BSTA: Tom Braza

 

Blair, Dustin, Dave Vidra and Tom Brazda @ NIX. Photo courtesy of Dustin Sharrow.

How do you introduce Tom Brazda? Seriously, I’m asking you, how the fuck do you even begin to summarize a titan like him? If you pierce, you’ve at least heard his name mentioned. He’s a fucking legend. And next time you speak about him in the past tense, stop it – Tom never stopped kicking ass and taking names. He’s been gracious enough to wax intellectual with us, so y’all turn off your cell phones and read closely – Tom deserves your undivided attention.

Ari – Tom, give us a brief introduction

Tom – My name is Tom Brazda, I started piercing in an amateur way around 1989. I went professional in 1991, so 28 years of experience of watching things happen.

Ari – I would love to start earlier with some of the first experiences you had with piercing before you were a piercer. Were you getting pierced before you got into the business?

Tom – I got pierced in the sense of I pierced myself, because I got interested in piercing the same way a lot of people do; the famous book came out. The book that launched a thousand careers; Modern Primitives. It intrigued people. Even before that I was still getting my nose pierced, got my ears pierced, but when you realize you can kind of go further then that it is really mind opening, that there isn’t a limitation with what you traditionally saw. A friend of mine bought Modern Primitives, we looked at it, and instantly I was like I need some of that! We all started with wanting to do nipple piercing. There were some people who had it done, I talked to them, and there was a guy in town who did that. I saw some of his stuff and it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, it was just done. Another friend got it done with a piercing gun and I’m like uh no, no thanks. I thought it can’t be that hard so I tried to on myself. I obviously had no kind of proper equipment, so I sterilized a sewing needle, sterilized it in rubbing alcohol, and tried figuring out what to do from there, and that didn’t work. Trying to get jewelry in, etc, it didn’t work . So then it was like let’s try it again and do it a little different. That sort of started working on myself, and when you can manage one spot you start finding other spots on your body to do things on. After that I discovered needles, proper needles, and at that point when your friends see what you’ve got, what do they want? They want what you’ve got, so that started the amateurish “yeah, I can do that for you”ù, doing a piercing and getting some jewelry in.

It kind of built up from there until it got to a point where it was like “hey, this is kind of happening, I can get into this”, so I hooked up with someone else who was doing the same kind of thing, learned from them a bit, and it went on from there.

Ari – Were there people you were talking to about information early on as a fledgling piercer?

Tom – Most of the information you got from other people was the same information you got from PFIQ. Most of those people at the time, in my area, worked out of their houses, and you picked up little tips, but I found as you really got going you started seeing limitations in the advice that was being given, where it kind of works but not really. Being an inquisitive person and being good at problem solving, I started coming up with my own ideas and methods to work around some of those limitations.

Ari – As far as an understanding of anatomy, had you had any prior education in that field?

Tom – No, just whatever I learned from biology class. Anything I learned after I started was me picking up anatomy books, me reading anything I could and finding out anything I could. When I got started that was just before the internet went boom. We started Stainless Studios, and that was right at the beginning of the internet boom. I connected with other people online who were of the same mindset, who want to learn and share information, and that was through rec.arts, that was the only real online resource at the time.

Badur, Jesse, Luis, Laura and Tom. APP. Photo courtesy of Luis Garcia.

Ari – When things were branching out, like on rec.arts, was there anyone on there who just blew you away?

Tom – I can’t really think of anybody in particular that really did a lot, I can think of people that made me scratch my head, because you’re trying to have a rational conversation using some information, but they don’t get it, they keep regurgitating what they think you’re saying and not what you are saying. When I did the spinal piercings somebody online was asking about getting it done, and then someone in the forums responded “if you want your spine pierced go to a doctor”, they were going on about how dangerous it was to try and pierce your spine. When you say no, with the jewelry and everything we’re doing we’re just doing the skin sitting just above the spine, some people were so against everything, they just didn’t want to listen to what you were trying to explain, they were so set on being right.

Ari – It’s interesting to talk about the whole notion that people know what they know rather then knowing from first hand experience. They know from being told something, or read an article and taking it as the word of truth.

Tom – Yeah, versus I saw it in front of me, I saw outcomes. I remember having an argument on rec.arts, it was all about heavy gauge piercing, somebody was saying “You can’t do big gauge ear piercings, they just don’t work. A friend of mine, a piercer talking, said this guy did a pair of 4g earlobe piercings and they went really badly, but another one worked. I asked, was one piece of jewelry way bigger and heavier then the other? They didn’t even think that was a factor, that the weight of the jewelry pulling on the wound was what created all the trouble, and when somebody went to a much lighter piece of jewelry, that that was the reason one worked and the other one didn’t. It was just “Oh, if you do it big it’s never going to work, it’ll be trouble.”

Ari – Why do you think decades later we are still stuck where people take something out of a forum or book they’ve read and hold it as truth rather then understanding that piercing is a subjective field?

Tom – The way I see the problem is the industry, for a large part, is a really bad game of telephone. People repeat something because they’ve heard other people say it, but unfortunately information is going around in a circle, where it’s just become “Thats how it is because that’s what everybody says”, and they don’t dig deeper. They don’t think there’re other answers to something. In one sense, piercers are technicians – this what we do, this is how you do it. In a lot of cases that technique you’re learning can work until you hit a road block of something different. People go “that can’t work”, but did you try changing the technique, or the jewelry you used? “Well no, I used the jewelry they told me to use and put it in the way they showed me.” They’re not taught to think outside the box, they’re just repeating a set of motions that create an outcome. They weren’t ever taught there’s more ways to do things, and unfortunately piercers follow fashion of “this is how you do this piercing”. But no, there’s multiple ways – just because one person did it this way doesn’t mean it’s the new cool way to do it. It’s like when punch and taper for surface piercings came out. When I first started doing the punch and taper, I was looking for a way around limitations for where it was really hard to grab and work the skin, where you couldn’t really get a clamp on the tissue and couldn’t do it by fingers easily. I wanted to find a new way to get around the limitation of entry and exit and getting through the skin. People see it and take it as the way you do every piercing of that nature, versus one technique amongst many to do that job. When I apprentice somebody I teach them how to learn from their experience. Not just do something. I’ll sit with my apprentice, we’ll have somebody coming in for a daith piercing, and we’ll nitpick the techniques to use about doing it; whats the trouble with going from the bottom, whats the trouble with going from the top, make it, dissect it, look at it, not just “do this”. I make them look at everything from a slightly different perspective, and then say I’m making a choice about how I’m approaching this piercing. That’s how I think all apprentices need to be taught when learning piercing.

They have to be taught they are making choices about that piercing, and knowing what their options are, and looking for the failures that can occur. If I’m piercing somebody and they wear glasses, I make them keep the glasses on if I’m doing a cartilage piercing when I’m doing the inspection because I want to make sure the piercing is not going to interfere with how their glasses sit. A lot of people just say take them off, mark, pierce, and then find out it interferes when they put their glasses back on. It’s about teaching somebody to approach the problem that way, that’s what will better the industry, when people come to look at things with a different view, and not just being a technician of this is how you do it and this is what you do.

Happy Tom. Confused Warren. Photo courtesy of Warren Hiller.

Ari – Is it safe to say absolutes don’t have a place in our industry?

Tom – Yeah, absolutes don’t have a place. The one thing I always teach everybody I apprentice is you don’t do a piercing, you engineer it. You’ve got to look at the anatomy, look at the way you want it to sit, and by engineering it look at the pitfalls of that location of everything you need to do and figure out what is actually going to do the job better. The other thing I tell my apprentices is when you’re looking at anything, think of it this way – everything does two things well and one thing poorly. What you’re trying to do is see where can I lose that is acceptable so that I can gain somewhere else, because nothing is going to do everything 100% perfect, nobody is going to have zero limitations.

You’re trying to make it so that your limitation isn’t the reason something doesn’t work. You’ve got to look at it from that point of view. I was telling a client the other day, when I had my shop in Toronto there was a competing shop down the street, and when you went in for a piercing they had a specific piece of jewelry that was used for everybody for that specific piercing. If you were female and wanted your nipple pierced, there was one piece of jewelry you had for an option, and that went in everybody. Problem is, 85% of the time it actually worked, it was either too big or it fit right. But I had one client of theirs come in and asked me to look at their nipple piercings to see what was wrong with them. She showed me the piercings, there’s 5/8 captive rings in there, and I’m like well, the one thing I can say is the rings are as wide as your nipple is across. She had half the circle going through her nipple. Those rings were too tight, she had larger nipples. I told her you should have been pierced with barbells, and she said “I was told barbells aren’t good for this piercing, that this is the jewelry that should be used.” I was like well barbells are gonna fit, for the whole month you must’ve felt like somebody was pinching your nipples all day long, and she goes “thats exactly how it feels.”

I took the ring out and put in the barbells, and for the length I needed, I only had them in titanium. She said “I actually wanted titanium, but I was told it was a really poor choice for piercing.” When I put those 3/4 inch barbells in her nipples, her nipples were actually 3/4 inch wide. And they put 5/8 inch rings in it. This is the problem of “This is how you do things”, because you always hit that moment where that idea doesn’t work anymore because of a circumstance. She should’ve been pierced with 3/4 barbells right from the getgo, not 5/8 rings.

I always say if there’s a problem then there’s another way to do it. To me it’s just obvious – you look at it and go well this is what’s needed, and you see something fail a few times and go oh, there’s a pattern, theres the reason things failed. It’s not just random. If things don’t work, there’s a specific reason because we created a situation around that piercing that wasn’t viable. That doesn’t mean it’s not always viable; if you can see the pattern you can see the problem, and if you see the problem you can fix it. Thats what needs to be applied to piercing, but that also means you have to have multiple tools on hand to use, like jewelry, aftercare methods and techniques and piercing techniques to work around issues. That just also means knowledge.

I think the biggest problem in the industry, in one sense, is education. Once again it comes down to the technician concept. A lot of piercers are more like technicians, but that doesn’t mean they have an understanding of the foundation. Most of these things work out, but that doesn’t mean they dug any deeper. And that works up until a point. But there’s a point where that level of thinking starts failing, IE client comes in with piercing trouble – whats wrong with my piercing? Why am I not healing right? If you have that base understanding you can do 20 questions, deduce whats going wrong, create a fix, and all of a sudden things are healing right. My biggest pet peeve is when you hear the solution to the problem is just clean it more. The reason we’re having trouble is because we’re doing things to do it that are creating a negative influence, so doing more of the same thing is not going to fix the problem. If you look at the person and go hmmm, it’s on your ear, it’s only on the back and not the front, that must be shampoo! What are your allergies? “Oh, I have a grass allergy, like fresh cut grass.” Are you using a full body volumizing shampoo with a hydrolyzed wheat proteins in it? There’s your allergy. That’s why it’s only on the back of your ear and not the front. As an example. Hydrolyzed wheat protein is a synthetic keratin within products to make hair more puffy, to volumize. It’s also gluten, so if someone is actually gluten sensitive or celiac then it really creates a big nasty in the wound. If they’re using something without it, they’re healing just fine.

Ari – I know you’ve spoken a lot about environmental factors, those will often go outside the normal template passed down during an arbitrary apprenticeship – people aren’t taught to ask those kinds of questions.

Tom – The conversation for the longest time has been which product should I use to clean it? That’s what you hear. Clean it with this product. That’s the only conversation being had. Not what should I do to reduce my risk of having trouble. Because the trouble with cleaning is it only removes, it doesn’t prevent. I always see that conversation as being wrong. When I look through the history of piercing care when I got started, the aftercare product we recommended was betadine or hibitane. We’re like clean it three times a day, rotate it through. Then we went to antibacterial soap, then we went to don’t rotate it, then we went from three times a day to twice a day, then we went from antibacterial soap to a gentler soap, then we went from soap to salt water. As we progressed we fixed the problems the aftercare was creating but the other problems that were occurring started highlighting because those problems became stronger visually then what the aftercare was producing in a negative sense. But we never addressed why those things were happening. Clean it still became the answer on how to try to fix it.

Piercing on Shannon Larratt by Tom Brazda.

Ari – Less of a concept that general health is a huge part of the heal outside a healing product.

Tom – When I do aftercare with a client I explain to them cleaning is the least important of all the important things you do, not most. It has the least final impact of everything you could do. What comes first? You nailed it. Health. This is why in high school, peoples piercings look like crap around exam time. Being in a university town I would look at some piercing troubles and I’m like, have you only eaten ramen and kraft dinner all week? Your nutrition is really poor and your piercing is suffering due to malnutrition. People also don’t know that when you’re stressed out your body burns through that nutrition faster then it normally does. That’s when it’s really critical.

Ari – With the way this industry is swelling, is proper education even a feasible concept?

Tom – Proper education is the solution to the problem, but it’s not just with the practitioner, it’s also about the clients. Client needs to be aware of issues because we create them. The piercers need to be educated to a reasonable degree, but then they also should be educating their clients to a reasonable degree before they leave, not have the expectations that the product sold is going to fix everything. Education on all levels.

Ari – How much of this delves into the idealism versus actuality – ideal circumstances versus what we can actually expect?

Tom – I tell clients you can’t do perfect – the only thing you can do is better. Make improvements, thats all. Nothing is going to create perfection, we can’t make zero risk of infection, we can’t make zero risk of trouble, within the healing tissue. But, we can lessen that risk by looking at the environment and making sure that things that do not need to be within that environment are avoided. Changing the concept of what cleaning is, changing some of those ideas from the old ideas, changing our idea on what aftercare really is, it’s not far from the old concepts, just a step over. Same with the piercing methods and technology thats out there. One of my biggest pet peeves also is when you buy tools, most of those tools don’t work well because they’re not always made and designed by people who do piercing. We’re using tools that other people use and try to adapt to them to what we need as opposed to changing the tool a little bit to better suit our direct needs.

Piercings for unconventional anatomy by Tom Brazda.

Ari – You were always very big on making your own tools and jewelry, do you still manufacture?

Tom – I wish I did, so many times I want to do something and I think if only I had this! If I could have jewelry made just a little different that would work better. If my curved barbell had this arc versus this arc I could make it fit better.

Ari – Frustrating as that may be, did you think at any point in time that the jewelry companies would now be producing such a wide variety of things that weren’t available when you were a younger piercer?

Tom – When I first started, even with captives, they went from 3/8″ to 1/2″. When I started manufacturing I made 7/16″. That was such a massive jump between the two sizes, you got this ring or this ring. And from 1/2″ it went to 5/8″. So when I started making my own captives I made them by the 16ths. Now I’m like shit, I need them by the 32nds! Which we can get in gold, but not in steel and titanium, so when you’re trying to fit something to someones nostril and they don’t want gold, what do you do? In the smaller sizes, those little differences matter a lot. Even in curved barbells, the arc of the jewelry makes a massive difference in how it fits, if it’s looser or tighter. We’ll buy curves from two different companies just to have a better fit, because the companies make different arcs. Some arcs get so sharp it’s like half a circle, and that really works when you’re doing a curved industrial and don’t want to bend it yourself.

Ari – Do you find yourself using more annealed materials to cater to what you need?

Tom – A little bit, since the standard for implant steel demands that the material be annealed. Previously a harder temper of the steel was in the standard but it was removed. so if you are using steel annealed is a must and we brought in the grade of implant titanium that is softer then the other titanium thus makin it much easier to bend. if you need to alter the shape of the jewelry during its use then having it softer is a big bonus. There’s a lot more out there nowadays jewelry-wise then there used to be because they got a lot more creative and more ideas came out, so there are more possibilities. It’s just a lot more fiddle-y things. Being able to select a quarter arc or third of an arc in a curved barbell would be nice, but the problem there is in 1/4” curve you’ve now got a bunch more to order then a small amount. It makes it harder to order jewelry and keep a good stock, to have a lot of options. When I was manufacturing I could just custom make something – thats my main frustration, missing the constant accessibility. But you work with what you have. It just means there’s no real ability to tweak. You can try to bend jewelry a little bit, but for the most part whats available works fine, it’s only when you hit that one thing where you want it a little different, where you need it a little different so it sits right. That’s why Im saying 85% of the time it works, another 10% its really close and then you hit that 5% when you need it really different because that would’ve worked better.

Ari – For jewelry that you’re really well known for, like the t-bar, are those things still something you have a big market for?

Tom – There’s a market out there, I just don’t know who’s filling it. I know people ask companies for it, but they don’t want to make it because to make a t-bar you need to make one piece of jewelry with external threads. It’s the only way to make one bar screw into the other properly. You can go down the route of having some small thread connectors, but my issue with an add-on is what happens if you lose one end with the threads still in the other piece? With the external threads, if one piece comes out its no big deal. So again, there are the limitations, rather then just making the jewelry the way it should be.

Tom and Jesse Villemaire at ModProm. Photo courtesy of Jesse Villemaire.

Ari – Overall jewelry is still at a pretty amazing point – the aesthetic aspect has eclipsed the experience aspect.

Tom – It’s the final appearance. Long ago when we did piercing it was place-keeper jewelry; this is what you have so you can buy something fancy later. Nowadays you’ve got better looking options that in a lot of cases the piece of jewelry we pierce with can be that final piece. We accommodate for the swelling and then all they change is that back piece later on and keep the same front. The options for people right now are phenomenal jewelry-wise, the way it works together is really nice. 20 years ago we did not have those kind of options, all you had were basics.

Ari – Is it tougher to relay education to clients who really just want an aesthetically pleasing piercing and are far less concerned with the experience themselves – is it harder to communicate with them?

Tom – When the client comes in the first thing you have to see is what do they want out of this? Some people do want the experience, other people just want a piercing. Most of the time we try to make an experience out of it, especially when people have had a bad experience in the past, and we need to change that. Making an experience out of whats occurring, so they can see it’s not themselves, it’s not piercing, it’s the way somebody factored everything into it incorrectly and created a bad outcome. That’s when to me that the experience matters more, or when we do younger children earlobes, when we’re trying to convince the parents to wait until they’re old enough so it can actually be a fun experience. Don’t pierce your little girls ears when they’re 4, wait until they’re 7 because then it’s a fun experience and something that matters to them. Avoid the experience they can’t handle because they’re too young, and won’t feel nice because they aren’t ready for it. But when they’re 7 or 9, that’s a really good age for it, it’s that I’m-growing-up moment for them, it’s a really positive experience. Reaching a new level in their age. You can see you did something really good for them, because for them it is a big experience.

Ari – You were such an integral part of the surface bar movement. Now surface anchors are so popular, even more-so then the bar itself. What are your thoughts on that jewelry?

Tom – The problem with dermal and surface bars, they share some of the same problems – if you put them in areas that change shape a lot when you move, they fail always. When people put dermals, even though they’re small, sitting on a non-flat surface they’re always going to fail, to pop through. Even a surface bar in a high impact area of the body, it’ll take too much abuse and your body will say screw this. Areas that get snagged a lot just don’t work, or bend and stretch a lot, you can’t put a surface bar in. Actually, in some areas, placing two dermals can work out better then a bar when the space between the entry and exit stretches or bends. The surface won’t work but the dermal has a higher chance. But when you put dermals in hips, if you find one spot thats out of the way of abuse, it has a lot higher chance of success, but when you put them down by a waistband it’s not gonna last long. Same with a surface piercing that exits in that spot. A lot of designs that are out there seem to be different just for the sake of being different and not for the sake of being better. I used the big hole dermals for a while but went back to the two small hole dermals, I didn’t find longevity was any different between the two and when you had to remove them the ones with the one big hole were the worst to try and take out for people, so much more effort to take them out because you have that tissue to get through. It doesn’t make it last any longer though! It’s a benefit to say mine doesn’t look like theirs, but it’s not a benefit that plays out long term better. It’s confusing a trademark with actually improving the design. What you’ve really got to look at when you’re putting them in is heel length, placement, structure, distance from edge of the stem, and stem length. You see a lot of people trying to do lower back ones with stems that are way too short, trying to put it into the skin and not having it seated properly, so they come out really quickly because they’re not sitting in the right layer based on that skin. There’s a lot of issues with them, I think they’re still a work in progress, but I just tell people they aren’t long-term. Even though I’ve had a few people who have had them long term, but thats because the area it was put in doesn’t move or bend or flex, because then it actually sits there happily.

Ari – Doing surface bars as long as you have, what techniques do you still tend to use the most?

Tom – I freehand when I can, clamp when I have to, punch and taper when I must, there is no favorite technique. There is typically a default, but that doesn’t always mean results. You look at the tissue, you see what you need, you do the method thats going to work best, thats what it really comes down to. Your only criteria is I need to get this jewelry in while doing minimal damage to the skin, and making my exits perpendicular to the tissue while angling through the tissue. Whatever achieves the best outcome. I hate it when technique gets popular because then the client starts to say you aren’t doing this right, this isn’t what the last guy did, this isn’t what I saw on youtube. Well you aren’t watching everybody. If you do your technique different people freak out because it’s not what they saw, it’s not what somebody else did, so trying to educate people on what’s happening, explaining why you’re doing something a certain way helps. Some people will accept it, some people just don’t want to hear it, and there’s not much you can do for those people. You try to explain why the last piercing didn’t work and what you’re trying to fix, it’s all you can do.

Shannon Larratt, piercings by Tom Brazda, 1990s.

Ari – Over time the industry has evolved to the separation of piercing and heavy body modification work, how beneficial do you think thats been to having piercers mainly stay piercers rather then the all-encompassing style that was prevalent for a while?

Tom – I mean the people that should be doing the mod work are the people doing the mod work, just because you suture doesn’t mean you have the right to do those things. There’s a lot more to learn with the mod work then there is the piercing. Some of the mod work is pretty straight forward and simple if you know what you’re doing as a technician, there’s a lot less issues, it’s just that when they do go wrong they go really wrong, they don’t go wrong in a slight way like a piercing might. When you look at some of the mod work out there, once doctors are allowed to do some of that stuff we won’t necessarily have the reason for doing it. Like closing earlobes when people have had them stretched and want them closed, a lot of doctors do it now, but unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of bad results coming from that because they don’t understand whats happened when people have stretched their ears. This one poor girl came in to the shop, she wanted her ears pierced, she’d just had her ears sewn up by a doctor, she was only at a half inch, and she got a job working in the financial industry so she couldn’t have her big tunnels in. Her doctors said come in, didn’t tell her to take her jewelry out ahead of time to let it shrink up on it’s own, he cut the lobes, skinned the inside, closed it, and now she has reverse elf ears. They were at a downward point, he hadn’t removed the excess tissue caused by the stretching. We were piercing it to take away from that effect. There’s a doctor in town where I work who does earlobe closing, a lot of older women, but I see their work and I can’t help but think I could do better. But I don’t want to offer doctor services to anyone that walks in the door, that’s not right. If I’m offering services like that to somebody it’s because they already have mods, they already have lots of piercings and tattoos, and they trust I can do the work better. I’ve seen some plastic surgeon work that looks fantastic but people pay a big price for it. I’ve seen good and bad ear closure work through doctors, some of the stuff they’re doing is not always that great. If doctors can offer a tongue split legally, why do we need to do it? Until doctors offer it, people still want it, so there still needs to be somebody doing that mod work. I’m here and there when it comes to that stuff.

Ari – Do you feel like an open dialogue between the current mod workers and doctors would be the most beneficial way to, in a sense, merge one to the other?

Tom – No, my experience with doctors is mixed. I got asked once to go down to Sick Kids hospital here in Toronto to answer questions for doctors because they were having a lot of older kids coming in for things that had piercings. They wanted to have a bit of a Q and A to educate themselves about piercings. I’m like yeah, I’ll come in, I’ll go help and answer anything I can. I go in there and one of the doctors was acting really smug, like “I did my research” and she started explaining how tattooing was done with a sponge and bucket. I was like no, thats how it was done in the 70s, thats not a modern method of how it’s done. But she did her research, right? So I had to kind of shoot down the information she was talking about with piercings and tattoos, and then the rest of it was me being grilled of why I felt the right to do that kind of work on people when I wasn’t medically trained. I’m trying to be as forthright as I can with information and it really turned into the Spanish Inquisition instead. I had also a client of mine who was a nurse in a hospital, she was also the ongoing educator, so when new stuff came around she was supposed to take that new information and help pass it along to all the other nurses to keep them up to date. Younger nurses listened, older nurses were like “Honey, I already know what I’m doing, stop telling me how to do my job.” She also saw that when people came in for the MRI department, the MRI department wasn’t really set up to help people remove their jewelry, it was kind of at odds with jewelry at times not knowing how to remove it. Often they would damage the jewelry with pliers or cut it out when they didn’t know how to remove it. She was like “you sell tools, right? ” And I said yes, because at the time I was still manufacturing. She was like let me see if they’re interested in buying some tools to help remove the jewelry more easily without damage, and see if they’d like you to come in to explain to them how to use the tools and how the jewelry works. She went in and they go, “Is he a doctor?” and she said no, and they said “Oh, well then we’re fine, we don’t need their information, we’re doing fine, we’re removing jewelry fine, we don’t need someone to come in to show us how to do it, especially if they’re not a doctor.” In some sense, even though we are professionals, we are not treated like professionals by medical professionals, as if we don’t have any real experience and knowledge that is valuable. Then again, we don’t have an organization outside the APP that speaks for us as a whole like other industries actually do, like to work in the industry you have to be a member of that organization, which is the other downfall we have. The APP is great but they don’t represent all piercers in the way needed.

Ari – Do you feel like it would be beneficial if everyone was an APP member? Or one step further, should it be mandatory to be a member to contain piercing as a whole?

Tom – Definitely. If you look at a lot of industries out there, you have associations for them that are there to disseminate information. The nursing organizations, they help set up with what schooling is like and other things to be in the profession, and you can’t even work in that profession without being licensed by that organization. Having something like that for this industry would be majorly beneficial, at least in the sense of being treated like the proper professionals that we are. But unfortunately those kinds of organizations work at a regional level, so we would need other organizations that would work in conjunction with the APP – otherwise we’re just hairdressers with a piercing gun. I think it would majorly benefit us because then we’d have the same information being disseminated to all people. There would be a more superior common sharing of information, saying this is our standard information, versus whats out there now. There is a major benefit because then you can start saying “this is what reasonable piercing jewelry is” as opposed to what we see come in the door sometimes that people get pierced with. Without some basic across the board standard, we won’t be seen as legitimate.

Ari – With communication being so critical, do you have anyone you currently use to workshop or bounce ideas off of?

Tom – Right now, no. Not that I’m in contact with. I used to be in a piercer Facebook group, but I stopped inputting because it’s a bunch of people arguing why they shouldn’t listen, and they don’t want to be educated when you try to explain things sometimes. There were a bunch of good people in there as well but those were the ones that knew things and you could at times hear the faint sound of foreheads hitting off of desk tops.

Tom helps Blair. ©1997 BME.

Ari – Did you find information was more well-received when you were on BME?

Tom – Nah, it’s the same. Even in the learning forum, there were a bunch of good people in there, a bunch of people willing to listen and educate themselves to get better, you could see by the questions they ask of what they’re getting. Otherwise people were just stating what they do and whats wrong and only tell you in terms of what they do. I know some people within the forum who weren’t knowledgeable and used it to pull themselves up really nicely and better themselves. Even though everyone is there to share information and help learn from one another, it was ironic in some ways. It was even when, this is going back, maybe 12 years ago, this was when H2Ocean was starting to get big, there was this whole controversy around PH acidity and apoptosis of cells. It was a paper written by somebody who was studying biology at university, who misinterpreted all the information, because one little piece of knowledge they were given, and was like “Oh my god, if the solution is not of 7.5 it is gonna kill all the cells!” The problem is if that person ever did any wound healing studying they would know that wounds heal better at an acidic ph of 5.5. It’s actually necessary for healing.

So in one forum I had to argue against what that person was disseminating amongst a few people, and it was starting to grow a little bit, and the arguments I had to use to convince people that that was very misguided information. If for that persons argument to be true that meant every body product people had to use with that wound would have to be PH 7.5 and perfectly isotonically balanced and everything, and when you put that argument out they go “Well I’m not telling them to use those body products on their piercing” and I go well what do you think happens when they take a shower? This was when myspace was active still, in one thing I was arguing against this one guy and I said look, here’s some information about chronic wounds that hospitals deal with, what is the PH of the wound bed? 7.5. Why? Look at what happened, why are they chronic? The guys like no, you can’t be giving that information to people or using that information because thats wrong, because thats being a doctor. I’m like I’m applying that information to the care I give my clients. This is how you create a chronic wound, if you know how to create it you know how to not to create it. The guy was like no, you can’t use that information because you’re being a doctor. I was trying to show him this article I posted, that shows what happens in a chronic wound that makes it go chronic and why that PH 7.5 is really bad and creates the chronic wound. But that information was wrong because it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, it went against what he was telling everybody. He wasn’t the person who wrote that article about the PH and what it does to cells, but again, you’re talking about cells deeper in the body, not at the outer layer of the skin surface where the wound is actually healing, thats a whole different dynamic. “But my friend said! ” was the answer. Here’s a bunch of scientists who research wound healing! The absence of logic is impossible to argue with!

That’s the problem, in one sense in the industry you have a lot of uneducated people trying to make sense of things, sense of what they see, uneducated in the sense that they don’t know the level of biology or level of material science to understand the metals that they’re using, they don’t have that depth of knowledge of those things to be making those kinds of judgements. But they try to. If they educated themselves about those things they would see a different picture. When I got started piercing information was really scarce so I educated myself as much as I could. When I met somebody who was a plastic surgeon I picked their brain a little, when I met a dermatologist I picked their brain a little, you find the information where you can, you try to read up. Looking to one source for an answer is never right. Just because you read it once doesn”t make it true, you’ve got to find the repetition of information to start seeing if its true. Thats what they do in science, somebody isn’t right until somebody else can reproduce it and get the same results, thats when scientists say “This is valid information”, not because somebody said it once. This falls into the pitfalls of complacency. I already know enough, I don’t need to know more. There’s always more to know, it’ll make sense of what you see. You don’t need to know everything, just enough. The problem is where is that just enough?

Luckily I’m piercing up in Canada, I don’t have the label of doctor thrown at me when I give information. I’ll have girls come in for a piercing and I’m looking at their skin and I can say you need to change your facewash because thats not a break out, thats dermatitis. If they’re using that same face wash on their piercing it’s going to cause trouble. Then I recommend a switch and they go look! 2/3 of the breakout is gone and only the real pimples are left! It’s all because there was a sensitivity or allergy to an ingredient in the product they were using and it was causing the dermatitis. When you understand the breakouts and the pimples and the acne, you learn to see what isn’t and what is. You can see the slight differences between the two.

Ari – Aside from the normal frustrations that come with communicating with others who are either complacent or unwilling to listen, do you ever miss being in the midst of the general information hub? Do you miss the BME forums or being so heavily enmeshed in the thick of it all? Or is it a relief to be away from it?

Tom – I do miss it, but I also don’t. I mean luckily if something really pertinent pops up in Facebook my apprentice Josh will show me on his phone and I can go this is the answer here, and he’ll post it. It just got so monotonous, the same questions over and over, and we know you’ve been in the forum and we talked about this last year, why are you asking it again when it’s already been answered? But I’ve found a lot of the problem isn’t in trying to give people information, it’s how you give them information – if you can not make the information relevant to their situation they will not listen to it. It has to relate to them somehow. That is also in how you put the information together and present it to them. They have to have incentive to follow the new piece of information or they’re never going to follow it. Even what I do with my aftercare with clients, the hardest part of the information is in the presentation – how do you make it common sense if the people don’t see it as common sense? That was always what was really hard. Same as when you’re explaining something to another piercer in a forum, you’ve got to make it common sense for them to see the problem for what it is, and not just an excuse. Try to give them a real answer, because if they don’t see it for what it is they’ll just see it as an excuse for why you’re right and they’re wrong. If you can present the information in the right lighting, not using words that are bigger then them and using examples they can relate to, then all of a sudden they see problem properly and are willing to adjust a little bit.

Marks. Tom and Olivier. ©1997 BME.

Not making the information complicated, that’s the hard part. You can sit there and say all you want but if people don’t understand it they’re not taking it in. You can’t be above somebodies head when you’re trying to explain something. Kids come in that play sports, I relate the information to a game of what they play. Like if we’re talking about germs and infection and they play soccer, I ask do you win the game by chasing the ball or getting ahead of it? Getting ahead of it, thats how you win the battle of the germs. If all you’re doing is cleaning, you’re chasing. But if you’re looking at the state of things happening around you’re piercing, now you’re actually getting ahead of the problem and fixing it at the source, took your risk and minimized it way more then chasing the ball. You related it to their everyday, so they get it. They won’t learn it until they see how it applies to their situation, and becomes relevant to their situation. Same as a piercer trying to change, or learn a new technique. Most of the time this works, it’s not my fault that person has the wrong anatomy. It’s like the popular excuse you hear, blame the customer, they didn’t conform.

Ari – I know Shannon worked for the studio for a little bit, would you mind reminiscing about that a little bit?

Tom – I met Shannon before BME even started, when that was just an idea he had. He walked into our studio and started showing up a lot and hanging out. He already had some experience with getting pierced and stuff and he’d tried to hand poke tattoos on himself. We were kind of part each others growth in a way; I was there right as BME got started. I tried to help guide him along in ways I saw he needed from a personal level. We did a lot of experimentation and exploration together industry-wise as well, just because he kind of encouraged it. In one sense I don’t think I would have been the piercer I was without him. I saw his brilliance and I saw his limitations. He was a very interesting person. He worked for me making jewelry, he worked on our website, he did a lot of things, and by hanging out with us a lot of my stuff was some of the earliest stuff on BME. In a sense he helped make my reputation, because of access and the interviews. Then again, we also bounced ideas off each other making stuff, and making improvements. When I had the idea for the surface bar because somebody wanted something, he’s the one who made what I said. I said I need this style and I need it exactly like this, and he made it, and we used it. The next time around we make a second improvement over the first.

Blair and Olivier. ©1997 BME.

Ari – When people look at the Toronto scene, ultimately the grandfathers are always crowned as you and Blair, would you mind talking about Blair for a bit?

Tom – Blair is a very interesting, wonderful person. He’s the kind of person you have to meet to really get a feel for, and everything he did was all intuitive, that’s where he worked from, a very intuitive place. We spent lots of time just hanging out because we were in the same town, so when Blair was getting started setting himself up to pierce in a shop, he was getting jewelry from me and I was able to help him out in that way. We were all part of each other in ways. One of my favorite stories was way back when, him and a friend of ours Olivier, who was from France, he was in town for a little bit, they had the idea they wanted to do a suspension. There weren’t really suspensions being done at this point. They were like this is what we want to do, so through a friend of mine we found this farm country backyard we could use. Olivier, Blair and I were wracking our brains with a friend of mine trying to figure out how do we make a rig, how do we get them up; we used a hand wench, we created a swing set structure that we could set up somewhere. We had to build all that, and build the rig that was going to be above, because they were both going to do a superman, one from front and one from the back. We had to design and develop our own hooks because there wasn’t anything available, we had to figure out how to make it all level, we put all this effort into figuring it out and we got it kinda half-assed ok. It was a wonderful day, we got them both up, one of the neighbors kids was just standing there with his mouth agape – we scarred that kid for life! Some other friends were there with drums, just drumming away for them. They got up for a good 40 minutes until they both had to piss really bad, so we took them down. We tried to just get someone to hold a jar under them so they didn’t have to come down but they weren’t into that. We had a great time, and afterwards, Shannon goes, “You know, Allen down in Texas has been experimenting with this and they had some of the same problems and this is how they fixed it.” I’m like you knew this when we started? You couldn’t have shared those tiny pieces of information that would’ve made this easier? We had all the hooks on airplane wire and screw connectors so we could shorten and lengthen in-between all of them, so we could fiddle with them to get everything all nice so there was adjustability, and afterwards he says “Yeah, Allen tried that and then figured out if you just put one rope through a bunch of eye-loops it stays level” and I’m just like, “Really? You know we’ve been planning this for a month! You didn’t say shit!” That was a great day, we got the request, we had them help pay for materials and we made everything. We made it happen, we did it for them because they were our friends, we made their wishes come true, we got that day done – that was a beautiful moment right there.

Ari – What do you think has helped you persevere so long as opposed to other people who’ve burned out or pursued other options?

Tom – I get my days. I have those days where I’m like “I’m gonna quit!” and then you got clients who go “You’re not allowed to quit! We don’t want anybody else!” I just push myself, I’m the type of person who never stops learning. I always want to learn more, I love information, I love science, so I educate myself as much as I can because it interests me. That was one of my beginning big benefits, an inquisitiveness to learn, thats what has kept it kind of new always, because there’s always something new to do and make and figure out.

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

One comment

  1. The best article so far! I honestly had Tom’s voice in my head as i read it. Not to mention so many trips down memory lane with all the information he tried to cram in my brain. God I miss Tom ❤️

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