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There's a glyph for the breath of a dragon behind his right ear. His back is elaborately adorned with a dense Polynesian tattoo. His feet are covered with stylized Maori bats, and the image of a holstered handgun is inked on his calf. He's got some pretty hefty rings in the piercings that center the five-pointed stars around his nipples. He's also got man-made holes in his nose and lip and penis and ears. If, as scholar Victoria Ebin once suggested, "every group of people recognizes a particular set of symbols, adherence to which is implicit in the definition of their own society," then the glossary of markings on Brian Murphy's body define him as the embodiment of millennial American man.
Brian Murphy is a master piercer. He trained at the Gauntlet and worked there until that place went bankrupt last December. Then he set up business with a partner under the new name of Gotham and decamped to temporary quarters in East Side, Inc., an East Village tattoo parlor that's a mecca for the human canvas set.
Master piercer may not be a career you hear many kids saying they aspire to when they grow up, but why not? It's a living. It's such a good living, in fact, that all the Sunglass Huts in the country would probably like to horn in on the business. "I keep getting calls from people saying, 'Would you teach us to do navels?' and I'm like, 'No.' "
This situation would certainly have been unforeseeable 10 years ago, when Murphy came onto a scene whose locus was the infamous Club Fuck! in L.A. Fuck! was home back then to every anarchic queer Angeleno with a copy of Re/Search #12 ("Modern Primitives") and a Trent Reznor jones. Murphy was a south Florida arrival with a few modest tattoos and a pierced nipple done by an amateur in a friend's Miami living room. "He used a pressure cooker instead of an autoclave to sterilize the needle," says Murphy. "I was lucky. He did a good job."
Well before that, Murphy had been exploring an interest in unorthodox self-enhancement, performing temporary lancings on himself and piercing his own ears at age 12. Those particular holes, which he now fills with a pair of platinum and ebony ear plugs, have been stretched over time to the point where you can put a pinky through them.
He's also accumulated a large number of images on his person, to the point where he brings to mind Melville's Queequeg, who "had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth. . . . "
It's a strange fact about modern primitives that they could only happen in a postindustrial world. Is it atavism that makes people scrawl stuff all over their flesh and perforate their bodies, or is it an attempt to combat the pollution of an information age? Can symbols snatched from the data stream be assembled into something personal and coherent? Murphy thinks they can. "It's such a human need, to decorate and adorn the body," says the 29-year-old, whose flesh seems less adorned than illuminated, less ornamented than inscribed with an explanatory text.
"I got the stars," Murphy was saying the other day, in a break between piercings, "because I liked the idea of black nipples. It seemed pretty raunchy, sort of a circus burlesque element. The gun I got when I was going through a gun obsession phase. I thought if I got the tattoo, it would get me out of it. It didn't work, though. I bought a Taurus 9 millimeter anyway. I got my feet done with the Maori bats because I'd had a boyfriend who was killed, he was a skinhead and he got shot in some stupid skinhead violence. He had a Maori bat on his abdomen. I did it to commemorate him. The Tibetan storm clouds represent one of the 12 bodhisattvas, this one is the bodhisattva of the Underworld, who is the patron of gamblers, travelers, lost causes, and the dead. I just felt that, of all the bodhisattvas, that one matched my personality more. The Retarded Whore tattoo comes from a production company I was involved with when we were running a club in San Francisco called Jesus.
"The piercing has always been more of an obsession than a career ambition of mine. I've had a lot of piercings. I've had some that I've taken out, but I still have the septum and one of two labret piercings below my lip, and a Prince Albert through my urethra and an apadravya, which is a vertical bar through the head of the glans. I've also got the navel and ears, of course.
"Piercing now is about 50 percent professionals and 50 percent people just jumping into it for the money. At Gauntlet I trained for almost two years. It was a year before I was allowed to do any piercings myself. You have to learn about sterilization and cross-contamination before you even get into technique. Customers come in and they're terrified and don't really know why they're doing it and that can be very taxing. You need to be a therapist and a piercer. Other people come in and have a very clear idea of what they're after and I really like that.
"I think the scene peaked around '92 or '93, but it's pretty obvious it's a permanent feature of the retail landscape. Not every piercing is going to be accepted by the mainstream the way navels and tongues are. After Naomi Campbell got hers, everyone was coming in asking for navels. My mother was the first navel I ever did, in '92. She wanted to know what it was all about. I got my own navel pierced when she died because I wanted to commemorate her and wear her ring.
"Nipple piercings are still thought of as very sexual. But only about 10 percent of our business is genitals. You can't really generalize anymore about who's getting pierced. It used to be mostly gay men gettting dick piercings. Now it's about 60 percent gay and 40 percent straight. Most get a Prince Albert, with a ring through the urethra. But we do about 10 to 15 apadravya a year."
"Lately, we've been getting guys in their fifties having their nipples done. I guess it's a midlife-crisis thing. Or they're finally letting themselves explore their sexuality. The oldest person I've ever pierced was in his eighties. He asked for a series of scrotum piercings. He'd always wanted them and when his wife died he finally decided he could have them. Is that too old? Not really. Piercing is a pleasure-based activity. I don't know anyone who's too old to do something pleasurable."