucking national treasure. I honestly don’t know if I can write a proper introduction without it slipping into something so masturbatory that becomes unreadable, so I’ll just say that he is one of the most revered and respected people in this industry, and deserving of every bit of that. We spoke about Paul’s introduction to body piercing, some of the Master Piercers, cultural appropriation, and the Body Piercing Archives. Don’t forget after all of this to reach out and thank Paul for being who he is, saying what he says, and doing what he does. Also, while you’re at it, thank him for being really, really hot.
Ari- I always have everyone do the standard introductions, so tell us your name and how long you’ve been piercing and where you’re currently at.
Paul- My name is Paul King and I’ve been a professional body piercer since 1991. I was inspired and trained at a company called the Gauntlet; it was the first piercing shop in the Western world. I served a one-and-a-half-year apprenticeship under Elayne Angel. I then went on to manage Gauntlet Los Angeles, worked in the San Francisco store, and also managed Gauntlet New York. Gauntlet closed in 1998. In 1999, Grant Dempsey and I (Dempsey of Cold Steel International in London), opened up two tattooing and piercing shops in San Francisco called Cold Steel America (www.coldsteelpiercing.com). One was in the old San Francisco Gauntlet location, the other was in the upper Haight. We briefly attempted to do wholesale and decided to open in 2001. You can imagine how well that went. Wholesale didn’t last so long. So after that we parted ways in 2008. He was moving to Australia with his family and I was heading back to school. We let go of the Market street location, and I now have one shop on Haight street in the old Haight-Ashbury district.
What I’m kind of known for, and why I’m probably on the phone here, is I go around and lecture at colleges, universities, small clubs, and conventions (within our tattoo, piercing, and suspension communities), on different aspects of the body and why we decorate the body as we do, intentional body modifications, that can be temporary or permanent, “traditional”, or “modern.” I put air quotes on those because they are sometimes problematic words for academics and other communities. I go around and talk about those things, as well as research those things, make documentaries about those things, prepare lectures, and sometimes I write articles; all that ties into my love of anthropology and love of body modification.
Ari- Right out the get-go, I’m a little fascinated by you doing a year and a half apprenticeship under Elayne. Would you say that was a typical time frame for an apprenticeship at this time period?
Paul- It’s not that Gauntlet didn’t have problems, but the only reason why there is a body piercing industry today (I know there will be some folks that will take exception to this), certainly the only reason why body piercing looks the way it does today, is because of Gauntlet. We were the first to formalize in-house apprenticeships, to have levels – to even use the word “apprenticeship” in the context of body piercing. We had “apprenticeship.” “piercer,” “senior piercer,” and “master piercer,”- different levels of skillsets and hierarchy. I did do an accelerated apprenticeship program that I had developed, and it’s actually what got me awarded the Master Piercer title. I developed an intensive apprenticeship practice, I believe it was only utilized once. It was after Mic Rawls and Jon Cobb had gone through our Gauntlet seminar and we were wanting to hire them on. We were in desperate need of piercers in the New York City store. I figured out if all we did was train for seven days a week, for a month, eight hours a day, we could actually accumulate the piercings and the training needed to at least get them up to speed on most of the basics.
Ari- It seems like modern apprenticeships, outside certain places, are typically closer to a year, so it’s interesting how extensive it was for that time.
Paul- It was. What I figured out with doing that month intensive, (and keep in mind it was working with people that had already done piercing before, it was just getting them up to speed and acquainted with some different styles of piercings), was that if you stripped away all the mopping the floors and all the grunt work, the old fashioned “earning your keep,” that if you stripped that out of the apprenticeship, you can put in the same amount of hours of watching, hands-on touching, cleaning, and marking; if that’s all you’re doing every day all day long even with something that’s a year and a half apprenticeship, you can whittle that down significantly. It requires that perfect storm of someone who has some knowledge, who’s done some piercings, that’s had some training. But we only did that intensive training once.
Ari- When we look at the master piercers we see so much teaching occurring between you all – would you characterize the teaching styles as similar?
Paul- God no! Having trained under Dan Kopka, who is actually how I got into the Gauntlet and having trained under Elayne, they had very different styles and they were learning together in the same location! The minute you went to another location of Gauntlet, the structure was very different, but that was also one of the secrets of Gauntlet’s success – it wasn’t this one piercer trying to figure out a procedure using a maglight. It was groups of different piercers in conversation sharing innovations and sharing problems. What you’re looking at is really the modeling of what would later become the formula for the APP. The sharing of these ideas and of procedures and whatnot, that allowed for such a rich period of innovation, but not homogeneity.
Ari- What was the main hub of communication between the piercers at that point?
Paul- Very early on, you had very little. Gauntlet San Francisco opened up in 1990, right after Body Manipulations did 1989. Communication between stores didn’t happened fast, but it did happen. I remember when Mark Seitchek came down to Los Angeles, we’d have this sharing of information watching and shadowing and conversations and whatnot in that manner. There was actually a lot of time in that first few years where things happened independently and you had a lot of divergence in technique, and then there was a coming back together as communication got better all around with videos and people changing up stores more and later on, piercers co-leading the training seminars. It was really like guest spotting. Someone would go and work in a store and share that information with the piercers in that store, sometimes calling on the phone. Later on someone would want to do their own Pierce with a Pro article, so you’d get to see in detail how that particular piercer worked through a problem or had a different way of doing something.
Ari- While we’re on the subject of those folks, I would say you and Elayne are very well known, but when you look at Kopka and Seitchek and Michaela Grey, as time goes on, they’re far less spoken about. I don’t believe in hitting people over the head with information; articles and interviews are available on those three people, but what’s missing is some love. They’re straight forward information-based articles, so I was hoping you could humor me in talking about those three from a more personalized aspect to give them some depth.
Paul- Let’s start with the beginning for me, which is Dan Kopka. I had come up to San Francisco with a girlfriend, we came up within the first six months of Body Manipulations having opened in 1989, having no idea what their importance would become historically, having no idea what or who or anything about it. She’d had her nipple pierced and then she’d had to take it out for drug rehab, so she wanted it repierced.
Walking into Body Manipulations helped me to see how it was all done. The reason I say that is, in 1988, I had seen a picture of this guy with his nipples pierced in a gay porno mag and I was just like. “Oh my god, thats so hot!” But that was it. However, it left an impression. Then I go to San Francisco and I see my girlfriend getting her nipple pierced and within a month or that, I actually had a dream about getting my nipples pierced, and I was like, “Alright universe, I get it, I’ll get my nipples pierced.” So back in LA, I’m talking to another female friend of mine, and I’m like, “I want to get this done but I have no idea where to get this done.” She calls me and goes, “I found this place, it’s called The Gauntlet. It’s on Santa Monica Blvd.” At that time everything was done by appointment, so the first appointment I could get in there was right after the holidays, so it was the beginning of January in 1990. I walked into the Gauntlet, in the original location on the ground floor, and Jacqueline, Cross, and Elayne, all three of them were hanging out behind the counter, and they’re flashing me their tongue piercings. It’s hard to put this into perspective because it seemed like science fiction. It was startling, “What’s in your mouth? Is it candy?” When you have never seen something or never heard of something, it takes a few minutes for it to register what I am even looking at. They were getting off on it!
Paul- Back then it was sexual-mental-social getting off from this this stuff, and they were totally getting off on my big ol’ bug eyes. They’re just clanking it around, what people did with their tongue piercings back then. It was Alice-In-Wonderland-ey. It wasn’t like the nipple piercing which was, “Wow that’s so sexy!” It was more like, “Woah this is so crazy! So bizarre. This is amazing!” Out from the back comes this guy with really long dreads. He’s really quiet, seems kind of aloof, definitely stoic, very cool, very very too-cool-for-school. He says, “Alright, come on back.” He cleans me, he marks me, he pierces me, it hurt like shit, and he walks out of the room. I’m waiting there, and I’m waiting there, and I’m waiting there, and I realize, “Oh, I guess we’re done!?” So I get dressed, I’m walking out the front and he’s out there having a cigarette, and it turns out he was really high. I don’t know what he was high on, but I was like oh alright, duly noted.
I think I was living in Long Beach at the time, and as a fluke I ran into someone I went to highschool with. His name was Eric, he was one of my best friends in highschool, and it turns out by weird happenstance he was also working at Gauntlet in the gold manufacturing department downstairs. He and I started hanging out again and then I re-meet Dan. At this time Dan’s cut off all those nasty dreads and he’s just got a shaved head, and I’m like oh my god he’s actually cute! And he’s gay! At least bisexual, leaning towards gay. We tried dating for a minute, we weren’t really compatible, I’ll leave it at that, we worked out much better as friends. His roommate at the time was his boss, Elayne Angel. We’d be hanging out over there all the time, so I was getting to know Elayne as well. They would do things like every once in awhile pop in a video, and the best I can figure out is it was probably a Charles Gatewood video. It was people with piercings being interviewed in Europe. It was the first time I’d ever seen that, and back then there was no internet, so VHS tapes were passed around like crazy contraband. Back then they would cost $40-50 a piece, so just getting to see people being interviewed or just seeing at that time someone with a lip ring was actually shocking. I start hanging out with them, and then Dan says, “Alright, it’s your birthday coming up, we’re gonna pierce you for your birthday, what do you want?” At that time everything was so much more playful, the experimenting with what can you pierce, what can’t you pierce, how do you heal it, piercing had this real air of fun and experimentation and giddiness to it. I’m like, “I want a Prince Albert.” I go in for my birthday piercing, and Dans wickedly says, “alright, ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do this!” And he says, “Alright, we’re giving you an Ampallang!”
“Wait, what? No. What? No.”
Elayne just starts smiling and laughing, “Yeah, we’re gonna do an
“Uhhh uhhh…” I’m freaking out, I’m starting to sweat. “oh my god, am I gonna do this? No, I can’t do this! Are you gonna do this?”
Dan says, “Yeah, you’re gonna do this!”
Paul- They totally peer-pressured me into doing it! I was freaking out, and I got a fucking Ampallang for my birthday, shitting myself almost literally! Dan was very troubled, he was addicted to opiates on and off, and he could switch to less harder substances but total abstinence was really difficult for him. I think he tried it a few times but he never got a whole lot of time. The funny thing is during the beginning of our friendship, I’m working at a fucking corporate job, it was the only thing I could get. I’d been punk rock when I was younger and then I had a drug problem and coming out the other side of that really I took any job that would hire me. I was a phone receptionist and found out if you show up for work and do your job they just keep promoting you, oh yeah, and have half a brain. I was starting to do accounting work, which actually has served me fine later in life, but it was boring and I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be out, I wanted to be queer, I wanted to be punk, all that wear that aesthetic again. So Elayne needed a bookkeeper, and holy shit, I always knew I wanted to own my own business. This was in my early twenties. A piercing career wasn’t what I imagined, but this could certainly fit my goals. She said there was one problem, “You have to have at least one year clean and sober.” Because she had a problem on her hands already with Dan, she didn’t want another problem on her hands. So that was actually why I didn’t start working at Gauntlet until 1991, because she wouldn’t hire me until I had a year clean and sober. May 13th, 1990, is my sobriety date. In her infinite wisdom, she showed very good judgement. Meanwhile, it’s probably better that you hear it from Elayne, you can’t hear it from Dan since he’s deceased,, but from the best of my knowledge, Dan always saw himself as equal to Elayne. He certainly had his strengths, certainly some things he might have done better than Elayne, but overall, Elayne was his boss, much more articulate, and with much better bedside manner. She just had a presence that Dan never had in the same way. And I hate drawing comparisons, but that’s what Dan was doing in his own brain, was drawing comparisons.
Paul- So when Elayne decided she was leaving and Jim was bestowing upon her the first Master Piercer Certificate (for anyone else other than Jim), Dan had to have one too, because he saw himself as equal. So right from the get-go, the Master Piercer title was a little problematic. There was no specific criteria, it was an honorary title. It was bestowed upon you because Jim thought you had something more than just technique. You had to have made some sort of major contribution to piercing as an art form, industry, community, all that. But that was very arbitrary and very hard to articulate. I don’t even think he articulated it when he gave it to Elayne – it was just meant to be this act of honor and acknowledgement. So then Dan asked for it and he became the second master piercer. Then of course you had some other piercers in San Fransisco going, “Why aren’t I a master piercer?” I’m kind of giving you the grittier side. If you talk to Jim you might get something different, although probably not that different. That does not diminish the skill sets these people had, but there was ego in there. As people do, Dan wanted to spread his own wings and have his own store. He was familiar with and liked New York, so he wanted to go to New York. Originally I was supposed to go with him but I had this last minute minor panic, which I don’t know if he ever forgave me for, he was definitely upset with me for a long time. He forgave me, but he was definitely upset. I realized I couldn’t move to New York; I was recently sober my boss and only friend there is using heroin – that was not a good combination. I put the brakes on it. He ended up taking some other folks like Lauren Pine. I can’t remember when Mark Seitchek came into the New York City mix, he came from the San Francisco store.
Ari- Not to break up this train of thought, but when you look at the listing for Lauren Pine and Keith Alexander, they’re said to have been trained by Dan Kopka. Does this imply they trained solely under him, or were they still getting training from all the people in that environment.
Paul- Anyone who was there would give some instruction, absolutely. That I can say. I know I did some instruction for Keith, I know I did some for Lauren, but literally that would be like a couple piercings here and there, not the formal apprenticeship. Although Elayne Angel formally apprenticed me, I did tons of work with Kopka, very secondary work with Jim Ward, asking him about piercings and he watched me do a couple of piercings. I did several piercings under Jen Dunham’s instruction. So it wouldn’t have just been one person; we never wanted, and later on we insisted, that you had to train with different instructors. Initially it happened organically but later on it was a part of the training.
Ari- You were just mentioning Seitchek coming over to New York from San Francisco. Did you know him as well as Kopka?
Paul- I didn’t know him as well, he was in LA for some reason at some point, I can’t remember if he was guest spotting or just staying with Elayne. We met when he came down here, we had a brief spark of romantic interest in one another that quickly transitioned – it’s the gay way of making friends [laughter]. I didn’t see Mark again for several years until Gauntlet New York, so I don’t have that early time period with him. Everything else was us together in New York. My relationship with New York Gauntlet was a bi-coastal one. From 1991-97 I worked in Gauntlet NY every year; the least amount I worked in New York was one month, the most I ever worked in New York was six months, so it ran the gamut. It was a great period of time, a lot of fun. I don’t think Mark was there that whole time, I know he wasn’t there in the very beginning. He came a little later to the New York store, he also became a manager at some point. There was always drama, it’s like that store – I’m not usually superstitious – but that store was cursed. From location to staffing to management. It wasn’t part of anyone’s plan that I would be out there every year or there would be a whole slew of us out there every year, it just never could run efficiently for very long. It had periods where it would run very well, like when Mark was managing it, but something would always happen. Iit would lose employees and there’d be some sort of New York drama. I always remember, most of my memories of Mark and I were working together were really good. He is a stand up guy. Mark is a noble, grounded, and sensitive loving man. He’s awesome. He’s only become more so, you know sometimes when people get older they can change in not good ways, the world can get smaller, their worldview can get smaller, they can get more fear based – he’s only ever gotten more lovely. As time goes by, we’re not in touch as much anymore, but he teaches yoga now, he’s a dive master. He and his husband own a small boutique get-away property in Costa Rica, not bougie, just beautiful and grounded. He’s always done really, really well for himself, and he should, because he’s an awesome guy. One more thing is he speaks his mind. He doesn’t bullshit; he’s a straight shooter.
Ari- That just leaves Michaela. I have always had such a fascination with her.
Paul- Michaela is fascinating. She is a brilliant woman that has a really complex personality and a really complex background. Heart of gold, very passionate, and she’s got a warrior spirit. When you put all of that in the body of female, that pushes a lot of people’s buttons. A lot of people don’t deal well with strong opinions, a passionate warrior female, and she was definitely one of them. She was also so child-like, and I’m not saying childish, I’m saying child-like. Playful, funny, fascinated in finding the beauty in things people might overlook, but she could also be really hurt and wounded by things like betrayal and sabotage. If people did not react well to the “warrior” Michaela and were sneaky about it, it was very hurtful. Who wouldn’t be hurt by that? What else would you like to know?
Ari- When I look at someone like Michaela, who to me is so prolific, from working with Gatewood, coeditor of PFIQ, starting the APP single-handedly, to in today’s world not receiving the credit due for what turns into trying to protect what she felt was the Gauntlet way, almost to a fault. Defending those standards, even if it delved into some borderline unethical territory like lying, because she was worried about the progression of heavier modification and the illegalities that followed it; that it would damage what she was trying to uphold. It kind of feels like that has ultimately tarnished, or gotten her less spoken about, then I feel she deserves to be.
Paul- It grabbed the headlines. She made some claims that she didn’t just pull out of her ass, things that were told to her, like some nurse told her the bridge piercing, I don’t even know the whole story about it, but a medical professional told her that they consider that area really fragile, and it was the “triangle of death!” She ran with that, and it became this “triangle of death” thing. Well, it’s not, and I don’t know who told her that, but she didn’t let that go for a while. She was very passionate, I’m sure she still is, but she lacked a political savvy of how you smooth through really difficult issues and conversations. To her things were black and white. She wasn’t really open to compromise as a pretense, if that makes sense. She was well-known during her time. This is the nature of history, times change and people change.
And our industry has huge turn over. When we take a step back, our industry is still so new. When you compare it to the easiest low hanging fruit, which is the tattoo community, it has so much more time, so many more publications, so many more scholars, so much more of an established culture of wanting to preserve and learn history. When compared, I’m not saying we don’t have that, but there’s no comparison. So, in it’s hay-day, everyone knew Gauntlet. Now, I can walk into any APP conference, say last year, and I will find professional body piercers who have made it to conference and don’t know the name “Jim Ward,” don’t know the name “Fakir Musafar,” and these gentlemen are still in the headlines! They’re certainly not gonna know “Michaela Grey.” So I don’t wanna say it’s necessarily controlled media, or her being slighted, deliberately or accidentally, we’re just doing a terrible job with our history. Obviously, present company excluded, I think Sacred Debris and the APP are doing the best they can.
Ari- Do you have any speculation on why, I mean again, with our history being so young, roughly 40-ish years of an industry, is it strange that it’s not more attainable being in it’s infancy, rather than it already seeming murky?
Paul- For most people who are 30, they would’ve been 10 or younger when we’re talking about the things we’re talking about – I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon old man but it’s true – with the way social interactions, or information interaction works today, if you did memes for these people, people would know who they are. If you did cartoons that flew by your face, people would know who these people are. This isn’t a call-out, sometimes things get lost between spoken word and print. But if you’re telling people there’s all this information about all these people, to look at magazines, to find magazines, and to read them, to actually do research, they’re not going to. That’s not how it works. Even if you could google these people, you’d eliminate 50% of your audience right there. It literally has to pop up right under their face. That’s not an indictment of today’s youth, it’s an indictment of the information culture we’ve created and how it works and how our brains interact with it. We’re so distracted, the technologies that we’re using only exacerbate things like anxiety and short attention span. So trying to get people to go read a magazine, good luck! Although embedded hyperlinks are useful.
Ari- We live in a time where people love to throw around the term “cultural appropriation” – is there any room for that in our industry?
Paul- Ok, so there’s a lot there in what you’re asking, and I keep saying this, over and over again, I’m just too friggin busy to do it, I need to do an article on cultural appropriation/misappropriation, and I haven’t done it yet. One of the beautiful things about if I actually did do an article on (mis)appropriation is whenever you study or write you end up learning, even when you’re sitting there teaching, like whenever I’m preparing for a class I’m learning more than I’m teaching. That’s one of the big reasons I want to look at it and also because I want to be more articulate around it. One of the things I want to say about cultural appropriation is the language around it is relatively new, the language around it is a bit clunky right now. I believe much of what we’re talking about are struggles for power. Usually. And let me tell you where I see an exception there – so if you’re talking about a Tlingit clan in the Pacific Northwest that has strong history, strong current connections to let’s say a bear tattoo, where you’ve got tons of history about it and it comes up to the present and it’s still part of the clan identification. If you then, as an outsider, get that bear tattoo put on you, I think, clear cut, that’s really problematic.
Ari- That would be different than say, getting a moko?
Paul- Not necessarily. This is where it gets complicated. When things are done in a soundbite or as a social media accusation (which oh my god, please please, I hope we grow up around that issue), when things are just done as a drive-by, summarily labeled and dismissed, it’s another form of violence. Individual situations need to be talked through, not called out, and not over generalized but looked at, discussed, specifically. So let’s look at the moko and separate it from the other issue.
Place, person, and time – who are we talking about? If we’re talking about someone way back in the late 80s or early 90s getting a moko done on their chin because it looked really awesome, that was a different place and time. The words “cultural appropriation,” I don’t know if they had appeared in print yet. Certainly it was not an intellectual idea being bantered around in any general public capacity. So to look back and say “You’re culturally appropriating!” Who are you indicting? The person that was 25-30 years ago or the person today? Sometimes we can run into problems trying to describe or “fix,” (in the sense, to make concrete), someone’s identity from the past, to today. Things change. People change. Personalities change. The reason why we do things and the relationship to those modifications changes over time. The reason I got tattooed in the late 80s is not necessarily the same reason that I’m getting tattooed today. And what it meant to me in the late 80s is not necessarily the same meaning it has for me today. And, what it means to the viewer in the late 80s is not the same things it’s going to mean today. If you’re a little confused, and it sounds a little complicated, good! In actuality, these things are. Culture is never static.
Paul- So to answer one of your questions in there, even within people that we often viewed as “traditional” people that are doing “authentic” practices, those cultural practices have been shared, they have changed, the meaning of these practices and objects have changed. The purpose of them has changed. They’re not concrete. They’re shared, it’s cultural diffusion, and it continually changes. When is something cultural diffusion and when is it (mis)appropriation? I think the common denominator there is the discussion of power. So who is taking it? Who is wearing it? Who is displaying it? For what reasons? Who is deciding that cultural misappropriation has taken place, someone within a group or an outsider? When we’re talking about (mis)appropriation, is that always the most important discussion to be having? Are there other discussions that actually we should be having but aren’t, such as access to resources, land, and autonomy or restitution for past harms?
Ari- I like that you say it’s a struggle for power, that resonates with me. I always look at someone like Kristian White, who went to all the places and never came back and said “They were so fucking pissed at me.”
Paul- Yeah, because they weren’t.
Ari- I personally look at it like if it’s done with love, as an homage, which it always appeared to me, this concept of (mis)appropriation can be pretty damaging.
Paul- It can be weaponized. Language can always be weaponized. In any movement and any new way of thinking and any group that is finding its power, sometimes in very young academics as well, people that are just getting a taste of knowledge and understanding, language and arguments can be clumsy and not constructive. However, as long as those that are leaders, those that are community elders, don’t run away in fear, but rather rise up to their positions, then we can have discourse and conversation. “What’s going on here? Let’s have a conversation.”
So you are right that someone like Kristian White who was traveling to Borneo and in at least the early 90s if not the late 80s, rarely had an issue. I’ve never had any issue from an indigenous person. But you’re talking about a particular person, in a particular place, and at a particular time. Even if you’re talking tattoos in Indonesia – well I could talk to the police with all my tattoos in Indonesia and they love them! They have crossed the street to talk to me. They want to know about them, in the early 90s, they were just fascinated by heavily covered foreigners. If I were an Indonesian citizen and I had those tattoos, I would’ve been in jail or worse, because they would’ve signified a different meaning, criminality, primarily.
Let’s talk about the labret. Who owns the labret? It’s a cultural practice – who did we steal it from? Who’s laying claim to it? From what I can see, nobody. Even though it’s had tremendous significance for different people at different times, nobody is trying to lay claim to it, despite the fact that it has belonged as part of various “traditional” cultures in different places and times. So give me an example of what you’re concerned about as being “(mis)appropriated.”
Ari- I am not, I don’t even like the term itself, I don’t think it has a place in piercing.
Paul- Let’s take a step back. What if I tell you, I’m gonna go do a Sundance?
Ari- When you bring up the idea of doing a Sundance, and maybe this is child-like, but I still like to look at most of the things we do as some form of homage, as some form of reverence, so for me those intentions kind of make it ok to do that for yourself. I’m a Jew from brooklyn, I got circumcised and I had a Bar Mitzvah, but I also have a female moko because I was in love with that aesthetically. To me I did that out of reverence for them. I don’t take issue when you look at it from a positive standpoint, which is how I like to look at it. It’s easier for me to sleep at night thinking that most of these things are done in such a way.
Paul- That is important. On the record or off the record, as someone who does interviews, it’s important for us to both see and acknowledge our own conscious bias. That’s what you beautifully just did. We call it “reflexivity.” Where you’re able to see what’s at stake at this for me. You just did it. You have a moko and it’s easier for you to sleep at night framing it in a way that you did it out of love and reverence and positivity. And I would agree with that, while also realizing that’s not everyone’s story. How would you feel, (and I would imagine you won’t care, but you can imagine this) if you opened up the cover of Vogue magazine and this year Jean-Paul Gaultier decided that yarmulkes were in fashion for girls? We’re gonna have girl yarmulkes and we’re gonna have little hebrew words all over it and we might even have “torah torah torah!” printed on t-shirts.
Ari- I would look at that specific situation as much more fiscally driven rather than if Jean-Paul himself came out and said, “I think this yarmulke is the shit, I had one hand-stitched for me, it’s got my logo on it, it reminds me that God is above me.” That’s really situational, I suppose. If it’s in an ad, it’s easy to write it off as someone using it to make money, or using a cultural symbol for fiscal gain rather than this group of people are getting into and liking what it represents and using it even though they aren’t Jewish.
Paul- So from your experience, your background, (and that’s really all we have), your economic status, your gender, your ethnicity – you frame it in ways of how does this work with economics, or more economic, than rather a feeling of disempowerment.
Ari- For that instance, that’d be my first thought.
Paul- Exactly. But could you imagine that someone who was Jewish would take offense at that?
Ari- Of course.
Paul- There isn’t a right or wrong response, or answer, it’s simply – these things are complicated. It’s like when I travel in India, not every person, some people – that’s where we have to be careful about generalizations- some people have access to Western media so that some people understand I’m a crazy Westerner, but some people look at me and go “why does a guy have gold earrings and septum jewelry? That’s for girls!” What we’re signaling, we don’t always have control over, it’s contextually based. No one walking down a street in America says to me, “Oh my god, those daith piercings and that septum piercing look so effeminate.” But when I go to rural parts of India, a few times I am perceived as a little drag queen-ish, not everyone, but some people are like “What is he doing? Why is he wearing that gold jewelry?” There, It signals feminine. Again, not giving you a black and white answer, I’m not even directly answering it. Ethically, I can’t, just more food for thought.
This is my perspective, if you’re really thinking about “cultural (mis)appropriation,” it should be hard to talk about. It’s sometimes literal, but often times metaphorical, and it’s always contextual. Quite often the particular issue has historical contexts which need to be researched and understood to have a better sense of what is at stake.
Paul- Often the way cultural appropriation is being talked about now is as if it’s a one way street. Culture is “shared” from this direction, and it’s “stolen” from that direction. It’s just clunky and clumsy and often discussed through the lens of capitalism and intellectual property rights, which is problematic for me.
When I say “this direction,” let me be specific, because language matters. If you’re not white and you use symbols, designs, and cultural practices from the dominant white American and European cultures, it’s always “sharing.” If thought of at all, It’s considered ordinary “cultural diffusion.” If you are white, at this point in time, depending on the situation, and you’re sharing culture from a non-white minority group, it may often be characterized as “misappropriation.” These conversations of appropriation are usually masking deeper issues pointing to atrocities and inequities born out of slavery, colonization, genocide, racism, and sometimes gender inequalities. I think those are the greater discussions that must happen. Discussions of dismantling white supremacy are paramount!
However, the current indictments of “cultural (mis)appropriation” often let off the hook other non-white groups in power discordant relationships. I’ll use a real life example, for those of you readers who know RuPaul’s Drag Race, there’s this funny and brilliant character from season 8 called “Bob the Drag Queen,” out of New York, African American, (emphasis on “American” here of African descent). During the season 9 finale he comes out in full drag adorned in Masai jewelry… Now, if he was white, he probably would’ve been crucified on the spot. However, he can be an American, wearing something from an African tribe that is not his, from a place and a people that he does not know, in a manner that was not how it was originally intended, (wearing the female costume, in a male gender-identified body that’s performing drag). Nobody accuses or discusses, “Is that appropriation?” Apparently, based on the color of skin, no appropriation happened, but is that true? I don’t know, but I think it’s a good question to ask.
Does that example and my argument make sense? What we’re talking about are questions of power and legacies of ethnicity, class, genocide, colonization; those are the greater matters we have to talk about. But at the same time it’s important to understand cultural relevancies. I don’t have a Haida clan tattoo on me, I understand how much it still means to those people, I don’t need to have it on me, even if I really love the design.
Ari- What are your thoughts on the prevalence of tattoos that incorporate the swastika in the piercing community?
Paul- That’s also really complicated, and there could be a whole paper on it. You’re gonna have to ask other interviewees if you want simple answers, you’re only gonna get complicated answers from me. Again, place and time. I remember the first time I saw a non-nazi use of the symbol, it was Siouxsie Sioux of the band Siouxsie and the Banshees. Back in the mid-to-late 70s in London, she wore a swastika armband. It was a nazi swastika armband to be very clear. The intention was to shock, to be provocative. For many discerning eyes, it was clear she wasn’t a nazi or a white supremacist, but she got tons of blowback. She publicly apologized in a news conference and later released a really beautiful song called Israel, where she sings about the beautiful Israeli people, and that was sort of her apology because she realized it really hurt people and she got a lot of flack for it. My next oldest exposure to the non-nazi swastika was in Modern Primitives, in 1989. People began to play with that symbol, most famously ManWoman. I think you could say reclaiming the swastika was, initially and single-handedly, his ideology.
We could do a whole interview on the book Modern Primitives: an ethnographic-snowball collection of interviews, by numerous individuals, many of whom had never met and certainly would not have called themselves “Modern Primitives.” Arguably, the book launched a whole identity of “Modern Primitive.” So the choice of including ManWoman in Modern Primitives, which then meant every piercer and tattooist that read Modern Primitives was being exposed to ManWoman’s beliefs, then started to replicate the ideology of swatiska iconic reclamation and people started getting these swastika tattoos. What started off as a few rogue people here and there, grew. (To be clear, I am not talking about symbolic significance from a white power standpoint, where in America, swastikas show group identification with a particular subset of white supremacists, particularly those who’ve been in prison or white power gangs.) In the beginning the iconic reclaiming among tattooers and piercers was very sparse and euro-centric. It took off in Europe. In London, swastika tattoos started to pop up by tattooers like Alex Binnie and a few others.
Paul- You have to put it in context, these tattooers who started doing these tattoos on themselves and other people in the early 90s, a lot of them in London were old punks so they had this understanding that this was a punk provocative symbol with interesting and beautiful alternative significances in other cultures. Then they had this new narrative, or justification, rationale, if you will – it’s not just a provocation, there’s all these other histories to it as well. I may get in some hot water for this but the provocational power of it dominates, and it’s always been there.
Once two, ten, or a hundred people get it, it becomes an in-group signifier for another group that’s no longer old school punk, but that’s now largely body piercers and tattooers. Does that make sense? I don’t care who you are, there’s an element of titillating provocation about it. There has to be, I would argue, because of where we grew up. If you’re telling me that you’re Chinese, you grew up in China, and this symbol from your earliest memories had to do with Buddha and the Four Directions, God bless, I am not talking about you. If you grew up anywhere in the West, there is a darker power in that symbol, power in the very least of provocation, we know it’s taboo, and that’s in part what makes it fun and titillating and exciting is that it’s forbidden, just like anal sex. At some point you were taught you were not supposed to be doing this and that’s a piece of why it’s so exciting.
I have an article that I wrote in an academic journal that talks about ear stretching, and it seems like a perfect nexus to talk about these things, and how sociologists will derive meaning and people will talk about these things and what does that mean, what does this mean – you can not accurately define it in the synchronic (the now, absent of historical context), you have to look at it in the diachronic. You have to look at it over time, and contextualize it over time.
Paul- When I got my little baby swastika back in the early 90s, it was titillating, we knew it could be covered up, we did it in a shape that could be easily covered up, the tattoo artist was Alex Binnie. It was in-group signifying, because it was the very early 90s so there were really only a handful of non-white-supremacists that had them at this time, and by handful I mean maybe fifty, nothing like what you see today where hundreds if not thousands of people have them. Over the years, I’ve had maybe a handful of clients that have clocked it. It is fairly subtle and I have to explain to them and because we’re face to face, and we are in a piercing environment, it’s always gone over pretty well with that explanation, but holy shit – holy shit, it’s 2017, August, where things are blowing up, I’m at counter protests, do I want to have that on my arm? I might get a brick to the head. Things change over time, and for the first time in 25 years, I’ve thought “Welp, I guess it might be time to cover it up!” Many of the people that I’m hanging with now aren’t too fond of swastikas. Do I cover it? It’s a part of me, I’ve had it forever, or do I let it go at this point? I’m on the fence. I don’t want to say, but I probably will, I mean I always knew it was designed to be covered up very easily, so we’ll see. It was a very different meaning when I got it. We change. We have different priorities, different places in our lives, in different times, different things and people of significance.
Ari- I got mine back in 2008, and I used to joke that someday it’ll be the ironic anti-semitic hate crime, someone’s going to kill a Jew defending the Jews. But the climate today is intimidating, covering it is on my mind as well. This is probably naive but I never thought I’d see this kinda stuff occurring.
Paul- Ari, it was a naivety we all shared. I did my thesis on female genital alteration, and one of the core issues was how do we manage as a society through irreconcilable and conflicting values? There was a social theorist named Jacque Derrida who talked about hospitality: I don’t have to like you. I don’t have to agree with you. In fact I may even hate you. But how would I treat a guest in my house? Which is with mutual respect.
Really, I think at the end of the day, that’s realistically all we can ask of one another. We’re not going to have Kumbaya and love and understanding, but if we can just get to a place where we agree to a mutual truce, a mutual “Right” to coexist, no genocide, no annihilation of all Jews or people of color, but also no annihilation of all nazis, white supremacists, and/or fascists. But, an agreement that we can all coexist without killing each other – I think that’s really the best we can ask for.
Paul- I did a documentary in Iran and they have particular notions of hospitality, it’s really a wonderful thing. It’s about saving face and performing politeness, even to your enemies, as long as they’re reciprocating. This is the irony, whoever is in charge of our diplomacy in our state department, if you going around calling Iran “terrorists” and the “axis of evil,” all bets are off. For Iran, you can not like each other and have different political views but only if you can also not disrespect. That’s what I would love for us to get back to, for us to just agree that we don’t agree but everyone has a “Right” to exist.
How do we even begin? The assimilationists who want everyone to look alike, talk alike, act alike, there’s a type of, I overuse the word “violence,” but there’s a kind of cultural violence in that. If you want everyone who’s indigenous to drop their indigenous names and drop their indigenous languages and religions, why can’t we all just be one-big-Christian, same-accent country? That’s just not realistic, that’s not gonna happen. So how do we live in a multicultural society? The only way I can navigate through that is utilizing politeness as a practice.
Woah, we got way off topic, bring me back in!
Ari- Let’s talk about genital piercing! Let’s talk about genital piercings that really feel like they were developed within our piercing society, or not even necessarily Western but in a more modern piercing society, because we know things like the appalling and apadravya were not.
Paul- Sure, really almost all of them, the only ones I’ve found any sort of evidence for “traditional” practice of or historical practice of, are the ampallang and apadravya, which if you’ve read my article you know that although they have different names, they’re, historically, one in the same thing, just called different things in different places. Doug Malloy is, to my knowledge, responsible for assigning the directionality with two different names. When they talk about the piercing in the Kama Sutra, there is no angle given. My argument is based on trade patterns; I believe that this piercing practice was shared, it spread through cultural diffusion, and these practices are actually the same. India traded all the way to Borneo, and my argument is the piercing of the penis glans was shared. You also find these practices in the Philippines, and possibly in Sumatra. It wasn’t just Borneo, but certainly the greatest occurrence and recorded evidence for the practice is from Borneo. I interviewed someone in Sarawak in the 90s who had just witnessed one done, so it was still practiced, even if on the down-low. There was also a relatively recent article about Filipino sailors still doing them.
Certainly, our oldest recorded information would be on foreskin piercings and outer (and maybe Inner) labia piercings. Pretty much anything else is more recent. I believe the first frenum piercings were unintentional, then they were intentionally pierced to mimic the unintentional. That’s my theory, because I’ve seen, as I’m sure many piercers have, a number of unintended frenums that are created through circumcision and stories of people putting rings in them. I would argue people saw this and then intentionally mimicked that accidental piercing. So I believe the intentional frenum is also a modern genital piercing, pretty much everything besides what I listed is modern.
Paul- The Prince Albert, I have been looking for an older medical account for 25 years, but I have not found the smoking gun. I believe, and this is just my theory since I have not found it in print yet, I believe that the Prince Albert is a latter 19th century or early 20th century piercing. In the States and Europe, masturbation was considered spiritually, mentally, and physically harmful. We know doctors were piercing foreskin to prevent masturbation and we know they were circumcising to prevent masturbation. My theory is a doctor, after someone had already been circumcised, tried to find a work-around for using piercing to prevent masturbation and that was the birth of the Prince Albert. Everything else is modern, I would argue, except inner and outer labia.
Ari- Paul, I know that you’re behind the Body Piercing Archives, what are you most excited about that’s come through there?
Paul- It remains my love and it’s strictly volunteer work. Body Piercing Archives entails, first and foremost all of the APP archives, which includes the material and digital archives of the APP. Then it started to very methodically branch out. If you go to bodypiercingarchive.org you can see updates. Our mission statement:
“The mission of the Body Piercing Archive is to select, collect, document, preserve, exhibit, and interpret the personal, social, and material evolving histories of Body Piercing to ensure these artifacts are available to present and successive generations.”
We have short, medium, and long term goals. Our short term goals are just sorting through, organizing what we have, as well as protecting and restoring fragile materials. Currently, we’re only taking new acquisitions if a collection is at risk of loss or damage. Otherwise, we’re asking people to hold on to their stuff right now. Currently, we are doing mountains of digital processing. One of the collections I’m most excited about is the Charles Gatewood Digital Archives. When Charles was alive he had sold off his material archives to the Bancroft Library which is at UC Berkeley, the third largest library in the United States, it’s a really important and prestigious library. Twice he tried to get them to be interested in his digital collection, all of his films, and they weren’t interested, which is shocking. They were interested in photography, some other ephemera, but they did not want his digital archives, and they turned it down twice.
When he was alive, he allowed me to go through and pick out whatever I wanted to be donated to the Body Piercing Archives. At that time I only acquisitioned the documentaries that I knew were important for piercing history. I only selected about 50 tapes, because I knew we would have to pay to digitize and store them and all that other organizing and preservation stuff. Well, then he passed away, and this was the second time the Bancroft library didn’t want to deal with the remainder of his digital collection, so the administrator of his estate donated the rights and the materials of all the old films, of his entire digital archives, to the Body Piercing Archive. When he had passed away, we realized if we didn’t save the library it would probably end up at the dump. It’s over 200 mixed format tapes. That’s taken up a lot of my time.
The material is so important for our history: Joey Wyman [Bennett], before she ever even worked at Body Manipulations; Scott Shatsky before he worked at The Gauntlet; Esther Saldana piercing in living rooms before Body Manipulations even opened; and the longest recorded known video of Sailor Sid as well as Jim Ward’s first lecture in New York City. Crazy, wonderful stuff. To be clear, he was not a good filmmaker, they were technically crap, even by commercial standards in those days they weren’t very good, but he was a self-described gonzo journalist. He was filming anything and everything that was bizarre and of interest to him. Of course, that was many of our piercing pioneers. With just consumer VHS titles, I have about 120 tapes that have been digitized to an archival medium, and that’s not even with the other crazy format stuff like ¾” Umatic we have to outsource. It’s an enormous project.
We will do official notices when we are looking to acquire pieces of history. The stuff we’re most concerned about securing is pre-1990. I feel piercing really blew up after 1993, and lots of people have personal collections of the 1990s onward, so pre-1990s or anything APP are at the forefront for the BPA.
Ari- I think your shop is a really good example of longevity, in a community where staff is such a revolving door – what are some keys for having long-term staff, where people stay for such an extended period of time rather than a constant rotation?
Paul- Lesson number one, It always gets better. I used to have so much fear around not being able to find a piercer, I wasn’t doing anyone a favor keeping someone on that’s not a good fit. The second lesson, and this took me years to learn, this was a really bitter pill for me to swallow, and this may not work for everyone – when I’m in the shop, it never runs more efficiently AND people are never less happy. I’m too anal, I’m way too OCD as an owner. The best thing I could do is to let my shop be good enough for my idea of how it should run, let it be good enough and give my awesome staff the agency to co-create. So usually when I talk about my shop, I say our shop, because that’s what it is, Mic Rawls, Becky Dill, Danny Greenwood, and recently Shana Gyure, (sometimes Steve Joyner joins us), we’re all playing in this playground, it’s not just me doing it, we’re all doing it, so I give them the agency to create and to manage themselves for the most part. The less I’m involved, the smoother my shop runs, but that’s only because I have the right people. Mic and Becky are in the trenches every day. When people ask who’s the best piercer at my shop, it’s not me anymore – it’s Mic and Becky! It’s that wonderful old adage about “the student surpasses the master”; they’ve surpassed me, and I’ve embraced it, I love it. I won’t even begin to pretend that my experience will work for all people, but that’s what worked for us.