The movie The Silence of the Lambs pulled out all the stops to portray that film's serial killer as the sickest villain ever to grace the screen. The filmmakers inserted a close-up that drove home the point for even the most jaded moviegoer.
Wincing, disbelieving audiences gasped in unison as they eyed the killer's bare chest: "What kind of madman would pierce his own nipples?!" Ask that question today, and don't be surprised if someone answers, "A stylish one." Less than two years later, anatomically adventurous trendsetters might logically conclude that the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, was simply an MTV viewer gone wrong.
If anyone doubts that body piercing has come out of the closet, they should have been eavesdropping on one conversation at an arty Zone magazine party held at the genteel Royal Palms Inn last month.
"Right now piercing is pretty much where tattooing was ten years ago," remarked Jayne, a freshly pricked Valley hipstress. "Ten years ago, 'normal' people just didn't get tattooed. Today, you see it on suburban housewives in the check-out lines. It's going to be the same thing with piercing. You'll see."
And while most partygoers never really did get a chance to see, several revelers did get a chance to feel. Eager to prove her point, the scenestress urged astonished friends to rub strategic areas of her sheer cocktail dress, the better to feel the tiny metal rings dangling from her nipples and vagina.
Elsewhere at the bash, her 20-year-old son, Shad, demonstrated for a curious few that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Discreetly slipping behind a pillar in the hotel courtyard, he opened his fly and displayed his own pride and joy. Running horizontally through the head of his penis was a tiny metal rod resembling a miniature barbell.
A cutting-edge fashion statement at its most pointed, this weird marriage of S&M culture and tribal ritual is leaving its mark on nostrils, eyebrows, navels, cheeks, nipples and, yes, even points south.
Ear piercings--once the primary province of women, pirates, gay men and movie pimps--have become so commonplace in recent years that star athletes like Michael Jordan can sport earrings in the men's locker room and nobody blinks an eye. Multiple ear piercings, the next step up the shock-value ladder, quickly wore out their novelty, and it probably won't be long until pierced eyebrows lose their ability to raise one.
@body:"You just kind of have to grin and bear it," reports 24-year-old Barbara Trujillo, a Valley hair stylist and record-store clerk who recently had her nipples pierced. A dramatic-looking woman with a heavy commitment to black clothing, Trujillo can't pinpoint exactly why she wanted to nip it in the buds. But having already pierced her nose, she figured, "How bad can it be? Why not go for it?" Today, Trujillo goes for it in a big way. "The piercing has really made my nipples sensitive," she confesses. "When I'm in the car, I find myself twisting the rings at stoplights all the time. I really get some funny looks."
Like many fashion movements, the piercing phenomenon seems to have been spearheaded largely by rock culture. One of the most-talked-about performers to emerge from last summer's Lollapalooza traveling rock caravan was not a musician, but the Amazing Mr. Lifto, a specialty act in the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. When the sideshow troupe returned to the Valley for an encore performance at the Library Cafe recently, 25-year-old Mr. Lifto thrilled a sold-out crowd by hoisting suitcases, cinder blocks and steam irons dangling from rings in his ears, tongue, nipples and penis.
Meanwhile, members of the shock-rock band the Genitorturers made headlines earlier this year when they allegedly pierced a Florida deejay's scrotum during a live radio broadcast.
And even the trend-sniffing Madonna has put her stamp of approval on this disconcerting new fad (however vicariously) via her new, X-rated book of photographs, which includes a handful of shots depicting skewered skin. Perhaps tellingly, none of the ventilated dermis belongs to the lady herself.
"Piercing is not something that should be done lightly," says professional piercer Bob DeJardine. The owner of Tuff Stuff Leatherware, an East McDowell storefront that caters to the leather needs of the local S&M and hard-rock communities, DeJardine is probably the Valley's best-known practitioner of the new needlework. He has six years' experience.
DeJardine says it wasn't long ago that his customers were a small group of sexually adventurous types (many of them into bondage) who were piercing their erogenous zones to heighten erotic pleasure. During the past year, however, DeJardine's business has tripled, and he now pierces anywhere from seven to ten people a week at $10 a head--or whatever. Unlike his customers of a few years ago, most of those he sees today are straight--he assumes.
"Much of this is still carried on today by individuals who wish to use body piercing as an affirmation of their relationship," says the 50ish DeJardine, who has four genital piercings of his own. "If it's done properly, it can be a very nice ceremony. But with the younger generation, I'm afraid, it's strictly a fad."
What's alarming to DeJardine is a pierce-happy public's apparent lack of understanding of the possible hazards associated with piercings. Although infections, including AIDS and hepatitis, can be spread by piercing with contaminated needles, DeJardine says the risk can be virtually eliminated by properly sterilizing needles and using them only once. And he says the risk of postpiercing infection can be greatly reduced by daily applications of a prescribed surgical scrub. Like all piercing purists, he stresses the importance of using surgical stainless-steel jewelry, which generally doesn't irritate the skin.
"When I see people come in here with a piece of jewelry you can buy for a couple of bucks at a mall, I have to question what kind of instrument they used to make the original piercing," says DeJardine. "A lot of people think it's easy--all they've got to do is grit their teeth and stab a needle in their body. Well, that's just not the case. I can't imagine how any thinking person can consider such a thing."
Whether he can imagine it or not, kitchen-table piercings (and their commercial, "jiffy-jab" equivalents) appear to be on the rise.
A typical home-piercing saga is outlined by 24-year-old Lance Cameron, a clerk in a Mill Avenue head shop in Tempe. "I sat down, iced up my nipple to numb it a little, then just shoved a safety pin through it," explains Cameron, who moonlights as a drummer for Valley rock group Freak Show. "When I got married last year, I told my wife I'd wear a ring--only I'd wear it through my nipple. This is the musician's version of a wedding ring, I guess."
But at least Cameron is happy with his handiwork. Not so Kris Thomas, a Phoenix Roadrunners concessionaire who thought it would be a cool idea to have a little ring through her nose. Last month, under the awning of an open-air piercing stall at the Arizona State Fair, 24-year-old Thomas learned otherwise.
Looking back, Thomas says she probably should have known better. "There was a girl standing nearby who had a ring through her nose," Thomas recalls. "When I asked her whether it hurt, she told me, '~I'm probably the wrong person to ask. I enjoy pain.'"
Nonetheless, Thomas paid $20 to have a stud inserted in her nostril with an ear-piercing gun. "It was probably the most horrific thing I've ever experienced. You have no idea how much you use your nose until you have something like this done," says Thomas, explaining that the procedure triggered a dull headache that plagued her for three days. "Smiling, yawning, sneezing--anytime I did anything involving my face, it really hurt." Adding insult to injury, no one even appreciated the hard-won nasal adornment. "Suddenly, people weren't talking to me anymore," says Thomas. "They were talking to this ugly stud through my nostril."
Thomas removed the stud less than 24 hours after it had been inserted. "It was an awful experience," she says. "I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."
Any wonder, then, that piercing mania was recently lampooned by Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, in one of his "Life in Hell" cartoon panels, via an ad for "Akbar & Jeff's Piercing Hut" (Where yesterday's psychopathology becomes today's middle-class youth-culture affectation)?
Actually, Groening wasn't far off the mark. In West Hollywood, aficionados flock to the Gauntlet, 16-year-old flagship store for what is now a chain of upscale piercing boutiques with outlets in San Francisco and New York City. Reportedly a million-dollar corporation, the West Hollywood shop alone hosted more than 5,000 piercings last year, with customers ranging from musicians and swingers to businessmen and Japanese tourists. In addition, the Gauntlet runs a mail-order house specializing in needles, jewelry and related pierceaphernalia, and publishes PFIQ (Piercing Fans International Quarterly), a slick glossy with 4,000 subscribers worldwide.
Don't hold your breath waiting for a Gauntlet franchise in your local mall.
"There's the issue of keeping our focus on service and support that keeps this business from getting too huge," reports Los Angeles store manager Elayne Binnie. "Each piercing--whether it be an ear lobe, a nipple or a genital--is an important event for both the piercer and piercee." According to Binnie, nipples currently lead the list of most-pierced body parts, followed by navels, nostrils, ears and tongues. Although tongue piercings have been particularly popular within the radical lesbian community, some observers believe those studded tongues will soon cut across all sex lines. "Last year we did over 200 tongues in this store alone," says Binnie, whose own speech is unimpaired despite the multiple piercings which dot her tongue. "I think we're going to be seeing a lot more pierced tongues."
But much of the vast unpierced still can't help wondering what compels a person to burrow under his flesh.
"You can ask ten different people why they're pierced and you'll probably get ten different answers--maybe even more," reports Susie, the Gauntlet's monomonikered mail-order manager.
Depending on who's talking, the piercees are: a) asserting their individuality, b) reacting to an oppressive society, c) getting back in touch with their bodies, d) seeking an alternative spirituality or e) looking for sexual nirvana. But stripped of its erotic trappings, the rationale behind the craze parallels the explanations used to rationalize every new fashion foible, from long hair to tattoos.
"I'm assuming there's also quite a lot of trend involved in this," concedes Susie. "If Axl Rose is going to get his nipple pierced, there are probably longhaired kids in Omaha who are going to run out and get their nipples pierced, too." Kathryn Coe, an anthropologist at Rio Salado Community College, suggests that today's seemingly grotesque piercings are no more barbaric than the high-priced nose jobs, breast augmentations, hair transplants, electrolyses, liposuctions and other "normal" beauty treatments to which thousands of Americans readily submit themselves every year.
"It's just a matter of your perception," says Coe, who once lived with a tribe in the South American rain forest. She points out that many of the more "bizarre" piercings currently making the American scene (particularly those involving male genitalia) would be considered routine rites of passage in many native cultures. Conversely, the natives "think what we do is really weird. Take blue eye shadow, for instance. If you think about that objectively, why on Earth do we use that? And look at high heels--they deform your feet, they're bad for the back, they cause headaches, and yet few American women are without a pair. People everywhere do all sorts of things that are uncomfortable. This is human."
Dr. Brad Bayless, a Phoenix psychologist, disagrees. "Whatever the aborigines in Australia might be doing has little bearing on what's going on here in America," he says. "Behavior should be judged on the basis of which it is exhibited.
"A kid who is shoving a piece of metal through his tongue or his jaw or wherever has probably got a warped sense of reality in terms of his identity or self-worth," Bayless theorizes. While such youthful piercings are generally attention-seeking devices, Bayless says that people who pierce their erogenous zones are "typically somewhat preoccupied" with sexual activity. "It's certainly sending a message of sorts. It's a signal that they're not conservative."
As near as anyone can tell, the current pincushion movement was triggered by Modern Primitives, a trade paperback that first appeared in record stores and esoteric bookshops in 1989. Now considered the pierceaphiles' bible, the book was produced by Re/Search, a small, San Francisco publishing house that specializes in studies of arcane subjects such as cult films and sideshow freaks.
Subtitled An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual, the tome features interviews with nearly two dozen body-modification enthusiasts, including bod-mod superstars like Fakir Musafar (a Silicon Valley ad exec whose anatomical accomplishments include dangling 24 one-pound weights from his chest with fishhooks) and octogenarian piercing fanatic "Sailor Sid" Diller (the legendary, punked-out Popeye who delighted in setting off airport metal detectors with 54 genital piercings reportedly weighing in at a total of a pound and a half).
A gag-reflex test to some, a revelation to others, Modern Primitives nevertheless hit a nerve, quickly becoming one of the best-selling titles in Re/Search history.
Nearly four years and 60,000 copies later, publishers of the opus continue to scratch their heads over the book's impact. "Nobody was more surprised at the response to this than we were," reports Re/Search editor Andrea Juno. "At the time, we thought we were just putting together a book about a handful of some very interesting people that some of us happened to know. I guess the time was right. Apparently, this was just something a lot of people were looking for, whether they consciously knew it or not. It was like moths to the flame." @rule:
@body:Several nights after showing their stuff at the Zone party, mom-and-son piercing proselytizers Jayne and Shad hash out the phenomenon's appeal over dinner in the back room of a Mexican restaurant in Glendale. Joining them is Tony, Jayne's 36-year-old boyfriend, business partner and the piercer of her nether regions.
"Did I think it was weird to take my son to have his penis pierced?" Jayne (as the free-spirited 45-year-old chooses to call herself for this interview) considers the question over a forkful of taco salad. "I guess I've never given it any thought. You see, after you've had a few piercings done yourself, you realize it's not that big of a deal. The way I look at it, it's really no different than if I'd taken Shad to get a tattoo."
Shad, an antique dealer and sometime performance artist, already had a tattoo: a multicolored image of a skeleton that just happens to adorn the shaft of his penis.
But for the past couple of months, the unusual tattoo has been playing a distant second fiddle to his more astounding genital attraction: A small metal rod about the diameter of an ear swab runs through the head of Shad's penis. Tiny metal balls screwed to the bar at either end prevent the rod from slipping through the hole.
That piercing, called an ampallang, was performed at the Gauntlet in West Hollywood this fall while Shad, Jayne and friends were attending a tattoo convention. Performed without benefit of an anesthetic, the 30-minute procedure cost $83 (jewelry included) and, according to Shad, "hurt like hell."
Which, it seems, was exactly the point. "I'd always wanted to have an ampallang because it seemed so extreme," explains longhaired Shad, an art-scene habitu who looks the part. "I figured as long as I was going to get pierced, I might as well get the worst one. Or the best one, depending on how you look at it."
His mom (who has looked at it) chalks up her son's piercing to postadolescent groin pains.
"He's young--what can I say?" says Jayne, surely one of the most tolerant women ever to receive a Mother's Day card. "Believe me, in his case, this is no big spiritual statement--no way. For this kid, I think the biggest attraction may have been that no one else had one."
No slouch in the piercing department herself, Jayne currently sports ten artificially induced holes. Five of them are in her ears. The rest lie below her collarbone and represent the needlework of boyfriend Tony, partner in Jayne's vintage-clothing shop.
Tony claims he learned proper piercing procedures by studying how-to guides in Piercing Fans International Quarterly magazine. Last summer he finally got to test that knowledge when, over the course of three different sessions, he successfully pierced Jayne's nipples, her labia and her clitoral hood.
"This is something you do with a lover," says Tony, who had no piercing experience prior to plunging a pair of mail-order needles into Jayne's nipples during a nude "bonding ritual" one morning last June. "I'm not going to run around sticking needles into just anyone who offers me a ten-spot."
Although Jayne characterizes those sessions as highly "romantic" (I trusted Tony completely," she says), her lover also found them to be emotionally exhausting.
"It's quite an experience," he says. "I imagine the tension involved is comparable to performing surgery. If you're not doing this on a day-to-day basis, it's very draining, very stressful."
So stressful, Tony says, that although he attempted to pierce his scrotum immediately after finishing Jayne's nipples, he was forced to abort the mission because his hands were trembling so badly.
Not that he really minded bailing out. "To be perfectly honest, the only reason I tried to do it was because Jayne wanted me to. I can't understand why any guy would want to do this. Women somehow handle the aesthetics a lot better than men do. That look, on a man, is a little too 'leather boy' for my taste."
"Thanks a lot," Shad says dryly. Defending himself against the inadvertent dig, Shad volunteers the information that in some aboriginal tribes, a woman wouldn't think of having sex with an ampallangless man--the bigger, the better. (Pressed for details about life with a semipermanent French tickler, Shad explains that he won't know until the piercing's eight-week healing period is over.)
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Shad's mom is considerably more open about her own postpiercing sex life. Sounding like an evangelistic Tupperware salesperson, she rhapsodizes, "If more women only knew about this! It's amazing! It's like I'm always turned on. I'll be driving down the street and I realize I'm touching myself. Believe me, more women need this! I can't wait to get more."
But her son doesn't share Mom's "holeyer than thou" attitude. "One piercing was enough for me, thank you very much," says Shad, who now has other irons in the fire.
"What I'd really like to do now," he says enthusiastically, "is get branded! Onstage, as performance art. I've already done some research and found that human skin is different from cowhide. . . ."
Madonna, are you listening?