Six years ago, John Lopez was working as an emergency medical technician making $6 an hour in Eureka, Calif., when a friend married the general manager of a piercing store. Lopez had a longtime fascination with needles and phlebotomy -- lab work, blood drawings, injections -- and quickly realized that he might enjoy body piercing. He now works as a piercer at Gotham, a piercing and tattooing salon in San Francisco. I spoke with him recently about the reasons people get pierced, the most bizarre request he's ever received and why it hurts more to pierce nipples than tongues.
How did you learn the trade?
In California, there are no laws to regulate piercing other than a law against piercing minors without parental consent. I wanted to at least have something that said I know how to prevent infection and use a needle, even though it has nothing to do with piercing. So I went to the California Medical Assistance Association and took a class to get certified to perform needle sticks -- blood draw, injections, IV. Then I asked other piercers all the questions I could think of and observed them doing piercings. I also watched every video I could, read every article available and subscribed to the Association of Professional Piercers' monthly newsletter.
At that point, did you have many piercings yourself?
All I had was my labret and my ears. I wasn't really into piercing, but the more I learned, the more it fascinated me. Within a month of doing the research, I was hooked. When I felt I had a good, basic understanding of placement, gauges and technique, I started practicing on myself.
Where did you start?
My scrotum. And then my ears, then more scrotum piercings. I had a lot of friends who were very supportive, and let me pierce their ears and their eyebrows. I made mistakes in the beginning.
There isn't a piercing school you can attend?
No. There are piercing companies that give basic, week-long seminars that teach cost, contamination prevention, technique, how to hold the tools, placement and sizes.
So, anyone can become a piercer?
Just put a sign in your window and get a business license, which is usually only $40 a year.
Are there any piercings you won't do?
There are several piercings that I refuse to do. The clitoris itself: I don't think I ever will do a clitoris; I don't believe that's a healthy piercing. Two of the male genital piercings, the apadravya and the ampallang, which goes right through the glans at the head of the penis vertically or horizontally. I won't do those until a master piercer walks me through it. Those are extremely serious piercings that need to be taught.
Is there any part of the body that can't be pierced?
Everything can be pierced. At Gotham we have policies, though. We don't do surface piercings, like the forehead, the nape of the neck, across the back of the wrist, things like that, where there's no edge. They grow out; they scar. People come back and complain. It's better not to risk the possibility of a lawsuit. There are also people piercing deeper than we feel is safe. Quite often, they're not so good.
How can someone determine whether their piercer is qualified?
If the piercer has a good reputation, they're probably doing good work. The other way is to ask questions. The worst question to ask is, how much? If your only questions are "Does it hurt?" and "How much is it?" you could walk away with hepatitis and get liver cancer in 20 years, and not know where it came from.
Good questions to ask a prospective piercer are: "How do you sterilize your equipment?" "Do you reuse needles?" If somebody's too busy or uptight to answer them, just go somewhere else. It's your liver we're talking about.
What other things can go wrong?
The worst thing that can go wrong for me is I can accidentally stick myself after I've put the needle through your tissue. For the person getting pierced, about the worst thing that could happen is if they jump, something could slip at the last minute. They'd end up with a little extra pain. Most of the things that go wrong happen after the person goes home. Especially, I believe, when people stretch or play with their piercings too early, or when people pierce with the wrong size jewelry. Everybody wants a piercing to be a fun, exciting thrill. Then it's over with and it's beautiful. But there's a commitment that goes along with it that can last anywhere from three months to two years, to get something to heal correctly.
What's the most satisfying aspect of your job?
When you pierce somebody who's really, really afraid, and you can make them feel at ease. Being a medic, I've always wanted to be in a medical profession of some kind. Piercing is not a medical profession, but we treat it as such. When somebody comes in and they have a problem -- whether you did the piercing or somebody else did -- and you can help them clear up the problem, it's like helping a sick person get better. That's a great feeling.
Are the piercings on your own body important to you?
Extremely. My septum piercing was done by Gotham's master piercer, John Stryker. It was an amazing experience. I've had it done twice. The first time, I was apprenticing somebody before I should have been apprenticing them. I thought she was ready to do the piercing, and she wasn't. It was one of the most painful experiences I've ever had in my life. Took it out immediately, of course. About a year later I went to John Stryker to have it done. I literally had no idea he had done it. This guy is smooth.
When Stryker does a piercing -- especially when he does tongues -- it happens so fast and so smoothly, it's almost like a magician with cards that disappear out of the hand and you swear it's impossible. He just puts that clamp on, has the needle in his hand and a second later, it's all done and there's a piece of jewelry there.
What's your most common piercing request?
Right now, it's nipple or tongue. It changes. When Madonna got her navel done, navels were it for the entire summer. And then, Dennis Rodman came on the scene, and pierced nostrils were kind of big. It depends on who's in the paper, who's in the magazines. It's definitely trendy.
What's the most painful piercing?
There are several. Piercing heavy cartilage -- in the inner ear, close to the head -- tends to hurt a lot. Sometimes nostrils and septums, if the cartilage is heavy, or if you hit the cartilage at all in the septum. The genital piercings -- the ones that go through the glands of the penis or the clitoris itself -- are extremely painful.
Surprisingly enough, most genital piercings are not as bad as nipple piercings. For men, on a scale of one to 10, nipples are around seven or an eight. Whereas on women, they're probably more like a five or a six.
What's the strangest request you've ever had?
The absolutely strangest thing would only happen in San Francisco. I did a piercing on a cross-gender male-to-female post-op, and she wanted a horizontal hood piercing. I didn't know that she used to be a man. She looked just like a punk rock chick. She sat down on the table, and I started cleaning and getting ready to mark, and I realized that there was no real clitoris. I couldn't find a hood. It was all there, but a little off, and I wasn't sure which was which. I've never had that happen before. I asked her, "Are you post-op?" hoping that I wouldn't offend her if she was. And she said she was upset that I could tell. But I had to ask. We did the piercing where she wanted it, and she was thrilled with it. But it threw me at first.
Are people pretty communicative when they come in?
Sometimes. Some people come in and basically they treat us like we're their whore. They get off on this and that's why they're here. Our job is just to be professional and not let them take advantage of us. Other people come in and they're scared to death. They turn green. Our job is to make them feel comfortable.
Have you ever talked somebody out of a piercing?
We have no problem stopping if somebody gets too nervous and they say stop. We'll give you your money back. You can leave, come back when you're ready. I've had people who -- especially younger people -- who I could tell were doing it for the boyfriend, the girlfriend or out of peer pressure. It wasn't for them. I have had to make people leave the room so I could sit one on one with the person and find out why they are here, and if they really want to go through the next six to 12 months of healing. I've also had people who simply haven't showered, and I've told them to go home and shower.
Do people talk about why they're getting pierced?
The most fun piercings are the more ritualistic piercings. I don't want to sound like one of those people who are going to stick a bone in your ear and talk about primal urges. That's not what I'm about. I'm talking about the people who have a child die, get divorced, get married -- something significant in their life happens -- and they come to get pierced at that time to signify it, or give thanks, or to create some kind of a symbolism for themselves. Those are the ones who really want it. Those are the most fun because it means something to them.
Sometimes people come in here because, I think, that they need pain they can define. They're hurting inside. They'll come back again and again. You realize they're not getting pierced because they want the piercings, they just want somebody to hurt them.
Some people were piercing themselves at home when they were 13 years old. Then they come in here and say, "Oh my god, I finally found somebody else who's like me." They don't realize that this is my job. I'm good at it. I love my job. That doesn't mean I wanted to go stick needles in myself when I was a kid.
When I was a child, I was leaning against a radiator grate that wasn't hot. I was daydreaming or something, and it left a pattern in my skin. I touched it, felt it, and that's what interested me in body art. I've always been fascinated by scars. I think scars and tattoos are sexy. I always wished I had a good scar on my face. I just think scars are the sexiest thing in the world. And there are people who feel the same way about piercings: They're sexy and fun. I think they look great on the right person in the right place. I'm not personally a fanatic about it or anything. I mean, I only have 18.