PROFILE: PROFESSIONAL BODY PIERCER
SHANE OCELL – a man who professionally puts needles through nipples, navels, nostrils, etc.
The scent of antiseptic fanned past my nose as I walked in. A bald man, brawny and easy on the eyes, stood behind an L-shaped glass case of jewelry. The sleeves of his shirt rolled up above his elbows and tattoos poured out from where the fabric clung tightly to his skin. His left arm looked like a coloring book, with the colors confined to the space between thick, dark outlines. His right arm contrasted brilliantly, with hardly any black ink, only vibrant strokes of color emitting from his wrist and twisting up his thick bicep. His bulky forearms stood solid atop the glass case, like two intricately painted columns from some ancient civilization. At the bottom of the columns, two big, clean hands laid flat on top a great glass case. Inside the case, diamond white sparkles were outnumbered by dense shades of purple, red and orange that shoed off round gems embedded in silver structures. It was teeming with silver: silver spirals, silver hoops, silver U-shaped swivels with silver charms dangling off the end, silver rods with silver balls screwed on either end.
A shiny, black booth-like seat followed the perimeter of room up to the case. There was a skinny hallway to the left of the case and a large window to the right. A girl sat on the far left edge of the booth, waiting for her mom to pick her up. The man behind the case, Shane Ocell, had just given her an industrial piercing – a slanted bar poked through two points on upper-ear cartilage. She originally came in for a piercing through the area between her nostrils, said Ocell, a professional piercer, “but when I went to feel her septum, she didn’t really have a sweet spot for piercing.” He told the young lady to pinch the area between her nostrils, and then he gave her a pair of gloves to pinch the same spot in his nose, letting her compare it to his piercing-perfect septum. “I could have done that piercing,” he said, but he’s not in it for the money. If it’s not going to work, he doesn’t hesitate to turn a client down. This pisses most people off, but with that particular young lady, “it actually worked out in the end.” Before she decided on an industrial, she asked about a medusa piercing – a stud nestled in the mini slide on the upper lip. “But she had braces” Ocell said, with a sigh and a smile.
As Shane Ocell told the story of his most recent client, he looked down at his hands. Tiny white cracks crosshatched the skin on his ten spotless fingers: a result of wintertime and excessive hand washing. “They always get like this around this time of year,” he said. His wife has the same problem. She’s a chef. Ocell gave me a tour of his quaint, hyper-sterile “office” putting on gloves before touching anything behind the recliner in the center of the room.
The light gray walls had a framed, black and white photo of a surface navel piercing – two silver balls are the only visible part of this piercing, the rest is hidden under the skin, about an inch below the belly button.
What did that jewelry look like? He scooted his wheely chair to the shiny black cabinets in the back, put gloves on, opened the cabinet and pulled out one of the 50 plus tiny drawers. Inside there was a sterilization bag that held what looked like a wide, thick staple – the portion of a surface navel that goes below the skin. The combination of imagining getting that piercing and the scent of antiseptic singeing my nose hairs made me a little queasy.
Stabbing the surface
From the bold appearance of heavily tattooed, thick-eyebrowed Shane Ocell trickles out a notably calming persona. Calming. Maybe performing 20,000-plus piercing kindles that quality. Maybe it’s just that, as I approached the counter, I noticed a very puppy-like quality about his face. Ocell is “40 years old, going on 41 and I’ve been piercing for 20 years going on 21.” “I was really fortunate,” he said of his career in professional piercing. “It kinda fell in my lap.” Around the age of 20, Ocell worked as a receptionist at a tattoo parlor in Utah, “and also at a Red Lobster.” After six months at the parlor’s front desk, a tattoo artist, who was also buddy of his, said “why don’t you learn to pierce then we can work together.” He started a piercing apprenticeship in Utah under his friend and he finished the apprenticeship, under the same mentor, in Arizona.
But Arizona proved a frustrating state for a professional piercer. “Unfortunately, and I’m embarrassed to say it,” the pro-piercer said, “there is no legislation in Arizona” that requires certification. The state’s legislation on piercing and tattooing standards is slim to none, with the only regulation being against piercing or tattooing minors. Arizona is one of 17 states that require absolutely zero certification, Ocell noted. “So basically, as long as you are zoned properly, you could open a tattoo and piercing shop!”
“It’s pretty frustrating for me and other piercers,” he said, especially seeing shops deem themselves “certified” without any sort of professional training. But Ocell was able to maintain the standard of professionalism he learned through his apprenticeship when he opened his own tattoo and piercing shop in 2005. Now, marking its tenth birthday in September, Mastodon houses two piercers and five tattoo artists who shuffle through appointments and walk-ins every Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 P.M. (prime time to close and avoid drunks).
Who needs a needle?
Mastodon isn’t exactly walking distance from the likely chunk of clients housed on the Arizona State University campus. It’s about a 10-minute drive down University so the people who end up at Mastodon are likely committed and/or coherent enough to get whatever they ask for. And that’s pretty okay with Ocell, who doesn’t have time for stubborn requests.
“Sometimes we have people come in that lost a bet. That’s not a reason to get a piercing.” But then, what is a reason to get stuck with a needle? He recites a recent case in which a girl came in telling him she had a crappy day and “I need a needle.” He asked if she’d thought about the piercing before and she had wanted it for a long time, but the rough day gave her that extra oomph to finally do it. While, “it really just depends,” there are some common denominators Ocell sees in why a person might get a piercing. He gave an example of when Janet Jackson’s pierced nipple flashed the jumbo-tron at the Superbowl. There was certainly an influx in nipple piercings after that. And actually there’s a huge surge in them right now, he said. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he added, but last week he did eight sets of nipples in one day. Some people do it for “the experience,” other people get some balls as soon as they see a celebrity or a friend go through with it. When I client sees a piercing he or she always wanted or, perhaps, had never even heard of, that “visual” is usually enough to send them in Ocell’s direction. Maybe it’s just a family affair. “I get lots of mom and daughter navel, nostril piercings,” he said. “I think it’s on my Instagram, but once I pierced 3 generations, the grandma, mom and daughter.”
“I probably turn down ten to fifteen percent of what comes through the door.” Everyone’s bodies are so different, he said, telling the story of two blood sisters that came in to get the same piercing. Two years later, one looked perfect, he said, and the other sister’s body rejected it, “pushed it out like a splinter.”
“We’re not about taking people’s money,” he said, if the piercing doesn’t work on someone’s body, “and we’ve even had tears,” he won’t do it. In situations like that of the young lady with a too-thin septum, clients have stormed out muttering, “you don’t want my business, I’ll take it elsewhere,” he said. “But it’s like no, we do. I’ve got to make a living!” Most of the people turned down for anatomy-related reasons walk out. And he’s fine with that. “They can go get it somewhere else, but they’re not going to be happy with it.”
Piercing prep: Apprenticing under Ocell
Saying no isn’t the only way this practiced poker kindled a professional environment. Mastodon is one of “only a handful of shops” that require apprenticeships. “It’s just like any other trade,” he said. Sean Eldredge, Ocell’s current apprentice, peered in the office as his mentor was trying to come up with his craziest client story for me. As Ocell started into his story of a runaway client, Eldredge knew exactly the one and agreed it was a good one, smiling softly behind a face full of piercings, including two U-shaped arrows through either side of his bottom lip. “Long and short of it,” he said, a girl came in with an appointment, had her belly button pierced and a closed tongue piercing re-opened. “She goes, ‘I’ll be right back’ and I’m like okay she looks like a nice girl, but sure as shit, that was the first and only time I’ve ever been skipped out on.” He went on to tell me that, because of the information he takes down from his clients, he had all of her contact info. He gave her three opportunities to send a friend in with the money to pay for it – “I get it you know, I’m not trying to embarrass anyone and sometimes times are tight.” But she still didn’t cooperate and, to Ocell’s frustration, the police had to get involved.
Eldredge is three years into his apprenticeship and only about halfway done, according to Ocell. Regardless, the 24-year-old apprentice speaks highly of his mentor, noting the single word to describe Ocell in his work element would have to be “professionalism.” When Eldredge was 16, he got a piercing from Ocell, and then some more, and pretty soon he found himself craving the chance to pierce.
“Everyone in this industry knows Shane and how well versed and skilled he is,” but the apprentice really hopes to learn how to make a reputation for himself like that of the head honcho’s: “The piercer everyone suggests to go see,” Eldredge said. His mentor’s likability goes beyond skill and precision. “People remember when you treat them good,” he said, noting that Ocell explains things to clients, even things “they think they know otherwise.” It’s that appreciation clients have for Ocell that he hopes to gain.
The first time I stepped in Mastodon, I was there as moral support for my friend, who left the shop an hour or so later with an inch-long bar through both her nipples. I flipped through a little book he had sitting in his office. Upon my second visit to Mastodon, Ocell mentioned that “piercing experience book.” I flipped through the pages, dated before Mastodon had even been established. Not a single handwritten review spoke poorly of Ocell. Maybe there is a heightened appreciation for the piercer who goes out of his way to create the most professional arena possible. Or maybe, as Ocell put it, “this book was pre-Yelp. It’s a lot easier to go home and type “Shane was such an asshole” than to write it out in a book.”
That friend, who preferred to remain anonymous to keep her nipple candy a secret, “felt pretty skeptical” about getting the piercings initially. “But [Ocell] was very easygoing and so professional about the whole process,” she said. “I remember looking down as he was marking the points on me,” she said, blushing and laughing. She saw his wedding ring, “and we actually had a funny short conversation about his wife.”
The young lady chose Mastodon upon hearing that it was “piercing-only.” “It didn’t end up being piercing only, I think they do tattoos in there too,” she said, after the fact. “But online I saw somewhere that there were professional piercers and I thought that’s where I want to get something like this done.” “The nice thing about our shop is tattoo artists tattoo, piercers pierce,” Ocell said. That sort of specificity is another one of the ways he’s instilled professionalism within Mastodon.
Tattooing and piercing and sticking with the latter
Ocell stuck with piercing only from the get-go. For starters, “I can’t draw,” Ocell said. “Tattooing is not something that I ever really gravitated toward…I was more interested in skateboarding than art when I was younger.” Beyond that, he likes the narrow job title he’s created for himself. He wouldn’t feel right getting up from a giant back tattoo and telling his client, “hold tight I’m going to go pierce someone’s eyebrow real quick.” But beyond that, “I like the perfectionism with piercing”, Ocell said, it’s a challenge. Even doing a standard ear piercing, making sure both earrings line up on either side of the client’s head, he added. Tattooing and piercing are inseparable across the field of body art professions. If a shop has one, it probably has the other. If the guy can do a tattoo, it’s likely he can pierce a nose too. What’s the similarity? Ocell has found one quality for the center of the tattoo/piercing Venn diagram: steadiness. Other than that, “there’s a reason they call it a tattoo artist and not a piercing artist,” he said.
Ocell knows he is an outlier, and he takes pride in it. His job title in itself prompts some eyebrow raises. But he likes it. “And why I like it? Every day is different.” Despite his distinctive career choice, the pro-piercer sees his job like any other. He enjoys the variety that walks in the door. “I get to see all walks of life,” he said. “If I was working a job that was the same thing every day…I don’t know…”
Lenient Legislation? Every rule and regulation for tattooing and piercing in the state of Arizona
No minors without a parent guardian can be tattooed or pierced
It is unlawful to “brand, scarify, implant, mutilate, tattoo or pierce the body of a person who is under 18 years of age,” unless a parent or legal guardian is present
No double dipping needles, no dirty tools
It is unlawful to tattoo or pierce the body of another person using “a needle or any substance that will leave color under the skin more than once or to use a needle that is not sterilized”
No tattooing, piercing, scarifying, etc. out of a cardboard box
It is unlawful to “engage in the business of tattooing, branding, scarifying, implanting, mutilating or body piercing out of a home or an impermanent structure, including a tent, trailer, trunk or other impermanent structure”
No putting people under
It is unlawful for anyone “who is not licensed…to administer anesthesia during the course of any procedure involving the branding, scarifying, tattooing, implanting, mutilating or piercing of the body of another person”