I first met Elizabeth around ten years ago when we both worked in a call centre . We bonded immediately over our shared love of piercings, tattoos and all things alternative. Throughout the years, Elizabeth has navigated the turbulent path of ADHD and ASD whilst immersing themselves fully into an industry that they are now thriving in. When we first met, Elizabeth struggled to talk with strangers and now they’re hosting talks at both the UKAPP and Piercer Trade Show events, speaking to rooms full of piercers about Apprenticeships in the UK and Neurodivergence in Piercing! On a personal note, Elizabeth was the first person to encourage me to start piercing and I am eternally and whole-heartadly grateful that they gave me that push and overwhelmingly proud of the person and piercer that they are.
Gemma: How did you get started in piercing?
Elizabeth: I was being pierced a lot as a teenager, then I got normal jobs because I thought that was what you were supposed to do. I started getting pierced again in my early 20s but I’d never been pierced by anyone who wasn’t a tattooist so I never made the connection that it was a job.
Then I saw somewhere advertising for a body piercer and I didn’t get the job there but it was the first time I was like, ‘oh, this is someone’s job and I could do that?!’ I very much hated corporate life. This was maybe 2016 and it all kind of unfolded from there. When clients ask, I tell them I got started by accident.
G: What started your interest in piercing?
E: I was on MySpace for most of my teen years. There were all these ‘scene queens’, with snake bites and septum piercings, and I was like, shit, I want all of those. Then it all kind of went a bit nuts from there.
G: We’ve been friends a long time, I know your piercing career and your journey with mental health and getting your diagnosis sort of began simultaneously right?
E: So I have Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, dyspraxia and depression. I’d been diagnosed in maybe 2014/15. I’d given up work because of what I thought was a mental health crisis and happened to see a GP who was actually understanding. I was like, basically I just need you to give me drugs to get me through this crisis, and then I’ll look for a job again. And she asked if I’d ever considered that I might be autistic. She put that in motion and I saw a mental health nurse, then an autism specialist at a place in Chesterfield. The specialist thought I had ADHD and I laughed at her and said no, that’s not what it is. I’ve been reading about autism and it’s definitely that.
I had an informal diagnosis from the GP initially, but then it took a long time to see a specialist who confirmed what I had already accepted by that point.
G: You’re very open about your experience being neurodivergent both as a person and a piercer.
E: I’m just not ashamed of it. My diagnosis explained a lot about myself and it feels like a big part of who I am. I think it’s a lot of the reason why I’m good at what I do. It’s the reason why I’m not scared to have an opinion.
I have opinions on everything and I think anyone who’s ever talked to me on the internet very much knows. But that’s because I know myself well now, and I think knowing myself well came from a diagnosis. People are often a little frightened to seek it out. It doesn’t really change your life that dramatically if you know, but it’s a nice bit of validation. I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of. I don’t think there’s any condition that you should be ashamed of but I understand people want to keep things private.
G: You were diagnosed and then immediately started in the industry under not the most ideal circumstances, how was that for you?
E: I was newly diagnosed, I’d been masking for most of my life anyway so I’d not quite learned how to drop that completely in a way that I feel like I can do now. I was still very much in that headspace where I’d worked in call centers and a corporate world where I felt like I had no choice but to pretend to be a functional human being.
Masking is exhausting. So it was really hard at the beginning to do it and learn not only how to pierce but also how to interact with people in a customer service setting. Piercing is a customer service industry that happens to have treatments attached to it. But then I also had to learn how not to get too invested.
We talk about imposter syndrome a lot on the internet. People talk about having it a lot and that’s especially true when you’re a neurodivergent person. These people are never gonna forget anything. Every mistake or every weird thing I’ve done in my career, I can remember, I can very much call back to that, but I’ll never remember the good stuff.
That was really hard to balance at first, and now I just dump it all on Paddy and make him deal with the things I’m stressing about
G: Have you found within the industry, there is quite a sub-community of neurodivergent piercers?
E: Yeah, privately a lot of people have reached out and said they’re either neurodiverse and are struggling with it, or they think they might be. But also I just polled the UK Professionals group just to see and yeah, loads of people have various personality disorders,
I think what draws us to this industry is that it’s not necessarily needing to mask all the time. There’s not very many people where I feel like I know they’re not hiding their intentions, but that is true of someone that is neurodivergent. Generally, I know that they’re not hiding their actual intentions because it’s not always something that we can do. Like lying is difficult. Building emotions is difficult, so then you kind of have to be yourself around them. And I think like calls to like in any part of your life. I think neurodiverse people are drawn to each other just because they’re neurodiverse and everyone tends to have a bit of a sense of that in someone else.
G: What advice would you give piercers who are struggling with their own mental health/neurodivergence but also who have clients that are?
E: From a piercer perspective, be kind to yourself and patient with yourself. Understand your own boundaries and recognise what burnout is for you because burnout is not the same for everyone. Give yourself longer appointments. Do whatever it is that makes your life easier.
There’s zero point struggling, particularly when you are in an industry or a job that you have so much control over. I appreciate that not everybody has as much control but particularly if people are diagnosed, autism and ADHD are recognised as disabilities in this country and your employer has a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments. But you have to know what those reasonable adjustments are. You kinda have to take some ownership of it or advocate someone to speak for you that understands.
My huge, big, giant thing from a client perspective,for anyone who is piercing someone who is neurodiverse, is don’t patronise them. I see so much performative activism on the internet that’s like, ‘oh, we do this thing for our autistic clients.’ It just feels really weird. ‘I’m gonna put lots of different cloud lights in here’. Fuck no. Everyone’s sensory issues are different as well. You’ve just gotta listen to your client. As a client, I just wanna be treated as a person and just be pierced the way that you pierce everyone because I can tell if you are out of your comfort zone as well. I see heaps of people really infantalise people with neurodiversity issues.
I like it when people give the option to have a silent appointment, but again, don’t just assume that your autistic client might want you not to talk to them because my ADHD wants you to chat.
As a piercer, I will try and make those accommodations, but also I can’t make any promises. There’s not always gonna be an option where I can do that either but I’ll try my best. We don’t do small talk in my piercing room. We do big talk. Always big talk. What superpowers would you have? I don’t know how to do small talk.
G: What’s the weirdest superpower someone has said?
E: People tend to just go for the power of flight or invisibility. Some guy wanted to make money with his hands and we ended up talking about economics for like 25 minutes. I always wanna ask people what they’re reading, but then not everybody reads
Another good one that I ask people is, what’s the weirdest fact they know. That’s fun because they are always excited to tell you. Did you know an octopus’s mouth was also its anus? It’s true for squid as well.
G: You’ve been doing some work around piercing apprenticeships in the UK. Can you tell us a bit about that and why you started the UK Piercing Apprentices Facebook group?
E: I wanted there to be piercing specific information for people who were looking to start an apprenticeship either as an apprentice or as a mentor. It’s not a particularly active group, but I think there comes a point where it doesn’t really need to be. I wanted it to be a live-in resource.
I get asked all the time if I’m taking on a trainee and there was nowhere to point people for UK specific information about what a piercing traineeship is. There’s a couple of really good blogs but a lot of them are American so the information wasn’t always relevant to the UK and /UK legislation.
Also it’s a group where people could ask questions in real time. There’s experienced piercers there, there’s piercers who are learning and there’s people who want to be piercers in there. Before I started the group, all the Facebook groups were for professionals only so we’re in these little echo chambers where we’re saying the best way to learn to be a piercer is to do an apprenticeship and learn from another piercer, but we’re also saying it to each other. That information wasn’t getting any further really. Piercers were also saying, you should find a piercer that you like and hang out at their studio, which was creating a huge issue for me personally. I can’t deal with that so I was having to say no to clients wanting to hang out and I came out of that looking like the bad guy even though I had done nothing wrong.
G: Unfortunately, the piercing and tattoo industry has a bad history of apprentice abuse. People would take on apprentices who were maybe naive or vulnerable, not pay them for their work and expect them to just be grateful that they’re a part of the industry.
E: People didn’t know that they were being exploited either and that was the big thing for me. People were being treated appallingly, but they were just being told to expect that because ‘that’s how it’s done, that’s how you learn.’ And it just felt super weird because these people are often women, people of color, disabled people, people who are already vulnerable and who would then be further exploited just for the chance to do something that they enjoyed. I think there’s real ego rooted in it as well, the mentality that a mentors knowledge is enough payment, That won’t pay your bills.
Piercing is a cool job, it’s a fun job and I find myself incredibly lucky that I get to do it every day, but the reality is it’s just not that important. So to abuse someone and treat them poorly, to do that job is bizarre to me. I worked in a McDonald’s and they paid me from day one, even when I didn’t know how to make a Big Mac. Why would it not be the same for piercing training?
We have got away with whatever we’ve wanted as an industry for far too long, and if we don’t sort this apprenticeship thing out as an industry and teach people what they’re entitled to and what they deserve and what they’re legally obliged to have, the government will do it for us.
G: Under UK legislation in 2023, what should a piercing apprenticeship look like?
E: They should be an employed member of staff who’s being referred to as a trainee or a junior member of staff. But they’re not apprentices because they’re not going to college and they will not receive a qualification at the end of it. We’re not an accredited industry. They should be paid at least minimum wage, not an apprenticeship wage. In the UK, an apprenticeship is a lower paid position because you are learning from an accredited source, usually a college, and you receive a qualification at the end of it.
Hairdressers are a really good example of that. It’s gonna be somebody who’s going to college however many days a week, every week, and then they’re going to work in a salon on other days. That salon is being funded to pay for their apprentice, and their apprentice will be on three or four pounds an hour.
Not to scare everyone off, but if piercing apprenticeship went the same route and we were qualified the same way, it would mean anyone with a teaching degree could teach piercing. My mom has a teaching degree and she was a hairdresser. She refers to labret piercings as chin piercings.
G: So you did a roundtable at the UKAPP conference on apprenticeships and also a class at the Piercer Trade Show, can you tell us what that was like?
E: I kind of wanted to cover both aspects of it. At the Trade Show in Ireland, there was a good mixture of piercers and apprentices already there. For piercers looking to take on an apprentice, I wanted them to know where they could find that information and to make sure that they’re operating within the laws.
In my talks, I try to encourage people to rethink their standpoint on if they actually need an apprentice. Do they actually need a cleaner or maybe a studio manager? Maybe you actually need a cleaner to focus solely on that task. Or if you’re struggling to pierce and run your reception, do you need a receptionist? Because your front of house is actually probably more valuable to your business than any other member of staff because they’re seeing your customers first.
I do talk about Rogue a lot in this because I think you’ve got a really good balance of who does what. Instead of people who take on an apprentice to be a general dog’s body. I think it was Jabba that said this, but he’s totally right, if you’re a piercer who works on your own and you want to take on an apprentice, do you have enough work for two piercers? I want to encourage people to evaluate what they actually want from another member of staff.
In the talks as well, from an apprentices perspective, I just wanted them to know what they were worth and have people understand what exploitation is in the workplace. And for them to know there’s people that have got their back, my inbox is literally always open if anyone wants to talk about it.
Question everything applies to everything. So when we talk about technique or why have we chosen to do internally threaded rather than externally? As an industry, we discuss and we work things out. But that applies to the situations as well. No one deserves to be exhausted for the chance to do the job they want.
G: I think for a long time piercers have just sort of gotten on with piercing and a lot of us tend to keep our opinions to ourselves for fear of backlash. But if we don’t have the discussions, there’s no progress for the industry.
E: I was really scared to speak in the Facebook groups for a really long time, for fear of being told that I was wrong. But also being wrong is really the only way that you learn. I think also not having a fear of being disliked is a hard lesson to learn, but it’s one that I’ve definitely learned a lot in my life.
I understand that, particularly on the internet, I will seem potentially quite abrasive and opinionated and loud, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true in real life. I’m caring and I will fight someone’s corner if I think that they’re being wronged. I don’t mind if industry peers aren’t my biggest fan because my clients are important to me. My friends are important to me, but also I have a life outside of piercing. I think that’s really important that we don’t live in this echo chamber where the only people we interact with are industry peers and the only thing we do is industry events. You have to create a life outside of it or it will consume you.
Particularly again, as we’ll go back to neurodiversity. It’s really easy for me to get obsessed with anything, so I have to work really, really hard to make sure it doesn’t take over my entire being.
G: I’ve known you for nearly a decade and there was definitely a time period of a few years where piercing was your entire life.
E: Yeah. It was constant, All consuming. And it nearly killed me,
I can’t let it do that again. But I think where I am now, I’ve got a really good work-life balance, which was a thing I didn’t think existed. I’ve got a lot of good support.
You’ve gotta make those things for yourself sometimes. Be an advocate for yourself.