A History of Apprenticeships.
“I want to be a piercer! How do I get an apprenticeship? Where do I learn to pierce?”
This desire has been expressed by thousands of people over the recent past. What was once something barely thought of as a viable career blossomed into a huge, multifaceted industry in the last few decades. As if out of nowhere, piercing became a legitimate job one could make a comfortable living at. But the path to get there has been as ever-changing as the industry itself. You don’t go to school to become a piercer, there’s no classes or degree you can hold in body piercing. Traditionally, like many other crafts, piercing has been trained by masters, to apprentices. Someone already skilled at the craft takes a beginner under their wing and shows them the craft one on one. But how did we get there? Where did the first piercers come from? How did the apprenticeship evolve to what it is today?
Fakir Musafar and Jim Ward. Those are two names well known in the piercing industry, and if you are here reading this, you probably already know who they are and have some concept of how they started. Both these men came up as piercers in a time without structure and without rules. They weren’t the first, but their contributions helped create some semblance of structure in the early days. Fakir, at the time a young boy names Roland Loomis, started in his parent’s basement. Inspired by the rituals of Native American tribes, he began with play piercing, skin pulls and body suspension. Spiritual rites of intense physical sensation, designed to push his consciousness and spirit. Jim got his start as a jeweler, eventually moving to Colorado and joining a gay men’s club. There, he began to experiment with genital piercing and applying his jewelry-making skills to making jewelry for body piercings. Together, these two men played incredibly important roles in bringing piercing to the mainstream and inspiring others to press the same craft. Before them, piercing was largely kink oriented, done by untrained individuals in basements and dungeons. Fakir would go on to be published in many erotic and exotic magazines and print endeavors of the time, and Jim would go on to open the Gaunlet, a piercing only studio which originally catered primarily to gay men and kink forward customers. In time, the Gauntlet had a somewhat structured apprenticeship program, although they were rigid in their methods of teaching and what was and wasn’t done. By the late 1980s, Body Manipulations was open under the guidance of Vaughn, and ReSearch: Modern Primitives was on shelves, inspiring a new generation of kids who wanted piercings because they looked cool, not because they were kinky, or spiritual.
“In my time visiting the shop (Silver Anchor)- with Jack at first and then later to spend time with Mike and Chuck- it was always an adventure. My brother and I would meet up with Brian Skellie, Kevin Covella, and Rob Moore, and be in awe we found people who ‘got’ it. The shift was taking place quickly from an older gay demographic to younger people who were taking on modification as a culture and not a kink, and Jack was grooming us to bridge that gap” –Porter, Nodal Points 1
As piercing slipped into the mainstream, methods of entering the industry became easier. Once, one had to learn on their own. There was simply no-one there to teach, and even those who were piercing regularly still had much to learn- some of the piercing instructional videos put out at the time didn’t feature any gloves. A testament, to how much there still was to learn and know about this craft. If you were one of the lucky ones, to live or to move to a city with an established studio, you perhaps got some oversight and guidance and training from your boss and coworkers. But this looked very different than apprenticeships of today.
“When I would bring on a new employee, I would give them a general sense of what I thought they should be doing. Making the client comfortable, health and safety, etc.- but they were pretty much on their own. If you are going to become a body piercer you need the basics, but you have to be comfortable doing what you do.” Vaughn- BSTA, Nodal Points 3
For many, an apprenticeship genuinely wasn’t a choice. There simply wasn’t anyone there to teach them. All you could do was try it yourself, at home, and see how things went. Maybe you could travel to hang out in a studio that was a few hours, or a few states, away. You were a punk kid and you wanted piercings – where did you go to get them? Many tattoo studios were anti-piercing at the time, and the only way to have them was to do them yourself or travel far to have them done. If you lived in New York, or LA, or Florida, there were probably places you could head to to get some piercings done professionally, but the rest of the country was a dead zone. Kids from all over were piercing themselves at home because that was the only choice they had.
“I was really into Jane’s Addiction and wanted my septum pierced like Perry Farrel, but there was no way my mom would let me. I started seeing friends of mine in the punk scene doing piercing on themselves with safety pins so I thought I’d give it a try. I had already been a cutter for a few years at that point so I wasn’t squeamish. I pierced my bellybutton and septum with a safety pin, I actually did my septum several times because I couldn’t just leave this safety pin in so I tried to put jewelry in unsuccessfully of course.” Ian Bishop, Icon Tattoo and Body Piercing
For those kids, there were only so many outlets. In 1991, Fakir started the Fakir intensives, a course designed to teach safe, spiritual, and sophisticated body piercing and branding. Body Play was on shelves in small bookstores and magazine shops around the country, and PFIQ was beginning to branch out and feature more modifications and up and coming piercing techniques. Piercers in this era were largely self-taught. They had practiced at home, on themselves and on others, purchased what material they could get their hands on. If they were able to afford it, they could make the trip out to San Francisco to attend the intensives.
“Yes, the Fakir Intensives were my first time being around professional body piercers. My first time seeing someone pierce really. I was crazy nervous. I rang the bell and Tim “the Torture King” Cridland opened the door. I went upstairs and all of a sudden Fakir walked up to me. He asked me my name and I said, “Ian.” He said, “oh! Ian Bishop from Nashville TN! We don’t get many people from that area of the country. It’ll be great to get someone in there that knows what they are doing!” He was so personable and welcoming, not exactly what I was expecting. I knew a few of the instructors from Body Play, everyone was really nice. I had the added benefit of my class taking place during the first meeting of what would eventually become the APP. The big split between Fakir people and Gauntlet people.” Ian, Icon Tattoo and Body Piercing
In 1994, this was what it was. Having the drive, and caring enough to make it out to take classes, network with your peers, and have a genuine desire to learn. One week-long class and you were a piercer- and quite frankly probably a better piercer then anyone else in your area doing it. And I say this, not with a hint of disrespect. In the early 90’s someone going to these lengths for piercing, not a very lucrative or stable career choice for the vast majority, was amazing. It was a testament to the drive and desire each and every one of these people had to modify themselves, and others, and live in a way genuinely and unabashedly themselves. In 2020 this statement sounds wild, but it wasn’t then.
“(I ordered some videos in the beginning, to learn) Part of that order was how to pierce videos. In these videos, I already noticed a few things that (my local) piercer could do better so since he had helped me find some things I went back to share my new-found knowledge of lubing the needle and using a rubber band on forceps instead of the click closure. His response… “yeah, I know but I like to hurt people”. At that point I was determined to be better because how dare this guy hurt people on purpose. “ Ian, Icon Tattoo and Body Piercing
This type of ‘piercer’ was common, someone who didn’t care about the craft or the client, they were doing it to do it, to hurt people. They could care less about technique, cleanliness, or the client’s comfort or experience. And for most of the country, this was what you might get if you wanted to get a piercing.
As years passed, more people were called to piercing, as clients, enthusiasts, and soon to be piercers. As studios became more widespread and graduates of the Fakir classes, and piercers from Gauntlet and Body Manipulations branched off to open their own studios, the path to becoming a piercer became more defined. In almost every state there was at least one “good” studio, where folks could go to learn and train. And there were plenty more not so good, where many young aspiring piercers could cut their teeth and start, before eventually evolving either their studio or themselves, into full-fledged piercers.
“I didn’t end up apprenticing until 2002. I apprenticed for tattooing and piercing with a really old school guy. Set up on paper plates, just sprayed the ring plyers down with alcohol and wiped them off between clients. Used corks to catch our needles. Seriously, just shoved a small cork up their nostrils and shoved on through.” Neicie Bow.
Unfortunately, this was a great majority of what was out there, and you were very fortunate if this wasn’t your experience. Piercing was becoming popular and tattoo artists were rushing to have piercing in their studios to make money, with little care for the craft.
“So you want to be a piercer?
There are more unemployed piercers than presently working.
Most studios have noticed a decline in business.
Piercer wages are not rising with inflation.
The industry is oversaturated.
The fad of the 90’s is over.” Allen Falkner, early 2000s
This introduction spearheaded a scathing article passed around online to anyone considering becoming a piercer, in every forum, on all social media and BME. It’s message? Don’t. You probably won’t make it.
“Here’s more bad news. Supply simply outweighs the demand. I would guess that most studios get at least one trained piercer a month looking for work and, at a minimum, one person a week looking for an apprenticeship. People are even willing to work for free just to get their foot in the door.” –Allen Falkner, Early 2000s
Around this time, apprenticeships became a 4 letter word. Many existing piercers wrote trying to discourage people from becoming piercers- and with good reason. For a lucky few they could survive doing this, and a handful of studios around the country were busy enough to thrive. But for many, in smaller towns or smaller cities, the demand just wasn’t there. The concern of the industry becoming oversaturated was real, and the growing bias against piercing didn’t help. States were pressing laws to limit heavier work and piercing, and discrimination was widespread. Around this time the Church of Body Modification sprang up, as a way to protect pierced and modified members of society. This time, the last 90’s and earls 00’s was a difficult one to break into the industry. You had to want it, and knowing people made all the difference.
Eduardo Chavarria, a long time enthusiast and client, was baking full time when Steve Joyner moved to Huston and started working at Taurian where Ed was a regular. Ed had just finished reading Modern Primitives and found himself overwhelmed with the desire to suspend. He went to meet with Steve, and quickly found himself in a room with a handful of other men and women, what would become the start of CoRE.
“By that point I was getting so involved with core and the early scenes of suspension that my earlier desire to be a piercer reawakened, and the studio needed another set of hands. With the background of suspension and a little training, I took off quickly with marking and piercing for suspension. They pulled me aside and asked how were you already doing this? And I said I just learned from watching you. One thing led to another and I was offered a piercing apprenticeship. The only thing was they couldn’t guarantee me a job when the apprenticeship was finished.” Eduardo Chavarria, Safe Harbor Body Adornment
This typically isn’t how apprenticeships are given as usually you hire someone to train for a position you need filled. But, this was a time where while the industry was growing, supply and demand were relatively even. Even the busiest studios were managing on a smaller staff. We hadn’t quite hit the biggest boom of piercing yet.
“My apprenticeship was unpaid. I still had to work full time as a baker to survive. I worked all night, 4pm -11pm, when the shop was opened. And I would go to the bakery from 12-9 in the morning. Go home, Sleep for a few hours, and then go into the shop and do it all over again. It was 3 days a week and went up to 5 after a year.” Eduardo Chavarria, Safe Harbor Body Adornment
This was standard at the time, apprenticeships were pretty much all unpaid. You were earning your education after all. Many apprenticeships also featured hazing. There was a belief, carried over from tattooing, that you needed to ‘earn’ your place. In early years it wasn’t uncommon for apprentices to be heavily hazed. The concept of testing to see how badly an apprentice wanted this and how far someone was willing to go to stay. In the 90s it wasn’t uncommon to brand the shop key on an apprentice, they were the shop bitch and could be made to do whatever. Streaking at the APP conference, walking around in obscene outfits, humiliation, whatever the ritual of choice was. As time went on, this quickly became an unacceptable practice, and while light teasing and mocking remained a part of apprenticing, full-on hazing and harassment tapered off. Unfortunately, it’s not fully gone, and some people still practice these outdated methods. Listen- apprentices clean, they run coffee, they grab lunch. But they don’t deserve abuse.
“My apprenticeship came from two people- Byriah, owner of Taurian Piercing and Metals in Huston. Byriah was extremely intelligent, like evil genius intelligence with the mind of an engineer. We made jewelry alongside piercing. We were buying raw stock from Barry at Anatometal, unfinished curved barbells and circulars, and we were tumbling and polishing and finishing them ourselves. Taurian could have been a mainstream jewelry company if they could have kept up with the volume. And then Steve, who has a military background. There was a lot of structure. Steve had attended the Fakir course, and there was definite Falkir energy at the studio. “ Eduardo Chavarria, Safe Harbor Body Adornment
Early piercing apprenticeships often also included making body jewelry. Many studios made at least seam rings and captives in house, if not barbells or circulars as well. Learning to pierce also included learning to make and finish jewelry. Not only did you learn the basics of how jewelry worked and how to install it, but you mastered that by learning how jewelry was made as well. Sure, jewelry companies existed in those days, but much like Gauntlet many piercers found that they needed such unique or exact sized pieces that making inhouse became the norm. As studios became busier and piercing became more mainstream, making jewelry inhouse became less and less realistic. Piercers were busy actually piercing, and companies had grown to fill the void, processing larger and larger orders. With this, jewelry making started to fall out of apprenticeships, and the began to focus primarily on piercing.
“I worked counter for 6 months first. Learning jewelry, jewelry for piercings, measurements, gauge. Cleaning the shop. Phase two was learning all the decontamination and sterilization. So still working counter but cleaning everyone’s tools, sterilizing everything, cleaning the autoclave, spore testing. Then I started maybe a couple of months setting up everyone’s trays. Then I started observing. At least a full year passed at this point. Then I was able to change jewelry on people, and it stayed there for a little while. About 4 months into changing jewelry I was able to do my first supervised piercing. That went horribly and made me not want to do it for a little while. At around a year and 6 months in, Steve was in the process of looking for new work, which left my apprenticeship a bit in the air. Luckily, the other piercer was also on his way out, a spot opened for me to stay, and start piercing fill time. So Michael offered to stay long enough for Byrrah to finish my apprenticeship and stay at Taurian. I stopped offering piercings for a month or two, and focused on working one on one over specific concepts and techniques. We went over things like how ultrasonics worked in depth, things I needed to work somewhere solo and understand everything in depth. We broke everything down into basic, intermediate, and advanced. For some reason, Labret piercings were basic. And I was still doing labrets because I hadn’t done three perfect enough for him, while I was observing ampallangs and apadravyas. I had to do 3 perfect navels on every type of navel, down to women who has had multiple pregnancies and extra tissue. This was 2000, 2001.” Eduardo Chavarria, Safe Harbor Body Adornment
This quickly became the normal, and structured, formatted apprenticeships became more and more commonplace. With the APP spreading information about safe piercing and structure, and piercing rapidly becoming a legitimate career path, so too came the structure of training. Suddenly supply and demand shifted dramatically, and we found ourselves as an industry in need of more skilled, trained piercers than ever before. So, apprenticeships became much more common place and in may ways easier to come across. In many studios, apprenticeships became partially or fully paid for their work for the studio and company. The need for skilled piercers was great, and as such apprenticeships began taking longer as there was more content to lean, and a higher skill level was required from a piercer. No longer was it acceptable to just trial and error and figure out what worked for you. Clients were also more educated, and a higher level of sterility, skill, and bedside manner was needed across the board.
“When I learned how to pierce, it was just piercing, and walking someone through the experience. Now a piercer needs to learn to be a photographer, use social media, be a high-end salesperson, be aware of fashion. And that wasn’t the case when I started. It was lifestylers, BDSM lifestylers, and punks, and people who just wanted to be weird. A modern apprenticeship has so many more angles now than it used to, because of the clientele.” Eduardo Chavarria, Safe Harbor Body Adornment
Many studios have structured curriculums, worksheets, assignments for apprentices to do. Classes at the annual APP Conference, BMXnet, and other educational events target apprentices and mentors specifically, teaching the newest generation more and teaching mentors how to teach. Educational forums, podcasts, and books help supplement hands-on training. It looks much more like a structured course than ever before.
The changes haven’t been all positive, however. As the industry has changed, so has the requirements of piercers. Now, some skills that were once commonplace and essential are becoming lost art forms, and younger generations are missing out on fundamental education.
“The biggest change in apprenticeships is Jewelry. Just the mass selection in what’s viable now vs 15 years ago. There’s a lot of things that don’t get done, or don’t get done as often that I think people should be getting. Like learning how to work with a nostril screw, and bend one properly. Knowing how to pierce with rings, even if you don’t. Still teaching how to process tools and how ultrasonics work, even if you are disposable. I do think some things are getting lost in the transition of apprenticeships. You’ll always find someone who has a piercing and loves a nostril screw more than a Neometal piece, and will argue with you about it.” Eduardo Chavarria, Safe Harbor Body Adornment
Genital Piercings, once the bread and butter of the industry, are becoming something some young piercers brag about refusing to offer. Likewise, we hear clients interested in this work bemoan finding someone to do it for them. The focus on history also falls behind. Back in the day without social media, you relied on magazines, print media, anything you could consume. You knew everyone who came before you and what their contributions to the industry were. Now, as the industry has grown exponentially, those who got us here are another face in the crowd. In today’s day and age of social media, some people use forums and podcasts to try to replace hands-on apprenticing, almost reverting back to the days of learning from VHS tapes and instruction manuals. As is then, nothing relates hands-on training, no matter how high tech we have become.
The piercing industry has always been as multifaceted, and unique, as the people who partake in it. And it’s growth as a legitimate industry can be traced over the years, watching the shifts from kink to culture, to fashion. Likewise, we can trace how people entered the industry, and the ways our education has changed. For many of you just entering the industry and apprenticing in recent years, you are more fortunate than ever to be given the best training we can offer yet, built on decades of trial and error, personal experience, and personal failure. It’s thanks to every piercer before you who started in a basement, or a bathroom, that the industry has become what it is today. How we learn, How we teach, it’s all intrinsic to who we are and how we got here as an industry.