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Stuck on a Statement : Body Piercing Opens a Whole New Realm of Self-Expression

June 05, 1992|ROBERT BURNS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Guns 'n Roses' Axl Rose wore a discreet nipple ring on tour last year and guitarist Izzy Stradlin has a nose ring. Rachel Bolan, bass player for Skid Row, wears a chain from nose to ear.

For metal musicians, these are pretty mild fashion statements. But it's another thing to see your bank teller with a ring through her septum or a store clerk with a small barbell through his eyebrow.

After being fashionable among '80s punks (remember safety pins through the cheeks?) and '90s clubsters, body piercing is gaining popularity as a fashion statement and a means of self-expression, especially among people under 25.

"One of the reasons body piercing is becoming more popular is that people are really seeing it," says Elayne Binnie, manager of the West Hollywood Gauntlet, the premier piercing parlor in Southern California. "With increasing visibility people realize that it is possible, that it's a viable option."

Binnie's eyebrow, nose and chin are pierced. When she talks, her speech is occasionally punctuated by small clicks as the ring in the tip of her tongue occasionally hits her teeth.

She says the number of piercings done at Gauntlet jumped from 3,047 in 1990 to 4,959 in 1991, mostly on customers between 18 and 25.

Gauntlet, located in a second-floor shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, looks like a cross between a medical office and jewelry store. Each of three piercing rooms has tables and medical cabinets. A display case in the white-walled reception area holds Gauntlet-designed rings and charms.

Cost? Body piercings are $25, nostrils, $20, and ears $10. The most popular piercing is on the nipple.

And as far as Western culture goes, pierced nipples have some precedent. Roman Centurions pierced their nipples as a symbol of virility and some Victorian women pierced their nipples and wore small jewels there.

For some, the process of being pierced involves a sort of rite of passage.

"The first piercing was a personal experience," says Debra Casey. The 28-year-old actress has appeared in "Terminator 2" and "Kindergarten Cop" wearing her septum ring. "I wouldn't describe it as ritual, but it was certainly a rite of passage in my own mind."

But she emphasizes that she is pierced mainly for the look: "I'm an actor, so I'm already kind of a peacock. It's a way of being decorated."

"Even the simpler piercings, if nothing else, are a small rite of passage because you have changed your body," says Alfredo Alvear, a 26-year-old sociology major at Cal State Northridge. "It has that sort of side effect."

Alvear had his tongue pierced about a year ago and has gone on to have his ears, nose, nipple and more (use your imagination) pierced. "For me, the tongue came first because it was the easiest to hide," he says.

Some pierced people contend that part of the appeal is that the alteration isn't permanent. In most cases, when the jewelry is left out for a period of time, the hole closes. So it's more serious than a bad haircut, but not as permanent as that hula dancer tattooed on your Uncle Chuck's biceps.

Indeed, many pierced people may remove visible jewelry for more conventional occasions.

"I don't wear them at work," says Thomas Viska, a 23-year-old hairdresser. Viska, who has his lip, nostril and nipple pierced, and considers it "just part of the club scene," says he also doesn't wear the jewelry when he visits his family.

"It's just not worth hearing about it."

A 26-year-old store clerk and go-go dancer who asked to be called Wildfire says his family is more accepting of the piercing than his tattoos. "They seem to understand the piercings more," he says. "You can take out the jewelry and they go away."

Because of the tattoos, he says, "my parents haven't seen my arms in about four years." Why piercing? "As a punk rock kid, I thought it was very cool."

The big question, of course, is what about pain. But Binnie says people think about getting pierced so long before doing it that "the piercing itself is almost always anticlimactic. It's not about pain."

"It's totally individual," says Casey. "My septum hurt--it was painful! My tongue wasn't. For most people, pain isn't their focus."

R. Patrick Abergel, a Santa Monica cosmetic surgeon, says he would not recommend piercing to anyone but adds that the risks are fairly small if it's done by someone reputable and in a very clean and sterile fashion. "It is an injury that's being inflicted," he cautions.

He also notes that there is some risk of scaring and that the scars can grow beyond the original injury.

But the biggest risk is infection, both bacterial and viral. Obviously AIDS and hepatitis come to mind. Disposable piercing needles are a must, Abergel says.

A number of tattoo parlors have branched out to do piercings and there are places that offer piercing on the Venice boardwalk. In addition to risking infection at such places, customers may also be pierced with inappropriate tools.

The ear-piercing guns used at jewelry and department stores are sometimes used on nostrils, but they are really designed only for ears. A trained piercer using a needle is as fast as a gun and much safer, Binnie says.

"Most of the time it is safe and without any problems," Abergel says. "But you should seek medical attention if the skin gets red or puffy." He says that a reputable piercing business should be able to refer customers to a physician.

If all this puncturing seems a little extreme, don't worry. Piercing isn't about to burst out of the underground to become a widespread fashion fad. We're not likely to see an actor with a pierced lip doing breakfast cereal commercials any time soon.

But, then again, it wasn't that many years ago that earrings on men looked pretty strange. . . .

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