Needles terrify me. A looming syringe is a nightmare more horrifying to me than the threat of an imminent bear attack. Need my blood? Not without a sturdy fainting couch and the promise of a cookie, buster! This fear has made me famous for my ability to sit serenely through unspeakable tortures of grotesque modern cinema (here’s looking at you, Cannibal Holocaust) while at the same time cowering behind large throw pillows whenever a loaded hypodermic glistens on an episode of House. Safety pins? Not safe enough. Booster shots? I’d rather contract tetanus. And don’t even get me started on the spastic, biting monster that is a sewing machine.
And, oh yes, I happen have 20 piercings. 20 piercings and counting. 21 by the time you read this. 23 by the end of the week.
If the body is a canvas, then mine is knitted together in a metallic display of body art brushstrokes. You’ll never catch me donating plasma, but the battle cry of my greatest enemy turns to melody when it’s singing into my skin on the piercing table. And this is no casual fling of flippant means; each stab is a long-anticipated love affair, one more piece of my own, personal jigsaw puzzle. I am being rewritten in barbells, chains and captive beads. And I am, by no means, alone in this venture.
The history of human body modification is a long and decidedly varied one, indeed. Remote villages still engage in a myriad of ritualistic tattooing, scarring, piercing and gauging that has provided personal and cultural identity for countless generations – and fodder for many a National Geographic documentary. But modern incarnations of the practice owe their roots  to the inquisitive – and decidedly ballsy – experimentations of one man who, quite literally, launched an entire movement from his living room.
The odds are pretty favorable that the name James Mark “Jim” Ward doesn’t have a terrible amount of significance to the average Louisvillian – regardless of the number of piercings in their flesh. But the captive bead in your cartilage? The internally-threaded barbell speared through your scaffolding? The – ahem – more tender areas winking a metallic hidden hello? That’s Jim Ward’s legacy. And this legacy continues as the pioneer of piercing turns 71-years-old this Thursday, June 28, a birthday noted with a worldwide celebration of body modification enthusiasts as International Body Piercing Day .
“The Granddaddy of the modern body piercing movement”, as MTV has christened him, Jim Ward and his intrepid explorations with piercing in the 1970s laid the foundation for every piercing parlor in the country – including Amy Willmore’s stomping ground at Louisville’s very own Twisted Images . “It’s crazy,” says Willmore as she effortlessly drives a needle through my left ear, “Out of Jim Ward came the APP [Association of Professional Piercers]. The APP used to meet in the Gauntlet’s storage room, and they are the reason that we have any kind of standard for our industry.”
With the 1978 opening of Ward’s West Hollywood commercial piercing parlor, the first of its kind in the nation: the infamous Gauntlet, Ward sparked an underground movement that would spread like wildfire through both cities and generations, culminating in a rollicking modern industry that has moved undaunted into the light of day. “It used to be that the only time that we did piercings was on 18-year-old, 19-year-old kids that lived outside the box,” explains Willmore. “Now it’s every walk, every creed, every color – everything is getting every piercing!” In her 17 years of body piercing, Amy has seen it all and watched the industry’s transformation from an underground stigma to a Main Street mainstay: “Every piercing has increased exponentially in popularity – it’s very odd for me some days!”
But with the rise in popularity comes an increase in amateur-hour body piercers and, equally, an increase in foolish mistakes. Education is one of the key points for the International Body Piercing Day platform and something for which Willmore feels a great deal of personal passion: “There is no point in letting people who are not educated play; there’s a reason we have to have our registrations.” And while the piercing world would admittedly not be the powerhouse it has become today without Ward and countless other brave souls experimenting in storage closets, educating John Q. Public – and especially those of the younger persuasion – about the risks involved with the rush is not something to be taken casually. “I want to tell these kids why it’s wrong to be piercing each others’ navels at slumber parties,” declares Willmore. “I would love to be able to go to high schools and middle schools and be like, ‘Hey kids, this is why we don’t pierce each other! Do we know where our nerves sit? Do we know the chances of MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] and infection?’” Body modification, in all its salacious glory, is an art form that must be approached with respect and knowledge.
With a newly pierced conch (look it up) and my first dermal anchors on the horizon (why yes, as a matter of fact I am first in Willmore's line on International Body Piercing Day), my decorated flesh owes quite a lot to both Willmore’s deft hands and Ward’s keen constitution. With birthday candles glowing, Willmore and her crew at Twisted Images will offer $10 off all piercings to honor International Body Piercing Day and its rockin’ granddaddy—a nod towards the industry innovator and to whatever future body modification will progress. It’s an art form based on ancient ritual taking modern risks, and, according to Willmore, a collection of calculated risks is what propels the industry forward: “You expand your mind, you keep growing, you keep changing. That’s how we learned, and that’s how our industry progressed. We all built off of it.” It is a marriage of pain, beauty and originality I will always relish – even if I can’t watch without getting squeamish.
Twisted Images is located at 1223 Bardstown Road.
Photo: Laura Wood