I took off my thin plastic gloves and told the high schoolers, all new hires with no work experience, that they could have the extra hours. At the time I had been scooping ice cream and hosting at a Friendly’s, just trying to make some money. At least until I could land a body piercing apprenticeship. Ideally at the shop just up the street.
A few weeks later I had mistakenly given some kid a free soft serve which shorted the register and led to even less hours. Which was fine with me, but I knew I had to make a move soon. And so it was on some night of some month during that period of my life that I went in to pick up my last physical paycheck. A bad day apparently, huge rush, all inexperienced staff. An apparent disaster since I had to eat a little shit before getting my check and being told to fuck off. A couple years later they closed. And by then I was working, not just apprenticing, down the street.
Getting the Apprenticeship
At that point I was unemployed and looking to become a body piercing apprentice. And I was going to have to start from zero. Hell, I didn’t even have my ears pierced anymore. So the first thing I had to do was schedule an appointment at the shop with the piercer.
Last time I walked into this shop was with a friend. Which was during my search for an artist to tattoo my leg and the first impression was eh. Still, this was at the time the only studio in town. The racist shithole down the street in the opposite direction didn’t count. And other equally enthusiastic attempts had been made. Having spoken to a few piercers who worked in the actual city of New York, a whole 45 minutes away by train, to no real success. The odds were getting worse.
I remember being told over the phone that the piercer was only in on weekends. And so on what I recall to have been a Friday night, I went and got my lobes re-pierced so that I could stretch them up to 00s. Something I had been wanting to do since highschool. My mama was thrilled. But I had always told her I would. Even said in highschool that the tattoos I got when I was 16 wouldn’t affect my career since I’d probably be working in the body mod industry. Or with computers, and everyone knows that programmers work best in dark basements. Back problems are equally as prevalent too. But anyway.
Before I left the shop I should note that I did ask questions. I asked the piercer how he got involved, what his favorite piercings were while noting how few he had. This gave me hope! Since by then I had a few tattoos but decided that my lobes were the only thing that suited my face/style and whatnot. The piercer had his tragus’ done and that was it. All while being heavily tattooed. This was especially hilarious because the tattoo artists there barely had any tattoos at all!
In the months following I read up on everything I could and even got a bloodborne pathogens course through the Red Cross. Turns out this was more or less useless in the grand scheme of things. Since ultimately you have to take a more advanced version of the same course with the county. But I don’t think it hurt to have at the time.
Once my ears reached 00 I was able to look for nice plugs and decided to once again visit the shop. By then I had been creating websites and doing other similar gigs for cash. I knew that a more flexible schedule would be necessary if I could make this whole apprentice thing happen. And now was my chance.
I called ahead to find out if they were open and just did the 30 minute or so walk up the road until I got there. This gave me plenty of time to figure out my method of attack, but a wise man once said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Thankfully that’s not what happened.
The shop had a glass front with a cool looking door and was situated between a strip mall (with bad pizza) and a vacuum store. Across the street beyond the neutral ground was a dollar store, grocer etc. A blonde woman introduced herself to me as the owner and last artist around for the night.
I found some white plugs and mentioned I had spoken to the piercer last time I was there. She said he was the manager but barely came in anymore. I asked if she would be willing to bring someone new to help out. My schedule could be hers, she said yes!
Being a Body Piercing Apprentice
In the body arts industry there’s a spectrum of shops ranging from someone’s kitchen or bathroom to hole-in-the-wall “street shops” all the way up to high-end tattoo studios. And the shop I worked at fell somewhere closer to the higher end while still hoping to attract potential customers on their way either into or out of town. But since this was the suburbs of Long Island and everyone drove to where they needed to go, walk-ins were seldom.
This meant lots of downtime. Which doesn’t always mean idle time but you could generally expect to be bored during those slumps. Another obvious side effect of slow days was that you made less money. This became a problem for the artists who had to commute since those folks needed to at least make up the cost of getting to work every day.
I’d be “running tubes” as the apprentice. Industry slang for cleaning all the tattoo machines until someone buys you lunch because you shouldn’t be able to afford to eat yet. Of course there was also plenty of floor sweeping, station wiping and talking to do. You better like people, because there’s nothing worse than walking into a shop full of assholes. No one cares how bad your day was or how edgy you feel, fucking smile.
Now this is where things diverge a bit more from being a tattoo artist in training. As a piercer there are no pig skins to practice with or light table to practice drawing on. In fact, after getting acquainted with what it takes to effectively run a tattoo shop, you need to discover whether or not you can actually stab someone. So grab a friend and either thank them or apologize in advance.
In my case it was my girlfriend and her nose. I should also mention that the OG piercer did come around from time to time but my lessons almost always defaulted to the owner. Who has over 30 years in the industry and was always too busy with her own clients to deal with anything short of murder. So I just had to get good. You’ll probably hear stories about being thrown into the deep-end. I’m here to tell you it’s all true. And a surefire way for industry vets to weed out people who either can’t commit or can’t handle the anxiety inherent to the job.
After some instruction from both the owner and default piercer I managed to get the nose stud in without much hassle. And that was the last time I had dual oversight on a piercing. In fact I was lucky to get any explanation after the first demonstration if I didn’t make the effort to ask questions. But most importantly I had been broken in and was ready to at least start assisting on the more complicated piercings.
A year or so passed and I had begun doing cartilage and nose piercings by myself. Followed by more complicated cartilage piercings like orbitals, rooks and tragus’ until eventually I was able to take whatever came in. There were plenty of times when I “lost connection” on jewelry and needed help but that’s part of learning how to solve an always unique set of problems on the fly.
If I had to give out any real advice for getting through the first year, I’d say drop your ego and approach every new client ready to learn something new. Everyone is different, some people yell, others cry, some ears are floppy, sometimes belly buttons smell etc. It’s a mixed bag so be ready to adapt yourself to the situation.
During my three years there we took on one new tattoo apprentice and even a second piercing apprentice. Both were favors. Unfortunately, I cannot overstate how difficult it is to get an apprenticeship otherwise. I still think I got lucky. In fact, most people would argue that there should be fewer shops and professionals in general. There are many reasons for this but I’ll leave that for a later post.
Both new apprentices ultimately prioritized college over the shop. Which I feel the need to mention because coming into the industry should be seen as a commitment. And is the primary reason for so many potentials essentially burning right out. The new piercing apprentice also became mine to teach. Which came with its own set of issues. The most jarring for me being the fact that I was still one myself by then. Bringing me to my next point.
Say I was a scratcher or a poker, terms used for people who tattoo and/or pierce out of their house with no license. And I get hired by a shop, specifically in New York state since I’m not too familiar with the laws everywhere. I’d still need to get certified to work there. This begins with registering as an apprentice under the shop with someone specifically listed as your mentor. Now they kind of own your career until further notice.
The reason why is that you’re now authorized to work at that shop and nowhere else. Unless you want to start all over again at least. This is how people get screwed if their mentors are sketchy. Since what could happen is that you’re sort of tied to making money for that shop until they feel like you deserve to move on, if ever. In addition, that apprentice is now making less than they were at home because the shop takes 50% or whatever. It doesn’t operate like this everywhere but it’s an important distinction in US state laws (which vary quite a bit).
In other cases people pay for their apprenticeships. Sometimes $5000 or more. I personally don’t have a stance on this, just do your homework! I also didn’t pay for mine. My shop even paid for my initial certification. That was after essentially making me manager when the old piercer went on hiatus. They even began to pay me after a while just for showing up because somebody had to keep the place running.
Piercing Professionally & The Future
What eventually led to me breaking out was a willingness to do just that. It was the winter of 2016 when I decided to tell everyone there I had been planning to move back to New Orleans. By then I had been an apprentice for three years and my certificate wasn’t set to expire until 2017. But the money had been drying up.
Whereas I had been making anywhere from $30-$40/hr on the high end the previous Summer. It was at that point more like $20/day. And since starting my apprenticeship I had founded a small tech company that had been getting some traction.
It was bittersweet but I needed a change of scenery and seriously, I just really wasn’t making much money there anymore due to shop drama. The old piercer made a brief return, chewing up my weekend income. Even started to cop an attitude which was only OK because he was already an asshole. A long-time artist left the shop due to personal issues. Putting more pressure on the other walk-in guy. It was a losing situation.
An old regular became a fixture and was effectively made assistant manager by the Summer. Cutting into what was left of my daily income since I knew (being the damn manager) that we couldn’t afford to pay two people to show up every day. So I cut my days down to 2–3 days a week until Winter and said the goodbyes. I’d see them again plenty of times in the years following. Oh, and I was still an apprentice although she promised we’d get that taken care of soon. I moved to New Orleans after the crypto boom the following Fall.
In the end I didn’t actually get the sign-off on my certification until late 2019 during a visit. As for the years in between, I wrote code! Then I decided to take a pseudo-break from tech and get back into piercing with a focus on microdermals and other implants. But with a twist!
More on that in the next one. Below are some things I found helpful when doing research into the body art industry. Most of these will be piercing oriented but typically things line up for those seeking to get a tattoo apprenticeship as well. Good luck!
The Gauntlet Info (first piercings-only studio in the US)
Tattoo Age by VICE (Mini-series about tattoo artists)
Color Outside the Lines (Documentary about black tattoo artists)
Pangea Piercing (OG piercing Youtube channel)
Tattoo Chassity (OG OG Youtube channel, very candid, not for everyone)
Lulus Body Piercing (New Youtube channel, doing their thing!)
Generally just read, watch and absorb as much as possible and you’ll be fine.
Me on Instagram: @voodoumonsta