Piercings and Eye-Popping Tattoos: Fashion’s Latest Canvas Is the Skin You’re In

Inspired by Fakir Musafar, a performance artist and leading proponent of the modern primitive movement, the book is filled with photographs of Mr. Musafar recontouring his waist and extremities with tight metal bands, or hanging by flesh hooks from a tree.

There are images as well of Leo Zulueta, a tattoo artist stamped with a brash chevron-like pattern that enhances the contours of his back.


FKA Twigs at the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this month.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Tattooing and high-visibility piercing, resurgent in the early 1990s as the seditious insignia of proud outliers, are now being revisited in unlikely quarters.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who probably would have never set foot into a piercing studio,” said Miro Hernandez, a spokesman for the Association of Professional Piercers and a partner in Dandyland, a piercing studio in San Antonio. “We’re seeing business professionals, doctors, nurses and teachers more discerning about what to look for and what to choose.”

Indeed, the continuing appropriation — commodification, some might say — of this former taboo by fashion designers, celebrities and civilians alike suggests that it has made deep incursions not just into the mainstream, but also into the consciousness, and the pocketbooks, of a moneyed elite.

“In an era of excessive individualism, our markings and modifications are viewed not as a sign of freakishness or outlier tendencies but as an expression of personal taste,” Christine Rosen, a cultural historian, wrote last year in The Hedgehog Review, a journal of cultural criticism. Ms. Rosen went on to suggest that tweaking the skin one is in has become a leisure pursuit no more alien or off-putting than, say, a Botox party.

“Today ‘it was spring break’ is just as likely to be the answer to the question of why someone got tattooed as ‘I was in prison’ was for previous generations,” she writes.

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No one, of course, would argue that uptown matrons will be besieging their dentists for grillwork any time soon. But there is plenty to suggest a widening acceptance of body mod’s more subtle arts: fake and real septum rings, quarter-size ear gauging, tattooed “sleeves” on the upper arms.

Fashion has certainly played a part: at Givenchy’s spring 2016 show, models’ ears were encrusted in crystals and studs, their faces covered in glued-on jewels, beads and swaths of lace; at Rodarte, models’ eyebrows were embellished with rows of tiny hoops, while those at Dries Van Noten wore long, fitted gloves stenciled with tattoo-like markings.

Then there are the show people: Rihanna and FKA Twigs, gracing the covers of the fashion glossies; Kendall Jenner, who wore a silver-dollar-size ceremonial nose ring at Coachella in 2014; and Justin Bieber, showing off a small freshly inked cross beneath his left eye on his Instagram feed.

Those kinds of subtle markings work “for every walk of life, whether you’re a model or a barista at Starbucks,” JonBoy, Mr. Bieber’s tattoo artist, told Pret-a-Reporter this week. “It’s like you can wear an accessory and look elegant and sophisticated and sexy at the same time.”

The other day, Catherine Hay, a 45-year-old marketing and communications specialist with a corporate clientele, lay stretched on a surgery table at the End Is Near, an upmarket piercing salon in Park Slope, Brooklyn. After months of deliberation, she had decided to have her navel pierced.


Kendall Jenner at a party in 2014.

Chris Weeks/Getty Images for Lacoste

“This may sound shallow,” Ms. Hay said, “but I do a lot of Pilates, and I just think my ring will look pretty at the gym.”

Craig Rodriguez, the owner of the End Is Near and Hand of Glory, both in Brooklyn, spoke in a radio interview in the early ’90s of just how common piercing had become.

“It was popular then,” Mr. Rodriguez recalled last week. “But knowing what I do now, I think I underestimated its impact.

“These days the question is not ‘Is it mainstream?’” he added, “but how far are people willing to take it.”

Far enough, it seems, that Mr. Rodriguez, who sells jewelry from about $60 to $1,500 for a custom piece, will soon venture to Midtown Manhattan, with its expanse of luxury shops. In a June collaboration with Sydney Evan, a fine jewelry firm based in Los Angeles, he will offer his expertise to the free-spending customers of Bergdorf Goodman.


A woman getting an arrow tattooed on her back at Hand of Glory in Brooklyn.

Stefania Curto for The New York Times

“Ear piercing is such a big trend right now, especially with so many new earring designs,” said Elizabeth von der Goltz, a Bergdorf senior vice president. “Whether people want to mix and match their jewelry or have multiple earrings all the way up their ears, more is more.” The store hopes to draw a mix of stylish younger customers and those like her, who, she said, “have kept their main ear hole and want at least one more additional piercing.”

Multiple piercings in and around the ears, formerly the mark of mall rats and club crawlers, appeal to a wider audience now, said Maria Tash, the owner of Venus by Maria Tash, an upscale piercing salon in NoHo. “We’re noting more women in their 40s, 50s and 60s getting piercings in unusual places,” she said — the nipples and septum among them.

They are lured as much by the jewelry — gold and diamond cuffs, studs and conches — as by the groovy maverick associations.

“From most of our clients, we don’t hear, ‘I’m worried about what people at my job will say,’” Ms. Tash said. “Those clients are either so established that they have the liberty to do such things, or they’re attracted to the nature of the jewelry — so subtle and small they don’t worry that they won’t be taken seriously.”

On Saturday, Jenny Camillieri, a middle school assistant principal in her 40s, was having her forearms inked at the End Is Near, the fresh designs an extension of a fretwork of tattoos snaking toward her shoulder. “The kids, when they see them, all assume I’m, like, really cool,” Ms. Camillieri said, nonchalantly. And the parents? “They assume I’m a little harsh,” she said. “But, it’s all good.”


Jamie Hall, 48, a doctor with a family practice in downtown Detroit, is about 50 percent covered in tattoos. His other embellishments include outsize plugs in his lobes, hooks that penetrate his ear cartilage and, he said, “a couple of spikes on the top of my ear.”

Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

Jamie Hall, 48, a doctor with a family practice in downtown Detroit, is about 50 percent covered in tattoos. “Some have marked certain periods of my life, and some are strictly adornment,” Dr. Hall said. His other embellishments include outsize plugs in his lobes, hooks that penetrate his ear cartilage and, he said, “a couple of spikes on the top of my ear.”

“Certain piercings I take out for work, mostly for convenience,” he said. “But some have been accepted over time.”

Reactions, he said, vary widely, from “Are you a doctor?” to “You’re the coolest doctor I’ve ever seen.”

Still, he is on occasion overcome by nostalgia. “Lately tattooing has slipped to the norm,” Dr. Hall said. “I miss the days when bikers were tattooed and athletes weren’t.”

“Now, he added, “attorneys on red Harleys are tattooed.”

Correction: May 12, 2016
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified the tattoo parlor where a woman got an arrow tattoo. It is Hand of Glory, not The End is Near.

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