Ari – I’m super excited for us to do this Michael. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.
Michael – This is tough because I feel like in general I’m a pretty private person, especially with this history and timeline. I don’t think, besides my spouse, there’s a single person I’ve ever talked my timeline over with because it just never seems relevant to my interaction with another person. You know what I mean? The whole, “hey, listen to me!” To me it’s a difficult process but we’ll get through this and hopefully it doesn’t feel like I’m talking too much.
Ari – I don’t really plan out these so we’ll just start with an introduction and let the conversation go organically. First I like to do a brief synopsis though – maybe some information about Marigold, where you started out, and anything else you’d like to include.
Michael – I’ve been piercing for twenty-six years- that has been a long pathway. I currently own Marigold with my wife Jessica, who pierces and tattoos. We have additional tattooers who are there as well as a nurse who does microblading. I’m there sometimes for certain piercings. I do all the genital piercings, the septum piercings, surface work, and anything in relation to difficult anatomy. Other than those few times throughout the week, I’m not there like on a scheduled basis – it’s really appointment only. I’m in school full-time and work other jobs besides Marigold, so I’m busy. I’m in school for biochemistry at Norwich University – which is actually the oldest military college in the United States – It’s the birthplace of ROTC. It’s an interesting environment to be in as a civilian. But as we talk about this timeline, I did sort of leave piercing for a while and do other stuff (while still piercing) including the military and a deployment to Afghanistan. It’s been a convoluted path! I work as a critical care paramedic for a level one trauma center teaching hospital. We live in Montpelier, Vermont – a tiny little town in beautiful Vermont, and it’s great to be in a little town with this shop we’ve created. We love it, it feels perfect, and it’s been twenty-six years between starting and now – it’s like a lifetime.
Ari – Seriously. That’s like twice the average career for a piercer.
Michael – I continually, for whatever reason, picked the lucky straw at these studios and coworkers and just have been in great places surrounded by great people. To me that has been the highlight – being continually lucky at where and who I’ve been exposed to.
Ari – Let’s jump way back – what was your introduction to piercing?
Michael – I was super into skateboarding. I grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I was furiously into skateboarding so I was around a little bit of that alternative culture. My girlfriend at the end of high school moved to Southern California and her mom was a travel agent, so at the end of high school she was like, “I’ll hook you up with tickets if you want to come out.” That same week I graduated I moved cross country and went from Massachusetts to living on the beach in Venice in the summer of 1993. I had two jobs right away. One of them was making incense on the beach for this charity network but it was set up across the boardwalk from a piercing studio. As somebody who worked there I got to know all these people working on the boardwalk. That was my first introduction and exposure to any sort of tattoo and piercing culture that wasn’t from small town skateboarding culture.
Ari – Do you remember the name of that piercing studio?
Michael – Yeah, because I took it over! It was called Piercing Kingdom, which was piercing only. What happened was I was selling incense and living the beach life, lots of hacky sack and drum circles. This girl from England who was visiting for the summer working at a tourist t-shirt shop got her tongue pierced and I was like, “that’s a thing?” I didn’t even know that was a thing. She was like, “yeah” and pointed directly across from me not even thirty feet away. I was like, “I want to do that! That sounds amazing.” I went in and got my tongue pierced by this Israeli guy who had no piercings.We sat and talked for like two hours afterwards. It was this weird, interesting relationship. He had just fired the piercer he had for drug use. The piercer was doing a bunch of heroin and couldn’t get the beads on rings, so he told him he had to go. I was straight edge and the opposite of this dude. I was pretty religious – I was really involved in the straight edge hardcore scene and had transitioned into Krishna hardcore. A lot of the bands I was listening to at the time were into the Indian religions and Krishna scenes, which were really big in Venice. He was super religious so we talked about these philosophical topics and really hit it off. He said, “you should come hang out here and learn to do this.” I had just gotten my tongue pierced, had only learned it was something you could do the day before, and so right away I started a piercing apprenticeship. It was just a lucky straw situation. It’s 1993, Venice Beach, so whatever image that puts in your mind for piercing – except this was a piercing only studio using internally threaded jewelry. When he had opened the store and hired this guy he didn’t know much, and they were buying all their jewelry from Gauntlet. Then they started buying jewelry from this guy named Rob who ran The Piercing Edge who also secretly made jewelry for Gauntlet and other places. At the time there were multiple manufacturers who would make jewelry for Gauntlet and he was a machinist in The Valley who did that. That was all the owner knew – piercing with quality jewelry, so that’s what we had. It didn’t exist anywhere else in the area and I just so happened to be across the street, drew that lucky straw and apprenticed there. It was busy, thirty to fifty piercings a day, and I was there seven days a week. The way it was structured was – you stand next to me and ask all kinds of questions, you watch every single piercing until you feel like you can do exactly what I do. I’m watching – which after a couple weeks I’ve watched hundreds of piercigs – so I’d be like, “I’m going to try an earlobe” or whatever the first thing I did was. Then we switched roles where he watched me, and I was exposed to more and more as it moved along. The whole time I was bright-eyed. I felt like this caricature from a movie who goes from a small town to the big city and all the lights are so bright and people are so different – this whole new world. I just dove in headfirst. I discovered Modern Primitives and all the body art magazines like Body Play and PFIQ. They had a bunch of that stuff at the studio.
Being in Los Angeles there were big music stores and bookstores in West Hollywood that had alternative photography, so I would go get them and discover piercing I didn’t even know existed. It was mostly kink photography. I just put it all in seven days a week and that was the beginning. I was apprenticing while trying to heal the first piercing I’d ever gotten in a studio. It just happened immediately, so fast – it’s crazy to think about. He was kind of a hard business dude. I really didn’t do anything besides work. I remember during that first few months my grandfather died and my family called the shop from Massachusetts to talk to me, because this was before cell phones. When they told me the news I got off the phone and was like, “my grandfather just died.” In my head there was no other option besides, “I’ll see you in a day or two when I’m feeling better,” but my boss was like, “where are you going?” I told him, “I’m going home.” He said, “is that going to bring your grandfather back? I’m confused.” I was like, “uh, I guess not?” It was just a different mentality. That sort of fused the work ethic of my piercing career. I did nothing else for years. Over all those twenty-six years I probably only called out sick three or four times. It just created this life of nothing other than piercing for so long. I was there for a long time and started getting exposed to other studios and people. I think one of the first other piercers not from the area I met was Brian Skellie. He was on vacation in LA, walked down the boardwalk and stopped in. I remember it because it was a dude from Atlanta, Georgia with a stretched flat piercing and at the time I was like, “oh yeah,I guess you could stretch a flat piercing!” I hadn’t even thought of something like that. I doubt he remembers it. I started making friends with other local piercers. Good Art was right down the street from me so I was frequently there, but still mostly getting my jewelry from Rob at the Piercing Edge. He just made incredible jewelry, especially custom stuff. I started carrying all these large gauge circular barbells and stuff that was hard to find. This made us a place people would come to buy stuff they didn’t get in other places, especially as stretching was increasing in popularity. I started having all these people coming up from Brazil and drop four to five thousand dollars on jewelry that they couldn’t find anywhere else to show off in their showcases. This one guy came up every six to eight weeks. He couldn’t wait for the long term wholesale ordering through Gauntlet so he got it from us. It was the same quality and thread compatibility and whatnot.
Ari – How long did that apprenticeship period last?
Michael – I don’t even remember because it was so fluid. I remember my first piercing was done on a friend, a navel piercing, and from there it blurs. It was probably only a few months of watching piercing all day and then mimicking them.There was no structure other than “if you feel like you can do exactly what I’m doing then mention it and we’ll try it.” He recognized the limits of what he knew and didn’t know and was completely open to talking about things. Everything that I brought up as suggestions from my learning outside the studio was never argued against. We just changed it or implemented it.
Ari – Was he encouraging of you to talk to other piercers and shops?
Michael – He had no particular feelings about it at all. He only cared about customer service and the interactions we were providing to our own customers. While I was still there early on one of the first people I met and interacted with was Erika Skadsen. She was on a tour around the country possibly where Marcus’s band Crash Worship was on tour so she was going around and selling the jewelry she was making. We met and hung out and I bought a bunch of plugs. That was the first time we started selling anything that wasn’t steel. Some of the piercers from Gauntlet I started to know a bit, but sort of casually, not like we hung out or anything. I would say 1995, within two years or so, I got my first computer, a home PC, and discovered rec.arts.bodyart and BME. Like for so many other people, it was this blossoming thing where suddenly I was in contact with people from all over the world and saw what they were doing. That was pretty significant for me. I feel like we take those things for granted now because it’s intertwined and integrated with how piercers learn and interact but back then it wasn’t. It was difficult to find. It wasn’t easy – there weren’t apps. Usenet groups were hundreds of thousands of subcategories of subcategories, so to even discover how to access rec.arts.bodyarts and participate – that really took work! So many of the first time posts were, “I can’t believe I found this!” or, “I’d heard about this for so long, I finally found it!” It was significant for sure. Even now some of those same people, like Shawn (Porter) and Barry (Blanchard), all these people who I’m still interacting with today are some of the early people I interacted with then. It’s crazy to think back about how different it was to try and get your hands on some issues of Body Play or PFIQs for information. To read them with a thirst, ya know? You just didn’t have the exposure to stuff at the time – it was like going to church! You open up the magazine like, “what am I going to see today?” It was always something new and eye-opening. Getting exposed to other piercers through those online communities was a big turn of events. Not soon after that, 1996, I decided to move to Seattle. I was on a plane to go to Seattle and I go to walk down the aisle and I look around and realize I’m walking past all these piercers from Gauntlet. I’m like, “ok, this is weird.” I asked them what they were up to and they told me that they we’re going to open up Gauntlet Seattle! I was like, “that’s crazy, I’m moving there!” On the plane was most of the staff for Gauntlet Seattle, and some LA peeps including Sky Renfro. It was Al D, Christine – who I haven’t heard much from since that time period, I’m not sure what she’s up to these days – the store manager Meredith, and Sky.
I didn’t hear it at the time but the way Sky mentioned it to me was after I walked down the aisle he turned to Meredith and said, “it’s great he’s moving to Seattle because he would be somebody to consider if we needed to add more staff.” Coming from Sky that was a huge compliment. So I moved to Seattle looking for a piercing job and started working for two people who had been around for a really long time, I mean, even for 1996 they had been around for a long time – Bear Thunderfire and Sharon Spectre. They started in Santa Cruz before they relocated to Seattle. The studio was Mind’s Eye, and I had contacted Bear by phone at one point like a year earlier because of her needles. She was producing her own needles by taking BD injection needles, cutting the hubs off, cleaning up the end and packaging them as needles for sale instead of the needles we were getting, which were similar except they had a shorter bevel. Bear’s were really nice. I went in with a portfolio and a letter of recommendation from the studio I had left in Venice and ended up working with them for a while until there was a big of a shake up at Gauntlet. After that shake up I ended up working at the Seattle Gauntlet.
Ari – One quick thing before we hit Gauntlet – you just decided, “I want a change of pace” and moved to Seattle without securing the job first?
Michael – I thought I was going to go to Seattle to open a small studio because the deal that I had with the Venice studio was he left the country and just gave me the studio. He said, “when you’re done we’ll sell it and split whatever we sell it for.” I was like, “ok!” The family member that he had left back to be in charge of accounting and whatnot didn’t really see it that way and so I ended up with no money. I thought I was going to have tens of thousands of dollars and ended up with nothing. I started the process of moving to Seattle with a particular plan that ended up not working out but I still wanted to go there so, yes, I went without a job. The person I was dating at the time had a job with the software industry so it wasn’t like we were going to live out of our car or anything. I just planned to find work and what I ended up finding was with Bear and Sharon.
Ari – Very few people mention them. I think Tod is the only other person to touch on them within this series. If it isn’t a sore subject can we talk about Bear and Sharon? Because I don’t think many people know who they are anymore when they were really huge names for the time.
Michael – Not a sore subject at all! They were big names, especially within the Fakir community. They were involved in the Fakir trainings and very involved in the spiritual journey of getting piercings and cuttings and branding. My interactions with them happened more by accident – I mean, I was offering services like cutting and branding and I was doing work with a cautery pen in 1995, like pretty early on in my piercing career; helping people jump in sizes with their ears as well. My exposure to them was nice because they were also involved with that stuff but from a perspective I hadn’t been. The ritual aspect of that scene was all new to me.
Ari – What was it like working amongst such seasoned veterans?
Michael – They had this agreement with a tattoo shop that they would provide the piercing services and they put me there. I worked a couple of days here and there at the same place as them, Mind’s Eye, but it would be on their days off so we had very little interaction. But you’re right, they were seasoned veterans, and it did not feel like they had much faith in me as a young piercer. It was probably the hardest nut to crack as far as forming a friendly talk during an interview. I went in and right away they were skeptical. Rightfully so, for sure – I was just a baby! I had been piercing for three and a half years, granted I did a lot of piercing in those years, but it still isn’t a long time overall, and not from a place or community they were familiar with. At the time I had been at the only studio in Venice using internally threaded jewelry, which had now closed, so it didn’t even sound like something that could’ve existed to people who were familiar with that area. But they were friendly enough to work for, I always had what I needed. It wasn’t too long after that I switched places where I worked. Al D and Christine were the piercers at Seattle Gauntlet, and it turned out there was not so great stuff going on with Al D and some of the customers. Before Gauntlet opened he had this private studio in his basement that was like a dungeon, which was multi-use. It seemed like what was happening was if dudes were cute he would want them to do their follow-up for their piercing not at Gauntlet but at his home. If you were going to downsize your nipple barbells or tongue, he’d say, “hey, just call me, here’s my card and we can just meet at my house.” As a business you don’t want people doing that. That’s kind of the short version but he was let go. I’ve never really talked to anybody about that because he’s been so respected for so long. He’s not alive anymore and I don’t want to tarnish anyones image.
Ari – David Vidra brought up some of his less spoken qualities too, his sort of ruthless business tactics towards competitors and whatnot. I fully respect not wanting to speak ill of the dead, but I also think it’s important to remember everyone is fallible, and it’s not like your intent here is to besmirch his character. I don’t think we have to tiptoe around character defects when we’re talking about someone we respect, living or dead.
Michael – Right. I was contacted by Gauntlet manager Meredith – someone who whenever I think back has continually been one of the nicest and best managerial people I have ever been around. Sometimes I think it’s hard to be a manager and be kind, or have empathy for your staff, but she was able to do that. She was really amazing to work with. That was how I got hired at Gauntlet. It was one of those situations where I was already trained as a piercer, which was not the norm for Gauntlet. The first thing they did was send me to the training seminars and then back to the studio. It was a little bit of a rift. I kind of had to alter the way I was doing a lot of things. At the time there was very much a standard procedure of piercing, the way it was done, and that way had to be mimicked. But it wasn’t the way I had already done tens of thousands of piercings so it was a bit of a transition. I think it worked out ok for me because I was still kind of removed. Being at Seattle Gauntlet when there’s only one other piercer made it so it wasn’t like I had people breathing down my neck trying to force me into a particular piercing technique hole. I was sort of able to blend what they wanted to offer with the way I was already doing things without all the drama that I think other piercers who had already come to Gauntlet trained experienced.
Ari – Did it feel pretty “satellite-ish?” Disconnected from the main Gauntlet hub?
Michael – It did, yeah. But so did I because I was new to Seattle and new to Gauntlet. I think that if I had been at one of the other stores for a long time and then went to Seattle it would feel more distinctly removed. But it was my first exposure to working for them, and newer to the area, so that led to it feeling not as awkward. It never felt like there wasn’t support for the store. It was in an awful location though. It was difficult to get customers in. The building and interior were very nice but it was very hard to find. Not in the way of the secret club that everyone was talking about – you just straight up couldn’t find it!
Ari – Body Circles was around at this time – did you feel it’s presence while you were there?
Michael – A little bit. I had some exposure to them at this point but probably more so in the couple of years after because even when Gauntlet Seattle closed I was still exposed to Gail through the APP. Just recently when I wrote to her and was like, “hey I’d like to order some jewelry for Marigold” it was like reconnecting twenty years later.
Ari – I always looked at them as the King of the West Coast large gauge. Do you feel like that’s accurate?
Michael – Oh man, it was so shiny. Nowhere else were you seeing those tusks and claws or big balled circular barbells and screw-on-ball rings like that. There just wasn’t anybody else. I mean, you could get some stuff from Gauntlet but who knows where they were getting that from. Body Circle was beautiful and Seattle as a piercing community really respected them as a company. I felt like that towards a lot of older jewelry companies that have been around for a long time that I had gotten exposure to, like SM-316. I knew Corrado from being in Santa Monica before I even moved to Seattle and also Good Art. Good Art in 1995-ish actually opened a piercing studio called Stick Right with one of the piercers who left LA Gauntlet whose name was Stefan. He tried to get me to come over there, he was like, “let me give you a proper apprenticeship,” but it’s hard to tell somebody (or maybe hard to receive the message) when you’re already doing something independently for a couple of years, to leave that behind when you don’t think things are lacking. Just to back up a bit, I went to Stick Right in 1996 and got my conches pierced with 8g barbells. I ended up taking them out because I wasn’t into the way that they sat. I decided I was going to get them done at Nomad. I drove to San Francisco from LA to get pierced there. That was my first exposure to Nomad. I don’t think Kristian was there although we later worked together. There was Dave, who later with John Gauc formed Robot Tattoo and Piercing. He’d come from Venus, and later I ended up meeting them at NY Adorned. Dave was there with long dreads. Dave pierced my conches at 4g with delrin plugs with birds fluttering above. It was such a different environment than what I was used to at that time period – I think everyone would probably say that about walking into Nomad during that time period. I think even people who read your interview with Blake wouldn’t understand how different that was just like they wouldn’t understand the lack of social media and discovering BME for the first time. It was distinctly an experience. They used a dremel to make the delrin plugs right there. I was pierced at 8g, stretched to 4g, and then I drove home in so much throbby pierce and stretch pain.
Ari – Did you meet Blake there?
Michael – No, I only interacted with Dave who pierced me. I think that was kind of a moment. I really enjoyed being exposed to what was so different than what I’d known previously, especially coming from a, “living-at-the-beach-drum-circle-didgeridoo-hacky-sack” life but not interacting with anyone in the piercing community in LA like that. Even though Nomad was distinctly different it also resonated with me. It was a good experience.
Ari – With these early years what was it like when you’d walk into somewhere and tell them you were a piercer? Was is typically welcoming or more seen as competition?
Michael – It was friendly everywhere. Nomad was indifferent. A couple years later I walked into Venus in New York and when I introduced myself they threw covers over the display cases. It was confusing. I was obviously not welcome so I turned around and walked out. At the time I was traveling to New York frequently. At the opposite end of that spectrum was New York Adorned and Lori the owner and John piercing there. They were so welcoming and friendly and a wonderful place to hang out at. But the Nomad story happened before I moved to Seattle and then everything that happened up there. Seattle Gauntlet wasn’t open for too much longer after I got there. I attended my first APP meeting at that time, which if I remember right would have been maybe in Florida. So much blurs together since it’s all so long ago.
Ari – I’ve been under the impression that happened because Michaela wanted to go to Disney!
Michael – Hey, a free trip to Disney doesn’t sound bad. You bring up a person I think there’s been such an interesting history of interaction with a lot of people. I think, and I really believe that regardless of what anybody’s interaction was, that she shaped so much of what piercing became. It’s really a shame that often she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for so much of that. Whatever reasoning it was, whether it was a male dominated industry or personality conflicts or someone not wanting to hear new things or her lack of ability to communicate – whatever – it doesn’t change the contribution. I think it’s a shame that the contribution isn’t recognized. The seminars, cleanliness, standards, the APP, all these things – really trying to make changes in a business model that was very set in its ways at Gauntlet. I don’t envy the position she was in but we all reaped the rewards of her hard work. I feel such strong feelings about this because when I took over seminars I faced some of the same hardships but at a microscopic level compared to what she dealt with.
Ari – Let’s bridge this gap because we left off at coming on staff at Seattle Gauntlet and now you’re taking over the seminars.
Michael – Seattle Gauntlet closed and there was a short lull. I was offered the position of Seminar Director back in LA. I moved back to LA, pierced at LA Gauntlet in-between the seminars, and was running seminars between LA, San Francisco, and New York.
Ari – How did your name get pulled from the hat for the replacement of this position?
Michael – Again, I keep coming back to pulling the lucky straw. I’m not sure. It just worked out that way. Maybe I was the bottom of the barrel or maybe I was a name they had already considered. Who knows? It could be I was a piercer for them and now I didn’t have a place to work. The other piercer Christine left to open up a henna studio in Seattle and that was the last I interacted with her. I was piercing without a place to work and for whatever reason they offered me seminar director.
Ari – Did you work with Michaela to take that on?
Michael – No, she had left that position and Sky had taken it over. This was during the transition of the company being moved from Jim to Russell so they had left.
Ari – What year was this?
Michael – This was 1997 and I did that job for a year until Gauntlet officially closed. It was about two years I worked for them in the two different capacities. The first as a piercer, and second as a seminar director that involved the move back to Los Angeles.
Ari – Did you enjoy the teaching aspect?
Michael – A ton! It was great. It was really great to see the experience that people were having and at the end of every seminar having them talk about things they were going to take home with them, which in itself was sort of a seminar exercise. Every single time it was just reiterating that it felt like it was an experience that really changed a lot of people. It was frequently that we would talk about something, for instance sterilization, and people would be like, “hold on, I’ve got to make a phone call!” It was because they had discovered that the way they were currently doing it at their shop was so dangerous or so bad that they felt the need to step out and call to be like, “you guys need to stop doing what you’re doing right now!” – exposure to information that a lot of people didn’t have. At the beginning of 1998 I was teaching with a Statim. Most people didn’t know what a Statim was – it was hardly used and very expensive. I incorporated it into the curriculum to try and spread the word. I had one on loan from SciCan. traveled with it in a special hard Statim case and would bring it to the seminars and show people. A number of studios adopted it because of those seminars.
Ari – Assuming most people were going to have a Ritter or Tutnauer, do you feel like it was still applicable using a dental autoclave when most people would have a traditional tattoo shop autoclave?
Michael – A lot of what I was showing was the idea that they could take their stock of jewelry and it didn’t need to be a backstock that was autoclaved prior. They could have it out on display, make their showcases look really nice, have people pick something out, and run it for them at the time. It was the early beginning in the time when the discussion of sterile gloves was coming about, so it was taking this mind-blowing idea and rightfully (or wrongfully) encouraging people to run their gloves through the Statim, which is what we were all doing at the time.
Ari – As someone who is involved in the medical industry do you feel that in a subcutaneous field sterile gloves are really necessary?
Michael – I think I would say you have theory and you have data as two fighting components. Theory says, “if you’re going to be holding the object passing through the wound you should be holding it with something sterile,”- whether it’s sterile hemostats or a needle driver or a sterile glove, to not contaminate the item passing through. Which is different from when somebody does an IV where they wouldn’t be touching the actual part going into the tissue. They are touching the hub that remains outside. When we’re doing a piercing we’re touching the part that is going through the tissue. The other aspect of that is obviously is that this is not the most common way piercings are done across the country or even the world. What are the repercussions we’re seeing from that not being done? What is the data showing about healing problems associated with this difference in technique? I see those as two opposing things and it’s hard for me to say if somebody is doing something right or wrong because of what I see as being sound theory versus what I see as not a negative outcome. People are getting thousands of piercings every day. Well, let me go back. I’ve always been fortunate that for all twenty-six years I’ve been using quality internally threaded jewelry. For years I stood on the tallest pedestal there could’ve possibly been, like damning the repercussions of externally threaded jewelry, and not wearing a mask, and the need for sterile gloves etc…and yeah some people maybe don’t heal well with lower quality jewelry or it’s uncomfortable. But in the grand scheme of things, what am I seeing as far as the repercussions of what is occurring all around me for these thousands of piercings every day? I want to use the best and be my own personal best for clients but at some point it’s healthy to select on how much of a difference does each of these things make around the world thousands of times a day. I think it becomes an internal battle where I know how I would like to do things, and I know the theory applies to things being done better, but at the same time taking a step back and acknowledging that we aren’t really seeing in society many repercussions. I think part of that comes from working in healthcare and seeing actual public health crises that happen because of an event or something, a real substantial increase in morbidity and mortality, not somebody taking a month longer to heal their piercing. I find it difficult to yell as loud from my pedestal as I used to. I’d rather just use what I’m comfortable using.
That’s been a real shift for me. I was very vocal about a lot of things. I think I was known as being very vocal and probably burned a couple of bridges because of that but I think that was the progression time for our industry. Looking back I am proud of how vocal I was because times really were shifting in piercing. I hope that it helped those that wanted the information. I think I also didn’t have anything else. It was like piercers now – you get bored and you’re looking so deep into what you’re doing that it’s the only thing you have going on, and so it becomes the thing you want to be the loudest about. For me, as time has gone on, I’ve been lucky to become more multifaceted and had these other things introduced into my life to even things out and provide another perspective. I think obviously that should happen to anybody over a 26 year period, but at the time when I was yelling the loudest about aftercare or jewelry quality or sterile technique or prep packs, it felt like at the time it was the most important thing. I didn’t have the perspective to step back to see that most of the repercussions weren’t actually happening. So over time I got quieter, that I could just do things for me and not have to shout from the rooftops and tell other studios what it is they need or should be doing.
Ari – I always felt that volume has a lot to do with these outlooks. For anyone who’s worked in a high volume studio you’ve seen things that are often damned are less severe than they’re made out to be, as opposed to someone who is at a smaller shop and has a significantly smaller data pool and are more likely to take things at someones word rather than seeing it actually work or not work time after time right in front of you.
Michael – It can be a tough balance.
Ari – I enjoy talking about this because I think it’s really challenging for people who are not at optimal yet – people trying to work their way in to the acceptable standards by the industry leaders. They see the stigmas behind externally threaded jewelry. I’ve worked in just as many external studios as internal studios over my years –
Michael – And no one’s died?
Ari – And no one’s died! The polish and finish is always more of a problem than the actual external threads. So many people use B grade jewelry, your Metal Mafias and whatnot, which are a phenomenal tool or stepping stone to move upwards. But people just take a huge shit on them. It discourages people from being able to talk about it or interact from the other side because it’s vocally viewed with disdain. It sucks because I think it would be incredibly helpful and beneficial if we looked at it as part of a trajectory rather than just the two sides – right and wrong. You can always do better but it doesn’t mean you’re brutalizing anybody. I wish that it was not so cut and dry to the public so those people could more openly discuss it.
Michael – The exact thing you’re describing – I think it’s gotten worse rather than gotten better. Piercers who are bored on social media, it becomes a jump on somebody and then a dog pile happens, when what that person needs is gentle guidance or a suggestion here and there that things could be better. It’s often not what they get. If we really want change in this industry, belittling people isn’t the way to do it.
Ari – If you were to encourage them to buy less expensive internally threaded jewelry out of their own pocket until they can afford to buy from Barry or whoever, it would expedite getting people to where you like them. It’s so expensive and so long to wait for jewelry – it’s a shit time for piercing. The industry has outgrown the capacity for the appropriate suppliers. To expect someone to just jump into eight to ten thousand dollars of inventory for a small studio and have them wait three to four months for it to arrive? That’s fucking bonkers. Why would anyone expect anyone to do that? Metal Mafia can get you something in three weeks, you’ll get experience working with internally threaded jewelry, it’s still better than it was seven or eight years ago, and it would be practicing for the big leagues rather than aimlessly floating or feeling discouraged in the meantime.
Michael – It’s also a great way to show your employer that spending a little more isn’t going to bring the business down. It’s a stepping stone. A lot of people don’t want to encourage people on that stepping stone because they don’t want to get attacked by the bored piercers on social media.
Ari – Anyone with enough brains to not get involved with all that bullshit can see you’re only impressing other piercers who are not actually a part of your business. Your clients don’t pick up on the things that maybe you’re doing for these other piercers, so they don’t know either way. It doesn’t improve your business at all! Someone possibly recommending you if someone from your town is out visiting does not outweigh actually working for your clientele. It’s such a perplexing situation to watch.
Michael – Right, you’re going to sell one Neometal flatback for their downsize that they needed while they were out of town and so you go that referral from the piercer you impressed on Instagram. “Thanks for suggesting me!” Your point is important – I don’t think piercers realize how much of what they do is strictly for other piercers. Even when it’s under the pretense of it being better for the public it’s mostly for other piercers or our own ego. I am guilty of this too. It’s a hard thing to step away from.
Ari – Without going too far off the deep end because I do tend to be on the nihilistic end of the spectrum, but for me the thing that matters over what we use and how we do it is the actual experience. The focal point of piercing is the interaction between you and your client. Why else can you do everything wrong, except being mean to somebody, and still have things work out?
Michael – Over the years I think one of the main questions people have asked me, whether they’re in the piercing industry or not (I would say primarily not in the piercing industry), is, “what is your favorite piercing to do?” Or, “what’s the weirdest piercing that you’ve done?” You have to explain to people that nothing new exists. I’ve done every piercing thousands of times. I don’t give a shit what somebody is getting pierced because the only thing that’s different is the interaction with that particular person. Someone’s anatomy might be a little different than someone else but you know what? Seventeen thousand times later all navels are the same, even with a little bit of difference in shape. What matters is picking out the jewelry and having a conversation – that’s what is different. That is what stands out as the experience. It’s the customer service and the bedside manner. When you go home at night you’re going to complain about how high maintenance someone was and not their nipple tissue. It’s the interaction with another human being that is the difference. I think maybe it takes doing a certain amount of piercings before people realize that, or a certain number or years piercing.
Ari – Wasn’t energy transfer part of the seminars? I have a recollection of someone talking about this being included in the program.
Michael – No. I mean, there was a big part of protecting your own energy and not taking on what the other person is going through but it wasn’t ritualistic. It wasn’t transfer of energy. It was more to build a wall and protect yourself. In a lot of ways I understand that difference because a lot of the clientele was different at Gauntlet than at other studios. There has been no where else where I had people so continually try to corner me and grab me and want to fuck in the piercing room. To have a wall and be a little bit robotic was real. I think that sometimes that’s a different experience that a lot of people didn’t have as piercers – they weren’t exposed to clientele that would often go past the boundaries.
Ari – Do you think that’s because of Gauntlet’s roots?
Michael – I wouldn’t say it was solely because of Gauntlet’s roots. I think it was part of the culture of the customer base. Even when I opened Prix it was in West Hollywood it had that sexual kink culture customer base. I experienced a lot of the same thing.
Ari – Let’s try and put this back on track chronologically – you worked at Gauntlet, did the training seminars until it went out of business.
Michael – During that time period I was exposed to some pretty amazing people. Jim Ward is so kind, has always been so nice to the people at Gauntlet, and my coworkers were too. Especially Mic (Rawls) – Mic was a co-teacher with me a lot of times for the seminars. It was a blast. It was so much fun but not in a way that was distracting from providing good quality information to these people that wanted it. His goofiness is contagious, and he’s always been that way. Brian Murphy was a stellar piercer and John Stryker, Kenny, people who really challenged me to grow and then also to defend my ideas. One of the problemsI had as the seminar instructor was knowing that the information needed to grow with the times. I mentioned I used a Statim but that was nowhere near what Gauntlet was doing for piercings. People would be coming to seminars and getting new current information but I also had to convince a staff internally to make some of those changes themselves because it was tough to tell people to do if they weren’t seeing it being done inside these studios. Even transitioning from dropping all the jewelry in Madacide before doing a piercing to running it through the autoclave, or making prep packs, or all these different things. It was an uphill battle. There were some pretty amazing people that challenged those ideas and forced them to be defended but they were always open to listening. That was something I really got from them – not just their skills in piercing but their ability to say why and is that necessary? Being open to accepting that information if you could defend it. It was a great experience.
Ari – Were you also piercing while you were teaching? If so, how were you finding this evolving information to then use for your seminars? Was it through IAM (BME’s social media site) forums or people you worked alongside or what? How did you update your curriculum?
Michael – I think it was a little bit like Mic and I going back and forth kicking around ideas based on our interactions with other piercers. I might bring up that I spoke with someone about this, and he’d say, “well I spoke to somebody else about this other aspect.” It was all sort of part of a project. Everybody who worked at Gauntlet that was a senior piercer at some point would take on a project towards furthering themselves and the company etc. The project I took on was I rewrote the seminar manual with updated information that talked about keeping jewelry autoclaved, sterile gloves, making changes to bring it forward. Everybody expected Gauntlet to be on the forefront but it had been years since it had been on the forefront, which almost felt like a disservice to all these people coming to the seminars. The industry was changing and learning fast but it was hard to get Gauntlet to keep up. It was something that was almost a contradiction for me. I rewrote the manual but couldn’t put it into practice because I still had to spend time convincing people that you couldn’t just drop the jewelry in Madacide and do the piercings. This was not because they were bad piercers or not open to new information but because we had three locations across the country with people who had been piercing longer than I had – this is like what we spoke of before. What were the repercussions for the way they had been doing things? It was just a big process. I ended up sitting on the updated seminar manual and eventually Gauntlet closed and it never went into practice unfortunately. But that whole process, the year, was trying to make changes. Even though it was a struggle in some ways it was a positive experience. It helped me become a better communicator because you had to talk to people differently and defend your ideas. It’s like a toddler asking, “why?” after everything you say – you have to be able to steer the conversation in a way. Gauntlet closed and I had three students over the course of the year all from the same studio, and when Gauntlet closed they asked me to come out there. It was Saint Sabrina’s in Minneapolis. It was Scott, Skott, and Patrick. It stands out to me too that I remember Patrick leaving the seminar in the middle to make a phone call to the shop to tell them to move the ultrasonic out of the employee break room. They asked me to come out and guest pierce and do a little Statim seminar for their staff and other shops in the area, so it was a good chance for me to have some work. I had a great experience out there and ended up moving to work there full time. Before I moved though I was also going down to work in San Diego at Mastodon – a lot of people don’t know about Mastodon. Gahdi, who at one point in time was the APP president, this was his studio. I would drive down to San Diego from LA and stay with him on the weekends and pierce. But I moved to Minneapolis in the very beginning of 1999.
Ari – Gahdi would’ve been like the second or third president, right?
Michael – I believe that’s right – something like that – I don’t quite remember the order. It’s a shame because that time period for me was kind of chaotic with not knowing the status of my job and Gauntlet closing and all these things so I didn’t fully benefit as much in being in San Diego as I fully could have. Forming relationships with the other piercers who worked there was unfortunately a temporary thing because there were some great people at the studio. Gahdi and I would hang out and play music and I’d work and then go home. I did this until my car caught on fire while I was driving down there. But then I went to Saint Sabrina’s which was very positive. It was great to get back to just cranking out piercings; they were very high volume even back in 1999. That was part of the lure. I didn’t have anywhere to work, they were all awesome, and it was good money because it was so high volume. A great studio in a great city. I actually worked there twice. There was a two year period where I bounced back and forth between LA and Minneapolis. In that mix I drew some more lucky straws and worked at Somatic in Long Beach for Erika, a studio that had been around since like 1991 or 1993. It was a piercing only studio, really amazing, which at the time became a subsidiary of Industrial Strength so we got flooded with all their jewelry. I also worked for Puncture at that time which was owned by Brian Belt. It had two locations, one in Upland which is sort of outside of LA and one right in LA. Tod (Almighty) worked there as well. Kristian White from Nomad was my coworker, and the two of us worked together in LA alternating days. Just sort of this winding path that has really been the chance to be exposed to these amazing people. To be able to bounce around these studios was really wonderful. The second year I was at Saint Sabrina’s I was called into the office and told to look at some resumes because they were hiring for a managerial position. That ended up being the transition of Derek Lowe and Jessica Bornsen coming up from Cleveland to manage and work at Saint Sabrina’s. Talk about a small world. Derek and Jessica had a friend in Cleveland who was trying to get started in piercing. They encouraged her to take Sky Renfro’s seminar, which was being offered at the time, and then go to APP. I met this person that year at APP in 2002 and that is my wife. We’ve been married for fifteen years now! We met at APP just because Derek and Jessica had encouraged her to go to conference and I had just left Saint Sabrina’s again and it was this whole tying of intertwining people and events. An exposure to Sky shaped both of our paths that ultimately lead to each other. My wife got the Al D scholarship to go to conference the next year which is hilarious because I got my job at Gauntlet from Al D being fired. We met and that’s who I now own Marigold with and work with. When I left Saint Sabrina’s and went back to LA working at Puncture I was approached by the owner of Prix in Pasadena to open a studio for him in West Hollywood on Sunset, which is how Prix in West Hollywood opened. That was a great experience because it was somebody with a big checkbook! This guy owned a big plumbing business in LA. He was an Israeli! I’m once again working with an Israeli. He gave me total trust – he basically was like, “what do you need?” We made a really nice studio. Squeeze was the piercer at the Pasadena location, and Roger Rabbit. Roger, when I eventually left in 2005, stayed on as the full time piercer at that West Hollywood location.
I left LA and went to Alaska. I worked in Alaska for a while at Body Piercing Unlimited which is a really old piercing studio in Anchorage owned by Kevin McKinley. He had taken a Gauntlet piercing training seminar in the early 1990s and knew Jim (Ward) very well from a ways back, as well as Barry (Blanchard) from Anatometal. They were all good friends. It was a good fit and he wanted to open a second studio so I helped with that process. I ended up living in Alaska for a few years. But even back when I was at Saint Sabrinas I was starting to get this itch to do other things. In 2001 I ended up traveling to Colorado to do this wilderness EMT course. This was in October of 2001, right after 9/11. The main instructor had just retired as a “PJ”, which is Air Force Special Operations medical personnel, and that was my first introduction to search and rescue and military medicine. I didn’t realize at the time how much it would affect things and steer me in the future, but it did. I was still continuing to pierce all this time but at this point it’s 2006 or 2007, I’d been piercing for fifteen years, and nothing else had been going on besides family and kids. I wanted to start exploring some new things. I ended up trying out and getting on a State of Alaska Division of Forestry Wildland Firefighter team where I worked as a sawyer. I ran a saw for the Wildland team. It was the perfect break and the opposite of piercing. Super hard work, sleeping on the ground, fighting fires for two weeks straight, having a couple of days off, and then going back out traveling all over Alaska. It was a big moment for sure that shaped another facet for me to have, something that makes you up as a person. Doing that made me want to continue to explore the medical search and rescue thing I had dabbled in earlier. I tried to join the military in Alaska because they have the most active Pararescue unit in the US but they wouldn’t take me because I had so many tattoos. I said, “ok, where else can I do military medicine and mountaineering?” I did a bunch of research and the only other place I could come up with something comparable was in Vermont. I sold the idea to my wife somehow and we moved 5,000 miles not knowing anybody in 2008. I joined the military and was gone for two years. That two years was the first time I really had a full break from piercing. I ended up deploying to Afghanistan as a medic with the infantry which was a crazy experience. I remained part of the military unit here in Vermont for eight years. Such a contrast from living at the beach, piercing and traveling. It was a contrast that really benefited me as a person. The more facets a stone has the more it’ll catch light and shine. All these things that we have the chance to do – if we do them it really can benefit us. But as it was for me earlier, and for a lot of other people, it’s the opposite of what happens in piercing – you get bored and hyper focused and then you become a grouchy online social media piercer trying to drag other people down.
Ari – I think it’s tough to come to grips with the fact that your personal connection supersedes your technical prowess or any other faction of pier14cing. It can be tough to invest everything you have into something that once it all boils down you’ve simply taken someones anxiety away for 10 minutes. Tiny increments of empowerment for a stranger. It makes sense to want it to not just be that. A life outside of piercing is just critical if you want to not be an asshole or increase your longevity.
Michael – I mean there is nothing I’ve done longer than piercing so obviously it’s something important for my life. But we struggle to not make it just important for our lives but sell it that it’s important as it’s own entity and theres a difference there. It’s been important for my life but I’ve had experience to see things that I think are more important in their own right. Public health, people’s lives, things that have a much larger effect on morbidity and mortality than how polished a piece of jewelry in. I mean, I only want to sell high polished internally threaded or threadless jewelry but I’ve come to realize it’s not as important as watching parents lose their child in a car accident or being shot at. All these things that become actual, important events. It doesn’t make piercing less important to the people doing it or experiencing it but that’s different than trying to make it important, That’s what I see a lot of people do and I was guilty for years and years of doing that too. The thought process is the louder you shout it the more you make it so. That isn’t the case. I think that that’s where we see so much of the opinions that are shared to tear other people down online.
Ari – I feel like it hits us so much harder because of the lack of professionalism required in this industry. If you’re a teacher and you make a heinous statement online you can get fired. If you’re a body piercer you can say anything you want, have as many felonies as you want, whatever. It takes an incredible feat to no longer be employable in this field. Without parameters for us to fall in line with it seems to get so exacerbated, especially when it comes to destroying one another over typically nothing of any importance. Once in a while something positive comes from it and that becomes the justification for doing it over and over in situations that don’t result in something positive.
Michael – As I’ve gone on, gone to school and worked in different environments, it has shifted how I’ve interacted with other piercers and things I’ve treated as important. I think it’s helped me relax about piercing and that ultimately makes me better for my customers because I’m not high strung trying to sell them on the importance of piercing. We can just have fun picking out jewelry and then go put it in their ear and do it in a way that makes them most comfortable. We’ll just keep it cool. I think I’ve been lucky to have the other things that reaffirmed that direction for me as a piercer and a studio owner. I am 100% positive that I drive our tattooers crazy with the things I think they need to do, what I feel is important – there is no doubt I’m doing that. But I think I’m able to do it in a more casual way than I would’ve fifteen years ago when I was far more feisty about what I thought was right and wrong. Now I can communicate it much more effectively and in a way that is supported by data and in a way that empowers them to be better rather than forcing them to conform to something I think is right. You brought up earlier about encouraging piercers to take steps with jewelry – because that is empowering and giving them the opportunity to make them feel they are making themselves better, while the other hand is telling them they have to preform a particular way to be at your level. Those are such different ways of supporting and communicating. It’s so often lost in the interactions the piercing community has.
Ari – It certainly transcends into the piercing and tattoo mix. Tattooing is coming from a place like, “we’ve been around forever, and I watched my hero pull a tube out of the ultrasonic, stir his coffee with it, put it back in and he lived to be ninety.” It’s very difficult to relay information cross fields. It’s big egos on both sides.
Michael – We’ve really tried to create an environment at the shop where we want to hear from the people who work for us, to hear their ideas and what they think we could do for improvements, just as we ask them to hear us. That makes for a better work environment for everybody. The customers benefit too because they just have a better experience while they’re in the studio because there’s less tension. Everyone is cool and collected.
Ari – The commonality seems to be the theme of stepping away from the culture itself. It’s a tumultuous, intense atmosphere and after a certain point you’re like, “I know this conversation, I don’t want to have it because it’s not worth having, so I won’t.”
Michael – I used to want to have that argument because I thought I was saving somebody from themselves or from their customers. Now I have zero interest in that or ten thousand other arguments. It’s not important to me to have them.
Ari – I think it’s also a degree of insulation. You own your studio – you don’t need worry about street credit within the industry. They aren’t your business – your clients are. I know when I moved to High Priestess I finally felt comfortable being vocal about things I typically internalized because I found myself in an environment where as long as I maintain their ethics and do a good job for them they don’t give a fuck what I say, which is very freeing. I think these concepts are important to say so other people who maybe feel this way but can’t express can connect, or realize they aren’t alone in thinking it, or aren’t wrong for wherever they are in their career.
Michael – That’s the conversation I try to have now. Before with young piercers it was how to make things cleaner or better choices with their jewelry. Now I tell them about how they need to have other parts of their life so they can calm down, and the rest will flow in and they’ll be better piercers. That’s the conversation I want to have now. To tell people to go do other things and be more multifaceted. Chisel those facets in. Your customers will benefit, you’ll benefit, and you’ll be more relaxed.
Ari – I love that sentiment – that being more dynamic as a human is an inarguable benefit.
Michael – One of the things I had to do that was a tough transition was cut my stretched lobes off and get sewn up, as well as my labret. I had to do these things to open doors. Sometimes it takes work and effort to get exposure to the things that will benefit you – you can’t just sit around and hope they come to you. Hopefully people aren’t just complacent and continuing as they have been – hopefully they’ll work hard to make things happen for themselves, whether it’s opening up their own studio or exploring new avenues. It’s hard work though. It’s not always comfortable.
Ari – I think ‘90s piercers had a tremendous amount of foresight as far as not being insane with how they looked super early, which is the antithesis of how it is now. Which blows my mind because now, clearer than ever, is how finite a limit there is on piercing. It’s not like tattooing where you age into something where it’s cool to be eighty and still tattooing. You won’t make it that long piercing. You should have a back up plan, or at least acknowledge you’ll need one. It becomes a tough argument because obviously people should be able to look however they want, but also the world doesn’t work that way and you’re totally fucked when you hit forty and your eyes look like you’re from Dune and you’ve only done one thing for the last fifteen years.
Michael – One thing that has changed that benefits people to explore looking how they want is how so many piercing studios are hourly or salaried and include benefits – that was never the case. Other than Gauntlet or a couple chains here and there. The idea of having benefits didn’t exist as a concept for so long, and now it’s being pushed more and more. People are able in some ways to explore the things they want modification wise but still have the ability to have credit so they can buy a house. But you’re right – at some point when carpel tunnel prevents you from doing it anymore it’s tough to make the transition. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s just the reality. It’s hard because you see a lot of people angry that the world isn’t at that place yet where anything and everything is acceptable, and I’m sure that’s frustrating. Taking a step back for a reality check – the firm may not hire you as a receptionist if you cut your fingers off, or the hospital won’t hire you as a phlebotomist if you tattoo your eyes black, whatever the situation is – that’s important. Piercing can be the center of your universe for a long time but like any universe expanding out, you may want to be doing something else. You won’t be able to get those experiences if you limit yourself. That’s a hard thing to sell to people. It’s also not our job to sell it. It’s not my job to say not to look a particular way, I just know the hospital I work at and their criteria for what won’t get you hired there. Again, not saying it’s right or wrong, just the reality of it.
Ari – If we’re talking about luck, I consider myself lucky as hell. I had tattooed my face, neck, and hands by the time I was nineteen. It was really stupid, I just happened to get lucky and have piercing work out for me, and I got lucky later on that my other job with animal rescue wasn’t effected by how I look. I gambled big and came out ok, plain and simple, but a lot of people aren’t or won’t be so lucky.
Michael – It’s also lucky that the things you’re able to do are also your interests. The big conflict that happened with me was my big interest became military medicine, so how was I going to open that door? Luckily I was able to go to a plastic surgeon that allowed me to open the doors to other interests. For some people the interest they have will clash with how they look and they won’t be able to open that door. I made the doors available and opened them. I own Marigold and work there by appointment. I go to school full time for biochemistry. I work as a paramedic – not in the way like if you called 911. I work on a critical care team where we go from one hospital to get people who are super sick and take them to another hospital to get the treatment they need. When they run out of care options at a smaller hospital we go and start the care they’ll get at a bigger hospital and then take them there. These are amazing experiences and they each benefit the other. It’s an interesting contrast in some ways and in other ways it’s the same – so much of what I do is bedside manner, whether I’m talking to a family about their loved one or talking to someone about what illness they’re doing through. And piercing has helped me in all the doors I opened. I’m sure that twenty-six years of talking people through getting a simple piercing, being able to communicate and read people is part of what helps me be a good medical provider or communicate effectively as a military leader or interact with my family etc. All of these life experiences compound together and the hope is they add up to something greater.
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Photos courtesy of Michael Mulcahy.