Body Piercing as a Career - A Guide to Apprenticeship and Getting Started.
Body Piercing can be a career that rewarding, exciting, enjoyable and allow a level of freedom that a lot of more traditional professions can not offer. For the past 23 or so years, it has been my main source of income and main passion. I can't begin to express how much piercing has given to my life and from time to time, I have someone contact me about starting to pierce professionally recently and thought writing a blog would be helpful to those considering becoming a professional piercer.
Over the years I have taken on a number of apprentices. Some lasted a few years and others barely a few months. The reality is that it is not a cake walk and there isn't really an easy way to get the training and get established. Piercing is a limited specialty service industry and most markets can only support a few piercers. Also, a lot of people have misconceptions about what the business will be like and what it really takes. Sadly like most things in life, you don't know if it is for you until you do it. So, I tend to try to be as honest as I can from the start and it can come off like discouragement but it isn't my intention. I hope in this blog to share some advice on getting started but also what you should consider before you take on this life-changing path.
Living Not a Killing
I use this phrase a lot and I stole it from Utah Phillip. Another one would be "Live Simple". The truth that most guidance councilors, life coaches and whoever people turn to when they want advice when deciding a career, is you can live cheap and do something you love. Now this won't make you wealthy and you will have to deal with some stress from time to time but if doing your art is what makes you happy, does it really matter?
Piercing can mean quick and easy money. I have had days where I walked in with an empty pocket at the beginning of the day and left with at least a thousand dollars in my pocket. Business can be steady for months and months and then out of the blue for no reason, drop off to nothing. It's in part because the industry is fashion driven. Yes, there are collectors and there are enthusiasts but the reality is they do not make up a majority of the market. The majority of the market is clients that may only get one or two piercings in their lifetime and their motivation isn't something deep and meaningful, it because they are attracted to how it looks. This can be affected by pop cultural trends, celebrities having piercings or even a generation coming of age and wanting something their parents have. There is no way to predict it and you have to learn to be prepared and go with the flow. Also understand that you are selling a luxury service and when the economy goes south, you are going to be one of the first things people will go without.
Your income will vary also depending on where you work. In most cases, piercers income is completely based on how many piercings they do. It is extremely rare that a piercer has a base salary. In most cases, they are paid either a percentage of the overall cost of each piercing or a flat amount for each piercing. So, if no one comes in they don't get paid. Also, they may only get a portion of the piercing fee and nothing from jewelry sales.
There are a number of ways to go, either open your own business, sublet from a studio or be a subcontractor. In all cases you will be responsible to file your own taxes, there will be no withholding. Depending on the agreement you have with who is subcontracting you or you are subletting from, you may have to buy all of your supplies, equipment, and jewelry. Ideally, you want to have your own jewelry because you will have additional profit not only from the jewelry sales but also from the jewelry that you pierce with. Though you may not have to consider this at first because you will need to finish your apprenticeship, I would suggest that you have some plan in mind.
In most cases, during your apprenticeship you will not be making any money and if you do it won't be a lot. So, you are going to need a part-time job or some other source of income. In fact, even after you begin piercing on your own, you may want to consider having a second job while you establish yourself and build clientele. Throughout my time piercing, I have had a number of second sources of income, from promoting live music events to managing a bar to building websites. Though I'm a workaholic always understand that when you are self-employed, there is no such thing as a day off, paid sick days or paid vacation time. If you want to make a comfortable living, you will have to work, then when you are done working, work some more and when you are done with that, plan on working some more. The key like anything is to live within your means and plan for slumps and all those little surprises that life will throw at you.
Body Piercing Isn't Just PIercing:
It's easy to think that all piercing is taken a needle, making a hole and inserting the jewelry. However, doing it professionally is a lot more complicated and involves wearing a lot of hats. As a piercer, you are an educator, customer relations, hand holder, comedian, cross-contamination prevention specialist, marketer, client support, counselor, first aid, anatomy expert, cheerleader, metal expert, jewelry expert, salesperson, custodian, orators, brand representative and public personality that understands they are not ever truly off the clock. Here are some important points to consider before pursuing piercing professionally:
- Are You A People Person? - If you are not a "People Person" and do like interacting with new people every day, then you will either have to learn to be one or consider something else. As a piercer, you will be interacting with complete strangers every day for vastly different walks of life. Part of your job is to put them at ease and make them fill comfortable. One of the easiest way to help someone overcome their anxiety about getting pierced is to get them talking. Often you have to start the conversation, maybe tell some tasteful jokes and cater the conversation to their interests. The fact is that I have met a few lifelong friends that started out as clients and those friendships started with asking them about themselves. In fact, I have to admit that the social experience side of piercing is one of my motivations in continuing to pierce. I love meeting and interacting with new people every day.
- Do Have a Lot of Patience? The reality is that you are almost always dealing with a client that is unsure and a little scared about how painful the piercing is going to be. You are also going to be dealing with clients from time to time are unsure if the piercing is right for them. In those cases, you might spend a lot of time educating them on a number of different piercing and give the person time to make the right decision for them. It can be frustrating especially when you have other clients waiting or have a million other things you need to be doing. However, it's my experience that if you give people time and enough information, they will usually get the piercing but if you push them into they are the one client that doesn't take care of the piercing or takes the jewelry out the next day.
- Do You Have a Well Developed Level of Empathy? It's important to be able to read people and understand what they are going through. Then you can adapt, encourage and help them through the piercing procedure. Some clients need an expert that is completely in control of the situation. Some need a friend to hold their hand through the process. Others need a couch to support and guide them through the experience. It changes from person to person. Bedside manner is an important part of the process. Piercers that succeed learn this early on.
- Do You Live to Share Knowledge? I always say that education is about 99% of my job. Yes, it's important to do the piercing correctly, with the right jewelry and in a safe manner but even in the best cases, if the client doesn't know how to take care of the piercing, it will end in failure. I always tell people to allow 15-20 minutes for a piercing. During that time the paperwork takes about a minute, the set up about 2 minutes, the piercing and inserting the jewelry less than a minute, and clean up 2 minutes tops. So that other 7-12 minutes is all about explaining the healing process and risks in the consultation beforehand and the aftercare instructions. Often you are repeating yourself over and over and answering the same questions over and over. You have to be passionate about sharing your knowledge.in emails, phone calls, at the studio, and outside of the studio. It is not unusual for me to get asked questions about piercings at the store, the gas station, the movie theater, the bar, and just about anywhere. Sharing that knowledge is the best form of advertising.
- Do You Have a Good Memory? As I stated above you are going to be repeating the same answers to questions over and over. You need to be able to retain a great deal of information and be able to access it quickly. This can range from the price of the piercing to metal reactions to cross-contamination to fixing issues during the healing time. You are a professional piercer and that makes you an expert not on only what you do but anything relating to piercings including those that you don't do and how it might affect employment and sporting activities.
- Are You Comfortable Being a Public Figure? Of course, this will be on a minor level compared to even a local news chaster but the reality is that clients will recognize you in public all the time and clients will read your social media posts. All of this will reflect on your business. So, you really have to consider your public behavior and posts to social media and avoid anything that could reflex badly on you or your business. This includes extreme political, social and moral views, sexual activity, substance abuse and anything the considered offensive. This is especially true of social media, your post never goes away and it can not only affect current clients but could affect future ones.
- Can You Keep Your Libido In Check? As a piercer, you will be encountering very attractive people of both sexes in different levels of undress. It's part of the job. You will be seeing and touching genitals and breasts of complete strangers. It is important that you act in a professional manner and be able to detach yourself from the sexual undertones of the experience. If you don't think you can do this, piercing is not the career for you. Also, the studio is not a singles bar and it is not OK to hit on or make passes at your clients. In fact, it's creepy. Yes, I have had dated people that started out as clients but I always made a point that anything that moved in that direction began outside of the studio.
- Is Your Motivation to Get a Foot in the Door to Tattoo? Yes, there are studios that require their tattoo apprentices to pierce first, I'll write more about that later but the reality is that piercing doesn't make someone more qualified to Tattoo. If you want to do both, fine but if you see piercing as a means to an end, focus on getting the Tattoo apprenticeship and save your clients from your disinterest.
- Do You Love To Learn? Body Piercing is still a fairly new industry and art, it is always changing and adapting as more information becomes available. You will be spending your whole career changing and adapting the way you do pierce and what you suggest for aftercare. If you don't want to do the research on a regular base, then you need to pick something else. There isn't an established education program and you have to do the work to keep up with the latest advances.
- Are You Comfortable with Public Speaking? You are going to talk in front of people a lot. It can range from one person to as many as 12 at one time. Granted it's not like addressing a crowd of thousands but if you have issues speaking with people directly or keeping eye contact, you may need to work on it to be effective. When I give a consultation or aftercare instructions, I'm very aware of eye contact, what I'm doing with my hands and my posture.
- Are You Able to Say No to a Client? No, the customer is not always right and one of the hardest things to learn when starting out is when to say "no". You struggle with the loss of a client because you refuse to do something that you are not comfortable with or simply isn't going to produce good results. I refuse clients all the time because their anatomy isn't structured in a way that the piercing can be done safely or heal correctly. Also if the client insists on that I pierce with incorrect jewelry, is under the influence or it's a piercing that I don't feel comfortable doing. Yes, it's income that you aren't going to get but if the person has issues, they are going to tell everyone and it will be your fault. You are the expert remember, if they decide to go against your advice, then it's your ethical responsibility to say, "I want no part of it."
- Do You Have An Eye for Details? Yes, this can be learned but you really have to be able to pick out details that the average person may not. This is especially true when it comes down to anatomy and placement. You need to visualize how the jewelry will look and fit into the area around it. Also what jewelry will look best and fit. Cleanliness of the piercing area, equipment and yourself is the base of cross-contamination prevention. You have to clean, clean and then clean. During piercings and other procedures, you need to be aware of surfaces that you have touched or touch and what your clients have.
- Are You Good At Organizing? It takes a lot of supplies and organization to pierce. You need to be able to keep track of jewelry stock, sterilization piercing supplies, cleaning supplies, printed material and accounting to ensure that you don't miss out on business because you are out of something.
- Are You a Self Starter? Regardless of what your business relationship is with the studio, you are to a large degree self-employed. There will not be a boss standing over you telling you what needs to be done and to motivate you. If you don't do it, it doesn't get done. This includes cleaning, stocking, sterilizing equipment and jewelry, answering messages, emails, and voice mail. You don't walk in pierce people and then leave. In fact, some days you will need to get there an hour before your scheduled and may not leave till an hour or hours after the studio is closed.
- Are You Willing to Market Yourself and Your Skills? In most cases, the studio you work at will not have a huge marketing budget or is willing to spend thousands of dollars marketing a new piercer. You are going to have to hustle up a new business. That will be handing out cards everywhere, stirring conversations with strangers towards piercing, posting on social media, writing blogs, posting to the studio website and everything short of hitting people over the head with a large mallet and dragging them in to be pierced. Once they are on the phone, sent you an email or came into the studio, you have to be able to impress them with your knowledge and sell them on having you do their piercing.
Preparing to Apprentice:
- Reseach: In the years leading up to actually apprenticing to pierce and then piercing, I read everything that I could find on Piercing and Body Modification. Back in the early 1990s there was really not a lot on the subject and of course, there wasn't the internet. Now there is a number of websites out there and a great number of books. One book anyone thinking about becoming a piercer should read is Elayne Angel's The Piercing Bible and you should also check out her site.
- Cross-contamination and First Aid Course: The APP offers a number of courses designed to give piercers a foundation on cross-contamination, safety, and pathogens online. You can find them here. As a disclaimer, I'm not a member of the APP nor do I advocate membership or feel that anyone that is a member is in any way shape or form, more skilled at piercing than those that are not. I could go into details about this but that's a blog in itself. I would also suggest taking first aid courses at your local Red Cross.
- Seminars: There was at some point 3 or 4 people offering, "Learn how to Pierce"4-day seminars, in no way are they able or really designed to train someone to start piercing professionally, They are more designed toward hobbyists or as an introduction regardless of what they may advertise. There is no way to learn to pierce in 4 days or 6 weeks. However, taking a course isn't a bad way to start moving towards an apprenticeship and may open doors to a formal apprenticeship because it shows that you are committed. Just do your research some of them are extremely expensive for what they offer.
- Videos: There is a number of videos available that show the basics of piercings. I for one do not post videos of me doing piercings. Watching videos can give you a perspective on how piercings are done and some idea of technique. However, you can't learn to pierce watch videos any more than I could learn to correctly take someone's appendix out after watching a video. There is a great deal more to it and often even the instructional videos lack a great deal of important information.
- Research the Piercers that You Wish to Apprentice With Visit their studio, if they have time, talk to them and evaluate them. This is someone that you are going to spend a lot of time with and hope to emulate. Don't just pick the first one that says yes or is the cheapest. I will go further into this later.
- Get Pierced: This one should go without saying but you would be surprised how many people have asked me about apprenticing, who have never been pierced. Every piercer has a different style and way of doing a piercing. From their bedside manner to their consultation and aftercare. Experiencing a piercing from the perspective of a piercee will not only improve your empathy for your future clients but influence the type of piercing you want to become.
Apprenticeship is The Only Real Way To Learn:
Going through a formal apprenticeship is really the only way to learn to pierce professionally. Yes, there are a number of weekend course that can get you started and sure you could try to teach yourself but the reality is that the only way you are going to learn the art is from an established Body Piercer. Also, there are no shortcuts. An apprenticeship can in some cases take a year or two to complete. Also as I mentioned before, it's a never-ending education.
I've had a number of apprentices over the years. Some continued to pierce afterward and others moved on to other careers for financial reasons or burn out. Depending on the studio, time of year and the volume of piercings they do, it might take a long time to complete and there might be a lot of downtimes. You have to be willing to be there for both the busy times and the slow ones. You will more than likely be required to clean, sterilize jewelry and equipment and whatever else may need doing. Also, you will not in most cases be paid to do it. Depending on where you live, you may have to move to elsewhere to find someone willing to apprentice you.
Types of Apprenticeship Programs:
Everyone does this differently but it's my experience that these are the most common apprentice programs. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. You will need to figure out what is going to work for you financially and give you the education and support you need.
- Apprenticeship Leading to Employment - The most common form of apprenticeship and what I normally do. It is a long-term apprenticeship that will lead to working as a sub-contract at the studio. You will normally pay a fee up front for a couple of reasons, first, off they are educating you in a skill and trade and to show your commitment. As you progress in your apprenticeship, you will begin to make a percentage of the piercing fees on each piercing you do. The long-term goal is to get to a point where you are piercing on your own but at the studio. There is usually an agreement that you will not work at another studio in the area for a set period of time.
- Non-Compete Apprenticeship - This is much like the type above but you travel to another town or state with the long-term goal of returning to your hometown. So, it will involve the added expense of moving and/or traveling to do your apprenticeship. This is what I did, spending my weekends in Omaha. This will usually for a flat fee, short-term and with a non-compete agreement for 5 years and 100 miles.
- On the Job Apprenticeship - This is basically the worse situation in my opinion. Often the piercer will have you watch them pierce for a day and then the next day turn you loose on the customers. There is very limited supervision or support unless there is a problem. There were a number of Tattoo studios that used to hire "piercers" and require someone that wanted to an apprenticeship to become a tattoo artist, to pierce for a set period of time until they started their tattoo apprenticeship. Understand that anyone that takes the art and skill of piercing this lightly isn't really someone that dedicated to it. You might start getting paid the second day on the job but you will be teaching yourself and risking the health and well-being of your clients while you do it.
- Online / Real Time Training - There are a few sites on the internet that claim they can teach you to pierce within a short period time. Usually in about 6 to 8 weeks. I know very little about these courses but from what I understand, you spend weeks watching videos and then spend a few days in the studio piercing volunteers. This is not an apprenticeship and does give you the guidance and interaction you will need to develop as a piercer that comes from a long-term apprenticeship.
The Axiom Apprenticeship Program Guide Lines:
As I said at the beginning, I do take on apprentices from time to time. It really depends on the situation and the person. There is always a flat fee and it continues until I feel the person is capable to pierce on their own. This varies greatly from person to person and for that reason years ago, I set up this program in four stages to keep a level of consistency:
- Observation: The apprentice spends a few days or a few weeks observing me doing piercings. This usually involves a debriefing at the end of the day or when the time is available. Also, during this period of time, I will go over each step with them in detail while I'm doing the piercing, including jewelry selection, set up, cleaning the area, marking the piercing, and the techniques I use during the piercing and jewelry insertion. During downtime, I usually will go over a number of other subjects like jewelry style, sizes, materials, etc... to introduce them to some of the more behind the scenes aspects of piercing. Also, it is during this time that I ask them to memorize the consultation and aftercare instruction and have them recite them to clients. This is to get them comfortable with interacting with clients and answering questions that they may have.
- Piercing Evaluation: Once the person is comfortable with moving on to piercing and I feel they have a large enough grasp of the techniques to move on, they will begin to supply friends and family to pierce for the cost of jewelry. If they are unable to supply people, I will usually advertise one day when the general public can volunteer with the full understanding that this is their first piercings. The main focus is to get the apprenticeship comfortable with equipment, techniques and the act of piercing and evaluate their strengths and where they need work. Usually, it's about 10 piercings but it really depends on the persons, with some it takes 8 and others it takes 20.
- Each Piercing Evaluation: When I'm confident that the apprentice is to a point where they can pierce clients under my complete supervision, we will move on to the next stage. During this, the apprentice will pierce clients at a discounted rate. I will always give the client the choice to either be pierced by the apprentice or by me. Each piercing will count toward "checking out" on that piercing type and getting to the point where they can do that type of piercing without supervision and start receiving a part of the payment. I usually set the threshold at 10 piercings of that type done correctly. However, it really depends on the skill of the apprentice.
- Employed Apprentice: After an apprentice has checked out on enough piercings where they can work without supervision, I will schedule them on a day of the week when I don't work. During this time they will receive a larger percentage of the piercing fees but will have to continue to check out on piercings they haven't completed yet. If a client comes in on a day they are on their own, the client is asked to schedule an appointment on a day that I can supervise or do the piercing. At this point, we will enter into a sub-contract contract that will require you to keep track of your income, file taxes and operate as a separate business to a degree.
An apprenticeship can lead to a lifelong career but it takes a commitment to the art of Body Piercing. A long time ago someone told me owning your own business was like having a child, one day it's the most beautiful and wonderful experience of your life but others it's the worst problem child you've ever encountered. Piercing in a lot of ways is the same. Though I will say that I have had more good times than bad. You have to learn and do what is needed to survive the bad times to get to the good. That's not for everyone if you want security, paid health insurance and retirement plan, it will solely be your responsibility to make those things happen. In fact, at times you will have to make sacrifices to continue piercing.
Research everything you can about piercing. Read, do the work, get pierced, visit studios, talk to people with piercings and ask them about their experiences. Oh and observe as much as you can. I had one apprentice that came in with about 10 times to watch their friends get pierced before they even asked about apprenticeship. Ask a lot of questions and make sure that piercing is for you. Plan out how you are going to pay for your apprenticeship and support yourself. Set goals for yourself but make them adaptable if need be.
Once you are fully committed, find the best piercer to learn from, you are investing in someone when you apprentice under them. It should be someone that is respected and open with a focus on education and obsessed with piercing. There are plenty of people that are out there are willing to increase their income to sleepwalk through teaching an apprentice. To them, it's just one more way to make money. Always remember reputation is built on who you associate with and always keep that in mind, do you want to be associated with this person. Also, consider whether or not this person is supportive, are they going to be there when you need help even long after you have moved on.
Always remember there are no shortcuts, there may be different ways of achieving the same goal but in the long run, it comes down to the quality of the experience and what you take out of it. Not the quickness in how you complete the program or how quickly you begin making money. When you are apprenticing, be a self-starter, ask about what needs to be done or better yet just do it. Establishing a work ethic early on will serve you will long after you have completed your apprenticeship. Remember that the job is always done when it's done not at a set time and more than anything enjoy it and remember that piercing is fun and it always should be.