Body piercing is the art of perforating a part of the human body so that a piece of jewellery or other ornamental object can be worn. There is evidence to suggest the practice has been around since ancient times, with mummified bodies showing signs of piercings. This includes Ötzi the Iceman.
Over 5,000 years old, he has been found to have had a 7–11 mm ear piercing. Ötzi also sported 61 tattoos consisting of vertical lines and concentrated around the lower back, knees, wrists and ankles, leading researchers to speculate they were related to health issues, such as potential acupuncture demarkations.
It isn’t clear what tools would have been used to pierce Ötzi’s ear, but very likely a sharpened animal bone of some sorts. If we fast forward ahead to the present day, we are accustomed to our piercers using needles (or, in the case of lobe piercings, guns). However, it is not so long ago that piercing was practiced with much less sanitary and safe tools.
Sharpened ice picks
In modern day Western culture, piercing is just starting to edge its way out into mainstream culture. And as with any underground practice, those involved in it during its earlier days would not usually simply walk into supply stores and acquire what they need, even if it had been available.
In the 1960s and 1970s, body piercing was mostly practiced in underground gay clubs, especially among leather fetishists in California. There was no access to sterilised equipment, and people used what they could get their hands on to sharpen enough to pierce the skin or cartilage with. Reportedly, ice picks were a favourite, along with nuts and bolts and sharpening wire. The first official piercing studio, Gauntlet, only opened in Los Angeles in 1975. However, it soon grew to establish franchises in San Francisco, New York, and Paris, along with a substantial jewellery manufacturing business.
Modifying medical needles became a side hustle
As piercing grew in popularity, there were still no professional tools available at the time. Body piercers would acquire medical needles, for instance by buying veterinary supplies in bulk. They had to be modified to fit the job though, with the hubs at the end of the needle removed. This took up a significant amount of time. Some people even turned it into a business of its own. Those needles were also not ideal as they were not incredibly sharp and required a lot of force to pierce all the way through.
It wasn’t until the time when the Gauntlet collapsed under predatory practices from other businesses in the late 1990s that manufacturers began making tools specifically for body piercers. Today, piercers have a range of different needles to choose from, all holding up to the temperature demands of the autoclave sterilisation process. Rather than just sticking someone with the pointiest end, today’s piercers can focus on precision and speed. And it is probably a lot more comfortable than an ice pick.