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Holier Than Thou; It's No More Radical Than a Tattoo. Right Mom 'n Dad? A Riveting Story About the Culture Gap

Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 1993 8:17 AM

He offers his skin to the needle. On his back, on a black bed, on the weekend of his 25th birthday, he waits, flush-faced, for the two-inch shaft to lance his chest. Joseph Monter has contemplated this for years, imagined this all week, and now at last comes the precise metallic flash that will pierce his nipple.

"You feel okay?" asks a dark, mustachioed man who calls himself Logger. With surgical confidence, Logger ices and clamps the area. He is Washington's most popular piercer, serving a thickening clot of clients, from trend-driven teenagers to sadomasochists, in a second-story bedroom that he calls "The Black Room."

A gulp ripples Monter's neck. He is a soft-spoken, conservatively dressed office assistant from Arlington. His heart is thudding. Above him, from the black iron bedposts, hang some meat hooks, black rabbit fur, a paddle engraved master, a teddy bear gagged and bound.

The last client needed a chew stick, he kicked and moaned so much. Earlier, pain shuddered through a girl who had her navel pierced. But Monter's stoic eyes fix on the opposite wall, on a tarnished dagger. He tucks his fingers under his thighs, says he is fine.

The needle passes through, a blink of pain. A single drop of blood seeps out. Logger pushes a rainbow-colored hoop through the wound, tapes a swatch of gauze over Monter's pale, hairy chest. "Keep saliva away from it," says the piercer.

Monter nods. "Feel great," he says, sitting up. He's going to a party tomorrow night. "Here's what I got for my birthday!" he'll tell his friends.

His shoulders, frightened tight just moments ago, now roll easy. His eyes have that sheen. They shine like he's just won something, something elusive but important.

They're putting holes in their bodies. They're puncturing nose cartilage, studding their eyebrows, lacing their lips with rings.

This is no longer the province of gays only, or of people who revel in sexual cruelty. Your record store clerk has steel in his nose. Your coffee-shop muffin girl has gold in her belly button. And your accountant -- who knows what jingles beneath the virgin wool? When rock god Axl Rose sports a nipple ring and Madonna poses with pierced women in her picture book "Sex," the chic-seeking reach for a needle.

In the past three years, body jewelry sales have doubled, says Jim Ward, president of Gauntlet Inc., the California-based chain of piercing salons. John Rocco, manager of the Leather Rack, a sexual paraphernalia shop in the District, says his one tray of body jewelry has now multiplied to fill a showcase. He's sold out of "starter rings."

It's as old as sharpened stones.

Egyptian pharaohs pierced their navels. Roman centurion guards wore rings in their chests as a sign of virility and, more pragmatically, as a way to cinch up their capes. African tribal ornamentation to this day involves piercings and the systematic stretching of skin. Indian women often wear nose studs.

What's different in the United States is that it is being introduced by youth, not passed down to them from their elders; the cultural antecedent here is not familial tradition, but the dark world of leather and chains. All the more intriguing, to the young.

Every generation devises ways to freak out its parents. Perhaps, as the pierced will try to persuade you, this is simply a poke in the eye of modernity, a response to the disappearance of meaningful rituals and rites of passage. Or perhaps it is a response to ennui, just another thing to do, a respite from the tedium of your face. Puncture your body. Plug it with beads, spikes and barbells, with jewels, pearls and chains. Yowl when it snags on a towel.

But this feels more extreme than tattoos or purple hair. Why does it make us squirm? Because it is literally in your face? Or because it seems to cross the line between ornamentation and mutilation? Piercing, and the mystique that surrounds it, seems like the glorification of pain. It rejects the first lesson we all learn in life: If it hurts, don't do it.

But they do. Why?

The Frat Boys

Put Arnold on the phone. The guys are passing around the phone at the Sigma Nu fraternity at University of Virginia, deconstructing the act of piercing.

"This eyebrow thing is very sexy," says Arnold Brown, a sophomore who just had his eyebrow skewered. It's been fun watching girls react. A girl said "Wow!" A girl said "Different!"

"Piercing's a good ice breaker. I recommend it for people who can't do small talk."

Brown says his parents don't know about it yet. "I'll tell them to read the paper." The joy of being naughty pumps his voice. "It'll be just another little confrontation with the parent figures."

Pass the phone.

"Girls ask what it's like to kiss," says Wayne Herndon, a sophomore with a ring in his lip. At a party some cute girl asked, and "I said, do you want to kiss me? I was excited. We kissed."

Herndon didn't pierce himself for the girls, though. He did it for his father, he says. He and his dad were too close. "I needed to break away, to make my own decisions and not worry if my dad agreed. I realized it was the only way to get ahead."

Hence the harpooned lip. "It's symbolic of me heading into the world on my own."

His dad didn't quite see it that way.

"He thought it symbolized me goofing around."

Pass the phone.

"My dad hates it," boasts Chuck with the pierced left nipple. The first time Chuck walked around the house without a shirt, "My dad said put a shirt on. I said no. He said yes." Chuck refused to get dressed. His dad snapped open a magazine in front of his face.

Chuck's voice sounds muscled. He won, man. He stood by his nipple ring. Chuck offers his father's number to confirm the story.

Next day comes the plea on a reporter's answering machine:

"Hi this is Chuck. I was wondering if you could find it in your heart not to use my last name in the article. And don't call my father. I talked to him last night and it turned into an ugly scene."

Cliffs Notes on piercing: It gets girls; it gets back at dads.

The Avuncular Piercer

Logger Valentine, the piercer, looks like an uncle you'd leave your kids with for a long weekend. Such a warm smile, such a trustworthy handshake. His house is so clean and he dresses so neatly, as though he's always on his way to a Sunday brunch.

Piercing is how he moonlights.

"Civil servant by day, body piercer by night!" jokes Logger. He started out experimenting on his boyfriend and has built up a growing word-of-mouth business. His lover now has 25 piercings and wears ostentatiously steel-tipped shoes when he flies, to divert airport metal-detector operators.

In the past six years, Logger has pierced straight and gay couples' genitals to mark their weddings. He says he's done doctors, college students of both genders, at least one grandpa. He's done a young woman whose friend observed that every time she gets mad, she pierces a body part.

He sterilizes his needles, and uses them once only, because of the risk of AIDS.

No medical or health department certification is required to become a piercer. And so the quality and safety of the work varies with the skill of the piercer, dermatologists say. When a job is botched, or if a client does not keep his new wound clean, infections can occur. And unsterile instruments can transmit AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-carried diseases.

Logger charges $30 a piercing but he isn't in it for the money, he says.

"They're playing out a fantasy of having something added to their body," says Logger. "What's fascinating is to be a part of their fantasy. I like to control it."

And he does, in a black-curtained bedroom equipped with an autoclave sterilizer, witch hazel and surgeon's gloves. But there's no anesthesia in "The Black Room," nothing more potent than an ice cube. It's just you up against your nerves.

Proving Their Metal

His arms are bloodstained. His hands too are fake-blood red, splattered from the show at the 9:30 club in downtown D.C. Arnold Robles, 25, is sitting outside the sold-out performance by a group called GWAR, where singers dressed as Vikings hack each other with prop swords. Band members spew faux gore, semen and entrails onto the crowd.

"It's like being primal," says Robles, explaining his pierced ears and nipple ring. "It's getting back to the primal Earth, when it rained, when it was foggy, when the wind blows."

Piercing reminds Robles of ancient rituals. It connects him with African and Indian cultures. It's all there in "Modern Primitives," a graphically illustrated reference book published in 1989, which details the revival of tattooing, body piercing and scarification.

"In this world you got to be hard," Robles says. His tangled dark hair drops past his shoulders but his face is intelligent and gentle. When he was little, Robles says, kids teased him a lot and beat him up. "You start finding ways of toughening yourself."

Robles' way was by getting tattoos and piercings. If you're not afraid to drive a spike through your lip, there's little else left to be afraid of.

"It was another level of grasping pain," he says.

A security guard swings through the club doors, hauls out a young woman who's having trouble breathing. Inside, the concert is stewing. GWAR singers disembowel a troll, decapitate a pope figure, bind and dismember a female doll.

The audience cheers.

"I get pierced to see how much {expletive} I can take," Robles says. " 'Cause every year the {expletive} gets weirder."

Universally Unique

Kristen, Kirsten and Kristen want you to know that they got pierced to express their individuality. The three women are 26, 26 and 25 years old. They are wearing lots of black -- leggings, tights and eyeliner. They're a hair stylist, a bartender and a box-office manager, and they are hanging out early one evening.

"This is a statement of showing my independence," says Kristen Blauvelt.

"A way for me to say that I do what I want to," says Kristen Myers.

"Something I wanted to do for myself," says Kirsten Furlong.

Among the three of them there are two nose rings, two navel hoops, two eyebrow loops, one lip stud and more than 20 earrings. Kirsten and one of the Kristens went together to get pierced. You can tell the two Kristens' navel rings apart, a Kristen says, because "Hers is on the bottom; mine is on the top." For a while, they were cleaning out noses and navels several times a day, says Kirsten, and she pops open a troll doll lunchbox filled with antiseptic solution and cotton swabs.

Now, the three friends say, the fact that they're unique doesn't mean that they're abnormal.

"You think only strange people get body piercings," says Kristen Blauvelt. "But a lot of people are weird under their clothes."

Kirsten agrees.

"Everybody in New York and L.A. has multiple piercings," she says. "In San Francisco you see women with half-metal faces."

Kristen agrees.

"It doesn't mean you're a crazy, weird, insane drug addict," says Kristen Blauvelt. "It just means you're being you."

They agree.

Painted Black

Logger forgot to show you something. You've seen his granny porch, and his lovely owl collection and his playroom pinball machine. What about the dungeon, says Logger's partner, have you seen our dungeon?

"Big mouth!" scolds the piercer. They had apparently agreed not to show the dungeon. Logger tromps reluctantly down the stairs, shoots a warning to his lover, "You're going to get it later." But Logger looks so benign, like the sweet-hearted janitor on "One Day at a Time." He seems like such a jolly guy. It's hard to tell if he means it.

Then you walk through the dungeon door, and suddenly you are face to face with a cultural nexus. Like so many avant-garde trends that work their way up to the mainstream, this one has its source, its dark genesis, in a reviled subculture. The suburban parents who are appalled by the little gold ball on their daughter's nose -- well, what would they think of this?

The dungeon walls are painted black, the floor is washed oxblood. Blue light murks down from the ceiling, obscured by strobe lights and a smoke machine. There are stocks, a bondage cross, a sensory deprivation hole. There are gags, whips, electric prods, straitjackets and black leather hoods. Logger even invented a neck-stretching contraption he calls "the gallows."

Down here, Logger is known as the Dungeonmaster. He locks bigmouth into a leather harness hanging from an overhead pipe, pinioning his hands in leather mitts. Bigmouth is now swinging helplessly from the ceiling. Through his pierced nose poke a pair of stainless steel tusks. "I want my mommy," bigmouth says, and you hope he's kidding.

"First there's the torture," says Logger. He is explaining how piercing is done, when he does it down here. Then the client is tied to the bondage table, which also hangs from chains in the ceiling. The piercing's the climax, the final event, he says.

Most clients get pierced upstairs. Dungeon treatment is optional.

"Some people enjoy pain," Logger says, with his sweet uncle smile. "I like inflicting pain."

Branded

Piercing is where tattooing was 10 years ago. Which leads to the inevitable question: What's next?

Chroniclers of the hip say it will be deliberate scarring, and branding. There isn't much evidence of it here, yet.

Lance Butler is ahead of the curve.

As a fraternity rite at the University of the District of Columbia's Omega Psi Phi, his brothers heated a metal iron and branded both of Lance's triceps and his chest with the letter Omega.

"It sizzled," he said. "It smelled like burned bacon."

Private Piercing

Ninety minutes till blastoff, and Dan Ryan's grabbing some dinner. The 25-year-old orders mozzarella sticks and a club sandwich at Friday's, his last supper before getting his genitals pierced.

Ryan's fizzing with excitement. One night last week he dreamed the whole procedure right down to the forceps; he's been taking Vitamin C for what he thinks will be a quick heal; and yesterday he dangled the hoop to check out the new look.

The Tower Records store employee already has 10 holes in his ears, a nose ring and a nipple ring. He's a good-looking guy -- sharp blue eyes, fuzzy blond hair -- but there are a few too many hunks of metal coming out of his head.

"They're addictive," Ryan says. He pulls what looks like a thick staple from his nose. It's a retainer for his septum, to keep the hole from closing. Sometimes when he sneezes it flies out.

The piercings involve "not excruciating pain, more like pleasure pain, an adrenaline high," Ryan says. The endorphin rush is great. "You get to a point where you need it like a drug."

His stepfather, a Coast Guard officer, was always laying down boundaries, Ryan says. "When Kiss came out in '74, I wasn't allowed to have a Kiss album."

Now Ryan's in control.

"You get bored, you feel empty," he says. Emptiness hurts. "So you get a new piercing."

The more he gets, the more he wants. And like any addict, he failed to impress his girlfriend's father. First visit, the father called Ryan an animal, threw him out of the house.

Ryan's spooning down a last bit of whipped cream, 25 minutes left on the clock, when two buddies slouch into the restaurant. Now his stomach starts to move. He's wondering how long it'll be before he can skateboard. The guys pile into a car and crank Sick of It All, a hard edge band, all the way to Logger's house.

The piercer greets Ryan warmly at the door. Ryan rushes in.

"I want to hear you scream," one friend taunts.

Ryan heads for the stairs.

"It's crucifixion, man!" the second friend says.

But Ryan's already halfway up the staircase, up to the Black Room, to the black iron bed and two-inch needle. He glances back at his friends, rips into a grin, takes the rest of the stairs in bounds. He knows the way, been there before, will likely return. He may not be able to fill the emptiness. But he can always fill a hole.

© 1993 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive