The Most Heavily Tattooed Mayor in America. (Probably.)


Ray Johnson and “Pixie” at a convention.

The people of Campo begged. They went to the home of their mayor, 46-year-old Ray Johnson, and pleaded with him — told him point blank, “You can’t quit. You’ve gotta keep going.” They distributed petitions and collected signatures, but Johnson was apprehensive. He’d beaten the incumbent mayor, Syd Kraier, a few years earlier, on the familiar political promise of bringing positive change to the community in the form of concerts and other activities. And, according to Johnson, progress was being made, but he still felt like he’d been doing his town a disservice, that he hadn’t been around enough.

Why? Because he’d been getting tattooed too much.

Campo, Colorado, is a town of about 400 people, divided down its center by U.S. Route 287. There are fewer than five businesses (including a small gas station, a bed-and-breakfast and a cafe), the nearest Walmart is 72 miles away and the closest major city is Amarillo, Texas, 140 miles south. But during his first tenure as mayor, Johnson was making the five-hour northbound trek to Colorado Springs to visit Maria at Glory Badges Tattoo, often missing up to three days of work a week in the process. “I wasn’t doing it justice here,” he admits.

Campo, CO. [Image source: Google Maps.]


Johnson had already had a number of tattoos at the time, but when his best friend was killed in a car accident, he started making his regular pilgrimages to Glory Badges to map out a body suit to be done, at least in part, in tribute. He opted for traditional Chinese and Japanese imagery, dragons and geisha girls, koi and cherry blossoms — dueling “good and evil” samurais crawling up each thigh. But it’s the phoenix rising up from the flames on the right side of his ribcage and the swan carrying a flower petal on the left that were done specifically with his friend in mind, chosen for the long-standing acknowledged and cherished meaning of the symbols. “And,” Johnson says, laughing, “I just think it looks awesome.”

In addition to a covered torso and fully inked thighs, Johnson’s also got a pair of hard-to-miss sleeves that may seem out of place on the mayor of a small and admittedly conservative town. He says, though, that he’s never been hassled by the townspeople — either they don’t know he’s heavily tattooed, or they do know and they don’t care enough to bother him about it. “I pretty much hide it,” he says. “Sometimes maybe not, if I’m with my buddies. Probably everybody knows, ‘cause I’ve heard some talk, but nobody really asks. I try to keep it hidden — I guess I’m a little conservative too.” But even when he is approached, the problems have been few. The principal of the town’s school caught a glimpse of his ink not long ago, and after a brief “Oh my gosh! I had no idea!” moment, laughed it off and went about his day. Things may move slowly in Campo, but apparently not slow enough for people to get worked up over a few tattoos.

It could also be, of course, that Johnson has been extremely effective as the town’s mayor. Campo, for the most part, is a farming and ranching town, surrounded by fields on all sides, and Johnson, through some connections he’s made at a music school in Lubbock, Texas, is in the process of organizing Campo’s first music festival, slated for next summer. It may seem like a small gesture for a mayor to make, but Johnson’s role is less formal than one may expect, and instead functions more as the community leader. The hierarchy still exists, but it’s less relevant than it may be other places.

In a town of 400, though, municipal jobs have some overlap: Johnson, as mayor, is also the Chief of Police — a department comprising only two full time officers. Crime tends not to be too much of a problem in such a small community, so when Johnson’s cops are forced into action, it’s usually to deal with motorists passing through Route 287 — and even then, they’re often limited to writing speeding tickets for cars shooting down the highway. Trivial? Maybe. But those speeding tickets, as Johnson explains in his sweet, slow drawl, are how Campo generates most of its income.

Being mayor of Campo, as it turns out, isn’t necessarily a full-time gig, but Johnson keeps busy. He’s still a cattle farmer — as his parents were before he was — and sells off his calves each year. More than just cattle, however, Johnson’s also got his car dealer’s license, and runs a car lot selling used vehicles at cost to others in the town. “There’s nothing I hate worse than going to buy a car,” he says. “You always leave and feel like, ‘Man, I got screwed.’” So Johnson hits the local auctions in surrounding areas, buys up cars as cheaply as possible, and then sells them at no profit, for no other reason than to help out his constituents and neighbors. “You get taken advantage of so much” in situations like that, he says, so why not cut out the middle man if he’s able? Johnson’s voice lights up when asked what he personally drives: “A 2000-model Chevy pick-up that I got for 1,500 bucks. And it’s nice. Really nice,” he says, impressed and chuckling. And aside than the car lot, and the farm, and the mayoral office, and the police force? He’s also building a cafe with a street patio — by hand. Building the wrought iron, installing the flagstone — and hopefully bringing a few new jobs to the town. What he’s not doing, however, is acting as the head of the Democratic Party for Baca County, the surrounding area of Campo, although he has held that position in the past as well. Johnson calls Campo “conservative,” but says that shouldn’t imply that it’s full of Republicans. “People are just old-fashioned here,” he says. “Politics doesn’t have much to do with it.” As far as the current presidential election is concerned, Johnson’s non-committal: “Oh my goodness, I don’t know. I don’t care for either one of them,” he says, laughing, referring to John McCain and Barack Obama.

And in many ways, traditional politics don’t matter quite as much in a place like Campo. As the mayor — traditionally, an inescapably politically charged job — Johnson sees himself as the person to listen to and act on the concerns of the townspeople, rather than dictating certain rules and a way of life. That is to say, in many ways, Johnson is the mayor that many others claim (and fail) to be. And now, having gone about as far with his tattoo work as he feels necessary, he feels comfortable in his position again; apparently, so do the people of Campo, who have made him their mayor for the last eight years and, in doing so, have elected quite possibly the country’s most heavily tattooed civic leader. At a recent tattoo convention in Denver, Johnson actually placed second in the “Overall Male” category for his body suit. “Should’ve gotten first!” he says in mock anger and with a rare raising of his voice. He’s silent for a second afterward, and seems to feel like even that joke, that split-second of false bravado, is in need of correction.

“But,” he adds — humbly, gracefully, earnestly — “there were a lot of people there.”

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BME’s Big Question #3: Economic Collapse Edition

Welcome to BME’s Big Question! In this weekly (hopefully) feature, we’re going to ask a handful of the community’s best and brightest piercers, tattooists, heavy mod practitioners and shop owners for their opinion on one question or issue that’s affecting the body modification community. Many, many thanks to all of the contributors.

If you’d like to be a part of future editions, or if you have an idea for an issue or question you’d like to see addressed, please e-mail me.

This week’s topic:

The economy is in the crapper. People across the country (and the world) are being forced to reevaluate what qualifies as a necessity, as well as their own skills and what they’re capable of contributing to a society that appears to be on the brink of an economic collapse. Where does body modification fall? It may not be a “necessity” the way food and shelter are, but it’s undeniably vital to many people. What are your thoughts on the current economic situation and how it will affect body modification as an industry?

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Steve Truitt
I think, and am noticing, that business is slowing down quite a bit, but it normally does around this time of year here every year. It seems slower than normal, but going through my books, it isn’t.

I think that people will continue to get tattoos/piercings/etc. done even when the economy is bad because they make them feel good about themselves — even though they aren’t necessities. Much like sales of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc. don’t really get affected like other industries (restaurants, movie theaters and so on) by the economy, I think body modification will be just fine overall. It just seems that people are opting for cheaper plain jewelry instead of going with the fancy jeweled piece more often now though.

John Joyce
A lot of people around Syracuse work in factories. New Venture Gear/ Chrysler is one of the larger ones, and they have been laying people off since the end of last year. Before them there was Carrier, which ended up closing. With these lay-offs, there are thousands of people with no work. I’ve definitely noticed a slight drop in the amount of business we are doing which I definitely relate to the local economy. But like Steve said, it’s not that I’m really doing fewer piercings, I’m just using less expensive jewelry. People aren’t getting the gems as often, and I’ve received far fewer requests for the more expensive plugs.

I’m also seeing more and more people coming in after getting work done somewhere else — usually with very low quality jewelry, poor placement, the wrong aftercare information, and all sorts of irritation. While I’ve always had people come in to get things fixed from these other places, the number is definitely increasing.

Meg Barber
As both a piercer, and someone who works in a wholesale situation, I have totally noticed a drop in business on both ends.

As for piercing, we have recently dropped from doing about $3,000 a day or more to an average of about $1,000-$2,000. That’s a big drop for us. Being in NYC especially makes it worse; people feel the drops in the stock market a little more keenly I think. People are more conservative with their spending now, and the idea of luxury, except for the very wealthy, is a back-burner thought.

Thankfully, we do have some of those clients keeping numbers high. But, yeah … sales are lower, and people are price shopping more, and with the cost of gold climbing, that makes it really hard on us at times. But we make it.

Barry Blanchard
Sure, the economy is in the crapper — that is indisputable. Guess what: it’s probably going to get worse.

What we do for a living makes someone who is not feeling well feel good about themselves. I do not see it getting so bad that it comes down to “food or a piercing, but it is that fear that keeps people from spending extra money on an item such as a piercing.

We are all going to feel “it.”

It’s time to get back to the basics, such as customer service and quality. That way, when someone does want to spend their hard earned (and slim) money, they will come to you — that person who treated them the best.

Anatometal has been hammered with orders right up until today. Not sure what tomorrow will bring, but make no bones about it: We are busy.

Jewelry (including body jewelry) has shown to be one of the more “recession-proof” items out there. No, we are not talking about big ticket items — those who can afford those will afford them no matter what.

My point: girl walks into a tattoo shop because she has nothing better to do. She just got laid off, and she wants to get a tattoo, but that $125/hour rate is a bit much for her. Instead she walks out with a $40-60 piece for her navel. She feels better about herself and helps this economy at the same time. Retail therapy works and works very well for not just that girl with the new navel bling; it also works for people like you and me.

We are up 10 percent from last year, and up 33 percent from two years ago. I attribute this to our customer service staff and our great customers.

Steve Truitt
Barry, are you noticing more sales of basic items than the fancier pieces right now? More than usual, I should say, since I’m sure basic plain pieces are always going to be the biggest seller.

Over the last year almost every microdermal I did was with a gem on it; now only about a third are. And up until about two or three months ago, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d pierced a navel with a plain curved barbell — now I haven’t used a jeweled curve in maybe two months.

Barry Blanchard
Basic stuff will always do well for those wanting a new piercing. The catch is to get those people in your environment and treat them just how you would want to be treated.

We don’t do too much “super high-end” stuff like what Meg works with, so it’s hard for me to judge. Gemmed eyelets are most certainly a bit down, but that started after other companies started putting out similar designs.

Just today, I noticed a lot of gold going to places like Japan — more than usual, even.

To answer your question Steve: it appears to be that orders are not much different than they were just a few months ago.

Brian Decker
I’ve never worked in a busy 30-piercing-a-day type shop, so I never expect things to be “busy,” but I’m honestly not noticing any decline in business for myself. If anything, I feel like walk-ins are growing for me, but I attribute that greatly to keeping my pricing as low as is economically possible. Since I seem to have a great reputation in the area for piercing, especially with the college crowd, that’s definitely what keeps me working.

I certainly know, based on the levels of standards of sterility and jewelry quality, I should be charging more, but unfortunately, many people in the city will not pay more. Now that I attribute mainly to lack of information and legislation for possible clientele. If a client comes into the shop and allows me to educate them, very rarely will they leave without the work, but if people know you charge more, they just don’t bother coming in at all. I seem to have found the perfect pricing to maintain clients, but even still, being that I do charge more than most other shops in the area, bunches of people still nearly faint when I tell them the prices. For these people, I really just blame the cost of living in NYC. It’s true, piercing probably isn’t a necessity for most people, so if they don’t know better and can get it cheaper, of course they’re going to.

Barry, I’m curious, with the orders you’re getting, how much of that is from select, enormously busy shops that have been ordering like that for years? You obviously produce unmatched quality, but also obviously more costly than, say Wildcat or BMS, which I’d suspect makes it harder for the smaller shops to exclusively stock your entire line, no? I’m very curious, how many shops in NYC stock your basics?

Barry Blanchard
The orders I get are based on customers like yourself, Brian — you too, Steve.

From the start, we have not had much business out of NYC, so that’s not really something I can go by.

Any shop that’s been ordering from us for the duration knows what I know: piercings as a whole have declined over the past ten years. At the same time, jewelry sales have gone up. Perhaps not for all of you, but as a whole? Body jewelry is doing well.

Those who have visited Anatometal should know its more of a “mom and pop” type atmosphere. It’s shops like yours, Mr. Decker, that I prefer to cater to, and perhaps that’s why things are the way they are at my work.

Sure there are ups and downs, but it seems when one area is down another picks up, and so on and so forth. It’s sort of hard for me to judge unless I do a year-to-year comparison. I have my bookkeeper working on that for September ’07 versus September ’08. October is a better “judge” as it’s typically our slowest month of the year.

Because of the current economic status in America, just know I am watching things very, very closely, looking for the signs, just like everyone else.

I do think that we stand out and sell to a select crowd, Brian — no different than Tiffany & Co. would in the world of standard jewelry. I would like to see how places like BVLA are doing.

Brian Decker
I completely understand what you’re saying, and I love you for that (as well as for other things), but let’s be honest: I don’t spend thousands of dollars per order with you. I wish I had to, but I know it’s not me paying your bills. That’d be places like HPP or old Dragon FX, I’d assume.

Barry Blanchard
It’s the sum of all the “Decker Shops” that are the brunt of our business, and I monitor this very closely.

Some of you will remember that there was a day when we were the biggest in the USA. I don’t ever want to go back to that again as you cannot have that and those three things mentioned above. I turn down anywhere about 25 percent of new clients, even in this economy. I want to be able to serve the clients I have now and in the future.

Meg Barber
To keep our costs down, we make all of our own steel posts, both straight and curved. The only things we are ordering from “the outside” are balls, surface bars, microdermal bases, and the occasional large gauge items.

On the wholesale side, we get a few orders per week, and they are generally for at least $1,000. We ask people how stuff is selling, and they all pretty much tell us the same thing: that it all sells at a good rate. I’m not sure how these shops are charging in comparison to how we charge in our retail store; it would be interesting to find out actually.

I’ve noticed in the retail store we are doing more piercings lately than in past months, but the jewelry is really, really basic — lots of white gold fixed ball rings in cartilage, 1.2 mm. diamonds in nostrils, and our basic $135 gold/CZ navel combo. We’re still getting the bigger ticket items to move, but it’s a little less than in past months. On Sunday, we did $3,000. Monday, we barely did $700. It’s fluctuating a lot more, and with October being historically slow, it’s hard to gauge whether it’s the typical time of year drop, or economics.

I will say that I did have a client tell me how he just lost half of his money in a stuck crash in recent weeks. He talked about how hard it is for him right now, and how bad things are with everyone he knows. Then he bought a $550 navel piece for himself.

Barry Blanchard
I think we can all agree on one thing: we are all okay. Sure, we are not where we would like to be. Even Meg’s stock broker can agree with that.

I can say where the economy has affected us, and it’s not exactly where this topic started: the cost of materials went through the roof over a year ago. Stainless, Titanium, and yes of course: gold. We tightened our belts a year ago, and perhaps that’s why the little Anatometal engine keeps chugging along.

Meg Barber
The cost of gold is a pain in our ass.

Barry Blanchard
Real numbers:

September ’07 to September ’08: Eight percent growth, and that’s about spot on correct considering all that is going on around us. The October numbers will paint a much clearer picture.

John Joyce
I was just looking over numbers and comparing them to last year. Surprisingly, business is up, just over $15,000. But … so is our spending, which is up almost $19,000.

So, so far this year I’m down almost $4,000 in profits from last year. I blame most of that on the increase of all our supplies — gloves, jewelry, etc. — but, I also blame a lot of that on APP. Man, did I spend far too much money there this year. Cervesa is not cheap!

It’s really just the last two months that I’ve seen a real dip in business. But like I said earlier, New Venture Gear/Chrysler laid off most of their employees around that time, and it looks like they may be closing completely. I just heard today that another big factory was sold and there are already threats of picketing and lay-offs there. So we’ll see what the rest of the year brings.

Derek Lowe
I think modification is going to feel the impact of the economic issues, but I certainly don’t think we’re going to feel it as much as many other types of businesses. Choosing to spend less money by cooking at home is a substitute for going out to eat. Renting a move for $4 is a substitute for spending $20 for two people to go see a movie on a Saturday night. Watching a sporting event on TV is a substitute for spending money on tickets to actually go to the arena.

There simply isn’t a substitute for modification.

Some people will choose to do something different all-together because it’s less expensive. But I think most people who want to get pierced or tattooed will do so because nothing else is going to satiate that desire. They might alter their jewelry choices are size of their tattoo, to help keep the cost down, but I don’t think it’s going to keep that many people away. Now, if we find ourselves in another full-on Great Depression with a 25 percent unemployment rate, it might be a different story. I think the odds of that happening are pretty small though.

I think John touched on a really good point as well: geography is going to play a big role. Being in Minneapolis — a fairly liberal, well-educated, reasonably affluent larger city — I don’t expect to feel the economic impact as much as if I were still working in Cleveland — a fairly conservative, blue-collar city that has had a struggling economy for a while now.

Looking at our numbers, I see that we are down this September, just slightly, compared to last September. Overall though, we are up this year a decent amount, compared to last year, in both piercing fees and jewelry sales. Tattooing shows a similar trend.

This whole “crisis” is just starting to play itself out though, so I think the next few months will provide a much clearer picture.

Allen Falkner
It’s good to hear that everyone is doing well. However, most, if not all of you are on the upper end of the spectrum for sure. I’m not sure about other cities, but I have noticed piercing shops in the Dallas closing. In this city, as with most, tattooing and piercing are combined in one shop. The trend I have been seeing is that the tattoo artist/shop owners are phasing out piercing and the piercers/shop owners are thriving on the shift of business. Now on the flip side of this, tattoo shops are opening left and right. With the all the media exposure, tattooing is the new “navel of the ’90s” and people of all skill levels are cashing in.

As for the common piercer, I think there are dark days ahead. Shop owners and select, well established piercers in good location shops still have plenty of life left in them, but seriously, piercing is a young person’s game. As inflation has risen over the last decade the costs of both jewelry and service have remained fairly steady. If you take into account a four-to-six percent yearly cost of living rate increase, combined with the financial burden of raising a family, the life span of a piercer seems to be getting shorter and shorter.

Tattooing, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. Unlike piercers, tattooers are seen as unique artists. Rather than the, “I can get it for $5 less down the street” mindset, tattooing style and ability has a more intrinsic value. Because of this, the art of tattooing is based more on the artist and less on the average market value. Plus, tattoos represent a very different commitment then body piercing.

Of course, everyone here will have a different numbers, but in general piercing clients get worked on a few times and buy new jewelry a few times. Tattoo customers have a much higher percentage of being life-long customers. You can take a piercing out, but the ink is with you forever. (Well, maybe not in my line of business, but that’s another topic all together.) My point is that once people start getting tattooed, they continually want to add, modify or change their tattoos. This just isn’t true for the average piercing client.

Back to the point at hand, piercing has passed its peak, dropped a bit and is finally beginning to level off. However, I agree with you all that modification is a “feel good” service and should ride out the bad economy, especially in college towns where students have fewer financial responsibilities and exploring the world of body modification has become almost a rite of passage for young adults. As for tattooing, I think the unstable economy might be just the thing to help weed out all the mediocre artists that are riding the media shock wave. Overall, unlike Wall Street, this financial crisis might actually be a good thing for the modded community. If nothing else, modified people looking for other forms of work has and will continue to change people’s opinions about what modifications are acceptable in the “real” world.

John Joyce
I completely agree with Allen. If I wasn’t the owner of this studio, I couldn’t make it as just a piercer here. Without the income from the tattoo artists, the piercing business just isn’t as booming as it once was. New tattoo studios are popping up all over Syracuse and the surrounding area. Some of them have piercers, some of them don’t. The ones that do have a high turnover rate. It seems like every other week I hear about some new guy piercing at so-and-so’s shop.

There have definitely been weeks, and even months where piercing seems very slow, and the tattoo artists here carry us through those times. When I first opened, and even up to about a year ago, I could carry the studio on piercing alone. That is definitely not the case any longer.

Stephen DeToma
The economic issues absolutely affect our business. The people that haven’t put any thought into what they’re getting and where they’re getting it done are the first ones we lose; the crowds of college kids that used to flood the shop on the weekends are definitely thinning. But, in the wake of that, I’m finding that the people who are coming through the door know exactly what they want and have been thinking about it for a bit. So instead of four outer helix piercings on college girls, it’s more becoming one individual looking for something maybe a little more complicated and willing to spend a little more in the process.

We’ve felt the hit. In simple terms, it seems like the parents have less money, so the stream of cash trickling down to the college student seams to be less than it was even last year. Things suck and, I agree with Barry, that they will be getting worse, but I don’t think the choice will be piercings/tattoos/mods or food. I think it will be more along the lines of new shoes/purse/movies or getting work done. I’ve never been one to have a lot of money, so to me that isn’t anything new. But dealing with a new breed of college freshmen that may or may not have ever had to hold down a real job, exist without a cellphone or credit card … this will be a kick in the pants.

I’ll tell you what’s pulling me through it personally: the regulars. People who we build relationships with and continue to come back to us really help.

I think Allen makes a good point by saying that piercing is a young man’s game. I’m lucky that I was able to come back to piercing after not working for a few years and I truly enjoy it, but I do find myself wondering what I’ll be doing in another five or 10 years.

Brian Decker
I fully agree with Allen’s last paragraph. For myself, anyhow, any drop off in business is just attributed to the lesser popularity of piercing as a whole, not so much the cost.

Barry Blanchard
I agree with Allen as well.

Allen Falkner
We need a topic where everyone will have a difference of opinion.

Steve Truitt
We should just invite Cere into the conversations and he can disagree with everyone.

Allen Falkner
You know, Cere is a tattoo artist … I would say invite Bradly, but I have a sneaking suspicion he/she is already on the panel.

What do you think? Let’s hear it in the comments.

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BME’s Big Question #2: The Melancholy of Anatomy

Welcome to BME’s Big Question! In this weekly (hopefully) feature, we’re going to ask a handful of the community’s best and brightest piercers, tattooists, heavy mod practitioners and shop owners for their opinion on one question or issue that’s affecting the body modification community. Many, many thanks to all of the contributors.

If you’d like to be a part of future editions, or if you have an idea for an issue or question you’d like to see addressed, please e-mail me.

This week’s topic:

Aside from not wanting to work on a minor, have you ever refused to do a certain procedure? What would make you refuse to do one? Are there any you’ve done that you now regret?

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Ryan Ouellette

I refuse stuff all the time, or, more often, I ask people to book appointments a few days away. I don’t get picky with average piercings, but with the trickier stuff like microdermals, surface work, genital piercings or complex cartilage I really prefer the person to have some kind of understanding of the “risks.” If someone seems a little blurry on the details I’ll explain the basics of healing and aftercare and the chances of a problem coming up. If they seem to get it then I’ll either get them on the spot or have them book an appointment. If a person just gives me that blank stare when I explain something or is obviously trying to rush into something, I’ll usually tell them to research it more and come back at a later date. I understand that it’s their body and choice, but I don’t want to deal with a serious problem coming up because I valued someone’s money over my own reputation or ethics.

* * *

Joy Rumore

I have not refused to do work based on the image to be tattooed, nor have I refused to work on someone because of differing beliefs. I’ve tattooed gang members, white supremacists, and a variety of unsavory characters in general. Few and far between are those I flat out refuse to work on, but they are out there.

Occasionally, a couple will come in where the woman is supposed to get the tattoo, but her husband/boyfriend is doing all the talking. It’s always the same set up: The man will describe how he wants the tattoo on her, what colors I should use, how it should be angled, how it will look most sexy, and she will just stand there looking nervous. The dude will make some snide remarks about me being a female tattoo artist and then expect me to carry out his every whim. When it is clear that she’s terrified, I walk past the man and ask the woman if she wants to get tattooed. There’s generally some shrugged response about, “Well, he likes it,” and zero eye contact. Then, usually when I turn to the man and announce, “She can come back when she wants to get tattooed, but I will not be tattooing her today,” insecure and dominating men don’t like it when a woman tattoo artist tells them how things are gonna be. Curses are shouted and they go away. No big deal.

Other times, I have refused to work on people based on their interactions with me and the “vibe” they’ve given off. In one of these cases, I ended up feeling threatened and unsafe.

Before I owned my own place, I worked at a shop in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. I had a customer approach me about doing two dog portraits. I was game, he was game, it seemed like it’d be a fun time. He brought some pictures in and we started to set up a date for the appointment. I also informed him at this time that he needed to bring in his ID and fill out paperwork on his appointment date.

He said that he didn’t give out information and he wouldn’t let me copy his ID. He raised his voice and continued that he didn’t do that kinda stuff, alluded to problems with the law, and said he couldn’t leave a trail and allow people to find him. I apologized and I told him that those were the state’s regulations I was required to follow and that I would lose my tattoo license if I did not comply. He got agitated. I repeated what the problem was and further explained that the paperwork doesn’t get sent to the state, but rather sits in a box, filed away, for seven years. He still was nowhere near happy with the situation. He raised his voice more and began to verbally turn his anger on me. After going over the same questions for another 10 minutes or so, I apologized again, and he finally left the shop all pissed off.

This is where it gets weird.

The would-be customer began to drive by the shop everyday very slowly. Sometimes he would park outside the shop on the street and just stare into the building. Sometimes he would get out of his car and lean against it just hanging out for no reason. After about a week of this behavior, he came back with the pictures of his beloved pooches in hand and he told me he wanted to get the tattoos done. I reminded him that I could not do the tattoos without ID and paperwork. He got agitated again. Began saying things that didn’t make any sense — almost like he was pleading his case. By this time, I had made my mind up that he was more trouble than he was worth.

I informed him that I could not do the tattoos. He conceded that he would get his ID and fill out the paperwork as long as I promised no one saw them. I said I couldn’t promise that because the Health Department has every right to come in and inspect them whenever they would like. I continued by explaining that I would not tattoo him at all. He was confused. I told him I was uncomfortable with the situation. I didn’t like him driving by being menacing, and that I was simply refusing to work on him, period.

I thought he was agitated before? Ha! He yelled at me, told me I couldn’t do that, stomped around, called me a few choice names, and finally left the building after I yelled back at him. He continued the weird drive-bys and hanging-out business for another week. I let all the guys I worked with and the business owners on the same block know what was up in case something escalated. It never did. He was creepy for a while and yelled things occasionally. Finally, he stopped hanging around and I never saw him again. I’m really happy I never did those tattoos and I have refused to work on people here and there who present the same sort of attitude.

* * *

Steve Truitt

I have refused to do a lot of procedures over the years. Everything from people wanting their tongues pierced that are far too short for it to be comfortable for them and people with inappropriate navels wanting them pierced to people wanting far more extreme modifications.

If I don’t think the procedure has a good chance of working out in the long run, then I don’t do it. Also, if I think the procedure is too dangerous, or the person doesn’t fully understand what they are getting into, or the person is obviously mentally unstable I don’t work on them. There are also procedures I’m just not comfortable attempting even though I’m sure I have the skills to do them. For example, I’ve had a certain IAM member ask me on numerous occasions to do a penectomy on him. While I know that I could safely do that procedure, it’s not something I would ever attempt on anyone. I also wouldn’t amputate anything on anyone and have been asked to do that quite a few times as well.

All the procedures I do, I do because I like them — either how they look once they are finished, or doing the actual procedure. If I’m not into something, I don’t really have a desire to do it. I know of quite a few artists that are motivated by the money, but for all the more extreme mods I do, I don’t really care about the money. I do them for the pleasure of doing them and/or the end results. Because of that, I can’t think of any mods I’ve done to someone that I regret doing.

* * *

Allen Falkner

Regret? Well, regret is a strong word. Yes, over the years I have made my share of mistakes, and no, not every modification I have done has turned out perfectly. This is true for any practitioner. However, I have always tried to work within my abilities. Not to say I haven’t done quite a bit of experimentation and exploration over the years. I have tried my hand at tattooing, scarification, implants, branding and various other things. In the end, I discovered piercing, suspension and now laser tattoo removal are my real passions and the other arts are best left to people that can devote more time to them.

As for refusal, the list goes on and on. In the early stages of my career, there was almost nothing I wouldn’t try. OK, maybe not the uvula. I remember when that piercing started to get a lot of notoriety. Do I think I could have pulled it off? Sure, but I felt the risks were too high so I left that one alone. In fact, I think it was that piercing that shaped me and made me realize that I had my limitations and should work within them.

This actually brings me to the real issue. One of the biggest shortcomings of the body modification industry has been and always will be ego. Not to say I don’t have one. We all do. It’s human nature. My point is that practitioners should work within their abilities and not let ego rule their decisions about what they can and cannot do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t push our boundaries. The only reason our industry has come so far is because of people constantly striving for the next great mod. It’s just that people should work within their abilities. Having every procedure imaginable on your resume might look good to you. But practitioners should really think about their client’s well being before attempting something that they’ve only seen on BME.

* * *

Meg Barber

In this line of work, there are often occasions that arise where it’s best to not do a certain procedure on a client. Situations that immediately come to mind are those in which the client doesn’t have the proper anatomy to support the piercing that they are interested in, the client being intoxicated, the client being flat out belligerent in dealing with me or my staff, etc.

I’ve turned down scores of people over the years for those reasons, the most common one being anatomy related.

If I have a client interested in an industrial piercing who has no defined curl to the top of their ear, I will explain to them why that particular piercing isn’t the best option, and work with them to find one that is. And there’s always the classic issue of not having the best navel to support a piercing …

But I can’t say I have ever done a piercing I really regretted doing. I’ve always been pretty adamant about sticking to my guns when it comes to putting my client’s safety and successful healing first. I feel that as a piercer, we need to have the ability to say “no” to our clients when it’s warranted, and nine times out of 10, the client will appreciate it.

The thing I have noticed more and more in recent years, though, is the willingness to experiment on clientele for procedures that we aren’t sure of. It used to be, if there was a new or wacky thing you wanted to try, you did it on your roommate, or your lover, or on yourself … and those were pretty much your options. These days, it seems piercers are drawing from their client base for these experiments, and that is simply dangerous and foolish.

It really brings to the forefront the questions of, “When is it OK to experiment on clients?” and, “Why isn’t the word ‘no’ being used more in circumstances when it would be?”

The simple answer is a blanket “never.” A more in-depth answer would be, “When the procedure is in fact tested, just not in this particular situation.” A good example would be fully informing a client that they have a less than ideal navel for piercing, them insisting on having it done anyway, and then the piercer using a different placement to make it work. Remember all the 45* angled navels of the ’90s on those less than perfect navels? Case in point. No harm done really, just a little trial and error. And a few funky navel piercings as a reminder.

(The last answer, and the most common it seems in terms of today’s hot-shot piercers, is, “Always! I have ideas I need to test!”)

The next question that begs to be answered is, if clients are acceptable guinea pigs, then, specifically, which clients are the best for this?

Again, going back to basic answers, you have, “The heavily pierced client who is extremely careful and knows their body enough to understand what may happen,” who would be, of course, the best person for that role, and, “Who cares. If I tell the client the risks, and they still want it, OK.” Which is, of course, how it seems things go these days.

Personally, I will admit to playing around with different theories on how things will heal with clients. But — and there is always a “but” — I was very careful to only do things that were deemed “experimental” on clients that were heavily modified, who were fully informed, and whom I knew I would see often enough to keep tabs on the healing and any complications. Over the years, I have had three test subjects, and I saw all of them at least weekly.

We as piercers have a certain responsibility to uphold basic standards of ethics and morals with our job. We wield a lot of influence and power with our clients, and it needs to be used in a positive way — for positive education and helping the growth of our industry, rather than taking the risks presented to us to potentially destroy it.

Sometimes, “no” isn’t such a bad thing.

* * *

Derek Lowe

I can’t wait to once again be labeled as “anti-modification” after I answer this question.
I choose not to do procedures (in my case, pretty much just piercings) on a semi-regular basis. While it is physically possible for me to pierce pretty much anything that walks through the door, that doesn’t always make it a good idea. There are a few reasons it might not be a good idea, but the most common one is simply the client’s anatomy.
The human body wasn’t created with piercing in mind, so not every person is well-suited to have every piercing. If I feel the piercing has a very small chance of working out, or I feel like it is going to cause “collateral damage,” I will opt to not do the piercing. One example would be someone who wants a surface piercing but has very little loose skin to work with. In that case the piercing is very likely going to reject and in most cases I’ll not do the piercing. Surface anchors are opening up some options in those situations, but even those aren’t the be-all end-all some people seem to think they are.
The most common situation in which I won’t do a piercing is if someone wants a tongue piercing but they have a very short tongue. With a very short tongue, the piercing is going to have to be done further towards the tip of the tongue. This is going to greatly increase the likelihood of the barbell doing damage to the gums and bone under the lower front teeth — collateral damage. Some piercers will opt to do the piercing at all sorts of angles to try and counter that issue, but those angles often don’t work and can lead to other issues. I feel it’s simply best at that point to not do the procedure.
Some will say that people have the right to do whatever they want to their body, as long as they understand the risk. That’s absolutely true…they do have that right. At the same time, I have the right to choose not to do the piercing. I am under no obligation to perform a procedure for someone if I think it is a bad idea.  As a piercer, my number one responsibility is to do safe piercings. While there are risks associated with every piercing, most of those risks can be mitigated almost to the point of non-existence. If they can’t be mitigated, that’s when I have to make a decision about whether it’s best to proceed or not.
 There are also the situations I think every piercer has to deal with: clients who are under the influence of who-knows-what, clients that seem to be mentally impaired, clients who are clearly being pressured into the piercing by a husband/wife/lover/friend etc. Those are often not pleasant situations to deal with, but handling stuff like that is part of what goes along with being a professional.

* * *

Stephen DeToma

I think if you are a piercer working today and you are not willing to refuse a piercing, there’s something wrong.

The biggest contributing factor to me refusing to do work on someone has to be anatomy. Fair, thin brows and ears not built to support a traditional industrial piercing are fairly common and make up the bulk of my refusals. Telling someone they cannot get the piercing they want can be touchy, but it’s not hard to steer someone who may be looking for a traditionally placed industrial towards something similar. I’ve often turned to other ear work, daiths being my favorite, as well as placing industrials in anatomy that will support it using different jewelry such as curved barbells. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to someone who comes in with a friend why they are unable to get a piercing their friend is currently wearing, even when it’s painfully obvious to us. The call of, “She got it, why can’t ?I” is a common one and a reminder that, in one sense, we are not all created equal.

I’ve also refused to do many different things that are either out of my range of experience or my personal comfort zone. I’ve been approached by friends over the years looking for tongue splits and transscrotals, the former of which I think I could undertake but my lack of any real practical experience prevents me; the latter is something so far out of my range I don’t even consider it.

I think artists get a rush out of creation, be it from painting or writing, and are constantly striving to reach a new level. I think it’s this sensation that drives body piercers to become body modification artists, that is, broadening their base of procedures that they perform. I think a lot of it is a genuine need to create; piercing can be limiting in its scope of application and a passionate artist will strive to touch on new ground, though there are a great many still who seem to want to make these modifications to earn their stripes, make their bones. It’s like a kid who has to commit a crime to prove he’s down with a gang; that may be a bad analogy but it’s the first that springs to mind.

And so, because of these feelings, I reassess my desire to be a piercer. There is a ceiling that one reaches when doing this work and when it is reached, I think it helps to focus you on your work. Maybe that’s what inspires some people to step away from it and move into heavier modifications. Maybe that was their plan all along — who knows? I won’t fault them for their choices. But when someone comes to me looking for a meatotomy for example, I can refuse easily knowing that there is a lot I still want to work on in the world of piercing alone. Though heavier stuff interests me a great deal, presently, it’s not for me.

When I turn someone down, I try to be as clear as I can with them as to why I am doing so. Being honest and sympathetic lends a great deal to making sure that the person understands why they won’t be getting pierced. Sometimes it doesn’t click until I tell them that I would love to charge them $50 for what they want, but I just don’t believe that would be right. Turning someone down sometimes means that they will simply walk right down the street to the first person who will do the piercing for them, but if you’ve been forewarned and decide to go through with it anyway, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

I try to get to know the person I’m piercing before we get down to work, so that if a girl comes in looking for a facial piercing days before she starts soccer camp — knowing full well that it won’t fly with the coach — I can suggest she wait until the end of the season.

As I write this, I just had a young lady come in looking for a septum piercing. She had been through 12 reconstructive surgeries around her nose and lips since she was a baby. I had her come in and sit down so I could look at her, already thinking that this wasn’t going to work. After a few moments feeling around, it was clear what was left of her septum wasn’t going to be suitable to be pierced. She was pleasant and said she had expected as much and we began discussing other piercing options.

Juxtapose that with one of the biggest disagreements I’ve had recently: A woman came in with her husband and daughter looking for a navel piercing. She had had breast augmentation less than 3 months ago and had gone through her navel. I was not comfortable with the state of the tissue or the length of time she had waited to do the piercing so I asked her to check back with me at 6 months to see if it had changed, warning her that it may be up to a year before the tissue was ready. The short version of the remainder is, she interrupted two separate conversations trying to explain that she was willing to take the risk and by the third I had to explain to her that there was no way I would be doing the piercing for her that day. She threatened to go up the road to another studio in town and have it done there; I wished her the best of luck.

Threatening to visit another studio when I refused, I explained, was like a teenager walking into a bar, demanding a beer, being refused, and threatening to go to another bar if he isn’t served. It’s senseless. If another studio would like to take the responsibility for the piercing, answer the questions that are surly to follow and deal with the inevitable headaches that the client would provide (judging by her interaction in the studio) I can sleep well at night knowing that I refused her.

What do you think? Let’s hear it in the comments.

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BME’s Big Question: #1

Welcome to the very first edition of BME’s Big Question! In this weekly (hopefully) feature, we’re going to ask a handful of the community’s best and brightest piercers, tattooists, heavy mod practitioners and shop owners for their opinion on one question or issue that’s affecting the body modification community. Many, many thanks to all of the contributors.

If you’d like to be a part of future editions, or if you have an idea for an issue or question you’d like to see addressed, please e-mail me.

This week’s question:

Is it possible to be too pierced or tattooed to work in a tattoo/piercing shop?

* * *

Meg Barber

Call me old fashioned, call me “against modification” … whatever. I’ll look at you and laugh, but yes, you can be too modified for this industry.

The way I see it, the average client isn’t coming in to completely transform their body. They are coming in for a cute accessory, a nice little tchotchke to accent their face or body. They aren’t completely immersed in the modification world, nor do they wish to be. They will identify more with a piercer or tattoo artist that is lightly and attractively modified over one that is totally pierced, tattooed, and implanted.

I work in a very high end piercing spa in Manhattan. At our studio, I am the most heavily modified person on the staff. Clients really need to hear me speak before they will trust me at times, and they never believe me when I say something doesn’t hurt or whatever, because I am obviously a pain freak. Also, my mods can be a distraction — some clients are too busy staring at my earlobes to listen to what I am trying to tell them!

We carefully screen our employees before we hire them, and if we deem them to be too modified, we pass on them even if they are very skilled. We want our staff to reflect our clientele, and I know Maria really had to do some thinking before bringing me on because of my appearance.

I know it sounds a little judgmental coming from the standpoint of a heavily modified piercer working in the modification industry, but that’s the way it is with our shop, and I personally like the policy.

* * *

Stephen DeToma

I absolutely think that it’s possible, but that’s not to say that it applies to all businesses. I think a large part of the equation involves the vision the owner of the hiring studio has for the business. It’s unlikely that a tattoo studio supplementing its monthly income through piercing would hire an individual with heavy, visual modifications. The studio I apprenticed in, which was largely a flash-based tattoo studio, fired a tattoo artist for tattooing his chin/lower lip area. I don’t think there’s any denying that there are people who operate tattoo and piercing studios across the country, people who modify people’s bodies on a daily basis, who are themselves uncomfortable with modified individuals.

It’s certainly putting all of your eggs in one basket to assume that simply because you have these modifications, you’ll be able to get a job piercing (or otherwise).

Region certainly will play a part. You may be too pierced to work at a mom and pop tattoo shop in Kansas, but the same person may have no problem finding work in Oregon, Austin or elsewhere. I think it’s important to point out that, while it’s each individual’s right to do with their body what they see fit, it’s a business owner’s right to build their business in the same manner, regardless of if anyone else likes it. A studio environment, for as relaxed and open as they typically are, is still a customer service based, retail environment that requires public interaction. Who do you cater to? Who is your client base? And what is their level of comfort?

Is it a question of approachability? The owner may be concerned with people’s ability or willingness to converse/have work done with someone bearing such strong mods. I think we all know that to judge a book by its cover is foolish, but the general public who do not operate on the same level we do from day to day, tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

Do the quality of the modifications come into play? Someone with a great deal of crooked, improperly placed piercings in their face for example, does not make a great spokesperson for the business. What about the subject matter? If you have a pentagram tattooed on your face or an upside down cross branded on your forehead, you’re sending a strong message without saying a word to potential employers.

* * *

Steve Truitt

I think it would depend on the place they’re trying to work. Most tattoo artists are a lot more conservative in appearance than a lot of piercers, so I could see it harder for someone to get into tattooing if they look really extreme.

Many “normal” people are getting tattooed now because of TV shows like Miami and L.A. Ink. I could easily see a lot of those type of people getting scared away if they went to a studio and saw someone with giant horns and a huge plate in their lip, so if that’s the type of client a certain studio caters to, then it definitely wouldn’t work to have someone that looks that crazy working there.

On the other hand, personality can go a long way. I’ve seen quite a few heavily modified people that are extremely friendly and outgoing and have no problem making conversation and dealing with other people. Then I’ve seen a lot that are distant and withdrawn and they don’t seem to be able to relate to people and that can make people very uncomfortable, which wouldn’t be good for a working environment.

The quality of the work is also important to note. If someone is covered with very well done professional work, it shows. If they are covered in a bunch of crap they did themselves or at someone’s house or by someone who just sucks, it also shows and makes the person look that much more unprofessional. Also, if the work they have done is aesthetically pleasing to look at and fits the person then that person seems to have fewer problems dealing with people.

The Lizardman is a great example of this. Everything he has done is obviously professionally done and looks like it should be there. Nothing he has looks out of place or like it doesn’t belong on him. His intelligence and personality also play big roles in how his interactions with people go. Any time I’ve seen people meet him for the first time they go away saying, “Wow, I just met the Lizardman, he’s so cool,” etc. I’ve seen poeple meet other heavily modified people that aren’t as outgoing (I’m not going to name names here and offend anyone in particular) and walk away saying things like “Wow, that guy was crazy looking … what a freak! Why would he do that to himself? What’s wrong with him?”

So overall, it may not necessarily be that someone is too modified to work in a shop, but that they don’t fit in because of a combination of their mods and personality.

* * *

Ryan Ouellette

I never ever in my life thought I’d get to a place where I could legitimately have a “kids these days” opinion on something, but here it is. Body modification, like all pop fashion, is just getting stupid. The problem is that “kids these days” don’t ease into modification, they jump in face first — pun intended. I don’t think that studios have a problem with modified employees, I think they have a problem with unprofessional-looking employees. In my studio we all have lots of visible mods, mostly tattoo sleeves, but I also have large gauge punched out conches, microdermals on my face, numerous piercings, yada yada. But I still consider myself to be professional-looking. As a studio owner myself, let’s say two people came into my studio with the exact same experience looking for a job. If both are heavily modified, but only one does it in a way that complements a professional look and mentality, then that’s the one I would want.

A lot of it has to do with clientele. You can look one way to do surface piercings for college kids, but you probably need to have a more subtle appearance to do $200 gemstone nostril piercings for older women. Most young people are just stupid, for lack of a better term, and they can’t imagine a world where they are 30 and need to pay a mortgage. They want to just live in their 17-year-old world and sell T-shirts at Hot Topic for $8/hour dreaming of the day they can be a super cool body piercer — and I would know. Because I did that.

I’m of the opinion that your hands/neck/face should not be tattooed or heavily modified until you have a steady career. I think that this is a profession where body modification should be embraced by both client and practitioner, but people should still treat it as a profession and try to maintain a respectable image.

* * *

John Joyce

I don’t think it’s being too pierced, too tattooed, or too modified that keeps shop owners from hiring people. I think it’s being too covered in poorly done tattoos and piercings that keeps studio owners from hiring them.

For example: If a person has a lot of horribly done piercings or tattoos, or cheap jewelry all over their face, then it definitely doesn’t speak well for that particular person’s interest in the industry. If someone has taken the time to get 15 or 20 piercings, then by that point they should have enough interest in the art of body piercing to do some research. They should know the difference between a well placed piercing and one that looks like it was just smacked on with a dart gun. They should know the difference between a super shiny mirror finished Anatometal barbell and a dull piece from some mall store (*cough* Hot Topic *cough*). If they haven’t picked any of that up, then it shows that they really don’t care that much about this industry, or themselves for that matter, and I wouldn’t even waste my time interviewing the person. Now if someone walks in with 15-20 well placed piercings, all with super nice Anatometal, or Body Vision jewelry in them, I will immediately know that this person cares about their piercings, and put thought into them, because that’s exactly what I’d expect them to do with clients that they will be working with.

The same goes with someone looking for a tattoo apprenticeship. If you walk in and are covered with absolute shit, then it doesn’t speak very well about yourself.

The more interested you are in anything, whether it’s body piercing, tattooing or stamp collecting, the more research you should do on the subject. That research and your knowledge on the subject is what’s going to put you ahead of the 15 other people that have asked the studio owner for an apprenticeship that week.

It’s important for these people to remember that getting 15 piercings in two months, or stretching to two inches in six months, doesn’t impress a good piercer. It shows you are impatient, and not very responsible, and that is about it. The same can be said for kids getting their hands, throats, or even their faces tattooed before they have any other real coverage. It doesn’t impress a quality tattoo artist, and it doesn’t tell us you’re hard core, or more bad ass than your friends. What it does show is that you are impatient, and have put zero thought into the rest of your life.

There once was a time when tattoo artists wouldn’t do those things, and piercers cared more for their clientele. Unfortunately, this industry is full of rock stars and posting images that might make ModBlog seems to be more important these days.

* * *

Joy Rumore

I do think that one can be “too modified” to work in a typical street shop.

A large portion of customers coming into street shops are first-timers. Most come in with groups of their friends. All minors come in with their parents if they are planning to get worked on. Before they even get into the shop, they are nervous. Often, extreme modifications or a large amount of modifications can make people more nervous if they aren’t used to being around them. Things that one is unfamiliar with are usually first interpreted as scary. They may project this view onto themselves and worry they will be classified as a “freak” even if they get a small, discrete piercing or tattoo. Some even think these heavily modified people couldn’t possibly be competent enough to perform a clean, safe procedure. Usually this is based on some fear that the practitioner must be mentally unstable or on drugs to think the way they look is acceptable and healthy.

If a minor or someone there with peers finds the extreme/multiple modifications attractive or interesting, they are often afraid to admit to their parents/peers that they are attracted to that kind of look because they will be be scolded or shunned. On top of that, parents may be more apprehensive about allowing their child to get a small piercing, viewing it as a “gateway drug” into looking like someone on the fringe of society and thus lessening their chances for a successful life. Most parents constantly strive to open doors for their children, not close them over something as “trivial” as a piercing.

Practitioners at specialty shops or custom/appointment-only shops tend to have better reactions to their heavy modifications because they are frequented by those in search of being heavily modified themselves. If those visiting specialty shops are not into heavy modification, they tend to expect seeing those who are extremely modified because these artists are often seen as “more serious” about their chosen lifestyle/career.

Day in and day out in every shop I’ve worked in (no matter what state), there are those who gasp and denounce what they see in our portfolios. I’ve always tried to educate those people and show them modifications on me so they can see that they are less scary or painful. I take more of an anthropological approach to these interactions. I explain the history and meaning behind the modifications. I try to compare personal body modification to more mainstream, accepted forms like cosmetic surgery, makeup and even haircuts. I don’t win them all, but I win most.

* * *

Ron Garza

While I know many people will say no, I will answer with a resounding yes.

While it is true that people do come into a tattoo shop expecting to see the people working there somewhat covered in ink and some piercings, I don’t think having a very visibly modified staff is always needed or warranted. While yes, it is always better to speak from experience on things to clients, I don’t think the demand is that great for clients to know what having a one-inch lip or nostril hole is like to warrant so many people having them now.

Some cities are much more tattoo friendly than others – Denver, Atlanta, Austin and Seattle and Portland quickly come to mind. But then, traveling through parts of the south, mid west and east, the attitudes can be extremely different — even for just one-inch stretched lobes. In some of these communities where tattooing or piercing aren’t as prevalent as in other urban markets, I have personally witnessed staffs’ outward appearance actually intimidate potential clients and keep them from getting work or coming in. While some of us will all say we don’t do this for the money, we will all agree that no money sucks ass. So for the most part, we are doing it for survival, and are therefore doing it for the cash. Why alienate yourself further by losing all sense of resembling something somewhat human?

While I readily admit my views on the subject are more than a little biased from being visibly heavily tattooed and pierced for the better part of 15 years — and I do have respect for those that are “lifers” and are able to live life with visible heavy mods — I don’t think that life is for everyone, nor could it be. The thing separating individuals is the mental and emotional strength it takes to deal with public on a daily basis while being heavily modified. Many can’t deal with it mentally and I have personally known a few people that died at their own hands, in my opinion, because of it.

I used to want to tattoo my face (more), but I had promised my father, who already knew about my extremist nature, I wouldn’t tattoo my face until after he passed. At the time, I didn’t think I was going to make it past 21, much less be alive 16 years later, so I really wasn’t thinking of the future then, nor was my world view quite as encompassing as it is today, which definitely changed my outlook on things. I simply thought my father didn’t know the full depth of my passion for this.

What I didn’t understand was that he had the benefit of years of wisdom of being alive during very racially sensitive times and he knew first hand that division that exists in society for simply being different. For me to want to oust myself from that mainstream, on my own and on purpose, was something he couldn’t understand. Now that I have the benefit of a few years behind me, I can see the wisdom in his words.

The actual act of piercing is as old as man itself, and one can not deny the fact that for the most part, modification is a very western thing in today’s fashion circles in the USA and western Europe. Don’t get me wrong, there are enthusiasts in every culture and nation, but for the most part, piercing in the modern context that we know today is a very western idea. This was apparent to me while traveling through certain parts of Europe and not even receiving service at certain bars and restaurants because of my appearance.

I’m also in the process of having tattoos removed from my neck for the same reason. What means something to me can mean something completely different in another land, half way around the world. I was in Frankfurt, Germany, and got mistaken for a Nazi because of a tattoo on my neck that I received years ago. (I have a needle, barbell and captive bead ring in the shape of a Celtic cross on my neck.) What I didn’t know, but found out traveling through Germany (a culture highly aware of the sensitivity of Nazi symbolism that is lost here in the States), is that the Celtic cross has been adopted by some white nationalist, neo-Nazi and neo-fascist groups. Once I had it explained to me that a guy who winked at me and whispered what sounded like “Heil Himmler” in my ear probably actually thought I was part of one of those organizations, it became painfully to clear that what meant one thing to me, meant something completely different halfway around the world. Couple that with the fact that I was already a stranger in a strange land, an intruder into their country, and I didn’t see any reason to make myself stand out anymore than I already do with all my visible tattoo/modification work. I came back to the States and began laser tattoo removal sessions. I go back for my third treatment soon.

Another story that comes to mind is while traveling through Java and getting on packed trains — standing room only — on our way to see the presidential palace in the capitol of Bogor, we were singled out and had seats open next us, with everyone standing packed like sardines around us. It seemed no one wanted to sit next to the tattooed infidels. Even trying to buy water or bread at a stand was also a bit difficult, as they would just look through you and take the order of the person behind you, completely refusing to do business with someone who was clearly in violation of religious laws of the land with his physical appearance and attire. That doesn’t make you feel too good about the way you come off to others. Of course, being the asshole American and starting to yell or cause a scene would do no good, in addition to portraying me as an American stereotype that I don’t want to perpetuate. So, simply smiling and walking away mildly disgruntled is about all you can do. This was with me looking as normal as I can be, no piercings anywhere, and this was still the treatment I received. I can only imagine these people’s reactions if I had had a two-inch lip piercing or multiple sets of sub- or transdermal horns.

Of course, it wasn’t like this everywhere, but when it did happen, it only reinforced the fact that I was a visitor in their land. It was their home, not mine. I didn’t want to be overly intrusive or do anything to single me out any more than I already had with my very western way of walking, kneeling, dress and tattoos.

Because I’ve had these types of experiences that I feel so strongly about, and know what it’s like to be so visibly heavily modified — especially in another country, and since I don’t plan to live out my life here in America, my viewpoints may be a bit different from others’.

* * *

Derek Lowe

Yes, it is possible to be “too modified” to work in a piercing/tattoo shop … at least to work in some piercing and tattoo shops. I don’t think it’s the rule by any means, but it is something I foresee happening more frequently over the next five years.
Just as with hair salons, clothing stores and restaurants (to name a few), there is an increasing diversity with regards to the style and “vibe” that shops are going for. Many new shops, and older shops who decide to remodel or move, are opting for more of a “spa” or “boutique” feel. I personally think this is a smart move, but I won’t bore anyone with my thoughts on that.
A studio with a “high-end” vibe is going to tend to attract a high-end client.  That type of clientele, to put it quite bluntly, may not want to look at, let alone be touched by, people with facial tattoos, stretched nostril piercings and three inch earlobes, while getting their piercing or tattoo. Clearly there are giant doses of hypocrisy, ignorance and short-sightedness in that sort of outlook, but that’s the reality of the world where we live. While those of us in the “community” might not understand how someone could feel that way, many people do feel exactly that way about heavier, or abundant, modifications. As a service-oriented business, piercing and tattoo shops have to give some consideration to the experience and comfort level of their potential customers.  
Gone are the days when a piercing or tattoo studio could treat people however they wanted, because there were so few shops that clients simply didn’t have other choices.
I think it’s more likely to find a “you’re too modified” stance at a studio that is owned by someone who isn’t a piercer or tattoo artist. A non-industry owner is likely going to look at things from more of a pure business perspective, where someone who is a piercer or tattoo artist is more likely to let their passion for their craft, and their personal feelings, influence their decisions, while potentially ignoring the ramifications those decisions might have on their business.
To completely rebuke what I just said, I should point out that I work at a very successful shop with more of a non-traditional atmosphere that is owned by a woman who is neither a piercer or tattoo artist. Over the years we have employed people who only had standard earlobe piercings on one end of the spectrum and people with full facial tattoos and half-inch nostril piercings at the other end of the spectrum.
For us it’s primarily about having the best person for the job, and not about how many modifications they do or don’t have. However, I won’t say that the extent, or the nature, of someone’s modifications will never ever influence a hiring a decision for us.
Anyone thinking that being heavily modified isn’t going to be an issue when it comes to finding a job, even as a piercer or tattoo artist, is potentially being a little naïve and short-sighted, in my opinion.

* * *

Allen Falkner

The answer to this question is not nearly as black and white as you might think. In a perfect world the answer would be no, it is impossible to be too modified to work in tattoo/piercing shop. However, the answer is more complex and has a lot to do with customer relations and other qualities about the potential employee.

Let me give a quick example. Erik (Lizardman) Sprague, arguably one of the most heavily tattooed people in the world, could walk into almost any tattoo/piercing shop and get a job on the spot. Why? Well other than the fact that he’s highly intelligent and incredibly charismatic, he’s also very famous and would draw people into the shop. He’s a professional freak and this is part of his appeal. Would this work for another person? Maybe, maybe not. Like it or not, it all breaks down to the business’s clientele and how to appeal to people that walk through the door.

Yes, it’s true. People that seek out tattoos and piercings want the different and unusual. It really is the nature of the business and to a certain extent visible modifications are expected. I would even go so far as to say that, in most cases, it’s a prerequisite to work in a studio. That said, there is still a limit. People like the strange and the bizarre, but they don’t want to stray too far from their comfort zone. Does this mean someone with implanted horns and full facial tattooed can’t be excellent employees? No, far from it. The issue simply breaks down to what customers will accept. Most would agree that the tattoo/piercing community is more open-minded than most. However, even the most liberal aren’t always the most accepting.

What do you think? Let’s hear it in the comments.

* * *

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An Open Letter to the Suspension Community

[Editor's note: Last weekend, we published a piece by Ron Garza discussing the suspension accident involving the Skin Mechanics Suspension crew and the Disgraceland Hook Squad at the South Florida Tattoo Expo. Here, Joe Amato of Skin Mechanics checks in to offer his own perspective on what occurred.]

I would like to start by saying to the entire suspension community that I am sorry for the way that I initially handled the situation surrounding Jimmy Pinango’s fall at the South Florida Tattoo Expo. At no point did I ever imagine what the rumor mill would make of the incident, nor did I foresee that the community would be so demanding. Most, though not all, of the people who demanded the facts from me are people that I had never had any interaction with before. I am not an active BME member and my MySpace account is for personal use. Given that I don’t expose myself as much as others in the suspension community, I hope that it is understandable that I was taken by surprise when people that I had never personally interacted with were suddenly demanding that I justify myself and my actions. Obviously, a response was due — I don’t deny this — but to be hit immediately with attacks rather than support clouded my judgment in a very trying time. In the aftermath of this incident, I did let my emotions get the best of me, and for that I am embarrassed. However, I am not going to defend any of my actions any further, as I feel that at this point moving forward, taking accountability, and taking something positive away from this experience are the most important things. I hope that anyone who still feels insulted about the lack of an official statement will feel better after reading this. If you have any further questions or comments, please feel free to contact me. I am not in front of a computer every day, but I will respond if you consider how you are presenting yourself, and do so in a manner that is constructive.

Important facts about the suspension and what ensued

– All the hooks were still in Jimmy when he hit the floor.

– The 5mm cord used in the suspension had not broken.

– Calls were made to our friends Steve Joyner and Allen Falkner as soon as we had a team of people was in place to break down the show, and had gotten Jimmy safely to the hospital. We gave Steve and Allen all of the information we had at the time, and tried to concentrate on the rest of the weekend while we played the waiting game, as we were under contract to perform again the following day. At no time did we attempt to hide any information. Unfortunately, there’s no way for me to let you know that if I don’t know you, and again, I am not an active member of BME.

– We did return the next day and we did perform after making a substantial public statement to the convention and the mainstream media about the accident. We again released all of the information that we had, and worked to clear up the rumor mill that was already circulating on the convention floor. We had a crew of almost 35 people who were all hurting emotionally, and at this point, we still had not had one single minute to sit down and think with a clear head about what had transpired. It was not easy for me to go up there and take responsibility and talk about the situation in front of so many people when all I was able to think about was my friend — that I, as the head rigger on that suspension, had put him in the hospital, and I still didn’t know how he was doing. I did what I thought was necessary at the time to control the mainstream media, and keep the crew’s spirits up so that we could get through the next show.

– Jimmy was admitted to the ICU the day after surgery. Marrow from the broken bone had gotten into his blood, and caused a clot in his lungs. They dissolved the clot, and treated him for the marrow in his blood. [Ed. note: To clarify, in the accident, Jimmy only sustained a broken leg. His admission into ICU was from complications from the broken leg, not as a direct result of the fall itself.]

– In the days following the accident, we kept in contact with our friends in the community and tried to get the proper info out there. It was through talking to friends that I was able to come to the conclusions that I did about what had happened. The outside points of view were crucial because I was so consumed by all of the negativity, as well as the well-being of my crew and my friend, that I couldn’t think. Already, criticism was coming from many directions, and less than three days later I got fed up and made an unreasonably negative statement about the drama surrounding the situation. I put the only solid piece of evidence I had in that statement, and then proceeded to basically invalidate anything that came out of my mouth after that by being a jerk. That post did not last 24 hours. I took out my negative reactions and left up the pictures of the link for people to see. Keep in mind this was still prior to the appearance of the ModBlog article.

I understand there is a community of people out there, and all of you want to know what happened, but please try to understand:

Only two days had passed by the time there were multiple theories and rumors about the accident and nobody (except for Steve & Allen) even once asked me what had happened before posting their own theories. People still thought that the hooks came out, despite the fact that we had witnesses (including a doctor) who stated otherwise.

Three days later, BME members were criticizing and picking the event apart, and that’s when I think things went wrong. A lot of misinformed people started making bold statements that they had put together based on nothing more than a blurry night video. Then started the harassment.

Only six days passed before the ModBlog article was published, and this article essentially trashed my character, and even directed people (on one of the most visited peer-to-peer sites in the world) to harass me, and judge my character. Now, I don’t know how any of you would react to this treatment, but the harassment I’ve gotten from a community of people who are regularly subjected to prejudice, and therefore particularly wary of judgment, really surprised me. The level of harassment that I received certainly did not push me to share more information with people who were going out of their way to hurt me. I am not, nor do I want to be, a “rock star” anything. I have been content with just staying to myself in the five years my crew has been doing shows. In the midst of all of this, yes, I did make my MySpace profile for friends only. Nobody likes to be harassed and judged.

At the end of week one, hate mail was steadily coming in. Jimmy was still in the ICU. I, and a few others, were continuing to assess the situation and consult one another on our research and findings. Now at the end of week two, I am finally finishing up this report. Jimmy has been awake and is doing much better. He is out of the ICU and will hopefully be on his way home soon.

For the record, I have not received a single message via the ModBlog article that contained anything constructive. I am in no way, shape, or form trying to infringe on people’s right to free speech or press — write or say what you would like to. I also have nothing bad to say about Ron Garza for writing what he did. I have never met or even spoken to him, and because of that do not know what he is or isn’t qualified to do. I do wish that he would have contacted me prior to publishing his article in order to ensure that he was presenting information as reliably as possible, as there were a lot of inaccuracies that could have been corrected before the trigger was pulled, but the damage is done. In an effort to stay solution-oriented, though, the only thing I can do is hope that Ron will edit some of the malice from his article. I appreciate that people are concerned about the repercussions that could follow this incident, as I am equally concerned. However, we as a community have, in fact, made things far worse by starting an all-out war on the Internet. Through this lack of courtesy, and by largely lacking any attempt at solidarity, we have attracted only negative attention to ourselves.

I hope these facts and their timeline give you an idea as to why this has taken so long. It was never my intention to shun the responsibility.

Details on the suspension itself

Rigline used:

First set: 300-pound monofilament line rigged dynamically, with fisherman’s knots connecting the line to the eyelets of the rig.

Second set: 300-pound monofilament line rigged dynamically with fisherman’s knots, this one a few feet longer than the one used in the first set. These lines were meant to break away, similar to a “cut down”. All the extra rig line was run, then bundled and taped to keep it from becoming tangled. The line becomes compromised quickly when you tie it without enough wraps in the knot, as the extra pressure on the line causes it to snap long before its working limit has been reached. (This is not the first time that I have used this rig line or used “breakaway” rigging. I myself had done a smaller version of this suspension in July.)

Third set: 300-pound monofilament line (same rigging and knots), this time a few feet longer than in the previous set.

Fourth set: 5 mm accessory cord rigged dynamically. This line was also bundled. This was meant to be the last portion of the act. The would come down onto this cord, and would stop dropping at this point.

Other equipment used:

- Six 8-gauge hooks were used.

- Six galvanized quick links were used (and had never been used previously).

- One 18-inch aluminum square stock rig with stainless eyelets was used as well.

The act, from start to finish, was intended to be a 6-point vertical back suspension, where the performer broke multiple stages of “breakaway” rigging, and finished when he hit the final stage.

We did not make it that far. The quick link failed a minute into the performance, and his rigging became long enough for him to hit the floor. These are still the facts about the rigging itself. None of the other equipment was compromised.

Why this happened

I believe that the link became side-loaded during the performance, which would explain the breaking strength exhibited by the equipment. This explains why the hooks did not break before the link. This seems a lot more likely than any other theory I have heard, because all the math in the world could not explain how a quick link could break before a hook. By working with the facts we have, my opinion is that this is the most likely scenario. I do not have 100-percent solid evidence, but I am working on it. We already have plans to purchase and break new links from the side-loaded and top-loaded positions, and then examine the way in which they open to see if anything matches up to the link in question. I will be taking photos and will post them as soon as I am done.

As for the link being defective, it is possible, but it is far less probable that this was the case.

What could have been done to prevent this accident

– Static rigging: This is always a good idea. This could have prevented this accident entirely. I have no excuse or justification as to why I did not rig this suspension statically. It certainly isn’t that I don’t have the experience, because we used static rigging all weekend, and had even connected six people this way just one day prior to the accident. Usually we use webbing for the rig line, and we had over 1,000 feet of it on site. I also even went out of my way to make steel cable static rigging for a suspension we were planning for the weekend. What it all really boils down to is that I made a mistake, and I didn’t use it.

– The hooks used: Granted, the hooks did not break, but they could have.

I am making a locking hook, modeled after Oliver Gilson’s original design, and cleverly called a Gilson Hook. They would have been ideal for this for many reasons.

1. They were designed for high risk.
2. They have a much greater breaking strength.
3. They will also fit a shackle.

– Quick links: Had I used the Gilson hook (above), a shackle would have been used instead of a quick link. As much as quick links have been a staple in our community, I really do believe that we need to reconsider the continued use of this item in any situation where movement could side-load it.

– Safety harness: My primary concern here was that during the performance the lanyard could have become wrapped around Jimmy’s neck. Simply cutting down at each stage would not have been dangerous, but with the rigging as it was, had a harness become wrapped around his neck before a level change, it would have broken his neck.

I hope this information is helpful to everyone, and that we can all take something valuable from it.

In closing, I am sorry for what happened, on many levels. I want it to be known that nobody associated with the accident, Skin Mechanics Suspension, Disgraceland Hook Squad, and our friends who came to work with us from other crews, ever intended to avoid any responsibility for what happened. I alone am responsible for the rigging, and yes — I accept the fact that I made a mistake. Had things been done differently, this suspension would not have resulted in my friend’s suffering, or the estrangement of my community.

Joe Amato
Skin Mechanics Suspension

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Suspension Failures (And Not Just The Quick Link)

OK, some of you may be asking yourselves what the “other” traveling scarification guy is doing speaking up about suspensions and what happened in Florida over the weekend of August 16 and 17, 2008. Now, I’m not just some other modification-basher speaking ill of the whole subject. On the contrary, my immediate suspension family and I have dedicated a large part of our lives to the progression and advancement of the art of body suspensions, and to see something like this happen really makes my stomach drop.

The original article.

I am a veteran suspension practitioner with over a decade of practical hands-on suspension knowledge in a variety of settings: private; performance; large scale projects involving great heights with multiple people — including much of the suspension footage you have probably seen on TV on Ripley’s Believe it or Not and the Discovery Channel, to helping hang one Criss Angel from a helicopter; and many private gallery and art shows. But, my main interest has always been in high tension, highly kinetic suspension that culminates with my pride and joy: the 360, though we’ll get to that later. My point is, after a decade of practical, hands-on experience with the subject, I have also recently stepped into the arena of educating newcomers on the subject and art of body suspensions, so I feel well qualified to speak on the topic.

After all this time, blood, sweat and tears my dear suspension family and I have dedicated to furthering this art, one thing we have learned is that accidents do happen. We will be the first to admit that. I have personally witnessed many mishaps occur over the 13 years I have been involved with suspensions. Some could have been avoided, some couldn’t have been — there is no accounting for what should always be the weakest link: the skin. There have even been two cases in which people were injured where I was personally involved and, one time, one of those people was me. It jacked my lower back up in a way that still plagues me today. That definitely changed my mind about things.

Both times something happened during a suspension, not only did we know the negative impact it would have on the community (and did all we could to halt and reverse it), we also did everything we could to inform others about what the problem was and why it happened, in order to try to prevent it from happening to others. Some of our family had already been hurt physically and there was no reason for others to suffer the same fate. We didn’t shy away from the public backlash that was bound to happen. We wanted to try to get others to see how dangerous it can be and that safety is the first thing we should all have on our minds. We, as the suspension leaders at the time, thought of the community and what the impact of our actions would be.

Rich falls during practice.

To me, it didn’t seem right to just blame the hardware company when it was our fault if the materials were used inappropriately. Using materials that cause a mechanical failure and injury to a member of your suspension family is not a way to run a suspension group, or a way to look after your friends, in my humble opinion. So, learning from our mistakes, we opted not to — ever again.

We owned up for our oversights. We all got together and wrote up something that illustrated differences in marketing and wording when buying the materials and equipment that will hold human life in the balance. We showed what gear to use, explained ratings and what to look for. We took pictures showing differences and ways to self-test things. We even had it posted to ModBlog as a way to inform others that accidents happen and, hopefully, ways to avoid them. When human life is at stake, leave nothing to chance!

Growing up in the suspension environment that I did with the people with whom I learned, I have always been one for pushing limits and taking suspensions further. I got this crazy idea in my head about a “rotisserie” one night during the now-legendary all-night IHOP TSD meetings, and TSD made it happen. Since that was pulled off without a hitch, I got the idea for the end-over-end version of a rotisserie, or a 360. With the help of Tom Moore, an engineering friend with much more smarts than I, it became a reality. High tension kinetic suspensions were a very new thing back then (and remain so, in my opinion). Not much work has been in done in that area of suspensions, and I think with those sorts of experimental suspension trials, there is more leeway in terms of public acceptance of mishaps when doing something that has never been before. If done in private, that is, and not as part of a show.

The incident I’m speaking of, and which many of you might remember, was during a private suspension group practice while attempting to conquer the now infamous 360 suspension rig during; the other mishap was with a friend, trying out some stuff for an upcoming show. Yes, we try things out before shows to ensure they will work the way we expect them to because, as we all know and as this incident shows, things don’t always happen like you want them to. The way I have always seen it is if you see a suspension group as a band, doesn’t it make sense to try out your sets and get them down before you play them in public? I think TSD, CoRE and MAYHEM were some of the only groups I have ever heard of even attempting to do this. I attribute this to why there has always been a huge difference in stage shows between a real suspension group and people who just hang others.

If things have been done before, there shouldn’t be any oversights other than sheer neglect on the part of the department head that allowed the mishap to occur. If the same sort of neglect happened in a private corporation, I’m sure someone would have to answer for their inadequacies. I don’t see this with the current situation in Florida.

We publicly admitted when Richard fell off the 360, even though we didn’t have to. We explained and showed with pictures why the turn buckle failed, and made it clear that there were oversights on our part. But the fact remains, we admitted it. We knew the eyes of the community were on us as high profile practitioners and the experts in the field — which not only shows it can happen to anyone, but also how such an incident should be dealt with. We knew our responsibility not only to our team member Richard, first and foremost by getting him medical care and taking him to the hospital, but we also knew we had an obligation to explain to the community that we were trying to better our techniques and make progress. We knew we had to put out the equivalent of a press letter showing photos (one advantage of filming your own stunts) of the equipment failing, with diagrams showing what happened and why. We put information out there and accepted responsibility for our actions. This is sorely lacking in the current situation in Florida. We could have kept it quiet, but that wouldn’t have done anyone any good and Richard’s pain and suffering would have been all for nothing if nobody had learned from these mistakes.

Ron and MAYHEM experimenting with the 360 spin-off.

I’ve heard suspensions compared to the danger of BMX riding or skateboarding recently. I don’t agree with this at all. The difference is that in those extreme activities, the people are controlling their own bailouts; they haven’t put their lives in someone else’s hands and expecting things to be OK. In that case, you control everything yourself.

I heard it said that Jimmy (the poor fellow to whom this unfortunate incident happened) knew quite well of the possibility of complications with what he was doing. “He knew the risks” has been passed around. I’m sure if this thinly veiled attempt at passing the blame to him was truthful and he was indeed told that the sub-par rigging might break and he could break his legs, he might not have gone for it.

There are a couple of questions that stand out in my mind:

- Why wasn’t there secondary rigging involved, especially when they are expecting extremely intense G-forces to be applied to those links?

- Why were Home Depot links used instead of rescue, safety, or climbing equipment? Those quick links used are not rated for such a working load. This lack of suspension prowess is what caused the mechanical failure over the weekend.

Speaking to Allen Falkner, another notable expert in the field of body suspensions, he had these thoughts on the situation:

Here are the scenarios I can think that might have caused the accident:

- Faulty link (Home Depot is not really known for quality).

- The monofilament line, being so thin, was concentrating the pressure onto a very small point, creating excessive stress. (It makes sense that the thin line was creating a stress point that the links aren’t designed to take.)

- The link turned sideways. If the link was being pulled from a direction other than that for which it’s designed, it could be more prone to failure. Especially if it flipped and the nut was against the hook eye.

Here are the problems I can see:

1. Use of Quick Links: I know we use them often for suspension, but they are designed for static loads, not dynamic. Plus, they are not intended for human weight. Yes, we use them incorrectly in basic suspension situations and although I think they are adequate for static loads, it now seems time to discontinue this practice.

2. Accessory Cord: It is definitely stronger than 550, but not really designed for shock loading. A larger rope or webbing would have been more suitable.

3. Dynamic Rigging: In a fall like that, static rigging would have been the best in case of single hook failure.

4. Hooks: Gilson hooks handle dramatically more weight. Plus, there was definitely a chance of him bouncing off open hooks.

5. Safety Harness: This one is self explanatory.

6. Monofilament Line: I am completely unaware of its properties and how it would affect rigging components.

On the shoulders of giants we stand. Collectively, we set the bar and standards for others to follow and live up to. I don’t see any actions coming from the teams involved with this worth following, or examples showing other fledgling groups how to deal with situations like this. It only has to happen once for anything to get outlawed or shut down. A perfect example of this can be seen by looking at pyrotechnics and the ’80s rock band Great White. They also had careless stage directors and stage managers who didn’t pay attention to stage specs for a safe and proper pyrotechnic show, and the entire auditorium caught fire, trapping and killing many people. This made authorities come down incredibly hard on all who use pyrotechnics here in the USA. This is a precedent that I would hate to see applied to any facets of our industry. All because someone didn’t care enough to pay attention to specs. A scarier thought to me is what if this crew had attempted another feat they were equally unqualified to perform, like a knee-to-back transition? That would be hard for anyone to survive from that height. What would we do then?

The truth is, I’m really scared of the repercussions and backlash that our community will face because of this “passing the buck” attitude I am seeing from the groups involved, with no one accepting responsibility for what happened. To me, responsibility to your friends and group go far deeper than taking them to the hospital and telling everyone to wish them well online. Responsibility means accepting consequences for you actions and attempting to make up for them. I would think they would try to educate and show others how to prevent this from happening again so others don’t get hurt — not shifting the focus to your ailing friend in the hospital, trying to taking the attention off what you caused to happen with your oversights. But I’m old — maybe ethics and morals are a dying personal trait in this industry. (Did I really say that? Me? Moral? Wow, I must be getting old.) But a quick look at the group leader’s MySpace page and following his links to what he finds important to promote about himself, I get a better idea of the ethical morality of this person. I begin understand why they aren’t speaking up about what actually happened, and disseminating rumors about it all so we are forced to make our own assumptions about what truly happened. This is not the way professionals handle things.

YouTube video of the Florida incident.

For the record, I do not know Skin Mechanic or the guys involved with this. I know they were closely associated with some people making and selling hooks to our community, but I don’t think that endeavor will take off after this latest mishap, especially if it is true that the maker of a locking hook wasn’t using them for such a dynamic suspension. That would also speak volumes about their understanding of the act of body suspension and what happens during a dynamic suspension. It’s obvious some people don’t understand it — hell, I don’t get it all when G-forces come into play with dynamic or static rigging, but we at least overcompensate for that. Here’s something from rock-solid rigger Emrys Yetz, explaining how it works:

First, my thoughts go out to Jimmy Pinango for a quick and healthy recovery from the accident. Hope you’re doing well and are with the ones you love.

The accident that recently happened at the Deerfield Beach Tattoo Convention wasn’t due to equipment failure via manufacturer — it was a result of the equipment being used past its Working Load Limit. In order to understand what I’m going to explain, let’s first define Working Load Limit: “The maximum mass or force with which the product is authorized to support in a particular service.” The industry standard in the United States for chain and/or quick links is a 5 to 1 Design Factor, this meaning you take the Maximum Breaking Strength and divide it by 5 giving you your Working Load Limit. The 3/16” Galvanized Quick Link in question that failed had a Maximum Breaking Strength of 660 pounds, meaning its Working Load Limit is 132lbs (via 660 pounds divided by 5). Jimmy Pinango was suspended from six hooks, meaning six Quick Links with a total Working Load Limit of 792 pounds. Now, had he done a static suspension without any free fall, this would have been adequate, since he weighs 300 pounds.

By adding the bungee, you need to take into account that the static weight of 300 pounds no longer applies, because he is going into a free fall. At this point, you are talking about G-force, or the acceleration imparted by natural gravity. In order to calculate the amount of force applied to the Quick Links, you have to multiply the mass or Jimmy P’s weight of 300 pounds by the G-force or 32.174 feet/per second per second. In doing so, you come up with a Force equal to 1333.7044 newtons, which converts to 983.68988 pounds.

So, let’s look back to the Working Load Limit of 792 pounds that we calculated for the six Quick Links in use before, and we can see there were 983.68988 pounds of force being applied, which surpasses the Working Load Limit overall by 191.68988 pounds and by 31.94831 pounds per Quick Link.

I am speaking as a long-time suspension enthusiast and pioneer who sees this latest act of negligence as a sign of what’s to come, now that Pandora’s Box has been opened and anyone can pick up equipment anywhere. Except, often, they’re only copying what they see without real practical knowledge of research and development done anymore, like we used to do in the “good old days.” Nowadays, it’s all about copying what you see and trying to make a name for yourself with whatever claim to fame you can make — from the most piercings, to the most suspension positions, to eyelid microdermals. Don’t misunderstand me, I have always been one who highly respects outside-the-box thinking (hell, that’s how I got where I am), but these are things I don’t place in that category at all. It is things like this that will lead to the over-regulation of our industry into the ground.

We, the suspension community as whole, got lucky that Jimmy wasn’t injured worse than he was, and our hearts go out to him. But, I don’t think the suspension industry will be able to recover from this very quickly. What I want people to get out of this is, yes, the act of body suspensions has inherent dangers, but we shouldn’t leave anything to chance, especially when lives are at risk. I also wish people would accept responsibility for their actions.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it. Don’t put the blame on mechanical failure when it’s your fault the equipment was used in the first place. This sort of thinking neglects to see the big picture: This affects all of us. This should not be done just you so you can get pictures for your portfolio, get your name on TV or to make your sponsors happy.

The words of Social Disortion come to mind:

“Don’t forget that they’re your future …”

And that scares the shit out of me.

(Ed. note: This is an editorial and does not necessarily reflect the views of BME staff or BME as a publication. For Joe Amato’s response, click here.)

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BMXnet Recap

Leave your bikes at home, folks – this is Germany’s premier Body Modification eXchange Conference.

Sure, the BMX reference is long since played out, but I must admit the first time I heard mention of “BMX network,” I envisioned a German X Games for modified people; for those that attended, some might agree that some of the performances qualified on that front. But I’ll get to that in a bit. For now, sit back, relax, keep reading and we’ll get to all the gory details soon enough.

The Saviours, Jussi and Lassi

So, where do we begin? How about this: It was hot. And not in a Paris Hilton-esque “that’s hot” sort of way. No, I’m talking about sleeping-on-top-of-the-sheets, butt-ass-nekkid-with-the-windows-wide-open hot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Texas boy that loves to vacation in the desert — I like the heat. (Although, I also like my air conditioning — something of which Germany and most of Europe has very little.) Actually, it was quite amusing how easily you could spot the Americans: We were the ones sweating to death and drinking copious amounts of water. If nothing else, you can say one thing about Europeans — they’re an adaptive people.

Then again, you would have to be. With so many different languages and peoples all coexisting, Europe is quite the incredible mixture of culture, innovation and ideas. Heat be damned, Germany was a perfect place to hold a body modification conference, even if it was in the middle of nowhere.

In all my international travels, I’ve learned one simple fact: Almost everyone in the world’s modern cities speaks English — so, as an American I’ve always had it easy. And, sure enough, the BMXnet conference catered to English speakers. Yes, there were many classes labeled “German Only.” But, fortunately for those non-Deutsch speakers, the organizers had interpreters on hand to translate via headphones. Granted, the system wasn’t perfect: Technical terms were often difficult to translate, and there were times when the lectures were better heard in the native tongue. But, overall, the information flowed smoothly and everyone came out better informed from the experience — and what an experience it was.

BMXnet was not a tattoo convention, nor even APP meets the EU. This conference was purely educational, with very little of the party atmosphere we’ve all come to expect from modification conventions. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t fun; there was, of course, plenty of socializing and some quiet debauchery that those who were there might speak of in blogs and forums … but don’t hold your breath. What happened in Germany stayed in Germany — unlike Vegas, where the pictures seem to hit the Internet only moments after the deed has been done. Plus, this crowd seemed a bit different. Rather than the week-long drink-fests I’ve attended in the past,this event seemed a bit more polished. The days were structured like college lectures and the nights were filled with some very cutting-edge entertainment.

Havve of Pain Solution

You may have seen some of the images featured on ModBlog or the hundreds of images in the BME gallery, but photos and even the small bit of video that are floating around really do not do the performances justice. Operafication put on a show featuring suspension and Hilary’s beautiful operatic singing and visual imagery that as always, moved the audience. Pain Solution, with Havve’s quirky humor and some new twists on some classic sideshow acts, was definitely a crowd pleaser. Samppa von Cyborg put on a performance that was best described as bizarre and somewhat disturbing, but in this writer’s opinion, The Saviors stole the show. How, you ask? My friends, photos are worth a thousand words. (I’ll let ModBlog do the talking on that front, but … poor, poor Lassi.) Good times, folks, good times — but I digress. The real reason we were all there was for the convention itself.

BMXnet was an incredibly well structured, highly organized event dedicated the sharing of information pertaining to the body modification industry, hence the name Body Modification eXchange Network. During the day, the lectures and demonstrations all flowed like a well-oiled machine. There was a small area where vendors sold supplies, equipment and even a decent selection of body jewelry. However, the main focus was on the classes. Every attendant was an established body art practitioner that was there to teach, share ideas, learn and ultimately network. Yes, there were older, fairly famous people that many people considered mentors, but generally the participants viewed each other as equals. In every class I attended, the audience sat attentively, soaking up all the information and asking well-informed, highly intelligent questions. The general attitude was definitely serious, but also pleasant and relaxed at the same time. Of course, there were some differences of opinions, but everyone listened and there never seemed a point when voices were raised or egos were bruised. In fact, I know this may sound hard to believe, but I swear I sat amongst several hundred well established and highly acclaimed body modification professionals and for the most part there seemed to be no ego at all.

Hillary of Operafication

With any good review there should always be positive and negative points. However, it’s honestly hard to find problems. There was a free buffet available all day. Beds — yes, beds — were set up in different areas for people to sit and relax; I managed a quick nap while waiting for the magnetic implant lecture. We were even shuttled back and forth from the hotel to the venue. Truly, the crew of BMXnet were very gracious hosts that went above and beyond the call of duty to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. If I had to point out any potential changes for next year, it would be the input of more opposing views. Maybe we have just evolved as an industry, or possibly it’s that Europeans are so courteous, but this author loves nothing more than a good high-spirited debate. Yes, I’m known for being the devil’s advocate, and I do have a history of provoking arguments. However, there is a method to the madness. If there is one thing the body modification industry has been guilty of doing, it’s accepting knowledge without question.

Doubt me? Well, here’s a simple fact that was often discussed during the conference. Over 95-percent of the world’s piercings that are done with threaded jewelry are healed using externally threaded jewelry. Now, it has been commonly accepted — at least by the Association of Professional Piercers, of which I am a founding member — that only internally threaded jewelry is suitable for new piercings. Sorry, the numbers don’t lie. Yes, there are many factors that make one piece of jewelry better than another, and I still stand by the quality of several of the internal manufacturers, but it’s time to look at the statistics and accept the facts. The days of, “We’ve always done it this way” and, “This is how we were taught” are long since over.

[Steps off the Soap Box]

OK, it may seem that this article has gone off course, but nothing could be further from the truth. Statements like the paragraph above were the true foundation of BMXnet. We were there to challenge each other. Once you know it all, there is no more room to learn, and if there’s one thing this experience has taught me, it’s that there is so much experience and knowledge that far surpasses my own. I went to teach a class on Laser Tattoo Removal, co-present a suspension safety seminar and further participate in a suspension roundtable, but I walked away with so much more.

There were questions asked that made me rethink many of my fundamental ideas of both my past experiences and my future direction. I saw many new techniques and learned interesting new facts on topics I once thought there was little left to know. I watched amazing practitioners work and put faces to names that were once just photos in magazines. I got to know colleagues that were at best acquaintances, and earned new respect for people I have known for many years. I gained more confidence in my personal accomplishments and was humbled by the skills of others. Treated as an equal and indulged like a guest. If you can stand the heat, this is the best kitchen this author has visited in a while.

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Practical Magic: The Art of David Bruehl

Rain Polsky /

When I was first introduced to the art of David Bruehl — work with a solid illustration base and easily recognizable style — I immediately thought, “This guy should tattoo.”

Never one to leave it to the whims of fate, I grabbed the bull by the horns and told him as much. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to suggest it. David quickly transitioned from a mild mannered illustration student at the well regarded S.C.A.D. in Savannah to a tattoo apprentice in the heartland of Indiana. Quicker than you could say abracadabra, he was on his way to becoming a skilled, versatile tattooer.

David is now in his seventh year of tattooing with an international reputation for his client-centric process, continues to paint and, most importantly, is the husband to his wonderful wife, Kimmy, and father of two amazing boys, Zeke and Abe.

Shawn Porter: Hey David.

David Bruehl: Hey Shawn.

SP: Let’s do the getting to know you. Where were you born?

DB: I was born in Oklahoma City, OK, on November 7, 1979.

SP: I know you have at least one sister — the hot one that I have a crush on. Any other siblings?

DB: That sister, Sheryn, is technically my half-sister, along with my other half-sister, Treisa. I’ve known them as long as I’ve been alive though, so it’s all the same to me. They’re respectively 11 and ten years older than me. (Irish twins!) I also have a younger full sister, Jessica, who’s two years my junior. I essentially grew up among women; I wasn’t really close with my dad.

SP: What were you like as a child? Typical “artsy dreamer” or more conventional kid?

DB: I always looked at myself as a normal kid, but moving back to Oklahoma has resulted in getting my extended family’s impressions of me as a child. Several cousins have described me as, “the kid reading a science book while everyone else was playing army men.” They all seemed to think I was going to be a scientist until I was around 11 or 12 years old, when I started always carrying a sketchbook.

SP: When did you discover you could draw? Did your family encourage it?

DB: I drew a little Halloween bat when I was about three that everyone made a big deal about — how much it looked like what I was drawing. They gushed over the thing so much, I still retain that memory as my proudest moment as a kid. I think on some level, my need to create seeks to relive that moment.

SP: Were there any other artists in the family?

DB: My grandmother painted and worked as a gallery artist, mostly doing wildlife themes. When I was a child, she would bring me with her to her art association meetings, and as a result, I viewed art as being something one could do as a career from the very beginning. She’s retired herself from painting now, unfortunately. Around the time I started attending art school as an adult, my mom introduced an art program into her school district and works as an art teacher now.

SP: When I first started seeing your work, it had a very cohesive “Bruehl” look to it — your pinups in particular were very easily recognizable as having come from you. Has tattooing made it easier or harder for you to adapt to other styles, and how do you keep that from losing your particular aesthetic?

DB: I think that working outside of one’s comfort zone, imagery wise, is very healthy for an artist. I see it all the time with artists, where someone repeats themselves stylistically and subjectively so much that every fault within their work gets magnified and they lose that freshness. You get the feeling that they’re coasting. Having to synergize with a client’s needs stretches me in ways I wouldn’t have, left to my own devices. My personal aesthetic gets retained by trusting myself and my intuition in creating a piece.

SP: You’ve recently started painting more. With your first gallery show under your belt (DB01-New Works, OKC, OK), you seem to be solidifying a personal iconography: birds, occult/esoteric symbols, numbers and invented crypto-zoology. How much research goes into a new painting? Do you use specific symbols to “charge” the piece? Or do you make your own up to thematically go with the work? Why have you consciously stayed away from “tattoo” iconography in your paintings?

DB: A lot of my painting work is done in an almost subconscious manner. I do a lot of distracted sketching, little tiny drawings, and the ones that resonate with me become paintings. The subject manner comes from being in a place with my children mentally, a simpler land of wonderment and mystery and the like. I’ve actually been looking at the work of Winsor McKay lately, as I think he was sort of coming from the same place creatively.

The symbols within the pieces are “sigils,” which is a blanket term for symbols used to create some sort of effect on reality. A quick and easy example of what I mean is cave painting: man draws buffalo getting killed, and then within a couple days the men in the tribe find a buffalo and kill it for the benefit of the tribe — the art then created the result in the tribe’s eyes. In cultures of the past, artists served a role much more similar to a magician or shaman; we still do, albeit in a more obscure form, especially if you loosen your term of what “art” is. Anyways, getting back to it, the sigils I use are mostly things dealing with personal change, though some are more general, especially the repeated ones. Those specifically serve to connect the work into a unified whole, much like a signature. I don’t use symbols outside of my personal symbol-language, as that’s what I’ve chosen to work within and what resonates the most with me.

Some of my more recent work has incorporated some tattoo iconography, albeit in a more reduced form. There’s several design elements within tattooing that I think work well within paintings as well. In a way, painting started out as an escape from the tattoo juggernaut, which has a way of becoming all-encompassing in one’s life. The fact that some of it has started finding its way into my painting work is a sign of the proper integration of tattooing into my life, I think. In the end, whether it’s a painting or a tattoo, it’s all part of the whole of my work.

SP: You “gained speed” as a tattooist pretty quickly; I remember watching your work progress at a geometric rate and knowing early on that you “got it.” What are your thoughts on traditional apprenticeships? Do you think that the ability to make needles with a soldering iron and jig or being able to build machines is necessary for the modern tattooist?

DB: Tattooing is in a weird spot. Most good artists out there have no interest in taking apprentices, which leaves hopefuls to take on the dangerous task of learning on their own — which really puts a lot of people in a worse position than not knowing anything, since they end up with a bunch to unlearn — or to learn from sketchy bad tattooists who are taking them on for the wrong reasons. It’s inevitable that there’s always going to be new blood becoming part of the community, so there has to be some way to sift through everyone to ensure that the people who deserve it. I don’t know that there’s an answer to that conundrum.

I think knowing every aspect of one’s craft is important. I know how to make needles. I can build a machine from raw materials (metal, magnet wire and some screws). I can make pigment. I can essentially make anything involved in my craft except a power supply. Do I do all of that? No. I no longer make my own needles. I make machines, some of which I keep, some I sell. I don’t make my own pigment, except on rare occasions. Learning all of that, though, connects me to and further refines my process. So much of tattooing is about learning what works for you, rather than knowing the one “right” way to do something. It’s easy to get lost in all that, though. No matter how hard one tries, there’s not going to be that magic machine or magic pigment that’s going to make a person a good tattooist. That’s the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of time spent at the drawing table.

SP: Tattooing is in a weird spot. I can remember headlines when I was a kid boasting, “Tattoos: No longer for Bad Boys and Bikers!” Yet, all of the people covered in the articles were bad-asses or bikers. We’ve finally hit a place where it’s transcended that: almost everyone in our age group has at least one tattoo. But it’s moving past just regular joes and hitting the superculture. What do you think about the “tattooist as celebrity” concept? You know, mix your Ed Hardy energy drink with Sailor Jerry rum and down it when you’re watching Miami Ink — is this good for tattooing?

DB: Not just regular tattoos, it seems like a good chunk of people our age are rocking a half sleeve, or at least one in progress. To me personally, I find celebrity culture in general obnoxious, so seeing it come about within my own craft is especially annoying. As it relates to the tattoo community as a whole, though, I think it’s too complicated to frame it as necessarily good or bad. It’s a total paradigm shift, and it forces us to rethink what our expectations of “tattooing” are.

It’s not really a surprise that it came about, though. The market wants to frame everything simpler and sexier to make it into a commodity, so this “tattoo subculture” comes about, with the clothes, the look, the phones, et cetera. That’s so limited, though, and doesn’t get to the essence of what tattooing is. Most serious tattooists I know don’t relate to that whole thing at all. It almost resembles the “maya” concept of the veil that obscures reality as it is.

The funny thing with it all is that the permanent nature of tattooing itself denies it from being able to be a passing trend. Someone may be into the “tattoo culture” and get a bunch of tattoos then later grow out of it. However, the tattoos are still there. So, as they grow older, they’ve gotta rock them, they inevitably get more, but the nature and style of their tattoos change to reflect their growth.

SP: Cliche interview question, but whose work are you into these days? Tattooers, painters, directors, musicians — whomever. I find that listening to the proper music really helps me write, but can’t read before I work on something, lest Bukowski or Palahniuk get channeled without me realizing it. How does the output of others influence your work?

DB: The first artist that really shifted my perspective in tattooing was Grime. I can trace that to a specific tattoo. When I was very young in tattooing, I was into all that ’99-era new-school cartoony tattooing. Looking at artists online, I found Grime’s portfolio on the Tattoo City Web site. I had heard of him more almost as a legend from people who had been at shops when he did guest-spots. In his portfolio he had a sleeve of Houdini, in a straight jacket, upside down on an arm, rendered almost like a painting of a Catholic saint. It also incorporated some severed flying hands in handcuffs, and a key, with a background that was an abstracted and more dynamic form of Japanese iso bars. It was the first time I saw a tattoo that you couldn’t really pigeonhole into some category. It was simply illustrative. Seeing that really pushed me into a direction; not to do tattoos that looked like Grime’s, but to do tattoos that drew from my approach to subject matter, rather than an established genre within tattooing. (I frequently use the term “genre” rather than “style” to refer to traditional, Japanese, new school, et cetera. I feel it’s a more accurate term.)

Most of my influences have been more from the painting and illustration world. Jeff Soto and James Jean have both been influences. Kathy Olivas and Brandt Peters are personal friends of mine, and have helped me and definitely influenced my painting work. I owe a lot to them. Musically, a lot of Canadian post-rock stuff like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and HRSTA, along with Beirut, and lot of softer stuff like Belle and Sebastian, and then some ridiculous power metal round me out. Jodorosky is inspiring as a director, as I’m sure you know. I also have gotten a lot from Aronofsky, particularly from The Fountain, which I highly recommend to any visual artist. Winsor McKay, who I mentioned before, is a visual treat …

But going back to tattooists, I’d like to also mention Tim Biedron. It’s been a while since he’s really been a direct influence on my work, but I’ve gotten to work with him a few times at Deluxe this last year, and seeing him go from a rough, energetic stencil to a highly polished tattoo is amazing. He definitely puts out his own vision. My friend Jason Vaughn is right there, too, for much the same reason. Jason also has such a great knack for breaking down subject matter into simplified elegance. Another guy, who I haven’t met or talked to, is Jeff Gogue, who does a purely painterly soft style of tattooing. It seems to me that many guys who do work like that almost use it as an excuse to be a bit sloppy for the sake of energy, but his work in particular is very refined. Then, going in a totally different direction is Spanish and Italian traditionalists, Deno and Gore, and Rudy Fritsch, respectively. They all do a very folky style of tattooing that just has such raw visual power.

That brings me to Dan Higgs. He also seems a bit ubiquitous within modern tattooing, but he, as a whole person, has definitely been an influence. The retired tattooist/musician/magician/poet/painter is such a personality that he has achieved mythical proportions in many ways. I see an undercurrent of an attraction to his weaving of alchemical philosophy into traditional tattooing, but the result for the most part has just been a homogenous genre of “mysterious traditional” without respect to the whole picture. (I’ve been guilty of this.) It seems like the path that Higgs in many ways started should be a jumping off point rather than an end point. I think the permanence of the form of tattooing leads us to use established solutions as a crutch.

I guess my personal vision is to use tattooing to develop synergistic personal narratives. In a way, one person’s experience is every person’s experience, and tattooing records this. In the best form, it’s me utilizing my vision to express my client’s vision culminating in something that ends up becoming more universal. In the more limited form, though, we draw from a standard established symbol system, when more appropriate symbols could be used, instead. There’s definitely growth out there, though. Look at all the nature tattoos people want. How many owls/birds/trees has every tattooist done in the past couple of years? There’s meaning behind all that.

SP: Higgs is a strange case. I’ve seen him flatly turn down a client’s design request and then give them a (well deserved) lecture on why you should know the significance of the Sacred Heart before you get it tattooed on you. What are your thoughts on putting “hidden language” tattoos on clients? You’re one of the few tattooers I know who knows what a lot of these things represent — do you feel a responsibility to talk to a client who wants a symbolically powerful design but who’s ignorant to the meaning?

DB: I’m a little more light-hearted about it than that. In those situations, I take on the role of the educator. We live in an entire world of symbology, and I think everyone who chooses a tattoo does so because it resonates with them, albeit sometimes on a very subconscious level, so I don’t judge. They likely may not know the specific significance, but a part of them speaks the language. I hope that’s not getting too abstract.

On the same subject, but an even more light-hearted note: Every time a person has ever come in wanting to get a yin yang tattoo, I’ve joked with them that I won’t do it unless they tell me what religion/philosophy it’s associated with. In my seven years of tattooing, I’ve never had someone correctly answer “Taoism” or even “Chinese” philosophy. So they may be ignorant of the origins surrounding the symbol, but they do correctly seek to realize the balance that it represents.

Used like that, tattoos become sigils themselves. Great sigils, as a matter of fact — ones you spent a small portion of your life focusing on just dealing with when receiving the tattoo, and then they’re there forever. I see the same reoccurring themes among clients: simplification, seeking balance, connection to nature, connection to a higher power, connection to art/process/work, self-improvement, and escapism.

Outside of the pure “collector” mentality, tattoos are usually there to symbolize/elicit an effect, so my job is to understand the motivations behind a tattoo and know “the person” behind what they’re wanting. Once I’m there, people tend to be a lot more open to imagery and approach, and I’m able to render something that may be a lot more appropriate to their objectives than what was in their head. I get it all the time, “It’s not at all what I was envisioning, but it’s exactly what I wanted.” I don’t take this as me being some astounding artist, I just listen to what’s behind a person’s words.

SP: You did a set of flash with Dan Rick, but most (or all?) of your work is custom. Do you think a design loses its “power” when it’s constantly reproduced? Or is the opposite true? Have you seen any tattoos done from your designs?

DB: For the most part everything I do is custom. As a community, we’ve kind of moved out of the flash era of tattooing. There’s a lot of flash that’s being put out, but its purpose has changed. Flash exists either for purely artistic reasons, or to act as a jumping off point for clients to figure out what they want tattooed. No one wants something directly off the wall anymore.

As far as a design losing its power? I think much of it depends on the design itself. Some things gain a lot and get refined as different people explore a form and as a result put out some mighty powerful imagery. Other designs are so quaint and personal that repeating them just waters them down. A lot of “clever” tattoos fall into that category, like the finger mustache.

I’ve seen people who have copied my designs before. I’ve seen elements of my work that were obviously my approach in others’ work. (Like roses that are identical to specific ones I’ve done; not drawn like them, but obviously traced from the original.) I’ve also seen a couple fully copied tattoos where it looks like the client must have brought an image of mine from online to their artist. Honestly, those things in no way bother me, but make me feel sad for the other artist and client. Copying my work does nothing to affect me, but serves to define them as unoriginal copiers.

SP: I recently read an interview with tattooer turned “fine artist” Mike Giant. He gives his reasons for quitting tattooing:

“Also, tattooing has become the hardest job I can do and pays the least. I make way more money with REBEL8 and fine art now. And in the end, I’m content just sitting in my studio drawing on paper with Sharpies. I’m tired of drawing other people’s ideas and trying to get those ideas into their skin.”

This is a guy who started tattooing roughly the same time you did. Would you give it up for painting if money wasn’t an issue?

DB: I don’t think money is an issue. If I felt really strongly about it, I would bust my ass as a painter and make that into a successful career. What it comes down to is that I consider tattooing to be my primary medium. It’s what I have the most love for. Sure, there’s lots of frustrating aspects of it, but there’s nothing else like it.

SP: So with the dynamic of tattooing changing, do you ever see yourself taking on an apprentice?

DB: It’s tough. I see the need for it within the community, but I worry a lot about committing myself to teaching someone for that long. I definitely can’t say, “No, I never will.” I suppose if the right person came along with the right art skills and drive … Actually, my friend Jason Vaughn apprenticed in Tampa at Atomic, the shop I worked at several years back. He and I shared the most similar aesthetics and sensibilities in the shop, so I sort of got to act as a mentor back then, but I was pretty green myself. When he first came around, though, just looking at his sketchbooks he had with him, you could just tell that the tattoo community would be missing out if he didn’t become part of it. I think what he’s accomplished so far shows that. He’d be a tough act for another person to follow.

SP: I’ve met Jason — really great guy. That he’s an amazing artist wouldn’t be the first thing I said about him; it would be more about who he is as a person. Same goes for you. So would taking on an apprentice for you be more about what they bring to the table artistically or more what they bring to the trade personality wise?

DB: It’s a combination of both. I’d have to hit it off right with the person, but the art has to be there; I’m of the belief that in order for someone to be great artistically, they need to have a strong personality to provide the drive, endurance and such to create. Natural talent is a myth.

SP: I remember a conversation we had once about you restricting your hours at the shop so you had your tattoo days, your painting days and your family days. Very structured to make sure Kimmy and the boys had dad/husband time. You guys have been together forever — where did y’all meet?

DB: Yeah, I’ve pretty much dropped the painting days from all that, but that’s how it works. Kimmy and I met on IAM — we each had a page and met up through there. Kimmy and I probably did everything you’re not “supposed” to do in relationships: Met on the Internet, moved in together quick, got married quick, had kids quick. It just all works for us. Our relatives say that we seem like two old souls that met up again.

She’s an integral part of the whole dynamic of my work as well. Kimmy helps out where ever she can, helping out with contact with clients, scheduling, Internet work, providing a much needed second opinion on design issues, et cetera. I joke that if she wasn’t involved, it would be weeks before I got back to anyone.

SP: Kimmy is awesome. She seems to really be at ease with my continued attempts to steal Abe (Ed. Note: Abe is David’s youngest son) while still finding time to schedule appointments and keep your clients in the loop.

Going back to Higgs for a second, what’s the connection between guys with big beards and guys who do strange tattoos? You have a big ol’ beard and you’ve tattooed some strange things. Same with Higgs, Hedgie … What does a big beard mean to you?

DB: I’ve had some level of facial hair ever since I could grow it, because without it I look like a child. (I know, I shaved it all off once. Once.) I resisted the mustache part of the beard for a long time until my wife finally convinced me to grow it all out. It really doesn’t have any deeper meaning to me necessarily. I range between letting it get real big and wild, and keeping it trim and well put together depending what mood I’m in. I have to admit, I really like the image of the otherwise well dressed man with just a totally wild beard.

SP: How would you like to be remembered?

DB: I’d like to be known as an honest person who truly pursued his own path while putting the important things first.

SP: Anything I haven’t covered that you’d like to finish up with?

DB: No, I’ve gotten to put a lot of more abstract musings in my head into a concise and concrete form. It might be fair to mention that while I may have a magical perspective on tattoo symbology and its affect on people, I don’t necessarily overtly interact with people on that level. The tattoo consultation process is usually a pretty light, enjoyable experience, rather than deep and intense, which discussion of all this stuff on such a philosophical level might lead people to misunderstand.

David Bruehl tattoos by appointment only at Think Ink Tattoos, 1430 W. Lindsey, Norman, OK 73069. You can contact him about appointment info/consultations via cell at (813) 205-3419 or email him at [email protected].

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A Man Without a Cock or Country

The voice. That’s it. When you meet Buck Angel, the one thing that even comes close to betraying that he was born a woman is the slight, feminine lilt in his voice. Still, it sounds more like the stereotypical “gay man” voice than one belonging to a biological female, except that isn’t quite right, either: the pitch is close, but the timbre is far from flamboyant. Even when discussing his role in a graphic sex show with a male accomplice at London’s Torture Garden — “I mostly slap him around and make him get on his hands and knees, maybe flog him a little and drip candlewax, and maybe I’ll fist him; I do some fisting stuff up there” — he keeps a modest tone, never lapsing into caricature. But the voice … that’s really the one clue, the closest thing to a giveaway that there’s something different about Buck. Well, that and the vagina.

* * *

FEBRUARY 8, 2006

The voice fools Howard Stern. When Buck shows up at Stern’s Sirius Radio studio to take part in a self-explanatory game called What’s My Secret, the crew sees a man, five-foot-eight, muscle-bound and covered in tattoos, sporting a clean-shaven skull and a thick Fu Manchu that, says Stern,“is a better mustache than I could ever grow.” For the purposes of the game, that little vocal flourish is a red flag.

“You’re gay,” Stern guesses incorrectly, and the air goes out of the room. If not gay, then what? What else could there be about a biker-looking workout junkie with a deceptively faggy voice? The crew is stumped and silent until Stern’s longtime sidekick, Robin Quivers, has an epiphany.

“You have not always been a man,” she announces, triumphant and grinning. Buck’s eyes close to slits as he turns to face her, grimacing and nodding his head. Bang on. “This is a man who went through a sex change.”

“You are very good,” he says, thinking, Quivers is a total dyke — of course she knows who he is. “That is awesome!”

Stern looks legitimately dumbfounded, saying he never would have guessed Buck’s secret … except that’s not the extent of the story. “You really have to guess what’s going on in Buck’s pants,” says Stern’s producer, Gary Dell’Abate. Stern looks like he’s catching on and asks Buck if he’s had “the surgery,” but Buck shakes his head.

“No, I’ve still got a pussy. That’s the whole thing: I’m Buck Angel, the man with a pussy.”

Like manna from heaven. All tension dissipates, and the Stern crew starts the inevitable pile-on. “So you’re not really a man.” “You have sex with women? So you are gay.” “You’re just fooling the authorities. If you’re legally a dude, then I’m legally a black man,” Stern says. Ad nauseam.

Yet Buck is all smiles, happily whipping out his wallet and passing around his driver’s license to prove that, legally, he is indeed a man. “My vagina does not make me a woman,” he insists, a statement that lands so far beyond the crew’s breadth of understanding that he may as well have delivered it in Martian. As Stern repeatedly tells him he’s “a chick, no offense,” Buck lets it roll off; he understands they’ve never seen anyone like him before, and he realizes that they’re not going to “get it” right away. Then it’s revealed that, as a woman, Buck was a female model, and Stern is even further flummoxed: Photos show Buck in a former life, a tight wet T-shirt over perky breasts and a slim frame, frosted blonde hair and strong, sharp features.

“You were a hot chick,” Stern says, less disrespectful than disbelieving. “What a waste. I would’ve done you.” That’s funny, Buck thinks, because God knows he would never have done Stern.

Ostensible mutual disgust aside, it’s still the Howard Stern show, and Buck ends up being asked to take off his pants. He obliges, but first asks, in complete earnest, if everyone’s ready for what they’re going to see — “a big man vagina,” that is, with a clitoris enlarged by nearly two decades of testosterone therapy. He drops his trousers and groans rise immediately from the room; writer Artie Lange barely peeks through fingers laced over his eyes, Quivers cackles, but Stern lets loose with a guttural laugh that belies the horror he’s tried to put on and instead indicates some sort of tangible fascination with what he’s seeing.

“I had a really weird thought,” Stern says to Buck at one point. “Do you want to get on the Sybian?”

The Sybian is a sex toy that looks like a saddle with a rod in the center, onto which different “heads” can be attached and then vibrate, weave and rotate. Porn stars are frequent Stern guests, and they’re often asked to ride the device. Buck, although he’s the world’s most successful female-to-male transsexual porn star, bristles internally at first, thinking there’s no fucking way he’s getting on that thing, but that’s quickly quashed by the showman inside that tells him to just do it. So he hops on and proceeds to purposefully make everybody as uncomfortable as possible.

He stands up a few minutes later after having taken enough, the room full of staffers on the brink of convulsions, and decides to bring down the house. “Oh God,” he says, pawing at his tenderized crotch and looking down at the machine, “I squirted!”

* * *

“I was fucking with them so hard,” Buck tells me two years later from his home in Mérida, Yucatán, where he lives with his wife, body piercer Elayne Angel. He’ll never go back on the Stern show, he says, not because he was hurt by what Stern and the others said to him, but because he thinks it would detract from the dominant performance he gave the first time around. “I know how to play that game,” he says. “I can make fun of myself too. I’m a porn star! Give me a break.” And though the experience was degrading to an extent, Buck knew exactly what he was getting himself into — it was the Howard Stern show, after all.

Watching the video of his appearance though, I tell Buck I got the impression that for all the fronting Stern did, it seemed like he really, truly wanted to be OK with Buck and what he was seeing, but that it was so different from the world with which he was familiar, he came off as incredulous and more than a little phobic.

“Exactly!” Buck says, downplaying the severity of Stern’s barbs. “I think Howard likes me a lot, and I think Howard respects me a lot. The stuff he said to me was very minimal.” That is to say, Stern was just confused; there are plenty of others who make concerted efforts to actually attack him — often, the community of transgender men.

According to Buck, this is because he doesn’t identify as a trans-man — he considers himself a man, plain and simple. “They’re the ones who are more political,” he says of trans-men. “I think they get sort of upset about me calling myself ‘the man with a pussy.’” 

Buck has also butted heads with the trans-man community over what Buck claims is the increasingly frequent practice of fundraising parties thrown by pre-op men to finance their sexual reassignment operations; he was even quoted by the Village Voice for an article on the subject. “Boy, did I get myself into a big problem with that,” he says, but claims he received a decent amount of supportive feedback, too, from others who feel that if one wants to be a man, then, well, “be a man, dude.

“Too many of these fuckin’ people are in this situation where they’re begging,” he says, which he understands to a point, “but how come you can’t get a job?” Buck worked two jobs to pay for his surgery, and the sense of pride that comes along with that achievement itself nicely complements the satisfaction of finally feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. “But a boob-cutting-off party?” he asks. “What the fuck is that?”

It could be, of course, that these men feel they’re entitled to reach their transformative goal any way they see fit. They were slighted to begin with by being born with the wrong body, and that the destination, in this case, is far more important than the journey.

“It just seems so female,” Buck says of the trend, though. “I don’t know any transsexual women that throw cock-cutting-off parties! They just don’t go there.” He concedes, however, that there aren’t any guidelines on how to be a man, and that, his objections notwithstanding, he’s not suggesting that all men should feel they need to emulate him. “I’m just an old-school kind of guy,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine anyone paying for my surgery.”

Sexual reassignment surgery is expensive, though the prices vary. For a transgender man, breast removal can run from $3,000 to $15,000, a range Buck likens to the difference between buying a Volkswagen or a Cadillac. Some people can wait a few years and have a higher-end procedure, but for some, the urgency takes precedence. “And believe me,” he says, “it is an urgency for most of us. You can’t deal with having boobs. It’s horrific. To me, and a lot of guys, I think, it’s worse than not having a cock.”

Buck opted for a $7,000 operation, which, he says, would likely run closer to $10,000 nowadays — not cheap, but, he admits, it was a necessity for a person who’s more than a little vain. The first nine doctors he visited told him any chest surgery would result in nasty scars, which he found unacceptable; he wanted to be able to take off his shirt and not have anyone know he used to be a woman. His tenth consultation was with a surgeon from UCLA who specialized in operating on biological men with gynecomastia, a glandular issue that results in overdeveloped breasts, and who was confident he could perform surgery that would leave minimal scarring. Buck was lucky: He had small breasts to begin with, and the doctor’s prediction was correct.

This was 15 years ago. The surgery, combined with testosterone therapy, had Buck well upon his way towards a sense of ease he’d never really experienced. And a good thing, too, because he probably would have killed himself otherwise.

* * *

Buck was born the daughter of parents he (lovingly, sarcastically) calls “old school, Republican, scary white people,” and was equal parts loner and tomboy. He was raised playing football, wearing boys’ clothes and playing almost solely with guys — hell, he was even called “Buck” as a young woman. The second of three girls, he always felt that he was raised more like a boy than either of his sisters, though he rejects the idea his crisis of gender was caused by his upbringing; rather, he thinks his parents knew that there was something inside him that required a different approach than those tried with his sisters.

He eventually came out as a lesbian to his parents, but with what, at the time, seemed an unthinkable qualifier: “‘It’s not that I feel like a gay woman,’ I told them, ‘I feel like a man.’” Buck’s dad, who he describes as “super macho,” began to weep and blamed himself; he had wanted a boy, and must have thought he had somehow left his middle daughter fundamentally confused and irreparably damaged. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buck started doing a whole bunch of drugs. Coke, crack and massive amounts of booze did their thing — he admits there are significant parts of his life of which he has little to no memory — and before long, his family disowned him completely. He doesn’t blame them, and, without a hint of self-pity, cops to being, by all accounts, a miserable scumbag. By his mid-twenties, he was suicidal, having been tossed off by most people in his life, and was living on the streets as a thieving, drug-addled prostitute. He hit bottom about as hard a person can, but he somehow conjured up the presence of mind to start attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which he says undeniably saved his life.

He started having what he calls “awakenings,” and tried to isolate what made him start doing drugs in the first place. Three years into his sobriety, with the help of a therapist, he felt like he could comfortably trace the roots of his drug abuse to his incredible gender confusion; at the time, he didn’t even know transsexuals existed. But one shot of testosterone, he says, was all it took, “and all of my problems were lifted from me.”

Then he lost everyone all over again.

“When I first decided I was really a man and not a woman,” he says, “because I was a dyke, my circle of friends all pretty much dropped me. They couldn’t even comprehend.” Buck says the stereotypes are true, and that, about militant lesbians, “they are male-haters; they are not positive about men, and they have a lot of issues about men. I don’t know if it’s penis envy or what, but most of them were like, ‘Dude, you’re out of here.’”

A handful of friends stuck with him, but having worked so hard to build back up a strong network of people after being alone for so long, only to see it disappear again, was devastating. Fuck communities then, Buck thought, if all they do is uphold the tenets of a rigid, unchanging identity, and then spit you out when you deviate. The dykes won’t stick with a trans-man, and the trans-men get offended by a guy who has the balls to trumpet the virtues of his vagina. Why go through the effort of establishing nomenclature for every variation of queer identity if they’re going to be used as tools of division? If only your average straight-laced queer-baiter knew how closed-minded some sects of these hated deviants can be.

A funny thing happened, though. Over the past few years, a number of these women who once told him to go screw? They’ve come to him for advice on how to have a sex change. And at first, empathy was far from the order of the day. “I’m not one who likes to hold on to animosity,” Buck says, “but my first impulse was to say, ‘fuck you, you guys totally dogged me when I was hurting and feeling so confused.’

“But then I thought, OK, you know what? I’m a pioneer. It’s sort of my duty to say, ‘yes, I can help you.’”

* * *

JANUARY 13, 2007

The Adult Video News Awards, which are essentially the Oscars of pornography, were once described in a David Foster Wallace essay as an “irony-free zone.” The porn industry is, if nothing else, helplessly earnest. Buck knows this, and can see the humor in his surroundings, but the fact that, on this night, he’s nominated for Best Transsexual Performer of the Year is an honor nonetheless, especially considering it’s the first time a female-to-male performer has ever been nominated. Though he only started doing porn in 2003, it’s taken some serious chutzpah to get here.

“In the beginning, they would not even look at me,” he says of others in the porn world. “They were mortified, and I was shocked because I thought they were going to love it. They have everything! Fifty-million-man gang-bangs, balloon fetishes, clown fetishes, horse fetishes, whatever the hell they do.

“But,” he says, “they thought I was the sickest thing ever.”

Though he initially signed on with the production company Robert Hill Releasing, he ended up branching out on his own, and now produces, directs and stars in his films himself, after he realized that, otherwise, he was just going to be mocked. (Also, he was being screwed out of money.) Once he left Robert Hill, the company hired another trans-man to star in their films and called him “The Man With a Pussy,” a title Buck now has trademarked. (Seriously.) This performer, however, had had no surgery, and once his clothes came off, he looked like a woman. “They used him to make freak-fest movies,” Buck says, “and they bombed.” Working within such a small niche market, a producer needs to have the utmost respect for the material — the people who are going to be turned on by it comprise such a small market share, you can’t afford to make them feel like they’re freaks.

The industry must have recognized his dedication, because when it comes time to announce the winner of the 2007 Transsexual Performer of the Year, Buck hears his name called, sees his face on the screen, but is told not to go up to the stage to receive his award; his category is the very last one of the night to be announced, and people are already filing out of the auditorium.

“It’s totally rude and disrespectful,” he says. “We’re behind the ‘best anal gang-bang,’ we’re behind the ‘best cumshot up your hole,’ we’re behind every single other genre. They look at us like we’re freaks.”

(Dykes? Check. Trans-men? Check. The vultures of the adult entertainment industry? Check.)

“Of course, I was still super happy to win the award,” he says. “It was super huge and historical.”

He even called his dad after the show.

“He loved it,” Buck says. “He said, ‘That’s so cool! I have a son who’s a porn star!’” Once Buck started his sex change, he rehabilitated his relationship with his family, with whom he says he now has as healthy a connection as he could ask for. His parents call him their son, his sisters call him their brother, they come to Mexico to visit and love Elayne. “I truly believe,” Buck says, “that all your family ever really wants is for you to be happy and successful and not fucked up on drugs.”

* * *

Many people’s lives may be easier if Buck didn’t exist. Not if he were dead, mind you, but if he had just been born in a man’s body. Or, barring that, if he had just shelled out the $70,000 for a limp piece of meat to hang between his legs, risked the 50-percent chance of never having another orgasm, and lived his life as a sexually unsatisfied man who at least fit in neatly somewhere. Ours is a society built on binaries, after all: Man and woman, good and bad, husband and wife, hero and villain. They allow for order, or at least the illusion of such. A person is one thing, or they’re another thing, and that’s it. Without a Buck Angel around, one need not address the idea that sexuality is perhaps more fluid than originally thought.

It makes sense in a masochistic sort of way. You feel certain impulses, desires, and rather than addressing them and finding a way to incorporate them into a healthy life, you don’t just suppress them — you adopt a world view that makes such urges impossible to even consider. The idea is to simplify your life, to reduce everything to a pair of choices, but the grand irony is that it’s this attempt at simplification that ends up destroying a person. Which is not to say that embracing these multiform routes through life is simple by any means, but the potential payoff is far greater. Under the current system, who is supposed to be turned on by Buck, anyway? The vagina is a deal-breaker for gay men and straight women, and the fact that he’s a man probably wouldn’t sit well with straight guys and lesbians. And yet, he’s got his fans, his following.

That said, he’s not a hero. He’s not saving the world by getting fucked in his big man vagina. To an extent, though, he is indeed the face and the voice of a new way of thinking, one long denied its existence and its relevance, and of that, he is living proof.

Let’s just not give it a name.

Visit Buck online at

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Oslo SusCon day 3

Day three is halfway through, and it’s been another exciting one for sure!

A solid 21 suspensions have taken place today, including a six-point angel suspension by Paul King of the APP, who incidentally did a very interesting lecture today (and yesterday, which I forgot to mention) on Festival Practices of Sri Lanka.

At this very moment, Havard is doing an amazingly beautiful “installation” suspension, which looks incredible in a complex and curious sort of way. As his “piece” is coming to an end, we have what I believe to be the third spinning beam couple up and bouncing, with Kjetil on saxophone in midair, and Michele still in his aftercare outfit! You’ll be here next year, right?

Hungry for more entertainment, Håvve has asked some of the participants to throw something else our way, so this evening will see a collaborative show by Cookie (US), Lucky (Australia), Alice and Benoit (UK), Steve Joyner (US) and Bena (Sweden). International improvisation ahoy, I am way excited!

Ah! I just got word of Håvve’s calf suspension which I missed due to seeing Paul’s lecture. He must have been less than static whilst hanging, as his skin ripped to the point where Christiane could jam a finger not only into one of his hook holes, but right through his calf! I sure hope we can get a picture of that up here. In fact, I’m going to go and rob photos off of people right after this!

The convention is slowly coming to an end, and it’s definitely on my to-do list to return next year. Of course, it won’t be over till the after-party is dealt with tomorrow night, another tradition which tends to kick the ass; nothing to end a perfect weekend like a bout of drunken silliness with heavily modified crazies. Well, it’s eating time once again, and you know what that means…

Peace out y’all!

- Alex