Anyone who is involved in the body modification world will know Olly Todd. Based in Factotum, Norwich, Olly has been involved in the piercing and modification industry for around 15 years and now runs Cognition Body Art Education where he hold seminars to help educate piercers across the world on techniques and safety. Olly also provides both site and industry specific First Aid training courses across the UK. Both Aiden and Anna (Revenant Tattoo) have worked with Olly over the years and it was a pleasure to have him visit Nottingham recently for some training with our team.
Gemma: What did you do before piercing?
Olly: I was a lifeguard and a swimming instructor. Basically, when I hit 16 the options were work at the swimming pool or stack shelves in the supermarket. I went and became a lifeguard because the pay was better
I worked at a couple of leisure pools and was teaching kids and adults to swim. I started getting tattooed at a studio that was close to where I was working and one weekend the studio called me to see if I wanted to come and sit on the desk and answer the phone for a few hours because the receptionist hadn’t turned up. If I did, he said he’d knock a few quid off my tattoo session.
So I jumped at it. And then it happened a couple more times, and eventually the guy just turned around and said, ‘well if you want, I’ll just show you how to pierce.’ By that point, the people at the swimming pool were getting a bit more antsy about how tattooed I was getting. I still had nothing on my arms, it was all on my torso mostly hidden. But yeah, it was becoming pretty much a once a month visit for more ink so I got the whole, “if you continue this way, then you’re not gonna get very far in the leisure industry” conversation a few times.
At this point I was life-guarding, teaching swimming lessons, junior life saving and I was also doing the lifeguard training as well. So I was getting to that point where I was gonna have to put a suit on soon and look presentable in that industry. I’m so glad I didn’t go down that route.
G: Did you have piercings at that time?
O: I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was around 20, so my first piercing was probably just a bit before that. I did not know back then what I know now. I’d been just toying with the idea of getting a piercing for a while because when I went through college and stuff, I always had bright pink hair, and I was always a bit of a punk, I just hadn’t taken that step to get some holes through me basically. But Norwhich has always had a really good punk scene, all the way back. I’m lucky enough now to be good friends with some of the original, like eighties punk lot that were around.
My first piercing was my lobe, like most people. And I did everything you shouldn’t do on the list other than going into a high street chain shop. I got them done at Download Festival in the middle of a field. It was done with a gun, I wasn’t sober and I’m sure the person doing it wasn’t sober. It definitely wasn’t clean for three or five days.
G: Did you have an apprenticeship when you started to pierce?
O: Most of it was kind of watching this guy do one or two of set piercings and then just getting on with it. I had enough friends that would come in and ‘practice’. Largely, I’d say I was more self-taught than anything else. I think anyone that’s been in the industry for like 10, 15 years probably has a similar start. We all, all kind of figured it out as we went along.
G: How did you transition into body modification?
O: I was piercing loads and then I just stumbled across people like Samppa, Steve Haworth, and at that point Mac and a few others. I really liked what they were doing and luckily I got to do some training with Mac over the years and without his help and support, I wouldn’t have progressed the way that I did. So, special thank you to Mac. I went to a few seminars about modification, I did one on skin branding. I loved branding. It’s always gonna be my favorite modification. After I started piercing, I started realising more about myself. So, I don’t get tattooed for any reason other than I don’t feel complete yet. I couldn’t tell you what the picture is at the end, but I just don’t feel complete and I’m working towards that. In my head, the body mod stuff was really appealing because it was a different way to add and alter myself I suppose, until I found what I needed to look or feel like.
I learnt a lot about body modification from speaking with Mac and then people like Iestyn as well. I went down to London for a scarring class with Iestyn and Ron Garza at one point and that was a really interesting day. And then at BMXnet, taking as many classes there as possible.
The first year I was at BMXnet, I was lucky enough to attend a class that Elayne Angel did on genital piercing. That was something else. Being able to take that class and then later on in the day, witness her piercing people as well. It was great.
There’s always the comedy moments at places like that as well, I distinctly remember taking a male genital class with Cristiano teaching and he had someone up on all fours doing a live guiche piercing in front of probably 50 people. I caught up with Cristiano over in Dublin at the Piercer Trade Show last year actually, he didn’t realise I’d been to his BMX class all those years ago.
G: You’ve worked at Factotum for almost 10 years now, tell us how you started.
O: I’d been drinking with Joe regularly for a while because we all kind of lived in the same area and we all hung out at the same pub. Jokingly for ages, he was like, “you should just come and work for me”. And then, it just kind of happened, which I’m very thankful for. Very thankful to him and without him I don’t think we’d be anywhere near where we are now. He made a lot of things very easy. And working for a piercer makes life so much easier. Joe learned to pierce when he was traveling in New Zealand and he came back to England to set up Factotum. And having the fact that Joe was taught with industry standard jewelry, I mean he was already using brands like Industrial Strengths when I was piercing elsewhere in the city. I think he was probably one of the first people to get NeoMetal as well. It’s been really nice to just be able to step up the game and use all these wonderful companies and not really have to worry about it too much.
G: You now teach at international piercing conferences, can you tell us more about that?
O: I do, it’s becoming a bit more of my life now. Weirdly enough, when you think about it, it’s kind of come full circle from when I used to teach people to swim. I think it’s gonna become more all consuming as well. The balance is shifting for me to start teaching rather than piercing,
I think, seeing the variety of courses and classes at BMXnet got me a bit intrigued about teaching because it wasn’t an elite standard of piercer that teaches the classes. It’s anyone that has something valuable to say. And then going to the UKAPP conference as well, back when it was still in Birmingham with Nici, every year she would poke me, like, ‘so when are you teaching something? When are you teaching something?’ And eventually, I gave in.
The first class I ever taught was a color theory class at BMXnet. And then that was followed a week later by the same class at the UKAPP conference . So it all started from there.
G: I really loved your bevel theory and septum classes. How do you decide on a subject to address in your classes?
O: So to start with, I looked at the classes that I’d taken from other people. The bevel theory one, for instance, was done in a very specific way because I learn by doing things. I’d taken Brian Skellie’s bevel theory class year after year, just as a refresher. It’s a brilliant class, but it’s very word heavy as opposed to anything practical and that’s not how I can take things in. So I thought I’d try and create something for people that are more like me, I suppose.
And then the other ones I’ve been doing like the septum one and there’s one on tricky ear piercing, I just keep an eye on the piercing forums and if something is constantly coming up and people are asking for tips or struggling with a specific thing then I’ll focus on doing a class or seminar for those. Like septum techniques.
I think it’s important to keep it relevant to what’s going on.
G: You launched Cognition Body Art Education last year, hosting classes, teaching at events and offering First Aid training.
O: We’re doing First Aid courses after both the Piercer Trade Show and the UKAPP conference this year, which is awesome. There’s the Bloodborne Pathogens training which is in its final stages of being accredited. Everything I’ve done for the BBP course is based on the UK Health and Safety Executive. It dawned on me the other day that the annoying thing is, because I wrote it, I’m gonna have to do a different one course anyway for it to count.
But yeah, other than that, I’m excited for The Sharp End magazine coming to fruition, that’s definitely a plus for the industry, having a trade magazine. I’ve not seen what’s going in it yet either. I wanna keep it all as a surprise but, we’ve been really, really surprised with the people in the industry that have got involved. We’ve just been blown away with the support by not just friends but the industry as a whole getting involved.
There’s potentially gonna be a rather large announcement at the Piercer Trade Show in April as well, but that’s all I can say for now.
G: I’m excited for what this year holds for the industry in general. I have positive feelings.
O:. Yeah, definitely. There’s so many people that have got so much going on that’s just making everything better. Like Nathan and the guys doing all the work with the Trade Show and bringing over some amazing speakers. The fact that there’s now 3 events in the UK with the two Trade Shows and the UKAPP conference on top of anything that anyone else puts together.