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On the surface

Part 1: Decisions

A few years ago, if anyone had asked me if I'd consider getting a surface piercing, my answer would have been something along the lines of, "Probably not. They're too complicated and most of them reject within a few months." This was not just a random opinion either: I'd seen too many pictures of angry, red rejecting piercings with surface bars (or worse, straight barbells!) poking out and had heard too many stories about how finicky these particular piercings could be.

My thoughts on surface piercings started to change when I met Patrick – one of the most perfectionist piercers that I know. Very few people, in any profession, pay as much attention to the little details and put as much thought into every procedure as this talented man – just the kind of piercer you can really feel comfortable with. Patrick's biggest passion is surface work, and the more I saw of surface piercings he'd done that still looked beautiful months after the initial procedure, the more I started to warm to the idea.

The scales were finally tipped when, for my 22nd birthday, my awesome friends Ladyraven and jacktar told me that they'd spoken to Patrick about piercing me as a present. Of course, this is the ideal gift for someone like me, but there were so many options. While the list of piercings I wanted was not the longest ever, each thing on the list held huge appeal. Would it be a medusa? Matching nostril piercings? Something below the waist? In the end, Patrick's obvious talents as well as my growing intrigue could not be ignored – surface piercings were the way to go.

This didn't narrow down the options much. From corset piercings to vertical bridges to wrist piercings, there was so much possibility. Each seemed to have its own pros and cons. I can't say for sure what got me thinking about two angled surface bars on my chest. Maybe it was the relative fleshiness of the area as they'd each be perched just above a breast that made me think it was a viable idea. Maybe it was the fact that they could be exposed when I wanted or covered if necessary. Or maybe it was just the fact that it was something different, something I hadn't seen before, and something I felt confident could be done successfully. I went into Iron Warrior and discussed the idea with Patrick. He seemed just as enthusiastic about it as I was and told me exactly what the piercing process would entail (which is much more complicated the a "pinch and poke"). More informed and more excited than ever, the only thing left to do was find some time to do it.

Part 2: Procedure

A Saturday morning, sometime in November: I knew this was the day to do it. I had a shower, forced down some breakfast to minimise the chances of feeling faint, and made sure I had everything I needed for aftercare. I was ready. I phoned my friend Zane who wanted to get a labret, told him I'd be there shortly, and went – with my curious flatmate Claire in tow – to pick him up. From there we headed to Iron Warrior; a little nervous, a little giddy and very excited.

Zane was the first to get pierced because of the relative simplicity of his procedure. Next, it was my turn. While I'd never had anyone other than myself and the piercer in a room while I was getting pierced, this unusual procedure was well attended. My two friends stood in the back of the room, claiming moral support, but probably also fascinated by what was happening. Claire (another one) and Marthinus, who were there having Claire's forehead surface piercings checked up, were also in attendance; Marthinus armed with Patrick's camera and Claire holding my sweaty hand. With this impromptu audience of friends it was difficult for me to get too nervous.

The first thing Patrick did was wipe down the soon-to-be-pierced area with alcohol swabs, just to make sure it was as clean as possible. Then it was time to draw some guidelines. I stood up as straight as possible in front of him while he got to work. In my previous experience getting marked for a piercing didn't take too long, but Patrick was intent on getting this spot on to the very millimetre. He measured, drew, measured again, and drew some more. By the time we were both happy with the placement points, I was covered in little lines and what felt like at least half an hour had passed. And this was only the beginning!

After instructing me to lie back on the bed, Patrick set about clamping each spot, not so that he could pierce, but so he could shine a very bright torch through my flesh and see if there were any blood vessels in the way. The clamps were horribly uncomfortable and even though he hadn't even brought a needle anywhere near me yet, I was already gripping Claire's hand tightly. With a better idea of what was happening under my skin, Patrick made some minor adjustments to his marks and we confirmed that we were both happy with the final placement. Patrick then set about re-measuring each distance, so he could fashion the custom surface bars out of bioplast. I took this opportunity to relax a little and prepare myself for the actual piercing procedure.

A few glove changes later and with two perfect surface bars each about 5cm long (with the surgical stainless steel balls I'd chosen "to match my nipples"); Patrick told me it was time to pierce. Unfortunately, this meant clamping again which – despite the "fleshy" area – was very pinchy and made me all the more nervous about how painful the piercing itself might be. I gritted my teeth, wrapped my sweaty fingers a little more tightly around Claire's hand and tried to adjust to the biting pressure of the clamps on the gathered flesh above my left breast.

Patrick showed me the sealed 14g needles and everyone in attendance nodded their approval – it was time to pierce. Patrick loomed over me, needle in hand and jewelry ready. I closed my eyes; not in fear, but because it's easier to focus on regulating my breathing without being distracted by what's happening around me. "Take a deep breath in and let it out slowly," Patrick instructed. Those were just the words I had been waiting for. I took a deep breath in, my skin fighting to pull taut against my expanded ribcage, but held in place by the obstinate pressure of the clamps, which felt like they would draw blood before the needle did.

The needle slid into my flesh; a sharp, smooth glide. The intensity of that moment offered an almost-welcome counterpoint to the persistent gnaw of the clamps. The sigh that escaped my lips was one of relief – that needle really felt good. Patrick asked me if I was alright, and I nodded. The jewelry transfer was quick and near painless as the flexible surface bar slid perfectly into position. Once the glinting little balls were screwed on, I finally looked down. A bit of redness – a memento from the now-removed clamps – could not mar the awesomeness of that piercing. All that was missing was its partner on the right.

A moment or two to breathe and laugh with my friends, and then we were back to the business of clamping and piercing. The right followed much the same is the left, with me gritting my teeth (as the clamps gritted theirs into my soft flesh), until – phew – and it was over. Everyone congratulated me as Marthinus took more photos of my chest. I couldn't help looking down at every possible opportunity, amazed at how beautiful these piercings looked and what a great job Patrick had done. He explained the aftercare to me, and that I'd need to see him after the swelling went down to get the bars shortened. I thanked him profusely and left the shop; still grinning, still in awe. My thoughts on surface piercings had been irrevocably changed.

Part 3: Healing

As with all piercings, my chest surface piercings had their ups and downs. For the first week they were quite bruised from the clamps, but otherwise not at all problematic. Initially I cleaned them really gently with a warm salt water solution and q-tips, making sure the get rid of any lymph build up on the jewelry. I avoided tops with necklines that would hook on the jewelry and didn't sleep on my stomach for the first few weeks, as this would put pressure on the piercings.

Within no time, I decided the piercings were settled enough for me to skip the salt water solution and just resort to cleaning them in the shower – the ever-popular LITHA method of aftercare. For more than a year, the extent of my aftercare has been my regular soap and water once a day with exceptions made when one of the holes occasionally (and generally inexplicably) gets red and irritated. I've seen Patrick twice to adjust the length of the bars as they grow almost imperceptibly shallower, and I'll probably have to go get another millimetre or two trimmed off soon. The wonderful thing about bioplast is its flexibility and the fact that I can make these adjustments without subjecting these delicate piercings to the trauma of a jewlery change. I know I won't have these piercings forever and at the first signs of real rejection I'll consider taking them out, but for now – while they still look good and (aside from some minor crustiness in the mornings or getting particularly lymph-y after getting snagged in my bath towel) are generally "happy".

People remark on them on almost a daily basis. Most people are fascinated and think they are incredible; some people are fascinated and can't bear to look because of the pain they imagine I must have gone through. I even catch myself staring from time to time. Not only were these piercings were on of the most memorable gifts I've ever been given, but they've also made me so much more open to surface piercings in general. I've had them for a year and a half and hopefully they'll be around much, much longer.


submitted by: Anonymous
on: 24 April 2008
in Surface & Unusual Piercing

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Artist: Patrick
Studio: Iron+Warrior
Location: Cape+Town

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