How millennials have normalized the ancient art of body piercing

Many ancient cultures practiced and cherished the arts of piercing, poking, dying and branding the skin, commonly known as body modification. With the growth of religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam and their stricter ethical structures, the practice of body art diminished in Western societies.

However, piercings are now a very common accessory, especially among American millennials.

As piercing and tattoo trends make their mark on the millennial generation, Traditional Tattoo in San Luis Obispo has become a popular spot for Cal Poly students seeking new body art. During promotions like their $20 Piercing Weekend, which took place Jan. 14-16, the studio does between 200 and 300 piercings a day.

“The number one piercing we do at Cal Poly is by far nipple piercings,” Traditional Tattoo piercer and tattoo artist Matt Southwood said. “I do so many nipple piercings a day, I can’t keep track. Almost all of them are girls. Right now, it’s really popular to show off nipples.”

By getting pierced, students are tapping into ancient adorning practices, Southwood said.

“I think generations are reclaiming cultural practices, whether they’re conscious of it or not,” Southwood said. “Maybe it’s built into the human DNA to want to adorn our bodies and skin.”

Southwood has been working in the piercing and tattoo industry for 16 years. He said that he has an undeniable personal connection with body art.

His own body art reflects that connection. He is covered in all-black indigenous-looking tattoos, with different shapes and patterns, evoking images from nature. A red-tailed hawk wraps around his neck and blends into the geometric designs running up his chin. Southwood said that patterns come to his mind and don’t go away until he makes them a part of himself.

Piercing trends

According to Southwood, body piercings became more commonplace in the 1980s as a result of the gay rights movement. Around the same time, Southwood said piercing culture became popular with people engaging in the erotic practices of bondage, domination, sadism and masochism (BDSM).

Up until the mid ‘90s, body piercings were an adornment of punk rock culture, Southwood said. Then, a tribal movement made piercing culture mainstream.

In 1993, Nomad Body Piercing was founded in San Francisco, in part by a man named Kristian White. According to Nomad’s website, it was the first body piercing studio in America that worked freehand, without the aid of clamps.

This means that piercers do not use tools such as forceps to support and stabilize the area being pierced.

“Kristian went all around the world staying with different tribes. He started bringing over organic jewelry, like plugs,” Southwood said. “He fell in love with indigenous cultures and their body art practices, and he made a business out of it.”

Plugs are short, circular pieces of jewelry commonly worn in larger-gauge ear piercings.

Visiting Nomad was Southwood’s introduction to the piercing world. Today, his piercing room replicates the rainforest-inspired decor of the Nomad studio.

Eliminating the “pierced person” stereotype

Southwood said there is no longer a certain type of person who gets piercings.

“The people that come here aren’t punk rockers with mohawks. All day long, it’s sorority girls and cheerleaders or an entire sports team,” Southwood said. “It’s everybody. It’s no longer an emo or gothic thing.”

Allison Teeter, a professional evaluator at Kansas State University, wrote her master’s thesis on the stigma associated with body art. Her report is called “Never Judge a Book by its Cover: a Sociological Examination of Body Art.”

“I had multiple piercings and tattoos in graduate school and I noticed a stigma associated with body modification,” Teeter said. “Despite the fact that I was extremely educated, I would be looked at differently by people. I was interested in why people were doing this.”

Based on her research, Teeter proposed nine analytical categories explaining why people get different forms of body art. Of the nine categories, Teeter said that five apply to piercings: to bond with others, to rebel, out of impulse, to develop their self-identity and to conform to current fashion trends.   

Although there remains a stigma toward body art, Teeter believes that since her youth in the early 2000s, people have become more accepting of the culture.

“I think that gender stereotypes, like women needing to look and be a certain way, were more conservative back then,” Teeter said. “Companies didn’t want to hire me because they felt they would lose customers by hiring someone that looked different. As (body modification) becomes more popular, mostly through pop-culture, it spreads like wildfire.”