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Piercers can't get enough of pins and needles

Allison Plean

Bucky Jaquess mentally prepares for a piercing by Ryan Lee.

Truth Tattoo body piercer Jasen Phelps has worn more than 250 piercings – and that doesn’t include the thousands of times he pierced himself on stage while performing in a freak show.

But it all began rather simply.

“I’ve always poked holes in myself,” Phelps said. “When my brother saw me put a safety pin through my cheek, he said I would either be a doctor or a body piercer.”

Phelps has been a professional piercer for 16 years.

“You learn on yourself, learn on your friends and then get a job,” he said.

Piercers now learn the trade through apprenticeships; Phelps’ apprentice is Ryan Lee. Upon retirement, Phelps plans to make himself available for consultations and high-end body modifications.

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“As far as high-end body modification is concerned, I can either do it, have done it or can figure out how to do it,” he said.

Phelps also performs brandings and scarifications.

“Scarifications are done with a scalpel, where you basically carve designs into flesh,” he said. “And I’ve done a tongue splitting. It was the first time I’ve ever brought in an anesthesiologist. It is a very, very painful experience.”

The most painful piercing Phelps has performed is a form of septum piercing, in which the jewelry goes through both nostrils and the septum.

“There are only about 300 of them worldwide, and I am probably responsible for 40 to 60 of them,” Phelps said.

He is one of four known piercers who do mandible piercings, which go through the skin of the lower jaw and out underneath the tongue.

“I’ve got a couple one-of-a-kind piercings – like the three-hole industrial piercing – that no one else has ever been able to pull off,” Phelps said.

Phelps was present when another piercer broke the world record by performing a nine-hole industrial piercing, which involves nine piercings down someone’s ear lobe. The piercings are then connected with a corkscrew-shaped piece of jewelry.

“The craziest thing I’ve ever pierced was an uvula, which is the little thing that hangs down in the back of your throat. Piercers usually do that one only once. I did three.”

Phelps has also pierced one of his apprentice’s backs with 16 piercings and laced them together like a corset.

When Phelps was in a freak show, he used to do suspensions, hammer nails into his face and swallow swords.

“I used to be able to slide a beer bottle through my ear lobe,” he said.

Phelps said the most popular piercing location is the nose, and that the popularity of tongue piercings fluctuates. There are at least 6,500 possible body piercings listings in the Body Modification Encyclopedia.

“It is a legitimate and fairly healthy way to express yourself,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think they are addicting. After the first one, people just realize it is not as big of a deal as a lot of people make it out to be.”

Piercings can provide an adrenaline rush to the person doing the work, Phelps said. And when the piercing is finished, the piercer often gets the same feeling of release as the piercee.

“Typically, I get the needle through and the jewelry, and after the transfer I start shaking,” Lee said. “I get the same relief they do. It’s like we both got pierced.”

Lee has been Phelps’ apprentice for three months. He said he sort of just fell into the craft.

“It started with sanitation, then anatomy, then I had to learn the jewelry and then actually start performing it,” Lee said. “Composure has to be learned, also. I have to stay clam while keeping the other person calm.”

Lee practices his craft on friends like Bucky Jaquess. Jaquess has let Lee pierce his nipple, navel and the front of his neck.

“I only get piercings because he needed to practice,” Jaquess said. “I’m just a good sport, and I have really soft skin that’s good for piercing.”

Phelps said the only thing that keeps him from retiring is the satisfaction he gets from clients who truly appreciate what he does for them.

“The absolute coolest part (of being a piercer) is that almost everybody who walks in feeling normal, walks out feeling more beautiful,” Phelps said. “It is honorable but also intimidating. If it’s not done right, you could be crushing someone’s ego.”