Body piercing appears to be one of the fastest growing
industries in the United States that is still free from government
regulations of any type. For better or for worse, it remains a
prominent form of self-expression that sustains selfhood, creates
an identity, and serves as a rite of passage or an invitation for
commentary. What used to serve as a tribal identity marker or a
sign of the transition to manhood has now morphed from fad to phase
in our society.
“It’s no trend anymore,” said piercing artist Tim Tolle. “It’s
like everybody getting everything pierced.”
Eleven years ago on a normal Saturday, Tolle would do about 20
piercings. Now, it is not unusual for him to do 100 per day. For a
while it was tongues, then bellybuttons; but now people pierce
everything from a second hole on the earlobe to the hood of the
A genital piercing costs a mere $30 (not including the jewelry)
at Berkeley’s Zebra Tattoo and Piercing Parlor, where Tolle works.
This is the same price as a tongue piercing.
Various other piercing costs range from $15 to $35. Prices are
the lowest they have ever been, according to Tolle.
In 1996, when Mills student Laura Cucullu got her tongue
pierced, it cost her $90.
“Prices have dropped with mass-marketing,” Cucullu said.
Cucullu had two tongue rings at one point, but her mouth is now
jewelry-free, after she cracked her tooth in half on the steel
According to the British Dental Association, “tongue piercings
can cause infections, speech impediments, breathing problems, and
broken teeth,” and are definitely among the most risky
Twenty-six-year-old Becky Nyang would have to agree, as she was
electrocuted via her metal tongue stud in England earlier this
year, according to the BBC. Nyang went temporarily blind, couldn’t
talk, and was badly blistered by this fluke accident.
There are countless other health risks in the body art industry,
as the government has left it virtually untouched. Hairstylists and
manicurists are required to have 1,600 hours of schooling in their
craft, including 29 hours of classes in health safety, according to
an article in the Sacramento Bee. Tattoo artists and piercers, on
the other hand, are not required to have any sort of training or
even submit to government health inspections. The Alameda County
Health Department can vouch for this as well.
The only requirement for the nearly 100,000 body artists in
California is that they register with their county environmental
health department, but even this is rarely enforced.
“The guy that taught me [how to pierce] reused needles,” said
Sitting in an immaculate room, with every needle new and
individually packaged, and every countertop scoured clean, Tolle
clearly improved upon the methods he was taught.
“We want people to come back,” Tolle said.
Reusing needles can lead to the spread of diseases such as
hepatitis C and HIV for both the patient and the piercer, according
to Tolle and various medical journals.
The majority of infections, however, are due to insufficient
cleaning after the piercing has been done, Tolle explained.
“People think you have to take the piercing out for it to heal,
but you just have to go back to your piercer, because most of the
time all it needs is a little adjustment.”
Proper cleaning consists of washing the area with a mild soap
twice a day to prevent infection. Some body artists recommend
soaking the hole in warm water mixed with sea salt, but this takes
longer. Unless you have a few minutes to sit and soak, soap is the
way to go.
“Being in the ocean is actually the best thing,” said Tolle.
Ocean cleansing was probably the way people prevented infection
when the art of piercing first began. Five thousand years ago,
there was no Dial or Dr. Bronner’s.
Piercing has been traced back to ancient tribal cultures of
South America and South Africa and is still being practiced by
contemporary tribal societies on almost all continents, according
to The Lancet, a prominent medical journal.
The nose piercing, for example, originated in the Middle-East
about 4,000 years ago, spreading to India in the 16th century. Nose
piercings were introduced to Western culture by the hippies, who
traveled to India in the 60’s and 70’s.
The navel piercing was only for the Pharaohs and other royals of
ancient Egyptian civilizations. Peasants found with jewelry in
their belly-buttons would be executed, unless it was a young girl
deemed to have a “perfect” navel, in which case she could elevate
her social status with the piercing.
Piercing the nipple was generally a sign of strength and
endurance, but the natives of Central America used it as a mark of
the transition to manhood.
Body piercing eventually disappeared from most Western cultures
all together, as they were considered to be a practice of
“barbarian” tribes. It was not until the Elizabethan era, when
sailors met tribal people who believed that earlobe piercing
enhanced long distance vision, that the art was reintroduced to our
Currently, the most popular type of male genital piercing is the
“Prince Albert,” according to Tolle. This piercing is named after
Queen Elizabeth’s husband, who supposedly wore a penile ring, which
he used to secure his genitals in either the right or the left leg
of the tight trousers of the period. According to The Lancet
medical journal, historical evidence for this story is disputed,
but it at least makes for a noteworthy myth.
The progression of piercing landed in the era of “needles and
ice cubes” last generation and now rests with piercing guns and
sanitary needles for most and safety pins for the braver bunch.
“In the 60’s, when people started to pierce their ears, I went
to a slumber party and got my ears pierced with a needle and an ice
cube,” said Mills resumer student Lynn Burns.
Burns said that her mom was furious until she explained that no
guy would give a woman a pair of clip-on diamond earrings. Soon
after, Burns pierced her mom’s ears. Now, Burns is considering
getting her nose pierced. Why?
“It signifies my looking at things outside the box,” she said.
Burns believes that for many, body piercing is “a way of saying
‘I’m not at home anymore, and I’m thinking for myself now.'”
Mills student Vanessa Marlin agrees. She and her girlfriends
pierced their belly-buttons with safety pins, and she had her
tongue pierced in a piercing parlor when she was a teenager.
“That was a phase,” she said. “Now it’s over.” With that phase
went the jewelry.
“I always thought that piercings were wanna-be-cool kids kinda
things,” said Mills graduate student Alan Parrish. “They may have
meant something in the past, but not anymore.”
The Pediatrics journal states that adolescents with tattoos or
body piercing are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors
such as hard drug use, sexual activity and suicide, and therefore
require closer monitoring.
“[Body piercing] is a way to rebel,” said Stephan Jost, the
director of the Mills Art Museum.
Cucullu would have to disagree.
“Some people use [body piercings] to identify,” she said. “It’s
a uniqueness factor.”
“Although,” Cucullu admits, “it’s kind of become mass-marketed.
I mean, if you flip through a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, half the
girls have their bellybuttons pierced.”
Cucullu sports 24 different piercings.
In an essay by Susan Benson called “Inscriptions of the Self:
Reflections on Tattooing and Piercing in Contemporary
Euro-America,” the opposing beliefs surrounding the topic of body
modifications are clear. Those who still find piercing a fad or a
phase believe that “it is only in the depths of the embodied self
that authenticity lies.” This, she writes, is the overriding belief
of our society and the belief of those who consider body piercing
both an MTV staple and self mutilation.
On the flip side, she says, some find piercing aesthetically
attractive, and considers the skin to be the place where personhood
is located, an indicator of what exists inside.