BSTA: Ken Dean

Ari – Ken, where are you currently located?

Ken – I just moved to Seattle Tattoo Emporium. All these dudes have been there thirty fucking years, like Jimmy the Saint, it’s crazy. It’s also a tattoo museum so they’ve got all this really old shit. Lyle Tuttle will just stop by like, “hey whats up guys?” Old school legendary shit. I don’t really make a lot of money there, but for the experience alone it’s fuckin worth it. I’m not having that bad of a time. I can come and go as I please, I only have a small set schedule. No drama. So many times it’s just stupid shit, but you know how the business is, it’s a constant barrage of bullshit that I would rather not deal with on any level. That’s why I love where I’m working now, because there’s none. These dudes are my fuckin age, they don’t wanna do anything besides go to work, be happy, and come home, and I love this! No drama, no shit, no nothing, I’m good with it. I talk to friends who are really young in the business and it’s all he did this, she did that, blah blah blah, I just don’t fucking care, I couldn’t care less to hear about piercing/tattoo shop drama, it’s just endless. I can’t even go out to a bar without someone coming up and going “Are you a tattoo artist? Let me tell you what I want!”

Ari – It’s like “Hey, do you work at Burger King? I want a whopper at some point, and since I can have it my way, let me take this inopportune time to tell in lengthy detail about what “my way” is! It makes you want to blow your brains out.”

Ken – At least we still have good attitudes. Plenty of people who’ve been in the business far less than you or I have super shitty ones.

Ari – Are you happy to be back on the West Coast again?

Ken – I just feel more at home on the West Coast. No one’s calling me a weirdo because we’re all weirdos here. Even though everything I did I always did for attention. Even as an artist it started when I was a kid. I didn’t get enough attention so it’d be like, “look what I did!”, that’s how it all fucking started. Then you get older and you’re like, “hmm, I’m not really too bad at this, and someone will pay me for it, thats cool too, but more important – look what I did!” Even on Facebook you post up a picture like, “look what I did!” But when you boil it all down we’re really just service providers.

Ari – Social media gets so frustrating though. I’ll do something I’m so psyched on, a piercing or whatever, and throw it up and only get a few metaphorical handjobs. Like a very moderate amount of people will say good job. But I put up a picture of my cat licking his own asshole and I get over a hundred likes on it – it’s like this is not the gratification I was looking for, people.

Ken – Exactly, I’ll make a drawing I’m super proud of and throw it up and get a “eh” from the general public, but if I trace out some old 1950’s flash, reshade and color it, everyone goes “You’re a fucking genius!” No one wants originality, they want familiarity. They’re drawn to the same old shit. Being a tattooer and being an artist are two totally different things. Plus everyone’s a model now. I do this – and I model. Their skill set is beyond poor, but they have twenty two thousand followers.

Ken – I don’t like adulting at all. I’m a child, some Peter Pan type thing. Maybe I’m just fucking lazy, or maybe I have some type of gene that makes me lazy. But I’m not lazy when it comes to something I really like or want. One of my friends, she said, “The only reason you ever succeeded at anything is because you never did anything you didn’t want to do.” I thought that was pretty smart, and she was absolutely right.

Ari – Let’s talk about your time at Silver Anchor.

Ken – That time period at Silver Anchor Enterprises, when I got there, I got out of tech school and that was my first job as a machinist. Sailor Sid had just died, and he had this trailer right out next to the machine shop behind the house – I had to clean out that trailer. They thought it was funny, but I didn’t know what the fuck any of what I was even making was at that time. I just knew I was working for some guys, which were Ed Fenster and Mike Natali and Jack Yount. I didn’t know anything about any of it – I was just this bright eyed bushy hair kid, 19-20 years old, and they’re like, “Let’s have Ken go ahead and clean out Sid’s trailer”. I was like, “what the fuck, I’m a machinist, I’m in here making jewelry.” All this large gauge shit and urethra tubes that we called Prince’s Wands. I was making a lot of those – all of this shit was new to me. So I go into Sid’s trailer and he’s got boxes and boxes of 8mm and European porn and Swedish erotica, boxes of dildos and homemade butt plugs. I didn’t put it all together, I didn’t get the gist of who he was until years later.

Ari – Do you remember what year you came onto Silver Anchor?

Ken – That’d be 1990. I stayed there for a while with Mike (Natali) and Jack (Yount), I was apprenticed by those two. Things were just so different back then from how they are now. We had to order needles from a medical supply company, cut the hubs off them, get all the burrs off them, clean them up, repackage them, sterilize them, all this shit. That’s when it really started coming around, I mean before that from like the 70s, those guys were using the right type of steel but fuckin nuts and bolts and ice picks and all kinds of fucked up shit. At my time they were using styrofoam they’d order from a florist, and tubing to put on the back of things. But even at that time if you went to buy a captive ball ring it was $14-15 wholesale! Remember, that’s late 80s early 90s money! It was unbelievably highly polished and well made jewelry, so unbelievably well made, you really took your time on each piece. Within years, maybe three or four, all these other companies from all over, from overseas, starting pumping out jewelry that was so cheap and so low quality, fuckin orange peel on it. They started selling it a lot cheaper, $3 to $2 to fifty cents to twenty cents to a bag of 100 for $20 and it’s like what the fuck is going on? Silver Anchor managed to stay afloat for a while after that though, I think it really felt apart after Jack died though, so around 1996. I know he was overseas on vacation. 1 But I wasn’t taken aback by this world when I came into it; I was so interested in all of this, I wanted to know every fuckin thing about what was going on and what they were doing. I wanted to know everybody – I looked at them as adventurers. Everybody was really respectful to me, even though I was a young good-looking kid, they were always respectful. I wish I knew how much those PFIQs would be worth today, but there was always so much memorabilia, magazines and pictures, all this gay leather underground stuff, I just thought it was cool. I mean these people were friends with my parents, I lived less then a mile away from Silver Anchor Enterprises. It was in Crystal Springs, Florida. It was a wild fuckin time. Then I took off to California to pierce.

Ari – How long were you working in the machine shop before you started apprenticing?

Ken – I was probably working there six months before I started, maybe not even that long. When I figured out what the fuck it all was I thought it was the coolest shit ever. They started taking me to this place called the Parliament House, which is a gay resort in Orlando. We would go there and it was all sectioned out. Dudes are leaving their doors open, you look in there, if you liked what you saw you went on in. Chuck and Mike (Natali) were always at the gay leather bar. My girlfriend and I were in there drinking underage, she’d dress like a kid and not wear make up and put her hair up and nobody fucked with her. I got flashed a few times. We did everything there, all weekend long was piercing nipples and dicks and scrotes, anything you could possibly think of. Brian Skellie was around at this time, he was learning there too. I remember being over at Jack’s house a lot and he’d be over there. The Parliament House was an eye-opening experience of freedom and liberation. Even dick splitting and experimental stuff too. I mean optimally you’d have a PA and stretch it out, and then clamp it down over that thin piece of skin until all the blood runs out and cauterize it. A lot of freaky shit, now that I look back on it I’m like what the fuck was I thinking as a kid? Mike started Bravo right after I left for California, it was pretty quick, I don’t know what happened with him and Ed. My dad still owns the rights to the name Silver Anchor. Ed gave him the rights to the name, so my dad and I started a company to make the wholesale jewelry for Pleasurable Piercing and Reverend Wild Bill, so we were filling all those orders for that time period. I ended up going out to San Francisco and started up a shop with a legendary tattooer named Phil Sims, he owned a place called Drastic Changes, and we were two doors down on Central Masonic on Haight Ashbury, we had a shop called Melisande, some of the first piercing in that area besides Body Manipulations, and Gauntlet down on Market. It was little while before the Nomad guys moved in. I had always been in it for different reasons than some other people, I just thought it was cool and decorative. Like when the Nomad guys got there they were like the Body Manipulations crew where they thought it was this spiritual rite of passage. I remember specifically saying some shit to Kristian and Blake along the lines of not needing to do a fucking chicken dance every time I did a navel piercing. They fucking hated me. I was doing interviews in the paper and on TV, so I guess I was representative of that culture at that time, and they were not happy about it. In Florida we did Eye on Tampa Bay and Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Tribune, but in California too, some TV shows and I did some stuff in L.A. too before I started tattooing. That was kind of a natural progression for me, I’d always been a painter and an artist. It definitely wasn’t for more money. I see a lot of piercers doing that, they go into tattooing because they think they’re gonna be rich and that’s just stupid to even think that way because if it’s not something that you love you’re not going to be able to do it for an extended period of time. I was not making as much money learning how to tattoo or tattooing as I was piercing, but I loved tattooing. I would sit in my piercing room and paint all day, that’s all I would fucking do. That’s how that fuckin happened.

Ari – How long were you piercing for total before you started tattooing?

Ken – I don’t think there was a point in time where I stopped piercing, ya know? Even with a crossover it mainly went to tattooing when I got out of my tattoo apprenticeship in 2000. There was a lull in piercing where it became just whatever. Now I think there’s more of an uprising, people are looking at it in a different way. I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable piercing now unless it was for a friend and I had availability, I can’t put that kind of time in to do it for a living, I’m not a fuckin one man show. I know the time and energy it takes to put into a career like that now, you can’t tattoo and pierce, I know people think they can but they can’t. If you look at the higher caliber piercers and the amount of time and energy they put into it, it’s evolved so much since I was involved, this whole other fuckin thing. I’ve seen piercers more anal-retentive than any doctors. I mean when people get militant about it it’s overkill, but everyone’s gotten better with the metals, the placement, the everything. Some piercings were done so strangely back then, now they’re done completely different, and I’d end up doing them the same old way.

Ari – You can’t go wrong with the classics. Make some marks, hit them, follow it with some jewelry – the basic gist is the same, there’s just more glitz and glam now. In San Francisco, were you hanging out with people from the other shops?

Ken – I mean I knew who they were, but we didn’t hang out in the same circles. I was pretty independent for the most part. I think it was sort of competition, it didn’t feel like you could just walk up to people and say, “Hey, you do what I do!” and get respect, ya know? Now you see a tattooer and it’s like hey, cool, no fucks given, but back then it was sort of territorial, you open up a shop like Haight Ashbury and you’re taking money away from other people. It’s funny because Ed (Fenster) and Jack (Yount) were friends with Jim Ward, but I just never ran down to Gauntlet. I was just busy in my own world, working hard, the whole shop would be filled, line around the block, open to fuckin close. Here’s one thing that was done very differently – you get a bunch of needles with all the hubs cut off, you take the drill bit, you sand the outside, you sterilize it – then you do, I dunno, let’s say fifty piercings a day, a fuckload. All day long you were using the same tools, like openers and closers, clamps, everything, same ones for every client – you just spray it down with alcohol and wipe it off inbetween, and use them for everything. At the end of the night, you took your bio bin – and this is how we did it dude, hand to Satan, don’t hold it against me, it was a different time, – but you took that bio hazard bin home, took it upstairs, dumped it into boiling water, threw a little bit of bleach, boiled the needles, pulled them out and poked all the skin out of them, threw them back in, did it again, pulled them out, ran them through a soap wash, repackaged them and reused them. We had needles reused a hundred times or more! These needles were not sharp for very long. That was happening in tattooing too, I mean even when I started tattooing, which was later on, where you made your own needles, ultrasoniced them, resterilized them and reused them again. On the grand scale of things it was not that long ago, and weird too, you think of San Fransisco at that time, before meds for HIV came out and I lost so many friends to it, pretty brutal for a young guy in his early to mid 20s to go through. It’s surprising the medical industry or health department didn’t see any of this as absolute treachery.

Ari – Were they even paying attention though?

Ken – No. I don’t think they paid attention at all.

Ari – When you opened Melisande, did you only have one of each tool? Or you just tended to lean on your favorites and reuse them more often?

Ken – I had a few different pairs of everything because I made them. When I left I took a few pairs of everything with me, but you’d just reuse the same thing all day on everybody. Every day, all day long. This is how fucked up it is – you do a Hafada piercing on somebody, spray it down with alcohol, wipe it off, next person comes in for a lip piercing and …heh, I can’t even imagine the germs on all that shit. I had some friends that owned Zebra Tattoo and Piercing on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, and I helped put piercing in there, and also the one in the Castro district. The shop in the Castro was either in a poor place or just people weren’t interested but that one ended up closing.

Ari – The concept of reusing needles seems so brutally strenuous. Were you using a needle pusher for all of these? Because I can’t imagine trying to push a needle you’ve used a hundred times through an apadravya.

Ken – Oh, I always used a needle pusher! You’d have a four inch needle pusher (most men think four inches is six inches, but it’s really only four!). At one end you’d have a size, a different size on the other end, put a little goop on it for grip. I forgot all about that! It’s a whole different story, and I’m sure the experience is different for everybody. Honestly, I don’t even remember if I was wearing gloves for all of that.

Ari – Did you also use the styrofoam to pierce into?

Ken – I did use that for a while, then I switched to corks for a while until I had a cork crumble on me, so I ditched that altogether, and as the years went on I just didn’t use anything. I just freehanded, would go right between my fingers. You just got good at it, but that was later on. Of course initially you need help with everything and after a while you just streamline. But then it was getting old. It got to the point where tattooing and piercing don’t mix. You’d be working on a tattoo and really get in the zone and someone would yell that three piercings are waiting up front, so you run up and do those as fast as you can, and after a while I just wrote it off altogether. The last time I really felt like a piercer was in Hollywood. The last piercings I did were like a year ago though, covering for people who took off. It’s no problem, I think some of it’s neat, but it’s only done out of necessity, I don’t really like it anymore.

Ari – How did your dad get acquainted with Ed and Jack?

Ken – Well my dad was a machinist, and Ed needed work done and I don’t remember exactly how they met, but I think while they were searching for a machinist they found my dad. During the Silver Anchor days, when my dad was making all the wholesale jewelry stuff for Wild Bill, he used to make so much jewelry that on the weekend he’d go down to Ybor and sell it to all the shops. He’d go down for a weekend and make ten fuckin grand, each shop would buy a truckload of jewelry from this little french guy! Nobody even knew he was my dad. But my dad and the Silver Anchor crew got close, and there’d be these parties at the house with Jack there and Mike and everyone. Jack had so many modifications done, jewelry over an inch for his nipples, he was injecting silicone into his body. His dick looked like a potato, he had his nuts removed, he had them removed and put stainless steel ball bearings in there, so his nuts were hanging down to his knees, but they had this teflon coating; he went to Mexico to get it done and they didn’t take the coating off so it got gangrenous, so they took his nuts out but he kept injecting his dick so it kind of looked like a potato. We would go over Jack’s house and he was fuckin hilarious. One time I pulled up on my little motorcycle and there was a limo out front – Jack was piercing someone from British Parliament! There were guards everywhere, he was like, “Ken come back in like an hour!” We’d just hang out and swim in the pool, he’d keep body parts around everywhere, I mean I thought it was neat, any kid would think it was neat! He had a big fuckin statue of David with a towel around it, and one time I pulled the towel off and David had a huge fuckin dick, like not the normal David dick. He had a big painting in his bedroom of Mickey Mouse fucking Donald Duck, he was a fuckin funny dude. He worked for a company for a long long time and if you saw him in a suit you wouldn’t know he looked any different from anybody else. He just liked to have fun, he was a cool fuckin dude. I was really upset to hear when he passed, I wish I could’ve seen him again.

Ari – I remember you talking about flinging broken jewelry out of the trailer all the time.

Ken – Yeah yeah, if you broke off a tap on a big piece of jewelry you were working on, you’d just step outside and whip it right into the woods. It was in Crystal Springs, right by Plant City. Right before I left Florida the second time I drove around there to check it out and the house is still there, the trailer that was a machine shop was actually gone, but in the house with the offices is where the piercing was done. They had the offices and in front of that they had this whole big room set up, they’d have everyone over, the leather bear friends and freak friends and transexual friends and everyones having a good time. I never remember any booze or drugs or anything. The little room off to the side is where they would keep and make all the gold and niobium. Everyone would get together and go to the front, they had lounge chairs up there so you could watch the piercings, it was really fuckin cool. When I got out to California they had sent me, I mean I told them I was opening the shop with Phil Sims, and they must have sent me thousands and thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. I don’t know if Mike did that because he was leaving Silver Anchor and didn’t give a fuck or what, but he was just like here ya go! So everything I was making for an extended period of time was just profit. When you’re that young, like 21 or 22, and making $7-10 grand a week, I didn’t even know what to do with it man, just drugs booze and women. I didn’t need a car or mototcycles, had a massive apartment over the business, I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I was just an idiot, so young and so stupid. I think I was 28 when I finally had a conscious thought, thats when I started reading and thinking and all that shit. Up until then I was just working off pure instinct, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It was my dad’s friend who needed a machinist and I was in school for it, I said fuck it, took the job and it all followed. Its cool to look back and think when people are doing things, just enjoying it and loving it and not thinking about it, not thinking this is going to mean anything in the future – like do you think the skaters in Dogtown were thinking “We’re gonna be legends?” No way, they were just skating their asses off, kids looking for a pool to shred. So to think about it from the leather bar underground to mainstream popularity, the Aerosmith video where whatshername (Alishia Silverstone) gets a navel piercing, it just didn’t stop after that. After that I went to Boston for a little bit, my brother just came up with HIV and I had just lost two friends to it, so I figured he was gonna go quick. I went over there to be with him and he didn’t go quick, he’s still alive today believe it or not, he’s lived so long with it. When I went back to San Francisco there were three or four shops just on Haight street, and I was an arrogant little fucker, I couldn’t just go work for somebody so I opened up another shop on Market Street a lot further down from Gauntlet. I was closer to the Mission district, but I just couldn’t get any business to save my life.

Silver Anchor Jewelry, circa 1990-1993. Photo courtesy of Shawn Porter/Sacred Debris.

Ari – What did you hate making? What was the biggest pain in the dick to manufacture?

Ken – Tiny gauge anything. 18g or 16g barbells that had to be threaded. There’s always the argument over internal vs external threaded, right? If the threads are on the ball and they don’t go all the way into the barbell it will hold bacteria, but if the threads are on the outside of the post they’re going to be sharp, right? Changing your jewelry in a piercing thats healed will still be detrimental, not gonna work well for it. But all the small threaded stuff, you have to take these little tiny taps, because you’re not only threading the outside of a bar, that’s no problem, threading the inside of the ball with threads that are 1/1000 of a fucking inch – that’s no joke. I mean look at them next time, because even the piercing you’re doing, you can’t even really see them, you’re just using the force when you screw that shit on. Imagine trying to take a fucking tap and dropping it inside that little tiny drill hole, and taps are brittle, they have to be heated really to the point of them being brittle so they’re stronger then the steel you’re putting it into. You can break a tap on anything, and taps are expensive. They were about a third of the price of the jewelry, so if you break a tap you’re already behind for the day. I mean you get the hang of it but sometimes you’d have a bad day and break like five or six fuckin taps in a row, and Ed or Jack would punch you in the back of the head! I would make Gen from the Genitorturers jewelry back in the day, still to this day I’ll run into her in Florida and she’ll just stare at me, because she recognizes me but she can’t put it together. I’ll remind her, and she’s like “That’s a fuckin lifetime ago!” We’d just go over Jack’s for the day, he’d have us over to hang out, and Ed would be like “But I need him here today! He needs to make jewelry!” It’s fun that my mom even brings that up sometimes. She’ll be like “Remember that time Jack came over the house when we had a bunch of people over and he just pulled his pants right down?!” It wasn’t even a bad thing, it was more like a science experiment. I asked him once if he was worried about all the injections he was doing and he was like “Ken, I’m so old now it doesn’t matter! I’m having fun and enjoying myself”. They used to do this thing that I haven’t seen anywhere else, they called it the California Convertible, it was like you’d take the skin over the top of the penis and cut it somehow to go forward to cover some of the head of the penis, I don’t remember exactly what it was. Back then almost nothing was shocking. At this point the only thing that makes me vomit is shit and puke. I can watch anything except when I watched you cut Ludvic’s (Pitre) leg, that kind of made me want to barf.

Ari – Did I even do any peeling on that piece?

Ken – Oh yeah, you were peeling. It’s funny how the memories come flooding back. I don’t know what happened to Mike’s boyfriend Chuck though 2, I know he got married later on. Mike always loved piercing for the leather side of things, whipping people’s asses and getting all dressed up in big leather bear shit.

Ari – Did you know Annette down in Ybor when you were over there?

Ken – I wasn’t involved in that scene. The only connection I had was making Gen jewelry. It was cool because at that time she was dating Dave Vincent from Morbid Angel, and also Brian Warner who became Marilyn Manson. They would come by sometimes, but I didn’t hang out in the Ybor scene, I only showed up places to make jewelry.

Ari – Ken, you have the unique perspective on this – who are bigger babies, piercers or tattooers?

Ken – Nowadays, piercers. I’ve worked at places where piercers are so militant about everything, so judgmental about everything, that I’m like you gotta be fuckin kidding me, get off my ass. I’m a firm believer in growing and learning all the new techniques but when somebody is walking around with their chest out and nose up in the air just being really arrogant, it’s too much. Maybe we’re all just a bunch of fucking dicks.

Ari – I dunno, there’s some kind of irony in yelling at a tattooer to not touch his lamp after something but then sticking your tongue inside a strangers butthole as soon as you get off work.

Ken – You’ve seen people who come in with an irritated piercing, and they touch it as they show the piercer and the piercer’s face just drops and they say, “What the fuck are you doing touching it? Your hands are filthy!”, making people feel like shit – it’s like, there’s a way to be nice about that stuff.

Ari – But those same people don’t scramble after to disinfect the doorknobs when they leave. They just like to yell. We work in shops, it’s dirty to a degree, period.

Ken – Learning over the years how things are done, the set ups and break downs and everything, I really don’t mind if someone comes up and shows me a way to be better, I’ll apologize and do better, but don’t fucking demean me. You wanna yell at me I’ll kick you in the chest, brother!

Ari – After 27 years of doing this, you’re allowed to kick someone in the chest if they’re rude.

Ken – I’m surprised I’m not dead from every blood borne illness that exists.

Ari – Bah, blood borne pathogens are a conspiracy, like that the earth is round.

Ken – Everyones a loon, but once in a while you find someone awesome and it’s worth it. I mean do you ever actually walk around at this point and feel cool that you’re a piercer?

Ari – Oh god, no. At this point it’s more just a sense of relief I never had to go out and get a real job. Let’s get an idea of how you segued into tattooing!

Ken – The guy who was teaching me how to tattoo, Jason Caparosa, he was my roommate and my best friend, he actually died of a heroin overdose. At that time I was in a shop with seven or eight other guys like fuck, what do I do now? They were cool about it, they were like, “if you have any questions we’ll help you out but just go for it.” I don’t know if that was the best thing. A guy named Tattoo Tony who worked in L.A., he worked with Mr. Cartoon and shit, he came over the house one day and I had some paintings on the wall. He was like who the fuck did these, so I told him that’s what I do in my piercing room all day. He brought me back to the shop and threw away all my tattoo shit, all the Huck Spaulding stuff, and gave me my first real tattoo machine, got me a new power source, ordered all my inks, helped me out a ton. So there’s half dozen people I’m so grateful for who helped me out at that time. It both was and wasn’t a continuation of the apprenticeship, I mean he was willing to help me out in any way possible because he loved my artwork. I ended up staying at that shop for years. It was a shop on Hollywood Boulevard so it was a lot of tourists, a lot of go as fast as you can, which really made some bad habits for me. When I finally left there and started working on the other coast I was tattooing so goddamn fast, I’d have friends be like dude, slow the fuck down, they don’t look bad but could be so much better. It took years for me to slow the fuck down and do better work. Thats why I am the way I am today, why I want to go work with different people who do different kinds of tattoos. I have friends that are new tattooers, five years in and already badasses, they’re using rotary machines and all the new stuff, wrapping, cartridges, etc. I told one of my friends I want to know what you’re doing, I want to know how you do it. He’s like, “ok, I’ll explain all this to you if you show me how to make needles and ink, we’ll trade” because he’s interested in the roots and I’m interested in continuing my education. It’s really cool and fun to see the new stuff, because they don’t have to take a day out of their week to make needles, or make ink.

Ari – What you’re bringing up right now, your buddy who did the information trade with, that’s something I want to talk about. Tattooing is so big on history, such a prevalent part of the culture, even with shitty tattooers! It’s such an embrace your heritage type deal, but piercing is not. Most people don’t give a shit about any of it. Any idea why even the bottom tier of tattooers are all know your roots, but piercers tend to be so apathetic?

Ken – I don’t know. I mean shit, even at the tattoo museum I work at we have a huge picture of Fakir. The shop has been there since 1941, like before Pearl Harbor! I don’t know why they don’t care. Could it be because the roots of piercing are in the gay S&M leather underground?

Ari – It’s possible people aren’t comfortable with that concept, but that’s also completely fucking insane if it’s true.

Ken – I know clients still come in asking “which side is the gay side?” All I want to say is “Pick a side and take a chance, and if in the morning you feel like sucking a dick, you know you got the gay side.” It’s just face-palm inducing. It was also weird to watch more normalized piercings come to popularity. After years of just piercing nipples and dicks and genitals and everything, to start piercing all nostrils and earlobes and navels, I mean I probably only did a handful of PAs in my later years. The method of doing them, I still like the method I learned versus what they do today. I learned it from Jack (Yount) – it’s gonna sound crazy. You clean and mark, and take the needle and you lube it up really well and go into the urethra with the backside, not the bevel end, and when you’re lined up with the webbing underneath you make a mark on the needle. You use that measurement for the beveled end, and again, super lubed up, you go into the urethra super slow, and when the mark reaches the top of the urethra, you put your styrofoam pad right up against the exit hole, and just barely turn the needle and it comes right out, goes through such a thin piece of skin. That’s how we used to do ‘em. Nowadays the needles are so razor fucking sharp you’d slice the shit out of someone doing that. But I never nicked a urethra, never ever. I mean with septum we didn’t use a receiving tube either. It was a gentle practice. We’d lay them down and put their head back and fuck around with their nose to find the sweet spot, and have the skill to go slow and nice and straight, and it was mostly painless. But Jack and Mike and myself all also injected lidocaine for the painful stuff. It was also helpful with genitals for the bleeding. I pierced my own PA with Jack and Mike standing over me, and I needed help getting the jewelry in. Got the needle through but the jewelry I needed a hand with!

I miss all that. And the general feeling of that time period. I mean we touched on how outrageous the egos in this business are, I mean so many times I’ve walked into a shop and everyones standing together posed like they’re in a fuckin black metal band. Imagine if you weren’t even in the industry how you would fuckin feel? I always tell people to smile and say hi, it’s the least you can fuckin do. I mean one artist I worked with compared himself to Rembrandt, and another to a heart surgeon. We draw fucking pictures, are you kidding me? We’re not saving the world. It’s unreal the arrogance that’s come along these days, and it makes it so nice to meet the humble people, like the guys I work with now. One of the guys, Jimmy The Saint, who’s been tattooing thirty years, on his business cards it says Jimmy the Saint, has an oldschool outline of a devil, and it says, “Over 30 years behind the gun.” I’m like, “do you know how many people would give you shit for saying gun?” He doesn’t give a fuck! I got a call from some friends in Tampa, and they asked me if I cared when someone called a tattoo machine a gun. I said as long as they want a tattoo I don’t give a fuck what they call it. They can call it a pineapple, I don’t give a shit. Same thing with piercers when people says gauges. On a base level it’s dumb, like yeah, we have sizes, what style do you want? But ultimately who gives a shit what they call it? Just say sure, we got gauges, whip out your credit card! Those old school dudes were never pretentious, they were doing everything because they were excited about it. That’s what I miss. They were just a bunch of awesome crazy queers.

This interview has been interviewed for content and clarity. Since it’s completion, Ken has purchased a sailboat and will be starting a new adventure. All photos courtesy of Ken Dean unless otherwise noted.

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

The content of oral history interviews is personal, experiential and interpretive because, by its nature, it relies on the memories, perceptions and opinions of individuals. While all reasonable attempts are made to avoid inaccuracy, the interviews are presented in good faith to be accurate and should not be understood as statements of fact or opinion endorsed by Ari Pimsler, Shawn Porter, or Sacred Debris. We welcome opposing viewpoints from individuals with first-hand knowledge of the people, places, and situations contained herein as well as corrections on spelling, timelines or names. Email attn Shawn.


  1. Jack Yount passed away in 1995 while on holiday in Copenhagen, Denmark.
  2. Chuck is currently a hairstylist in Brandon, Florida

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


  1. Vital for old school guys to tell the stories: after that APP round table with Fakir, Jim, Elayne, myself, the old Body M crew: Danny, Allen; Skye (who was a woman at Gauntlet SF when I first met him)..and notable others….well that will never happen again. Few are still active and very few attended..younger piercers don’t give a shit. Kristian and I stuffed many a PA wand in–prolly made by Ken: I’m not sure we ever met as Vaughn kept me very busy from 1990-1993: and I don’t remember any chicken dances, but I do remember burnig sage while we cut and punched Vajra to epic proportions at Nomad the world had never seen-then or since. Got blood in my eyes when I cut crystal Cross’s ears to an inch in 1994. Jack visited us at SF Nomad. (I think there are photos on SD)…who dropped his drawers in the lobby while the gangstas at Mo Music next door watched in horror while his French loaf tumbled down..all the while telling Sid and Sebastian stories. Of course the stories from Erno tattoo where I got my backpiece done…Nalla, Erno, Jamie, Greg Kulz stuff of legend. Vaughn is still my BF and the stories we share while hiking from 28 years ago, these kids will never know.

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