Decoration & Identity
Historically, piercing needs to be seen within the context of body modification.
Humans have always been fascinated with the concept of changing how they look since the beginning of time.
This takes many forms such as clothing, hairstyles and colour, makeup, jewellery, tattooing, scarification, branding or piercing.
Essentially, what is the difference between a person who permanently modifies their body and the person that spends a few hours every day doing their hair, makeup and clothes?
How many of us know people who refuse to be seen by anyone, even their partner, without these rituals completed?
Which is more extreme – but who cares anyway?
Ears & Nose
Ears have been the most universally pierced in all cultures, whether in the lobes, cartiledge, tragus or conch.
The piercings are also widely ‘stretched up’ in many cultures.
There has been a long tradition of nostril and septum piercing in Africa, Asia, Polynesia and the Americas. In these traditions piercings are often stretched.
Within certain countries different areas as well as cultural groupings pierce different sides of the nose; some stretch the piercings, some don’t. Therefore piercing one side of the nose in Southern India can carry the same meaning as having both sides of the nose and the septum pierced in Northern India. Jewellery worn in the piercing can be as significant as the piercing itself.
In Asia the nose is traditionally pierced by women and when I was travelling there the first time (1988) people often assumed I was a woman as I had my nose pierced.
They would not take into account the weeks’ worth of stubble, their reasoning being that no man in India has a pierced nose.
Then in Varanasi I was approached by a young Indian man with a pierced nose! He immediately connected with me because we shared the same piercing.
He explained to me the reason for his piercing, which he assumed was the same as mine. His three older brothers had died as infants and therefore his parents were told by the holy men to pierce the fourth son’s nose so that Kali would think he was female and spare his life. He had to wear the ring until he was 21
Lip & Tongue
As far as I know this piercing has cultural origins in Africa, South America and possibly SE Asia. In Africa and South America this piercing is often stretched with a clay or wooden plug.
In Southern American Indian tribes a series of piercings are made below the bottom lip and in the cheeks and long spikes worn in the piercings. They often pierce and stretch up the piercing at the same time in childhood.
In Africa they tend to wear just one piercing in the lip, traditionally quite low and central in the bottom lip. Obviously some tribes stretch this up and other tribes pierce and stretch the top lip.
From my research I can find no evidence of any jewellery being worn in the tongue but a lot of evidence of ritual tongue piercings in the Mayan, North American & Asian cultures.
In the Mayan culture the tongue piercing was adapted to induce hallucinations and trance-like states. The tongue is viewed as having special magical powers, particularly the blood within it.
Usually cords along with lancets used to open the wounds were pulled through the tongue. Often more than one person shared the cord.
North American Indian medicine men also valued the magical powers of the blood. Tongue biting was used as part of trance-inducing behaviour.
In Asian cultures the tongue is often pierced as a religious practice.
Nipple & Navel
According to Doug Malloy nipple piercing was practised by Roman Centurions, Caesar’s personal bodyguard.
They pierced their nipples as a sign of their courage and virility and supposedly as a dress accessory for holding their capes.
I have also read that in Regency times nipple piercings were popular with women as a way of keeping the nipples erect and visible. The fashion of the time was for low-cut dresses with the nipples almost exposed.
Apocryphal stories suggest that some women also stretched or trained their nipples to accentuate them more.
Navel piercing originated in ancient Egypt where this was this was only practised by royalty. As a consequence a deep navel was highly prized.
Origins are in Europe and like foreskin piercing was usually used as a way of restricting sexual practice. Usually this piercing was used in conjunction with a foreskin piercing and the two joined together.
This is said to have originated in Arabia where as part of the coming of age ceremony the young man would have a piercing done on the left side of the scrotum and a gold ring placed in it.
I have heard that in South India young men have small rings or bells placed in the side of the scrotum, often pierced by the temple prostitute.
This piercing originates in the South Pacific. Like so many other piercings this was carried out at puberty and was associated with the transition from boy to man.
The piercing is in the skin between the anus and the scrotum and is traditionally pierced with a knife-point then a leather thong is placed in the piercing.
Prince Albert (PA)
Supposedly Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had such a piercing hence the name.
Whether or not this is true, it was common for Victorian men to have a PA, or ‘dress ring’ as they called it, to keep their genitalia firmly secured to one leg. This was due to the fashion of the time for tight-fitting, crotch-binding trousers.
The other reason may also have been to keep the foreskin retracted, thus stopping the penis from smelling so much. This is the story attributed to Prince Albert’s decision to wear this piercing.
Doug Malloy also says that this piercing was used by deep-sea divers for attaching a bag to the penis so they could urinate whilst working underwater in a suit. It also allowed air to circulate around the penis, preventing irritation.
This piercing comes from south india and from the Dayaks of Borneo.
In South India the piercing was practised by the original inhabitants of the region, the Dravidians. It is mentioned in the Kama Sutra that this piercing is most pleasurable for the female during sex.
The piercing was either placed vertically in the head of the penis, or just behind. Generally these days the piercing is done in the head.
‘French Ticklers’ originate from this piercing. The Dayaks of Borneo also sometimes do this piercing, although they are more well known for having the ampallang piercing.
Originates from the Dayaks of Borneo. The Dayaks often have more than one ampallang and they are often stretched up as well. The piercing is done with a long thorn and a gold bar is worn.
Traditionally the piercing goes horizontally above the uretha, but nowadays usually goes through the uretha. I was told by a reliable source that this originated from Mr Sebastian, who thought that the piercing would heal better due to the urine passing through the piercing.
The Ampallang is highly prized in Dayak society and so the story goes that women will only sleep with a man who has an ampallang as sex with men without an ampallang is pointless.
The inner and outer labia piercings are worn by the Dayak women of Borneo. The piercings are usually stretched up and thick gold rings worn in them. The aim is to stretch the labia downward making them more predominant.
Dayak women also pierce the clitoris hood and wear a small gold ring in it. This is the only reference I have found to hood piercing. This was definately done to enhance sexual feeling.
Obviously there are more piercings possible; this section deals with piercings that have a historical link.
We hope you have found this information interesting and informative.
To the best of my knowledge this is all true but we have to rely on the veracity of reference works.
If you have any more information about the origins or history of piercings please let us know
Contemporary piercing traces its roots back to America in the 1960 to early 1970′s. Doug Malloy used to hold tattoo and piercing parties where the founders of modern day piercing met and exchanged ideas about piercing techniques and jewellery. Doug Malloy brought these people together and encouraged them to confer.
Two other members of this influential group were Fakir Mustapha and Jim Ward.
Fakir is a central figure in the revival of body piercing and modification.From a very early age he experimented with piercing and using pain to induce transcendental experiences. For him it was a spiritual quest. Personally I have found Fakir Mustapha very inspiring and have a great deal of respect for him and his work. He continues to be active and runs courses in the USA teaching piercing and branding.
Jim Ward was the founder of Gauntlet Piercing Studio in San Francisco; the USA’s first body piercing studio. Gauntlet ran the first piercing training seminars; first in the USA and then Europe.
Gauntlet were the first people to start making jewellery on a mass market scale, making piercing accessible to the general public.
Jim Ward, along with Fakir Mustafa, performed the Sundance ceremony in the film ‘Dances Sacred & Profane’. This is a traditional North American Indian ritual, described fully in the Ritual section.
The founder of the British scene is considered to be Mr Sebastian, also a good friend of Jim Ward, the Fakir and Doug Malloy. Mr Sebastian redefined techniques, and I have been told by reliable sources that it was him who realised that piercing the Ampallang through the uretha would help it to heal more successfully.
Obviously it is not possible to name everyone who played an influential part in the development of modern day piercing. I can only speak of the people I’ve met or heard about through my career and research.
In recent times people like Grant Dempsey, Tina Marie and Patrick Bartholomew have all been involved in the development of British piercing.
Another person who has greatly influenced British piercing is Warren Dean of Perforations.Warren started the first piercing studio in Brighton and is one of the most respected piercers in the country as well as being one of the most experienced. Perforations’ technical skill and sterility procedures became the standards by which others were judged.
Warren felt strongly that clients should receive the highest levels of competence and hygiene when being pierced. My first piercings were done by Warren, one of which was a major life-changing experience for me; because it convinced me to become a piercer. This is something for which I will always be grateful.
More recently the people at the forefront of piercing have also moved into body modification; we are living in exciting times.