“You’re going to cry like a little girl,” his friend Keith Dillon said from the chair next to him, just before Mike Laye pushed a needle, then a ring, through the right side of Dillon’s bottom lip.
Phillips removed his T-shirt but kept on his shell necklace, ripped jeans and Boston Red Sox hat. His feet were clad in high-top Converses – one red, one black – but the half-dozen observers in the doorway could still see his toes curl as Netali Cohen Magori pushed sterile needles through both of his nipples.
“Cowabunga!” he yelled, trying to avoid profanities.
Another buddy, Chris Machwart, stood in the open doorway and laughed.
“It was amazing. I can’t believe I just got my nipples pierced,” Phillips said. He turned to Machwart: “You’re next.”
Body piercing is gaining popularity among teens and 20-somethings. The Grand Strand has the highest concentration of licensed piercing parlors in the state, and it’s become a rite of passage for many high school seniors to head to Myrtle Beach the week after graduation, fork over about $50 each and leave with an extra hole and a piece of sterling silver jewelry.
Establishing an identity
The decision to adorn the body with metal is as much about conformity as it is about rebellion; it’s also a mix of fashion and self-identity, sociologists say. Within the past five years, sociologists say, piercing has become the chosen method of self-expression for the generation.
Eighteen-year-old Phillips of Heath, Ohio, said the piercing was a celebration of his new adulthood. It’s also a lasting memory of his trip to Myrtle Beach.
“Every tattoo or piercing I get is going to mean something to me,” Phillips said. “It’ll remind me of when I got it and what was going on.”
Body piercing today is the equivalent to long hair of the 1960s, said Barry Markovsky, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina.
“Every adolescent, as part of the process of establishing their own identity, finds some way to rebel. Sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s clothing, sometimes it’s hair, and now one of the popular ways to not conform is tattoos and piercings,” Markovsky said.
“Long hair in the 1960s was kind of rebellious, but millions of people were doing it and so it was somewhat conforming. And that’s what you have with tattoos and piercing – it’s becoming more accepted, especially in moderation. People having facial tattoos are still going to have a hard time in contemporary culture, but what most people are doing is getting an eyebrow pierced or six earrings in their ear or a lip piercing, and you don’t think twice about it, whereas five years ago you might have.”
Ten of the 37 state-licensed facilities are in Horry County, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Four of the 10 are in the city of Myrtle Beach, which imposes additional regulations on the parlors that confine them to a couple areas, including the Seaboard Street industrial area that’s home to tattoo parlors and strip clubs.
Phillips, Machwart and Dillon wound up at Dr. Piercing about 10 p.m. on a recent Friday. They were on Ocean Boulevard, talking about what they should do to commemorate their senior week. T-shirts were one thought. Then they happened upon a store in which employees said a free limo would pick them up, take them to the piercing parlor, and bring them back to the Boulevard. They were hooked.
So why did they do it?
“Because we can, because it’s senior week, and because we should,” Phillips said. “It’s the last time for us to be kids, and once we go back to Ohio, we have to be adults.”
The three friends said they probably wouldn’t have made it to the piercing parlor on Seaboard Street if it weren’t for the limo. They didn’t want to drive, and they don’t know their way around town.
It’s a common complaint from customers, said Dora Levi, Dr. Piercing’s manager.
“We’re in a place that nobody knows where you’re at, and it’s also by the competition,” Levi said. “[The limo is] a small little gimmick that helps us.”
“Tattoos and Body Piercings in the United States: A National Data Set,” a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology last year, found that one in seven people aged 18 to 50 have piercings in places other than their earlobes.
For the age group of 18 to 29, it’s one in every three people.
“It’s becoming more socially acceptable. It’s not that big a deal anymore,” Machwart said. “Now you see guys in their 30s or 40s who have tattoos and piercings.”
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, body piercing has been recorded from ancient civilizations and can be seen in art and antiquities. Ancient Egyptian royalty pierced their navels, and American Indians used piercings as part of coming-of-age rituals, according to some historians. There are still many cultures where the piercings are acceptable and encouraged, sociologists say.
Ruby Desai, a Virginia teen of Indian descent, said her parents wouldn’t be upset by her nose stud – her mom has one too.
“Plus every time she looks at that nose ring, she’ll think of beach week and us,” said her friend Jessica Bucaro.
Nearly three-fourths of the people got their piercings before age 24, according to the tattoo and piercing study. Nearly one in four reported medical problems, including skin infections. Among those with mouth or tongue piercings, one-fourth reported chipped or broken teeth.
Seventeen-year-old Jennifer Daniel of Auburn, Ga., wasn’t worried about infection. She hasn’t had problems with the cherry-stem stud in her nostril and thought a navel piercing was the ideal way to commemorate her trip to the beach with her mom.
Three-fourths of people with piercings in the study were women.
“It’s like a memory; you can always say you got it done in Myrtle Beach,” said Leah Daniel, Jennifer’s mom, after giving consent for the piercing.
State law mandates a person must be 18 to be pierced or accompanied by a parent or notarized permission form. Myrtle Beach law is more stringent, requiring a parent’s presence, spokesman Mark Kruea said.
For a long time, there were no government restrictions on piercing.
“The city stepped in to impose some rules about body piercing in 1996,” Kruea said. “There were numerous complaints from parents whose underage children had been pierced.”
The state issued regulations in 2002, the same year Myrtle Beach became the first city in the state to zone a special district for piercing parlors, Kruea said.
Zoning the piercing parlors away from Ocean Boulevard was the city’s attempt to retain a family friendly atmosphere on Ocean Boulevard, Kruea said. And because piercing is limited to adults, the regulations were hard to enforce in an area frequented by minors, he said.
Many adults disapprove of piercing because of the connotation of rebelliousness, Markovsky said. Piercing and tattoos are often associated with criminals because of their popularity in prisons, he said.
National surveys of workplaces show piercings and tattoos no longer mean automatic rejection of job candidates. In a recent survey, career Web site Vault.com found that 38 percent of employers said visible piercings and tattoos would have no effect on whether they would hire an applicant. Only 8 percent of employers said they’ve fired or disciplined an employee because of tattoos or body piercings.
But 18 percent of employees and 24 percent of managers said their tattoos or piercings have hindered their career prospects.
“Consider there’s a range of piercing and tattooings, from really subtle and invisible to full-body tattoos,” Markovsky said.
“For the more subtle forms, people don’t lose jobs. For more extreme statements that people are making with their skin, I’d have to think that that would make things difficult for some time to come. It could be difficult to get a job in mainstream culture, but that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of places that would be open to that.”