Stick ’em with the pointy end: A brief history of the piercing needle.
How is a piercing done? With a needle. It seems like a pretty easy, straight forward answer. But it hasn’t always been that way. While modern body piercing has access to some of the best, most well-crafted needles we could ask for, such wasn’t the case twenty or thirty years ago. In fact, just having access to needles was unheard of for a bit. The needle is one of the most important factors in a safe, correctly done body piercing. Without a good needle, the entire piercing experience can go sideways (or crooked). So, let’s delve into the history of the piercing needle, and how we got to the modern design we all use today.
In the ’60s and ’70s piercing was still very much underground. We were a few years away from the opening of the gauntlet in 1975 by Jim Ward. Piercing was primarily a fetish in the Leather/BDSM scene, practiced in the darkest corners of already forbidden back rooms and clubs. Since this was being practiced by people who wouldn’t dream of going out and trying to get supplies for their extracurricular activities, they made use of what they had. Sharpening wire, and using modified ice picks and nuts and bolts was common.
“There was nothing available at the time so it was crude. I’m not sure about the years, but in the ’60s and ’70s, that’s what they would use. The material was the same LVM surgical stainless steel but they would polish with diamond dust on a wheel to get rid of any porousness it had called orange peel. By the time they were done, it looked like a mirror! I can’t imagine the level of determination these people had. The ice pics were solid of course, and I never saw use of any of it. I came after that, but I imagine it was horrible.” –Ken Dean, Silver Anchor.
Folks were sharpening what they could easily get their hands on for piercings. These were crudely fashioned at home, and piercing with them probably took a great degree of force. Given the time period, many of the piercings were likely genitals and nipples, and one can only imagine how attempting to pierce a nipple with a sharpened bolt may have gone.
As piercing slowly became more popular in different subcultures and crept toward the mainstream we quickly realized we needed something better than what we could sharpen on our own. From there, folks got creative getting their hands on needles whatever way they could. Going down to the co-op and purchasing veterinary needles in bulk for some “sick horses” was a common sight.
“We bought a lot of supplies, including veterinary type needles from Arista Surgical Supply in NY. I would dutifully remove the syringe coupling. That continued up until the AIDS crisis when we felt it imperative that needles be disposable. We were (reusing them), but they were always autoclaved twice between uses. Once so they could be handled, then they were cleaned and bagged and autoclaved a second time. They got pretty dull, but we kept using them. Then I sought out a manufacturer, I think it was B&D, who provided us with what they called cannulas. They served the purpose (single use), but to be honest they weren’t all that sharp. That’s why we had to use needle pushers. It wasn’t until about the time the gauntlet went under in the last 1990s that the companies began to manufacture needles specifically for piercing.” -Jim Ward, Gauntlet.
The issues with the needles many were able to get ahold of was the hub. The hub is the plastic end piece at the needle, that often connects to different medical equipment. For piercing purposes, the hub was in the way of being able to transfer jewelry in once we completed the piercing. So we had to remove the hubs to free up the needle for piercing. Depending on where you worked, everyone had a different method of getting those pesky things off.
“We would order them from a medical supply company by the hundreds. We would put them in a small lathe individually and remove the hubs and clean the outside and inside with a small rotary sanding tool while they were still in the lathe.” –Ken Dean, Silver Anchor.
Physically cutting the hubs was popular, as it saved a lot of time dealing with the glue used to affix the hubs to the needle. However, remember the industry at this point was decentralized. Everyone was working as best they could with what they could manage in their areas. They didn’t have big name supply companies to sell to everyone. So some folks could only access needles too small to have the hubs actually cut.
“I didn’t cut the hubs off needles. I had to “munch” the hubs up with ring closing pliers, breaking the glue and pulling the hub off. Then, using modified ring closers, I would have to scrape the glue off the needle. I did this every week till my fingers would literally bruise and blister. The needles were just BD needles. Individually wrapped (obviously) and in a box. For some reason they were only about 1” long- that’s why we didn’t cut them. The piercers preferred them longer so crunching the hub off allowed for an extra like, 1/2″ or something? We bought the needles from a local medical supplier. After we scraped (as much as we could) glue off, I’d lay them on a paper towel while I worked. Occasionally, we would put them in an ultrasonic in a fine wire basket. It depended on what piercer was working that day if they wanted to take the extra step. Then they’d be packaged in sterilization tubing and head sealed or autoclaved tapes at the ends and sterilized in a Ritter M7. My fingers would be black- I don’t know if it was from the coating or the scraping of the metal on metal?” –Lexi Krahn, Red Loon.
For many piercers, this was a daily reality. Having to spend hours to prep medical needles to pierce with them. Some folks made an entire business out of this, removing hubs, cleaning, packaging, and reselling the needles to studios.
“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.” – Michael Mulcahy, Marigold.
Across the country, folks were either removing their own hubs or purchasing already processed needles from someone else. Regardless of where you got them, it was a lot of labor and love for needles that only worked so well. Often, they were still dull enough that a large amount of force was needed to pierce through some spots. Needle drivers were popular. These small acrylic cubes or pucks had holes drilled for 18, 16, 14 and 12g needles. The needles were inserted in and gripped around where they met the driver. This added some length to already short needles and also helped produce the needed force to get through many placements. It also protected the piercer’s hands.
“Well, sometimes it took so much forcing and pushing the needle would push backwards and cut into your palm. So…needle drivers.” – Ian Bishop, Icon.
Alongside these needle drivers, some piercers used curved hemostats like a doctor might when suturing to drive the needles while they pierced. And some still were freehanding, just with a lot of force required!
This continued until a fortunate series of events occurred – Maria Pinto, a third-generation needle maker was becoming an enthusiast for piercings and tattoos. After piercing her nostril herself (“I stuck a carrot up my nose and used a pin, bam! I’ll never forget.”), she began piercing her ears as well. While traveling she also enjoyed visiting other studios and can recall spending time in Body Manipulations in 1995 as a client, shortly before starting her experience in the piercing industry. While spending time in the studios collecting her work, she overheard a piercer complaining about this process of removing hubs from the needles. Having worked for her family needle making company since she was sixteen she pointed out that you didn’t have to remove the hubs- you could purchase them before the hubs were ever attached. Congruent to this, her family’s company had started getting requests from local studios to sell them needles, but the order quantity was never enough for her family to fill. They typically ran a few hundred thousand at a time for any order. An idea was born. She took out a purchase order of a few hundred thousand needles, and individually bagged them and sold them in smaller lots to studios who were interested.
She sold her family medical needles to piercers, working to identify the best medical needles to sell. There were three types of hypodermic needles that are suitable to be used for body piercing – A bevel needles were designed to be less painful and were used for drawing blood, B bevels were for muscle tissue to open the tissue and administer medication, and C bevels were designed to go into plastic tubing. All three were being sold to piercers, with the A bevel being the most common. However, A bevels were designed to go in for a blood draw and be retracted out. Piercers found that they weren’t creating a clean exit because they were never designed to exit.
“We took an A bevel and we modified it. It has a longer bevel which is supposed to be less painful, really, is what it was designed for. We basically looked at the fact you needed the bevel to exit. And the A bevels were designed to go into the vein and retract with the least amount of trauma. What we were finding was when we kept that bevel at the standard length it wasn’t giving us a clean exit. So we came up with these proprietary configurations which changed the geometry of an A bevel and made it the geometry for us, which we call our body piercing needle. So that when you go through the skin and exit you weren’t tearing out the back, you were still maintaining that nice oval cut the entire way through. There’s a lot of other factors to that as well, it’s not just the geometry. It’s certain ways to manufacture the equipment to hold the tolerances that keep your primary angles and secondary angles at such a slight degree of difference that you feel very little exit if any at all for your clients.” -Maria Pinto, ISLLC.
This happened alongside other companies experimenting with needle designs, such as Vita who worked on needle concepts with Brian Skellie. Maria, however, saw the potential to make this into a business and stuck with it even as other manufacturers dropped off. After seeing the success of her first orders of traditional hypodermics, and her ideas to re-proportion them, she decided to try her hand at making it a full business. She did a very simple flyer, using her background in graphic design, and mailed it to every piercing and tattoo shop she could find. Then she started cold calling, offering to send free samples. Within six months they had good return orders and began to sell to some of the larger studios at the time- Pleasurable Piercings, Body Manipulations, The Good Art Company, and High Priestess.
“After the first flyer people started to ask questions- “do you have a tri-bevel?” And it’s like well, yes, all these needles have tri-bevels. All these questions that I think the industry was being touted what would make a better needle, people were just talking up whatever they could to get folks to buy their product. So when we started up as a company we wanted to focus on education. We explained how a needle was made and what each of the 3 bevels. We spoke about good manufacturing processes, to make sure you were buying your needles from someone with a passivation sheet or explaining their stainless. And this has been a movement in our industry for over a decade now. All companies give you mill sheets now which is excellent. Because it shows that the people you are buying from are good companies. Passivation sheets, metal composition, you should be able to get that from anyone. And we did passivation sheets from the start. My mother’s company was a medical company so we already had those. We felt it was important with our medical background, and it was common in the medical industry for every order to have a passivation sheet and a metals sheet. So we included it with all our piercing needles as well. “ -Maria Pinto ISLLC.
This education helped studios learn what to look for from a safe needle, and also started to set the tone for mill certifications in jewelry and other supplies. It encouraged piercers to really look at their tools, the same way they looked at their jewelry. Eventually, the companies that were selling modified needles with hubs removed began to drop off as word spread you could get cleaner, safer needles- and they were actually designed for piercing too! Maria also sold to some distributors at the time, but as they came and went ISLLC decided to distribute just themselves. While they were starting up between distributors and smaller accounts they also asked their studios for feedback about the needles and began a long process of R&D to finalize and perfect their design of the needle.
“We used dental dams to see how the needles were cutting. We also used plastic and rubber durometers to make sure that the heel isn’t taking out tissue, or that you are going through at the right amount of penetration. There is also penetration test machinery as well, and we did all that back in the mid-90s when we started to work on our products. In early 1995 we started doing that development. And a lot of testing on different durometers of dental dams, how tightly we pulled them over the machine, and how much pressure had to go through to create a nice clean cut without tearing out the back end. I would say over about five years we did a lot of different studies just based on what the industry was asking us for. And this inevitably brought us to the Teflon coating, as an alternative to our super sharp Sharpass needle anyway.” -Maria Pinto ISLLC.
With feedback from the industry, the design of the ISLLC Sharpass needle was finalized, and they eventually pursued coated needles at the behest of piercers who had seen them both in medical uses and from other companies producing needles at the time.
“Piercers wanted something as an alternative to other coated needles out there. And we did a lot of research to discover Teflon was just a better, stronger product for a coating on a needle. Especially in an industry doing any steam autoclaving or any type of additional sterilization to their products, that would not alter the finish of the original coating. We did Teflon first, but there were other companies doing silicone. The silicone is an air-cured product, and Teflon is a heat-cured product. That’s why our coating appears a gold color- it’s heated up to 675 degrees, and its a guarantee the product is on the outside of the tube and won’t be compromised in an autoclave, which is only going up around 275 degrees. And that’s the route we went, to go with something that we could guarantee the finish would stay on, no matter what your sterilization may be.” -Maria Pinto ISLLC.
Eventually, coating techniques evolved and a strong silicone coating emerged with the Katana line of needles manufactured by Anatometal. With different bevel proportions making for a unique needle, Katanas quickly became an industry favorite – so much so that when they eventually stopped production, the industry mourned. However, a new needle would rise to take its place – Mikele Tre was looking into working with piercing needles, and Asami immediately offered to help – a joint brainchild was born, bringing a refined silicone coated needle to the market. Within a year they were working with reputable needle manufacturing companies to refine their idea of the piercing needle – which hit the piercing industry in 2018 in the form of Kiwami needles.
“We had great synergy from the start: they were able to provide us with volume and professionalism we needed, while Asami, owning and working in a few high volume piercing shops was/is the best person to judge the quality of the needles. And then me, which I am set up for taking care of sales.” -Mikele, Kiwami.
Kiwami needles are silicone coated with a Siloxane chain made of silicone and oxygen as it’s backbone. This has excellent properties in terms of thermal stability, meaning heating needles in an autoclave for piercing it will still hold up. Unlike early experiments with silicone coating which weren’t serving the sterilization process, Kiwami has refined silicone for a smooth, low friction layer. Silicone is coated in a clean room in a three-step process, where needles are immersion coated, then air blown and eventually dried, and finally inspected. Kiwami also changed some of the bevel proportions started in the ’90s, with thicker walls that allow for a different sharpness.
In 2019 the piercing industry is more fortunate than ever to have a range of needles to purchase, that are actually designed for the job we do, and companies that are ever-growing and revolutionizing the tools that make out jobs possible. There is a range of quality needles we can purchase, each with their own specialties and benefits. But it helps to remember where we came from, and the long road it took to get to the needles we work with today. Comfort, precision, and speed get to be the focus of producers today, rather than simply anything sharp enough to get through skin with enough force.
“Often it felt like trying to punch through leather. The new needles are so smooth and easy.” -Jim Ward, Gauntlet.
The history of the needle is a long one, shaped by dedicated piercers and enthusiasts who never stopped taking the steps needed to push the industry forward and provide a better service for those clients who trust us to modify their bodies. Our industry has been influenced just as much by those who create our tools and our jewelry, as it has by the piercers who work with it and the clients who wear it. Without all of us pushing to move forward and be better, we can’t grow and improve. It must be a team effort, with all of us putting in the work. And maybe, that’s the point.