When I arrive at the address Kenny gave me, I expect to find him sharpening hooks or assembling rigging. Instead, a clean-shaven father and his two young sons are packing up a haunted house Halloween party from the previous night. Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” belts over the PA; a fondue machine drizzles chocolate in the corner; it smells like the pet rats caged by the door. “T-minus five minutes,” the father yells. I guess I’m early.
And still slightly worried my tattered Vans are inappropriate. I’ve just never had to consider the question before: What do you wear to a private body suspension of a couple celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary, a couple that you’ve never met? (A: anything but loafers).
Frankly though, I still wouldn’t even know that hanging yourself from hooks pierced through your skin is a thing people do, if Kenny hadn’t pierced my own ears a month ago. Surprise Mom!
When you get your ears pierced in Ann Arbor, you have three options: stab yourself, risk diseases at the mall or go to Pangea — the only professional piercing shop in the whole city.
Since opening in 2002, Pangea’s established itself as a sturdy brand every piercing-shop owner has wet dreams about: clean, safe, professional; high quality jewelry and service worth the little extra green. It’s $35 for most piercings (half off the second if you’re feeling frugal!), and jewelry ranges from $50 to over $2,000. Without any serious competition, the store’s consumed most of the piercing market in Washtenaw County, and grown a loyal clientele around the country and as far as the United Kingdom.
When I stopped by the shop on East Liberty Street in late September, the leaves were still green. Inside, there’s a massive abstract mural of Hell behind the counter where Kenny sat, big and burly. He explained aftercare instructions but I couldn’t keep my eyes on his eyes.
His ears are jarring: hoops, studs, bars, and posts; chrome plugs in lobes stretched the size of soda caps. This is the exact dude I want piercing my ears.
He slid his business card across the glass: over a starry universe, Kenny stands under the gaze of a big cat.
I felt kinda rude face-gaping; he has nice green eyes and a scruffy dwarf beard, but also two green jewels off a bridge piercing between them, and two more high nostril studs below those, and a pointy cone called a septril on the tip, a vertical labret through the center of his lower lip, two pairs of studs on each side of his lips (often called shark bites), and a pair of cheek piercings. How does he go through airport security?
“… You cool dude?” I blinked, and the radio seeped back into the shop; Evanescence — “Bring me to life.”
Before I could answer, I looked down at Kenny’s arm, at what I first mistook as alien bumps. Last year, Kenny had silicon implants incised under his left forearm epidermis. If you can’t picture what that even means, the whole procedure is featured on an episode of Pangea’s weekly web-show, The Modified World, hosted by owner J.C. Potts. The show, which gets 30,000 views on average per episode, documents and explores body modification, “the people who do it, the people who get it, and why it matters,” as Potts says at the beginning of each episode. The show’s also a boon to sales and has helped spread the word about Pangea’s new online jewelry store, which launched this past summer (most of the gold is custom made by Potts).
Still, why would someone want that — to look like that? Most of mainstream society can’t wrap its head around it.
“You ready to do this?”
“For sure,” I say and nod way too confidently.
Pangea’s three piercing rooms are small square inlets without doors. I lay on my back on an orange operating table. I stretched my head to the side while Kenny handled, through two pairs of sterile rubber gloves, a sharp piercing needle.
Kenny seems confident, and it’s just my lobes. Lobes are allowed.
“When you’re ready, take a deep breath in. I’ll pierce on a slow exhale.”
Two weeks later, with the leaves turning fiery, I went to Kenny’s house in Ypsilanti to interview him about piercing culture.
His apartment is in a brick block building. Out front, a Styrofoam cup was caught in the green hedges. Without plugs, Kenny’s lobes were wrinkled and stringy. He wore long black Dickies shorts. The same cat from his business card eyes me.
“I see what you did there. What’s its name?”
Blinka clawed the wall. A PlayStation 4 rested on a vacuumed carpet; Next to the TV, a cinderblock bookcase filled with Horror novels, and then next to that, two display cases, one with jewelry and the other with trinkets and a Kiss doll. We sat on the couch.
Kenny said his foray into piercing was like the next kid’s. When he was six, he asked his mom if he could get his ears pierced. After some coaxing, she agreed, but qualified it was a one-time thing. She took him to the local mall in College Station, Texas, and the boy left with holes in lobes, face glowing.
He was hooked, and started experimenting. He pierced himself, pierced his friends — first just ears, then noses and lips.
“We were all putting holes in each other.”
His parents eventually caught on and were startled a bit by their son’s offbeat hobby. They told him to take out the jewelry, but Kenny was in his teenage-rebel phase. “I was grounded a lot in high school.”
Six months out of high school, in 2001, Kenny took a job the counter of the local piercing shop. He was eventually offered a two-year apprenticeship, but the shop went bust six months later. He moved to Houston in 2007 and eventually finished his apprenticeship at the well-regarded Taurian Piercings & Metals. When Taurian closed in 2010, he moved to Ypsilanti to work at Pangea.
As Blinka snuggled into Kenny’s lap, I asked him what a piercing career at Pangea is like.
“It can be stressful, man.”
As one of two main piercers at the shop, Kenny’s paid $80 minimum per day, or $20 per piercing, plus tips.
“A slow month is two-thousand to twenty-five-hundred dollars, a busy month, four to five-thousand,” he said
Doing 20 to 30 piercings a day can be extremely stressful though.
“You’re trying to get through stuff fast and in a precise manner, and at the same time you have people waiting for you in the lobby.”
Impatient moms are worst: “Sometimes you wait hours, I’ll be honest. But do you really want me to rush through this shit nonchalantly and potentially fuck up your daughter because you don’t have the patience? … Not being able to sleep for a couple days is not fun.”
Blinka jumped down and up onto an elaborate cat bungalow. Kenny broke a small smile.
“I have this job where I can make people happy on a daily basis. I can change someone’s life. It makes me all warm and tingly inside.” The sentence looked ironic on the guy.
We laughed and I caught sight of his lizard tongue (inspired, he said, by Lizard Man, a dude who’s undergone hundreds of hours of body modification to look like his favorite reptile.)
“I fucking stab people for a living. If someone was walking down the street and poked me with a needle they would go to jail. People pay me to do that.”
There’s something incongruous about this status quo. Most people don’t want to look like Kenny. We likely haven’t dated someone nor have friends that look like Kenny. Worse, no matter our claimed liberalism, we likely hold ingrained stereotypes of people like Kenny. Why else is it that we don’t want our doctors looking like Kenny? That Kenny has lost girlfriends after being introduced to their families?
“Some were more accepting, but for the most part it’s been bad experiences.”
When mainstream society experiments, we try OJ with pulp, paint the bedroom salmon, maybe go bungee jumping. Just simple studs in my lobes will do, please and thank you. Why would anyone want so many holes in their body? Or suspend their body via shark hook?
I was playing with my studs again, twirling the moonstones in their holes, when I realized the same applied to me. I like how my earrings looked, but I still don’t know if my more traditional parents will approve of my piercings. Them to Me to Kenny to Lizard Man is just a matter of degrees of judgment.
“It’s your own fault for not being able to even give it a try and see what I’m like,” Henny said. “I don’t care though, miss out on whatever you want. It doesn’t really affect me.”
“Don’t let me know if body fat pops out this time. I didn’t need to know that last time,” John says.
From behind a surgical mask and sterilized gloves, Kenny squeezes a chunk of John’s back and propels a long piercing needle in and then back out.
Fondue chocolate is congealing in the corner now. A metal album called Wisconsin Death Trip screams over the PA.
By the wall, John Campbell sits backwards on a chair covered with a white surgical tablecloth. A single line of blood flows down his bare back. His nipples are pierced, “it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as you would think,” and he also has two small silver metal tunnels in his lobes. Marlee is snapping smartphone close-ups of the two hooks hanging from four fresh holes in John’s back. The hooks are engraved in swirly script with his and Marlee’s names, wedding date, and the words “one year anniversary” — a surprise gift from Kenny.
It still smells like the bundle of sage Kenny burned. Behind him, on two disinfected tables covered with white surgical table clothes, is his makeshift piercing station: boxes of rubber gloves, sterilized rubber gloves, lubricant, saline and alcohol solutions, dental bibs, blue dye, gauze in rows of “pre-” and “post-packs,” various types of hooks Autoclaved and hermetically sealed, plus some sutures — just in case.
John eats his third pack of M&Ms. We’re talking about needles, and Marlee says she’s terrified of hypodermic needles, which surprises me because she’s a phlebotomist; also because what’s a hypodermic needle to hanging upside-down from your knees (Marlee’s doing that next.)
“I’m just scared of takings fluids in and out of my skin,” she said. But you’re not scared of suspending?
I tell her how I like shots. She calls me weird.
John looks nervously at the rigging in the center of the room. From a metal roof support 20 feet up, a thick rope hangs between two metal pulleys. A carabiner connects the lower pulley to a small flat metal bar with lots of holes. A thinner rope weaves through the holes leaving two long loops.
We gather around the rope and Kenny attaches the hooks in John’s back to the rigging. Last year, John only got off the ground for a few seconds before feeling a panic attack coming on (he suffers from them regularly). He wants to improve on that record. Kenny starts pulling the rope slowly, and the slack tautens. The hooks pull the skin on John’s back until it turns white. Kenny increases the pressure slowly. Skin stretches. It looks like bat wings have been growing, about to burst from his back. I can’t take my eyes away.
A part of me weirdly wants to know what that feels like. Suspending from your back. Floating like that. Another part of me wants to run away before its Marlee’s turn.