A number of years ago, I was asked to respond to an interview by my colleague and friend Nicholas Wolak, owner of Evolved. I found his questions engaging and was pleased to interact for this project.
Nick completed his Masters degree at the Ohio State University in Somatic and Cultural Studies in 2002. His final project, “Somatic Piercing: The Art and Ritual of Body Piercing” portrays his experiences in body rituals as well as illuminates other piercers’ views on the matter.
My participation and the conscientious introduction Nicholas wrote follows. I highly recommend that you read the complete work for more insight when you have a chance.
Somatic Piercing :
The Art and Ritual of Body Piercing
By Nicholas S. Wolak
This past week has created for me a new awareness about many things. I attended the annual APP (Association of Professional Piercers) convention in Las Vegas, Nevada for my first time. I made plans for it and arrived with a bit of skepticism. I was not sure if I would agree with the APP’s stances on different issues or how they would react to my disagreement. To my surprise, I did agree with the information presented in most of the classes. Although the material contained very few ‘revelations’ for me, I felt that it was well organized and clearly communicated. My second surprise was that I was not ostracized for my difference in opinions. Everyone was willing to sit down and debate his or her positions in a friendly yet passionate manner.
My main awakening though, occurred outside of the classroom. I had never been in the presence of SO many piercers. For years I have been around modified people, but tattooists and collectors are quite a different breed. I was equally amazed at the variety in the piercers’ philosophies. I met people who pierce out of hair salons, who do traveling piercing, who do virtually sterile procedures, who actively participate in suspensions, pulls, blood letting and other body rituals, who own shops but don’t pierce, and the list goes on and on.
In the past I have learned greatly from speaking to and corresponding with a multitude of piercers from around the world. My next surprise was how thoroughly I enjoyed doing it this time through interviews. Five great people took time from their hectic days to sit down with me and share their experiences in the world of piercing. I was enriched by their diversity. I sometimes forget how different we all are and how different the realities in which we live are. Not only did I enjoy doing the interviews, but transcribing them equally intrigued me. It gave me a chance to really listen to what each person said, how they said it, and get a better feel for what they were communicating. This is something that I plan to continue doing with as many artists as possible.
The following is the first introduction that I wrote about a year ago. I feel that it is still pertinent and will be a nice intro to the letters chapter. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to experience body piercing on more than a professional level for an extended period of time.
In 1997, while I was doing a guest spot at Stattoos in San Jose, Costa Rica, I designed this card in my first attempt to explain the body, mind, spirit connection through body piercing. This was before I had ever heard of Somatics or realized that there exist people who are not only interested in, but study this concept. The words: “Conocer su cuerpo es conocer su mente Conocer su mente es conocer su cuerpo” are Spanish for “To know your body is to know your mind To know your know mind is to know your body”. The verb “conocer” also can mean “to get to know or to meet”- which could imply “to get to know your body is to get to know your mind to get to know your mind is to get to know your body”. I chose the circular fashion to emphasize not only that it is a continual process, but to also let each person choose where to start reading…
The figure itself is laden with simple, concise symbolism. The lines that illustrate the person’s body represent exactly that—the physical, outward body. The negative space inside those lines represents all of our interior—our blood, muscles, organs, bones…The negative space on the outside of the body represents our aura or the energy that we radiate. And finally our body, inside and out, and our aura are surrounded by everything else—the universe.
The figure is kneeling, a humble, meditative gesture, with a needle in hand. His face is smooth, calm, and at peace. This represents the perfectly clear state that one can experience through piercing. At this moment, time stops and all of the above divisions melt and the piercee is at one with himself and everything around him.
This state is not easily attained but as we see in Perforaciones Corporales, Modern Primitives, and DiePierings, it is a cross-cultural phenomenon that existed long before anyone decided to do research on it! In my own experience, I have found in most cases, that the piercing itself is not the primary factor to produce strong reactions. More importantly, it is the preparation invested prior to the piercing—mental, physical, and spiritual. By creating a ritual, symbolism, and meaning, those involved become artists and are able to express themselves before, during, and after the piercing. This project will examine what I call: “Somatic Piercing” – the art and ritual of body piercing.
Before diving right in to the letters, I would like to take the chance to briefly explain some of the terms from the introduction. The word ‘art’, as described by the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, means “an aesthetically pleasing and meaningful arrangement of elements”. The word ‘ritual’, in the same dictionary, is described as “a system of rites”. In turn, a rite is described as “a ceremonial act or procedure”. The term ‘somatic’ is explained by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., who says, “the results of learning should not be understood as ‘miraculous,’ but as somatic.” He also explains: “Somatic Education is the use of sensory- motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of ones physiological process. It is ‘somatic’ in the sense that the learning occurs within the individual as an internalized process.”
The importance of these definitions is to show several things. First, art is subjective. Second, a ritual is simply an act or procedure. And third, to describe a piercing as “somatic” implies that those people involved undergo both internal and external modifications.
Interview with Brian Skellie, Piercing Experience, Atlanta, Georgia.
Why do you pierce now?
Why/how did you start piercing?
How did you receive your training?
My initial experimentation on my own body came about after inspiration through anthropological sources such as old encyclopedias, National Geographic, Smithsonian and reading stacks of dusty old tomes. If nearly every culture in the world had body decoration before even a written alphabet, it could not be such a complicated thing to do for myself.
If traditional means were sufficient for healing and safety in a setting other than our urban environment, then I would need to balance the means to my surroundings so that my immune system would not have to do all of the work itself. I researched the conditions and procedures necessary for successful traditional body adornment of all kinds: cicatrisation, tattoo, ritual burns such as brands or moxibustion, body shaping such as corsetry and binding the feet, arms, legs and head, and the insertion of decorative objects under the skin. I compared all methods I could learn of with scientific and medical research to determine how to emulate these sorts of processes without deleterious effects. Anthropologists’ reports of what they saw as ‘ruined’ body manipulations were often hard to decipher as to indicate infection or trauma. I wanted to carefully avoid any undesirable outcome.
All of this intrigued me at a very early age. The permanent results of the rituals and processes I read about enthralled me, particularly as a personal reminder of experiences. I have collected books and pictures of all sorts of body adornment ever since. I decided to begin altering my own body during adolescence, when I felt my mind and spirit changing at the speed of thought. I put forth a concerted effort to determine what kind of outward mark of my inner growth would feel right to me.
Though the desire for marking my body was apparent to me from early on, I needed much further meditation to find the physical beginning for me. It was not until I was about sixteen and had read and experienced more along the lines of body modification and adornment that I decided I was ready. I chose to put jewelry in my body as milestones of change, a way to remember the wisdom gained from both hard and sweet lessons and experiences.
I put together what I needed to open my skin, and jewelry to put in it. I meticulously cleaned every thing as well as I could in a stovetop pressure cooker, chugging away at the highest temperature and pressure it could muster for nearly an hour. I hoped that archaic method would be enough for new unused supplies. I scrubbed my hands and donned latex gloves. I prepared my skin as if for major surgery, with iodine surgical solution in a great big patch around the site. I then changed gloves and set about figuring out how to hold the skin in alignment while putting a sharp piece of stainless steel through my body. About an hour and fifteen minutes later, after numerous changes in my technique, I realized that I simply was not pushing hard enough to break through the skin. The needle was custom made and very sharp stainless steel, but about 1/8 th inch thick, nearly twice the thickness of the ring I intended to put in. This was the major impediment… I took a deep breath and bruised my fingers on the blunt end of that shiv in the split second of force it took to go through.
I put more thought into the next few pieces that I put into myself and had the next few done by more experienced professionals. I concluded that I should still go about learning more. My closest friends wanted me to put jewelry in for them when they could tell how much it meant to me, and urged me to find a mentor. I met Jack Yount in 1992, a kind and gentle person with over forty years experience, and he steadied my hands and gave them direction. I interacted with as many other experienced individuals as I could to share knowledge and discuss ideas. I observed and was supervised while in Florida, and continued to interact with Jack until he passed away in 1995.
What was involved in your learning process?
I had done enough research in the development of my own techniques, but was not ready to use them on anyone but myself without supervision. I pursued observation of the work of those whom I considered authoritative in the field along with detailed scrutiny of their experiences. I had my hand guided the first few times, and practiced on willing and patient friends under supervision. I continuously work to refine the practical application and broaden my knowledge of the human in change each day.
Learning to work with this change in all of its aspects never stops. The next challenge seems to appear readily and without fail. I tend to eddy off into different ways of seeing the experience to keep it fun and add to the stimulating variety of subtle reactions involved with these shining little things I put in people.
Why and when did you decide to become a body piercer?
I planned to NOT do it for a living, or for trade, just for my friends and myself. When I came back to Atlanta from my first year of college, I made so many appointments within my circle of friends and acquaintances that I rented two rooms with a sink from a retail store, and set about making a studio as Piercing Experience. I met with success and saved my money intending to rent a larger space for exclusively piercing. I spent over a year side tracked, sharing space with a group of tattoo artists, and finally in May of 1995, had found and designed my ideal space. It was a building located one block from where I grew up, and just the right size. I did most of construction myself and had it opened by August. It has been amusing ever since…
What is the most common piercing you perform?
I notice that many of one type of piercing will come to us in a week’s time. This I attribute to word of mouth promotion by our clients. One good piercing for a happy client can bring in dozens more of the same in time. The common jewelry changes too much to predict. Sometimes it seems obvious, like when someone famous shows off their jewelry, we get many requests for that same sort of thing. I see the media as saturated with that sort of inspiration, just waiting to trigger someone’s desires.
What is your favorite piercing to do and why?
A knowledgeable and relaxed client who appears determined to get the best service really brings out the best in me. I try to talk with people ahead of time until I feel that they are comfortable and informed enough to proceed with a clear conscience.
What kind of sterilization methods do you use?
Sterilization is a clear and simple issue: nothing should survive the steam sterilization process in our autoclave. I maintain a STATIM 2000 cassette sterilizer in proper working condition, test it weekly with bacterial spore samples and an off site lab to assure that it does kill harmful pathogens, and use it according to its capability.
I researched all available forms of sterilization and determined that a steam would be the best available choice for the implements and jewelry we use. It does not damage our jewelry or leave any dangerous residues. A few novelty pieces cannot be successfully steam sterilized and stay intact such as acrylic and many plastics, as well as almost all epoxy and glues use. We choose not to sell or use any item we can not assure that will be entirely safe based on current scientific standards. We choose not to sell jewelry made with glues and most plastics. Not only do they tend to break too easily, but may conceal and protect pathogens through any sterilization process other than by penetrating radiation. Other types have common disadvantages: heat takes too long, and only works for gauze and metal tools; radiation is not available for individual use; and chemical liquid or vapor sterilization have dangerous fumes, may not get all surfaces of objects, and leave dangerous residues.
Is piercing your full time, or part time job?
Full time since 1992.
What is your perception on body piercing? (Art, fetish, cultural, etc)
It manifests as a social force, and what I observe depends on the equipment I use. Just as light has wave- like features or particle- like features based on the test and equipment. Today in the microscope it appears as just people who choose to wear jewelry that is harder to lose than a bracelet or necklace, tomorrow with different scopes it may seem mystic, religious, fashionable, fetishistic, an exotic anthropological reflection or a personal symbol. I have dedicated my work to keep it safe, simple and gentle. Make of it what you will…
Any other information that you could give me about being a professional body piercer
would be much appreciated.
I anticipate the eventual decline of anyone practicing non-sterile piercing methods. People are moving towards safer procedures such as wearing sterilized gloves to handle and insert autoclave sterilized needles, instruments and implant grade jewelry and steer away from prevalent clean- looking but contaminated procedures. People are beginning to realize that too much has been previously left to guess about in the business, and that there are safer ways to put jewelry in people, without all the loose ends and nagging issues of conscience. I anticipate that clients will choose safer methods based on researched instead of perpetuating old guesswork opinions and assumptions.
Caveat vendor; caveat emptor: Seller beware; buyer beware I am working on refining systems of quality control to provide for public health while still in the best interest of the piercer. It is a challenge to take safety seriously without incurring some expense, whether it be time, labor or cash. It is worth it…
How have you evolved from then til now?
The essence of what I do now is based on the ethical principles of making everything safe, simple and gentle using scientific evidence to lead the way. Procedures have been systematically and scientifically refined through research, practice and contemplation. In the higher mental and spiritual aspects of my art, I use the symbols of alchemy to visualize what I do: solve et coagula — represented through the Golden Chain of Homer and the symbol for the process of purification that I chose as my sigil. I encircled the arrow and serpentine lines, choosing to show that I aim for that simplest and most graceful goal in all of my life’s work. (You can see this at www.symbols.com) Where it is going? I could not say. How I will get there will be with compassion by the instruments of my ethics toward purification. I do what I love.
Do you consider what you do an art? Why/why not?
This is an accepted art, and an emerging science. I’m a bit of a zetetic in my work to discern quackery from real evidence. I look toward a day when the public knows how to tell a charlatan from a true professional in our art through science. I treat my work as art, and I believe that any act can be holy, and any act become art in some way or another. I don’t have to can my excrement as Manelli to demonstrate it, since many people appreciate the aesthetic aspects of my work.
How is it ritualistic for you?
I consider it one of the most lovely combinations of rite and rote. On my level it is ascetic, and for the patrons, it is what they make of it.
What is your relationship with clients?
Compassion is the fundamental. The Golden Rule is one example of the reciprocal sense of my interaction with my patrons. I love them unconditionally; they become as an extended family. We trust and rely upon one another.
Describe a “non-professional” piercing ritual that you’ve been part of.
I have been honored to be part of a great number of body art related experiences. For private and public suspension ceremonies I have prepared and pierced, though I have not felt the calling to hang from flesh hooks myself. With friends and lovers I am able to take piercing to another level of harmonious bonding. I have put jewelry in and been pierced during intimate moments and with days and sometimes weeks of preparation, cleansing and meditation. So many times I have worked with individuals that I am close with: on a roof under the stars, on a bright mountaintop at sunrise, completely quiet but for our breath, immersed in an aural wash of sound and more. The interplay I have communicating with a caring person is a good part of why I do piercing for and with others. I feel it is a natural language of physical expression of mental and spiritual forces for me.
Does spirituality play a role for you in body piercing?
I don’t have a pitch for any Buddhist mantra or a throaty Siberian shamanic idyll to croon, but I feel my practice is a meditative and creative act. I try to instill the passion I have for life and to reflect the light a person brings to me when I interact with my patrons. I try only to let my own inner peace and spiritual aspirations overflow and inspire others, rather than pulling them into my cult.