It’s always daunting to speak with people that I really admire so I was incredibly honoured to spend some time chatting with Lynn Loheide and Ari Pimsler on behalf of the renowned archivist team at Sacred Debris. Sacred preserve and document all aspects of piercing and body modification past, present and future. Working alongside historian Shawn Porter to share the invaluable history of our industry, Lynn and Ari are integral entities in this world and it was a privilege to hear their take on body modification.
Lynn is a worldwide travelling piercer and educator. Ari works to support animal rights and piercers at Marigold Adornment in Vermont, USA.
G: Lynn, you’re involved in the body suspension world, do you want to talk a little about the global history of suspension?
L: I think one of the coolest things about being in suspension, especially modern suspension, is that it’s currently a very global thing. There’s teams literally all over the world. There’s international events. You can work with folks from everywhere. But also historically, it’s a very global thing.
I really like some of the more anthropological looks at piercing and modification. It’s so fascinating just how many different cultures had some variation or version of suspension or hook pull or flesh pull. It just really speaks to the amount of understanding and awareness. Of catharsis and awakening that the process of suspension brings to so many different people, across so many different walks of life. Across so much time, people still find so much solace in it.
The suspension community is a very small but pretty close knit community that does a really good job of working well with each other and sharing information.
G: What types of people do you meet in the suspension world, is it mainly body modification folks?
L: I guess I would actually say it’s a really even mix of people. If you work in the industry, you have easier access to suspension, to tools, to supplies, to knowledge. And to practitioners and groups through networking and connections.
But my team’s Skynthesis Body Suspension, particularly works with first timers. A lot of people would be surprised by how many folks are not really into body modification and are still called to suspension.
I think one thing that is very well proven, is that suspension is for most folks, a way of processing and dealing with trauma. Some of the really unique subsets of people we get in suspension, who aren’t in the piercing/tattoo/body modification industry, are a lot of veterans who’ve experienced PTSD. And people who experienced a lot of horrors in that line of work. A lot of folks who have different abilities or are disabled. Suspension can be a way of freeing their body or a way of experiencing pain that’s in their control. People who’ve experienced interpersonal and relational trauma and domestic violence.
There are a lot of piercers and a lot of tattoo artists and a lot of body modification enthusiasts and clients, but it’s also a lot of people who see the act of suspension and it just speaks to something very deep within them. I think that’s part of why we also have seen it so cross-culturally through all of history and so many different groups and cultures and religions have turned to acts like suspension as a way of dealing with trauma and processing difficult emotions and experiences.
G: How far back can we trace acts of body modification?
L: I would say it’s old as we have written history. We have one of the oldest recorded records of cultural piercing in the Bible. And we have records that date back further than that, there’s writings from the time of the code of Hammurabi where we think they’re talking about things that relate with either scarification or piercing.
We know that throughout history, piercing was not only a religious rite but also a business transaction. Piercing was a sign of marriage and it was used to denote slaves and type of slave and quality of slave. We know that that goes back to the Middle East and to Africa.
But if we expand our viewpoint on what constitutes body modification and we start to incorporate religious rituals that include acts of self-flagellation, removing of a limb, removing of a finger, removing a part of the scalp, trephination, foot binding, skull lengthening. All of these forms of body modification date back thousands and thousands of years. If you expand your perception of body modification outside of just tattoo and piercing, this has been happening for a long time. The oldest mummy we have has tattoos and 0 gauge ears.
A: There is a decent wealth of information on these things, it’s not a subject that’s necessarily shied away from. There are tons and tons of books both written by piercers and not-piercers that cover that subject -it’s very accessible. Early body mod history is fascinating for a lot of people, even if they want nothing to do with getting a piercing or a tattoo. I think that’s a big reason why we don’t tend to focus on that too much. If anyone’s looking for books, there are some great ones that are accessible. Marks of Civilization is a fantastic book.
In my opinion, one of the best books out there was written by Blake Perlingieri who ran Nomad, A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment: Ancient Origins and Today. There are awesome resources if you’re interested in really going far back. But that feels oddly much more accessible than the last 30 to 40 years of our version of body piercing and what we’ve kind of has come to embody as the industry.
G: Why do you think that is?
L: Because that was stuff that happened far enough ago that now it’s interesting to people again, right? At the time that people were practicing this scarification and this piercing, it wasn’t really something that people thought to document very well because it was a very normal part of culture back then. Enough time passes and enough people die out, and we lose enough connection and then it becomes interesting again. Back then, whatever cool body modification they were doing was akin to writing a detailed journal about how you toasted your toast for breakfast in the morning. But we’ve had enough experience with watching history disappear that we know that if we as Sacred Debris don’t take our time now to document what happened in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, then we are gonna lose it.
Right now, people are looking at stuff way back then and also what’s happening right now and things within, usually the last 50 to 70 years, we look at it as too recent to consider. So what happens is, people have hundreds of thousands of photographs and journal entries and original tattoo art and blood play prints just sitting in bins in their garage because they’re from 40 years ago. And they think no one cares about it because It’s not old enough to be history and it’s not new enough to be cool.
Then that garage floods or then someone passes away and their kids don’t know what to do with it. They throw it out and 40 years from now, people are gonna go, ‘oh my God we have like five pictures of Bud Navaro and we don’t know anything about him, but we know he was cool. We’re trying to prevent those same mistakes that we’ve made in the past and document the things that to a lot of the people that we’re interviewing and talking to, is basically like talking about high school and remembering locker combinations.
We know that in a couple more years it’s going to be incredibly important parts of our history that we could have easily accidentally lost.
A: I think it’s also fair to chime in and say this is something that comes out of the queer and fetish community and you are always gonna have a significant whitewashing of things that come out of those communities.
You can go back and find plenty of records of things that as a community we like to say these things are ours – we invented it! Obviously things like scarification and piercing etc. are pulled from other cultures, but a lot of the gay and fetish community were doing that before piercing was a business and embraced it. So as progressive as our industry may seem in context to, for example, Wall Street and as progressive as we may be as more varied people and identities enter the field, you are always gonna struggle with getting a really coherent, unbiased look when the starting point comes from groups that have historically been under fire.
G: In your time researching the history of our industry and the subcultures that encompass it, what significant changes have you noticed over the last few years?
A: I feel like it’s hard to answer that without sounding too salty but it feels like piercing has gotten significantly more conservative. That’s not to say that after any experimental phase things start to get more dialled in and there’s less of a need for outlandish things because we know what has a better chance of working than others. But it’s that sentiment of this dogmatic mentality, that this is the way things are done, no ifs, ands, or buts, black and white right or wrong. You stifle the voices, whether it’s in person or online from trying to question or say otherwise, and in turn stifle creativity. It stops forward momentum.
I think a really good look at that is with jewellery. You have essentially the same few companies that we’ve had for years now. It’s wonderful that these companies are thriving but severely limiting input is actually to our detriment. The last true game changing innovation was with Neometal – thats 1997! Without new ideas and fresh eyes we’re doomed to just repurpose what’s already out there over and over.
If we are telling people it’s do or die, do not go outside the box or you’re gonna get dog-piled for doing it, that sucks. That makes it really hard for piercing to grow and evolve from where it is. We sure as shit could use a lot more kindness to make the sort of upper echelon “standard” that we want people to be at more accessible and inviting. It’s hard to want to be in the thick of anything when you know the attitude is borderline fanatical.
L: I think Ari is right. I would phrase it as like we’ve seen the commodification of body piercing, especially in the last couple of years. I would say the last five where body piercing, especially the piercing we look at and write about at Sacred Debris, was experimental. It was weird. it was a niche community of people doing something because they really loved it. It was kinky, it was queer, and now piercing is luxury and expensive, and it’s about how it looks on Instagram. Somewhere in between Instagram posts and Statim cycles, we very much became very conservative and very sanitised.
I do think we are seeing a resurgence, especially since Covid, that is mirroring what happened to piercing in the 80’s and 90’s during the AIDS epidemic where we are seeing a lot of anti-trans legislature, a lot of anti-trans rhetoric at the same time that we’re seeing this amazing growth in visibility for the trans community.
And just like what happened with the gay community, when one group was very harshly ostracised and pushed aside and told that they don’t matter and they’re not important. It’s really easy for people to say, ‘fuck you. I’m not gonna conform to what you want me to be’. I think we’re seeing, especially a lot of trans youth and trans clients, really starting to push boundaries. We’re seeing a resurgence of genital piercing, of cool large gauge, custom genital work, of people starting to talk online about how they can do weird, cool things with their genitals. And in the past it was gay men who wanted to do weird, cool, kinky stuff and now it’s trans kids who wanna have weird, cool genitals that don’t look like any gender.
These same kids are out there, getting and they’ve made rhino piercings popular in 2023! Paired centre eyebrows, large gauge cartilage stuff is on the rise. We’re gonna see that continue because for the last couple of years, it’s been trending towards skinny, conventionally pretty models in gold and diamonds. Now, we’re definitely seeing that resurgence in the trans community of people who are already willing to say, ‘well, you hate me because I look and express my gender the way I want to. You’re already gonna treat me like shit for who I am so I might as well get the fucking face tattoo, put the horns in my forehead and split my dick while I’m at it.’
I have a little bit more hope that it’s, once again, going back to queer and fetish roots, that we are gonna see that more. And hopefully it’s a less experimental, maybe more controlled experimental renaissance. Focus more on gender affirming work and what we can do with genital piercings and body piercings that push the boundaries in a safe way, but create specifically non-binary or masculine or feminine effects or looks.
While piercing has moved in a very commodified, very capitalist direction recently, I think we’re starting to see that cycle back.
G: I can only speak from my experience in the UK but we have certainly seen the increased demand for larger gauge and genital work.
L: And that aspect of piercing was always queer and kinky. I think throughout the late 2000s and 2010s, piercing became just mainstream enough that it was all nostrils, ears, gold and diamonds. And the industry really encouraged that narrative. It used to be that any piercing was pushing back against ‘The Man’. Then for a while any piercing was ‘The Man’, it was even cooler, more rebellious, not to have piercings or tattoos. I think now we’re seeing that resurgence of people who feel comfortable looking and having these really extreme modifications because they’re already dealing with discrimination for how they look.
We are also seeing that resurgence of queer fetish spaces. I think it overlaps with the fact that there was a sanitation of the queer community over the last 10 years. How much ‘Kink at Pride’ discourse have we all seen on the internet? We did see a sanitisation of queer spaces and I think also kind of aligned with the sanitisation of body piercing and body modification. Now that we’re seeing that swing the other way, I think it’s happening in piercing.
G: What would you like to see in the future of the body modification industry?
A: I think American piercing in particular has a real problem with working with children and they don’t realise it is not a worldwide view. I think if people really give a shit about safety then hopefully they will start to embrace working with children. It’s a really critical component of piercing. It’s one of the last sectors that is almost entirely experience based at a time when piercing has shifted to more heavily focus on the aesthetic end.
They are there to try something new. As a rite of passage its easily the most common and widespread in all cultures. It’s all about learning consent for their body and getting over something scary and a really incredible experience for them that I think lasts a lifetime, even if they take the earrings out at some point. It feels really sad that we exist in a place where not only do people not want to work on children, which caveat is fine if you are not comfortable with it, but it’s so hostile in some aspects that you can’t even get a recommendation on who to then go to. I think some people are actually worried about putting it out there because they don’t want blowback from the community, which in turn makes it difficult to get a network of people for certain age ranges together because they don’t wanna take a bunch of shit for it.
I would love for that to be something that we fix moving forward. That at least it’s a comfortable place where people who want to pierce young children, babies, anything like that, can be more open about advertising those services and help others who are interested in learning them.
G: We see it in the UK too, a lot of piercers aren’t comfortable with doing or discussing piercings on younger children.
A: For most populations it’s a tremendously important rite of passage. It’s something that no matter how much shouting the piercing community does you are not gonna prevent people from continuing that. And so to me the actual safe thing to do is to embrace it and provide a place where they can get it done in a sanitary environment with good jewellery, rather than saying “don’t fucking do that” which is really just pissing in the wind (and disrespectful to those communities).
L: As an extension of what Ari said, I would love to see folks approach each other with an assumption of at least neutral intent, if not good intent. Rather than always assuming bad intent. I feel like, no matter what you post about in a piercing only space, people immediately assume that you had the worst intentions or that you didn’t do anything right, that you didn’t care to run anything by your client. Even when it’s a really good, really well-respected piercer posting something like an experimental piercing they did or asking for help with finding a referral for piercing a child or a client in a certain situation. There is a lot of automatically assuming negative intent.
For me though, the really big thing I would like to see is the continuation of restructuring apprenticeships and front of house positions. I would love to see even more studios doing paid apprenticeships and taking better care of their apprentices. And I would love to see more recognition for front of house in the industry. I would really love to see the APP or the UKAPP offer, a membership type that is specific to the front of house, that acknowledges it as its own career. As opposed to just lumping everyone in this associate member form. I would love to see more classes directed towards the front of house and towards apprentices.
We’ve made a lot of strides in the last five years in regards to abuse in apprenticeships and mistreatment of apprentices. But I think we still have a long way to go before most of the industry is on board with that. I hope positive change keeps moving in that direction. And I hope people who have a lot of influence in the industry and organisations that have a lot of influence, step up and start acknowledging these positions in bigger ways. The APP released their apprenticeship guidelines, which are great and I hope that they do something similar to that in the future with front of house, and I hope we see that from the international organisations as well.