Since it’s 1989 release, RE/Search Publications’ seminal issue #12 – Modern Primitives – has become one of, if not the most, nodally significant cultural studies of western body modification ever printed. The pantheon of influential body art figures interviewed includes Fakir Musafar, Jim Ward, Ed Hardy, Raelyn Gallina, Lyle Tuttle, Hanky Panky, Leo Zulueta – you could easily get lost following the ripples of influence from any one of them. But Modern Primitives also featured some younger personalities just getting their start in the world of body art; mostly notably Greg Kulz (a pioneer of black graphic industrial tattooing) and Bay Area piercer/tattooist Vaughn, who at the time of publication was trying to make a name in the industry. Thirty years later, and Vaughn’s legacy – the opening of Body Manipulations and the shift to a more diverse clientele – is easily worthy of inclusion with the best of the industry.
In honor of his his birthday, BSTA’s Ari Pimsler interviewed Vaughn, along with friends, former employees, and clients for the new issue of our print project NODAL POINTS. The supporting interviews – Melissa & Joey from Body M’s, Greg Kulz, Duncan Van Luyt, and Blake Perlingieri – are available exclusively in the zine, which can be pre-ordered here:
(special thanks to Bobby Neel Adams for the amazing outtake photos from his Modern Primitives shoot with Vaughn! http://bobbyneeladams.com)
Ari – For an introduction let’s start with where you started piercing, be it business or just experimentation
Vaughn – Probably about 1985. I moved to San Francisco in 1984. What I wanted to do was pierce my lip and I couldn’t find any outlet to do that. I had been pierced down in LA by Jim Ward at The Gauntlet originally because I was living down there. When I got up to San Francisco there was really no one there doing anything. I wanted to pierce my lip, couldn’t find anybody to do it, so eventually I did it myself. But as far as taking on clients I would say, 1986? I just printed up business cards that said, “Vaughn” and had my phone number on it. That was it. If I saw people who had their own piercings I’d approach them like, “hey I can do noses, I can do navels, I can do this kinda deal.” I would have people over to my apartment and pierce them there. I also would set up a little portable kit and go over to peoples houses pierce people in their homes or businesses or wherever. I did that for a couple of years. I can’t remember exactly when I met Esther but she was a big influence as far as pushing me to make it happen as a business. One of the driving forces behind that was we had heard a rumor that Gauntlet was going to try and open up in San Francisco and I wanted to break away from the stigma that Gauntlet had. That stigma was very much in the West Hollywood gay community. I wanted to see piercing move out more into the underground, like the punk scene and the music scenes. That was my main drive. Esther was kind of in the same mindset that drove me – she wasn’t really oriented on the sexual aspect of it but rather the aesthetic orientation. For about three or four years I just pierced privately and did in-home visits and portable visits. In 1989 I ended up getting a little bit of inheritance. I opened Body Manipulations with seven thousand dollars. Rent on the space was like $300 a month – it was super cheap. That all worked out because I knew the tattoo people who were in the space originally – Erno tattoo. They moved upstairs and then I rented from Erno because he still had a lease on the space for a short time. We just sublet it from Erno and turned it into a piercing studio.
Ari – For the really early stuff when you were piercing privately and pop ups and whatnot, were you making those tools? Were you making the jewelry?
Vaughn – I found a piercing gun unlike any I’ve ever seen before or since in a second hand store. It looked like a syringe with a little “u” shaped piece on the end. You’d put a stainless steel stud into it and on the other side it had a little receiver tube to hold the plastic nub and as you pierced it would puncture and then it would poke into the plastic – that was how it was made to work. I think I still have it somewhere. What I ended up doing was adapting it by finding brass tubing to go over the studs and used it to pierce noses. I would put the stud through with the tube and then use the tube for the insertion.
Ari – Sort of like a cannula?
Vaughn – Exactly, but I had to make it because it didn’t exist in my world at that time. Eventually I got to the point where I developed the receiving tube because nobody was using those at the time when I started. I first tried with straight tubes which didn’t work well so then I got the idea to cut them off like a hypodermic needle so you had an end to receive the needle going through. The first time I did one of those was probably 1988. I just went down to a hardware store, bought some stainless steel tubing, cut it off and polished it, and made receiver tubes. That’s when nose piercings changed – before that time, doing it the way I had been, it always bled and always had problems with alignment and whatnot. Once I figured out the receiver tubes it really came together and all got a lot easier. You had to invent your own things because nobody was doing that except for Gauntlet. Gauntlet had some tools available for sale. When I first started out I was buying all my jewelry from them because there was no other source that I knew of. Anatometal and all the other companies didn’t exist. That came much later. I ended up finding a jeweler, a woman who sold jewelry in San Francisco, I can’t even remember her name now – Susan, maybe? Dirk was my jewelry guy but a woman named Susan used to sell me gold fixed bead rings. I used those for nose piercings, ear piercings, everything for years. This was a long time ago.
Ari – You made your own signs and counters and tools. Let’s jump away from piercing for a second. Did you grow up in an environment where you were building things or taking things apart and putting them back together? How did you cultivate this talent?
Vaughn – My dad was an engineer, my grandfather was an auto-mechanic and sheet metal body man, my dads best friend was a machinist who did x-ray technician and equipment repair work and electronics – so yeah, I grew up in an environment that was a maker-style. If you needed something done you learned it and did it! I did the same thing with piercing. If there wasn’t a tool available I figured out how to make one. If there wasn’t a technique that was established I would develop a new technique. I gotta say Blake probably went further than I did where that’s concerned, especially with the big ear openings and whatnot. I never did that kind of work. He really pioneered all that. I always thought that was a bit excessive! I mean it kinda is but in a good way.
Ari – In that early realm, what came first for you – piercing or tattooing?
Vaughn – When I was in LA I really wanted to be a tattoo artist. I did do tattooing for a long time. I was tattooing back in the early 1980s in LA. I was still tattooing while I was doing piercing in San Francisco out of my home. I never had a studio or anything like that. All my background in art was in graphic design – it wasn’t in fine arts. In San Francisco I couldn’t possibly compete because there were so many amazing guys there so I was just really comfortable doing the blackwork and design work. Fine art was elusive to me.
Ari – Do you find it ironic that now black industrial/tribal work is making a resurgence?
Vaughn – No, that’s fine. I enjoyed doing tattooing when I did it but I never felt as comfortable with that as I did the piercing. There wasn’t as much competition so I was more comfortable that way. I felt limited in my abilities tattooing and I never felt that limitation in the piercing industry. I tattooed for a lot of years. I don’t think I’ve done one in twenty-five years now.
Ari – Did you make your own machines for that?
Vaughn – No, I bought machines through catalogues. I acquired a few over the years. I had a couple of Lyle Tuttle machines that were kinda fun. I ended up trading those off or giving them away though. The only tattoo machine I still have is a prison tattoo machine that was confiscated from the big prison by Marin – San Quentin. I don’t know how somebody got it, but I ended up with it – it’s pretty cool. It’s got a guitar string needle and a pen and rotary motor – it’s pretty awesome. Tattooing was always something interesting to me but I never felt comfortable doing it as a business.
Ari – Was most of your tattooing done on friends then?
Vaughn – Yeah, like Greg Kulz – how I tattooed his back and he tattooed my back. It was one of those things where when I moved to San Francisco the girlfriend I had at the time really wanted to do tattooing and I was very encouraging with that. I tried to help her move into that so I did that as well myself but it never really panned out for me.
Ari – I had heard mention of a warehouse space preceding Body Manipulations – is that rumor true?
Vaughn – Nope, I don’t know anything about that. Body Manipulations happened because I had originally talked to Jim Ward and we had approached the idea of opening up a studio together. Jim had the idea that he really wanted to be in the Castro and I didn’t want to be in the Castro – specifically to spread piercing out into the mainstream a bit more. When the space became available up on Haight Street, that was just a no-brainer, we went with that. Literally I had a thousand dollars worth of inventory, probably six months worth of rent I could muster, and we just went for it. The first day we opened I think we made about $200, and our worst day ever was a $35 day.
Ari – Would $35 have been one transaction?
Vaughn – That was probably a nose piercing and maybe a jewelry sale. It used to be you could do a full day and have two or three clients way back. It just built up from there.
Ari – What was the process like where it got busy enough to start hiring on?
Vaughn – The hiring policy was more or less luck of the draw. If I needed somebody and the right person showed up at the right time than that’s who got hired. Blake is a good example! I wasn’t looking for someone and he showed up and was just the right person to be there at the time – thats how it works. Honestly, I’m not a great business person. I was never good at keeping books, and keeping track of inventory, and ordering and all that stuff. I always surrounded myself with people who had a good feel for those kinds of things. I didn’t make a big deal of hiring because most of the time when you were gonna hire someone in the early days there weren’t hiring any trained people where you’d interview them about their credentials. You were going to bring someone on and train them up. That was just how it worked back then. I don’t think I put a lot of thought into it beyond I need someone and getting the right vibe from a person rather than them having a particular set of skills.
Ari – Were you surprised at all at how fast things took off?
Vaughn – No, it was great. I imagine it’s like the same thing that happens to people who become celebrities. It just snowballs on you. It did that for a while – we had probably a decade of really good growth and then it slowly dwindled off.
Ari – Would you attribute that to more competition coming into play or just the initial boom subsiding?
Vaughn – Competition for sure, but society changes, people’s interests change, my interests changed. I had to move on too.
Ari – Was there an area of piercing that held your interest over others?
Vaughn – I always liked the suspension stuff and work that we did. Blake and I were the first ones to do that together. There was nobody out there doing it. Fakir had previous experience – there may have been a little bit of misunderstanding between him and I. The feedback I got was that he felt that what I was doing was exploiting something spiritual for the sake of entertainment. Which I kind of did but in my mind to do suspensions was something so personal to me. I always felt like it’s only spiritual because of the experience you’re seeing it from – it has nothing to do with anything supernatural. I didn’t do suspension work for any spiritual reason because I have no drive that way but to have an experience that most people won’t have in their lifetime is exhilarating, what makes you feel alive. That’s the main reason for doing stuff like this. Now I do it by illegally driving at high speeds on my motorcycle and it sort of is the same exhilaration. I get the same sense of, “nobody can take this away from me.” That’s important I think – when you lose the subject under somebody’s thumb it takes away from your life. The more you can do to get out and experience things for yourself makes life worth living. That was one of the main things that drove me to do piercings in the first place, tattooing in the first place – it was outside the norm of many people’s experiences. Even though today there’s a lot of people getting tattooed and pierced, the individuality of it is what still drives us to do it.
Ari – Coming from a less classically spiritual place did you feel influenced at all by Stelarc?
Vaughn – Of course! I think he was doing it for the same kind of reason I was. It was a test of one’s self.
Ari – Was some part of it for shock value?
Vaughn – Yes, the point was to shock. We tried to do performances in front of audiences because we were doing something that most people wouldn’t even consider doing – the shock value was definitely a factor.
Ari – Did you have a preference between being on stage and being the one to throw hooks and work behind the scenes?
Vaughn – I used to be much more of an extrovert. That has waned in my years. That idea was important to me, doing it in front of an audience and doing something other people would hesitate to consider. I think that my motivation was to make myself something more than what other people would try and do, or rather push past what normal people would do.
Ari – Were you doing any pulling or suspension outside of performances?
Vaughn – No. We did a few private functions where it wasn’t in front of an audience but that was usually just for the small circle of people we had around, especially when Allen (Falkner) was working with me. Paul, who took over the studio, we did a few things probably late 1990s/early 2000s where it was private. That was for our own sake. The public stuff was much more fun, the club nights because I did them with Blake, I did them with Joey, etc. There was a big one at DNA lounge. Being on stage was fun.
Ari – Were most of the venues pretty receptive?
Vaughn – Oh yeah, San Francisco at this time was pretty open to everything.
Ari – Did this kind of coincide with working with Survival Research Laboratories?
Vaughn – Well, I’ve always liked to build stuff – when we started doing suspension stuff I would build apparatus. I’ll try to dig up some video to show you where you can see some performances where I did some vertical suspensions on machinery that I made. Welding and metalwork have always been really appealing to me so SRL was a natural progression. I never really got involved in building for them but I always wanted to help out with their shows
Ari – How did you hook up with Mark Pauline in the first place?
Vaughn – Some of it was through Greg Kulz because he was interested in what they were doing, and the art they always involved in their performances. Mark Pauline had gotten ahold of some human skin. He had gotten I think a chest piece of preserved human flesh. I don’t know how the hell he got it but he wanted me to do a piercing on it and Greg to do a tattoo on it. Neither of us had ever worked with anything like this so we kind of collaborated with that. We did this thing he put in one of his art displays. That’s how I became involved with them and their shows. When I was living in San Francisco I had this giant Ford F250 4X4 – so if we needed stuff moved when he was doing shows I would happily volunteer. That’s how it all worked out. There used to be pictures up in Body Manipulations, I don’t know if they still are, but they were of me out there helping move machinery around at SRL shows – fun stuff. That’s when they used to have the compound down by the farm off of Army Street. I would go hang out with them. As far as machinery work I didn’t help out much, I did my own projects and whatnot but that was all private.
Ari – You were most certainly the first shop to advertise branding and I’d to delve into that a little bit. How did you get started doing that and what was your clientele looking for?
Vaughn – I probably had at most a half dozen customers that really got extensive brands done. It was such a small part of the business. But what I enjoyed about that was the creativity of it – doing something other than tattooing and piercing was such a small group that really got into it. I haven’t kept any records of the work I’ve done. I left it all in San Francisco.
Ari – A lot of it was smaller scale work?
Vaughn – Yeah, little stuff on their shoulder or their back. Most of the extensive stuff I did was full around the leg type work or full shoulder pieces. It was never a part of the business that made any money. It was more for people looking for something more extreme.
Ari – Did you also dabble in scarification?
Vaughn – I was never comfortable with cutting. Using scalpels on people always made me uncomfortable just because I know the amount of damage they can do. Plus dealing with that much blood never appealed to me – tattooing had enough, scarring and cut work has so much blood involved.
Ari – What was the relationship like between people like Raelyn and other people within the scene at this time?
Vaughn – Raelyn was awesome. As a matter of fact, she was there the first time Blake and I did a performance and she helped with doing the insertion of the hooks. She was great. She was very much part of her gay community and her aesthetic – I mean, I think we all did that. We all went our own ways because of our personal aesthetics. Blake was much more interested in the more ancient nomadic tribal work, I was much more interested in the technical side of things – complicated multiple piercings with a spiral, things like that. When nobody else was doing that we were trying to invent that kind of stuff. I always looked at piercing as doing something radical but in as safe a mode as possible, otherwise the public wasn’t going to accept it. This goes back to why I wasn’t necessarily comfortable doing big ear holes and whatnot – there are a few extreme clients who will be fine with that type of stuff, but for the general public they will freak out about it. I geared myself more towards a studio that was comfortable for everybody, or more comfortable because it didn’t have quite the shock value that some of the extreme tribal stuff would have.
Ari – What was it like for business when you changed location?
Vaughn – Like any business, if it’s going well you gotta expand.
Ari – Was it sad leaving that space though? Did it feel like you were moving away from your roots at all?
Vaughn – Well I was concerned about that when we did move because any time you close a shop down people think you’ve disappeared. I think I was a little more driven at the time to expand as much as I could but once I got into the bigger space I never felt like we needed to go above and beyond that. The reason we moved the business was the sheer production – we couldn’t do as much work as we wanted to do in the space we were in. Leaving the Haight hurt us a little bit but business picked back up again. It turned out fine. I always wanted to have a space that felt more like a clinic than it did anything else, so the reason I had a bigger space was to accommodate more people.
Ari – Having that sense of moving away from a traditional tattoo shop in the ‘90s, are you surprised or unsurprised to see now that piercing is moving more in the direction of a boutique?
Vaughn – Piercing was such a new thing back then that an exclusive piercing studio was fine. I think today the whole body modification and adornment thing is a conglomerate – it’s just the way the business has gone. I’ve been out of it for what, almost twenty years now? I left in 2000, left San Francisco in 2000, and turned the shop over to Paul and never went back. I tried for a while when I was in Northern California to do piercing but there just wasn’t enough business to justify opening another studio. I was busy enough with starting a new career and a new line of work. I went back to doing home visits when I first left San Francisco but it never panned out. I sort of gave up on it because it wasn’t worth the time I was putting into it.
Ari – The other person people talk about in the same vein of innovative work as yourself would be Erik Dakota – did you two have a relationship?
Vaughn – Only in a business way – Erik would come up and pierce in the studio once in a while. This would’ve been at the second location which opened in 1994 or 1995. I don’t remember him ever being at the original location. I haven’t seen him in I don’t know how long. Most of my dealings with Erik were on a business level to buy jewelry. He did some amazing work as far as innovation and machining techniques. He made some good quality stuff. I remember when Dances, Sacred and Profane came out, they had a preview party and I was able to get to that. Fakir got up and talked about what they had done as far as getting the movie put together. The most vivid thing I remember from that was when the show was all over and everyone was walking out there was a poster from the film sitting on a curtain in the back of the room. No one had done anything to move it so I just picked it up and took it with me. That was definitely an influence as far as the performances were concerned because seeing the stuff Fakir had done with suspensions was an influence to drive me to try it myself. I wanted to put it in more of a public space than a private space.
Ari – Being at these events would’ve put you around Charles Gatewood – did you two have a relationship?
Vaughn – Charles always wanted to get pictures and he was a documentarian. Charles was around during the early part of Body Manipulations but wasn’t around much after the first couple of years. A lot of my life back then was a big blur; I was a lot more out of control than I am now. I think because of the studio is how I met him. He approached us – he might have known Esther before he knew me. I don’t recall if he was at the performances to document – he may have, I just don’t remember. I think he was there for some of them though.
Ari – Were you following his work, either tattoo or piercing related?
Vaughn – I mean, there ws so little out there at this time that we always encouraged anyone doing anything published. We did what we could as far as working with people who wanted to put out articles or bring awareness to what we were doing, but I was pretty busy with just keeping the shop going.
Ari – What was your work schedule like during this time?
Vaughn – Pretty much right until I left I was doing five to six days a week. In the early days you’d work for six weeks in a row seven days a week without a break because that was the only way to keep the studio going. If you closed for a day everyone was unhappy about it so we always tried to be open seven days a week. I imagine any small business deals with that issue.
Ari – Was the long term brutal work schedule the reason once you left you completely washed your hands from everything?
Vaughn – No, by the time I left I was seeing just how much the city was changing and that I needed to get out of the city. I thought that that change was going to be a good thing, but over the years it turned out it wasn’t. I got a little bit of burn out. I was getting into my forties and all of the clientele that was interested in what we were doing was in the 18-25 range. I think I got to the point where I couldn’t necessarily relate anymore and just needed an out. There were plenty of people still interested enough that I was able to let someone else take over.
Ari – I think Body Manipulations is maybe the first example of a piercing and tattoo crossover with it’s relationship to Erno’s – was it interesting to watch people bounce back and forth? did it seem like it worked out well?
Vaughn – One of the great things about being in the space we were in was the fact that we did have a tattoo studio upstairs so we had people coming into the neighborhood to get tattoo work. Anyone getting tattoo work knows it can take quite a bit of time, so for anyone else who was hanging out we were a good place to come and check out. Yeah, that worked out pretty well. I think the two industries complemented each other for a long time. I think piercing was absorbed more by the tattoo industry than vice versa. Almost any tattoo studio these days has some form of piercing available. An exclusive piercing studio – thats gotta be a tough road to hoe right about now. I think I got to the point where I just hit a burn out with my own personal experience in it and moved on. I hope I was a good influence as far as the people who came after me and what I left for them as a foundation.
Ari – It’s neat to hear you say that because I think you could pretty easily make the argument that Body Manipulations is responsible for the popularization of piercing into the mainstream.
Vaughn – I think it was inevitable. I remember when I first got pierced I was in LA I was already getting interested in tattooing and I had gotten a few tattoos. My girlfriend at the time found out that Gauntlet existed. She was like, “I gotta take you someplace,” but wouldn’t tell me where we were going. We walked into Gauntlet and I immediately got a piercing right then and there. I got a scrotal piercing done that I still have actually. I met Jim Ward, and from that point on it was something I was always curious about and interested in. I was already tattooing so when we ended up in San Francisco I figured I was going to try and pursue it. It went from there. It was great that Gauntlet was there, that that outlet existed, but to be honest I wasn’t that comfortable in their studio the first time I was in it. I wasn’t part of the target clientele which is where my desire came from to bring it the scene I would find comfortable. Also, with the punk scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was a lot of self abuse or at least that was one of the things a lot of media focused on – that punks would abuse themselves. You know, safety pins through the cheeks and whatnot. I found the aesthetic interesting but the practice to be dangerous and I wanted there to be an outlet so people could do what they wanted to do aesthetically but not harm themselves in the process. In my own personal experiences I found that as well, like, “sure I’d love to have a ring in my lip,” but I want to do it safely. I didn’t want to do it like an idiot with a safety pin. That was a driving force – people to have a safe outlet and hygienic outlet rather than just the sheer shock value.
Ari – Was that late ‘70s punk scene your introduction to the piercing aesthetic?
Vaughn – Sort of. I was somewhat aware of the whole tribal aesthetic like lip discs and whatnot but it wasn’t as much of an influence to me.
Ari – Do you feel like this pragmatism towards safety comes from your family background of intelligent people and how they worked?
Vaughn – Geez, I’d hope so! That was my main influence and where I was driven was to make it safe. When we started there were no regulations. Here’s a good story – we’re a year into Body Manipulations, we’re underneath Erno’s, and a woman walks in from the San Francisco Department of Health and Safety. She presents her ID card and is like, “I need to see your autoclave,” so I said, “sure!” Come on back, I’ll show you what we do. This is where we set up, this is where we do our prep, this is our autoclave, this is where we store our supplies – she asks, “well where do you tattoo?” I told her that we’re not a tattoo studio – that we do body piercing. She says, “oh, I have no jurisdiction here”, turns on her heels and walks out! I was just like well, ok! That settles that! I’m doing the right thing but nobody gives a fuck. Not too long after that the whole meeting between myself and Blake and Gauntlet and everyone doing the whole APP thing started out. Before that there was nobody who regulated it. I think that’s another thing that drove me away from wanting to stay in the industry. I was doing the right thing when there wasn’t regulation, and when there was regulation they kind of overstepped to where I didn’t want to deal with them anymore. I have a lot of problems with authority. They usually don’t have it right, ya know? If you can’t take personal responsibility for what you’re doing, I don’t need someone over my shoulder telling me what to do. I can do it or not – my reputation will drive my conscience. Again, I felt like I had done my part and it seemed time to get out.
Ari – Being one of the earliest people to even use an autoclave, how did you know to go down that road?
Vaughn – My dad was an engineer but his engineering was in the hospital field so I understood things from a safety and cleanliness point from the medical industry. I’d been raised with being around hospitals and how the safety factors of infections worked. I’d already been tattooing so I had my own autoclave. It was a natural progression when I started piercing.
Ari – How did you get hooked up with the ReSearch book project?
Vaughn – I don’t quite remember. I think I was turned onto them because they were talking to tattoo artists and I believe Greg Kulz aimed them in my direction. I was wanting to be a tattoo artist back then and that was a lucky break. Getting into the ReSearch magazine was probably one of the main reasons I was as successful as I was. We did the interview and Body Manipulations wasn’t even open when that came out. It opened six months to a year after. That was huge. That helped me out for at least a decade in terms of people who sought me out for that. We pushed it at every opportunity. We carried it in the shop, sold copies, and I promoted myself. It only made sense to.
Ari – Do you think because of the fact that there were no norms or guidelines that it kept a better standard of piercer around? Like it almost required critical thinking at that point just to pierce?
Vaughn – Absolutely. The people who wanted to do body piercing were driven. I don’t think they went into it thinking, “oh, I’ll just try this,” – it was what they wanted to do or it wasn’t. I think I got a pretty good read on people when it came to picking the right people who knew they wanted to be there. Again, my whole take on it was health and safety – you have to do the best possible work you can and do it in a safe and clean environment under non-stressful conditions. Giving people an outlet so they were comfortable getting the work done. I mean with my first experience I wasn’t exactly uncomfortable amongst leather men and whatnot but it wasn’t my scene.
Ari – What was the soundtrack like at the studio?
Vaughn – We played everything. We played Rock and Roll. I had a guy working for me who loved Death Metal and Black Metal and whatnot and he wanted to play that in the studio! I told him, “this is not calming to the average customer, we are not going to be able to do that.” Or he’d want to play Ice Cube, which again has it’s place but when I’m trying to pierce a sixteen year old who’s father is waiting with her and Ice Cube or Death Metal are playing that can be a little stressful. You’ve got to acknowledge the clientele.
Ari – When you had that first big crew going where it was you, and Melissa, and Elizabeth and Blake, what was the relationship like outside of work?
Vaughn – It was a small family but it kind of had to be – we were sort of outsiders in society. We were doing stuff most people frowned upon. We definitely had a camaraderie and hung out with each other outside of work. It wasn’t a corporate structure – there was me and an extended family. I would hope that thats still the case in most any piercing studio. You have a group of people that are there because they love it and support each other in it. I don’t find that so much in the corporate world I’m in now.
Ari – You could say this about both piercing and tattooing – the time we’re discussing here is an absurdly awesome time period for San Francisco, just jam-packed with heavy hitters in both categories. Was it self evident at the time how special that was?
Vaughn – I think so. It was unique. The ‘80s were a very strange time – we were such a small subculture because there was no way to get what we were doing out into the mainstream with any ease. Things like ReSearch Magazine and small publications meant print media was our best outlet. Doing performance shows was how we would get people who wouldn’t notice us otherwise into an environment where we could show them things they’d never seen before. It was just different. You couldn’t even go online because there was no online. Another reason why I got out of it – I had done what I could to promote it and it was going on it’s own at that point. I didn’t really feel like I had anything left to contribute.
Ari – Does it feel diluted walking around now seeing everyone tattooed and pierced?
Vaughn – When I first got into tattooing, or interested in tattooing, a lot of the tattoo stuff out there was bad sailor tattooing and biker tattooing. The aesthetic didn’t appeal to me, so the tribal and graphic stuff that I was doing was much more interesting to me. Another aspect to that whole tribal side of it were the modifications – the septum piercings and stretched ears and lip plugs. I think I wanted to bring that more into the mainstream and I think I did. I was in the right place at the right time in San Francisco – just lucky I guess. Was it a revolution? I guess it was. There was nothing before that in any way shape or form. The punk rock scene did that too – it was an evolution in the culture that hadn’t happened before. You could say that about Rockabilly, flappers in the ‘20s, the beatniks – everything is a step forward in the societal evolution. I was lucky to be in the foundation of the original wave there.
Ari – Did you find the first board meeting for the APP dissolved any of the tension between the “camps” that had formed?
Vaughn – It broadened the scope – basically it was the start of regulation. If you’re going to regulate things you’ve got to homogenize, it’s got to all come together. I think The Gauntlet and myself and what Blake was doing were foundations for all that, but no particular one was correct – I think theres room for all sides of it. I stopped being involved because I didn’t want to be part of the bureaucracy. When I started there were no rules. I think regulating it discouraged me some because I felt what I had done to that point was above and beyond what most anybody else would take the time to do. I don’t know, it just didn’t make sense to me to over regulate it because if people aren’t smart enough to see somebody is doing it wrong out there, that’s not my problem. That goes to a societal thing though that I have a problem with. Most people don’t take any responsibility for their own shit. I don’t have any patience for that. I don’t have patience for ignorance and a lot of the clientele was ignorant. Any time you open up the field to more people you get more of the bad in alongside the good. Entitlement from other businesses funnels in. Pre-APP we were trying to take the initiative to help so all of us from Body Manipulations thought we’d go up to Sacramento to introduce ourselves to the legislature. We even sat in on something. We put on our best suits and we went up with paperwork and pre-APP guidelines about contamination. They looked at us and went, “gloves? Why would you guys use gloves?” We looked at each other – how are we going to self-regulate when these are the people who sign things into law? They were clueless. Same thing like the woman who came into the shop – you’re a fucking health inspector, why the fuck don’t you have jurisdiction here? Here we are opening up peoples skin and you think that has nothing to do with you? Fine. That has nothing to do with you. Most states still don’t care what happens in the shops; they just want to collect a check. I eventually left – I went and started a new career, did other things with my life. But having Body Manipulations was probably the best time in my life just in that I didn’t have any rule and regulations. I didn’t have anyone standing over my shoulder telling me what I could and couldn’t do – I was autonomous. There aren’t very many outlets to be autonomous anymore. I think thats what drew me to it more than anything else – the freedom of being innovative and creating something that nobody had done before. That was motivation for making it happen.
Ari – It sounds like autonomy was a theme within the studio, going into how the employees felt and were able to operate
Vaughn – Absolutely, as long as you do it safely, as long as you aren’t causing people harm and you’re not spreading disease, do what you fucking want to do. That’s always been my attitude. Do what you fucking want to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else. It doesn’t fly anymore. The people in power want to keep that sort of thing regulated.
Ari – What was it like watching Nomad take off? Did it feel good to see someone you helped nurture in a way go off and build their own powerhouse?
Vaughn – Originally Nomad was pretty much competition. I would say we moved our separate ways on fairly good terms but for some years there we didn’t communicate. We didn’t really talk to each other much. Two different schools of thought – I was based on offering a clean safe space to get work done in, and I didn’t tend to feel comfortable doing much experimentation on the general public. If I had friends that was my space to kind of branch out and experiment. I think Blake was more willing to let the general public get more extreme work and that is where we really separated. It all seemed to work out in the end though. I think it was just a matter of my comfort level versus his comfort level. I thought of Nomad as a different style of studio. It had it’s place and we had ours. Now we’re grumpy old men.
Ari – Any feelings on how history has been documented so far? What they teach, etc?
Vaughn – I don’t even know what they teach anymore – what do they teach? When I would bring on a new employee I would give them a general sense of what I thought they should be doing. Making the client comfortable, health and safety, etc. – but they were pretty much on their own. If you’re going to become a body piercer you need the basics but you have to be comfortable doing what you do. I think I came up with some innovations as far as how procedures were done but Blake has come up with just as many. There isn’t a lot of room for new growth – almost everything been done body piercing and modification wise. Short of amputations, which even those were done and I’m sure still are – I always thought that was going to be a bigger thing honestly. I had thought about that a lot, taking part of the finger off to the knuckle, but I never did it. I think there is still room for the industry to be here but I don’t think it’s ever going to be more than what it has already become. I always had the attitude that I don’t think more piercings are better than a couple of good piercings. I always thought stretching your ears out was more interesting than having a dozen rings in your ear. That’s just my take on it. In order to keep the business going you need to accommodate what people already have. It’s like fashion – some people are wanting to go to extremes with bold jewelry, some people want to keep it subtle, and there’s room for all of that. But when you saturate a business with lots and lots and lots of variety and services available it gets harder and harder to make it, so to speak. If you own half a dozen studios they’re going to make money and the little guy isn’t anymore.
Ari – Do you have any hopes for what the legacy of Body Manipulations will be?
Vaughn – I’ve been out of it for two decades. It’s gone along fine without me. I’m glad I did what I did but I don’t have any desire or concern as to where it goes from here. It’s not my thing anymore. I’ve moved on.
Photos courtesy of Bobby Neel Adams, Joey Bennett.
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