High Quality Studio, Low Quality Apprenticeship

I have strong memories of the year I turned 20. Mostly surrounding landing my second piercing apprenticeship. See, I started piercing at 18 in a shop that wasn’t great. Low quality jewelry, incorrect skip prep, bad sterilization. You name it- if it was wrong I was probably doing it. It absolutely broke my heart when I realized what a bad piercer I was and what bad education I had gotten. I quit as soon as I realized the full extent of the mistakes I had been making. I spent months looking for a new apprenticeship to learn to pierce the right away while working night shift to afford to live. It was very hard and I often felt discouraged- would I ever find a good apprenticeship? Finally, an opportunity that seemed too good to be true presented itself. I landed a spot at an APP member studio in my area. The piercer there was amazing- she’d been piercing for well over ten years, she was well regarded in the industry. The studio was beautiful, it had a huge selection of amazing jewelry. Everything my little heart had dreamed of- and everything the internet and industry told me made a safe and quality apprenticeship. It was my dream come true.

What I imagined was months and months spent learning about jewelry and anatomy and skin prep and chemicals. I thought I would take great notes, read textbooks, and really become the amazing piercer I envisioned. That wasn’t my reality however. I ended up working the front counter, running errands for the staff and cleaning up. Every now and then my mentor would let me watch her work but there’s wasn’t much discussion or education. Then one day she had a family emergency. She left saying you can handle this, I trust you! Just take basic piercings, you’ll be fine.

I was left alone, expected to do piercings that came in. I never had any formal training, just my previous experience as a bad piercer. Sure I had picked up a lot in my months working there, but I certainly hadn’t been actually apprenticed. I panicked- and mistakenly I took the first few things that came in. One was a nostril which ended up horribly, horribly crooked. Later my mentor would yell at me for doing a bad piercing. The next time this happened I refused to do piercings- and I got yelled at for not taking anything. I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. I had spent months clawing my way into this apprenticeship- I did everything right. APP member studio, experienced brilliant piercer to teach me, best everything as far as jewelry and supplies. But the issue was it had never truly been an apprenticeship. I was never given the one on one training and education I was promised. In fact, I was simply expected to work the totally separate job of front of house, and thrown in to pierce when it was convenient for my mentor.

This situation is not uncommon, and I’m sure many of you at home are reading this thinking “this is what my apprenticeship was like” or even “this is the situation I am in”. If you are feeling those things, then this blog is for you.

The APP isn’t Everything

Potentially unpopular opinion incoming but I want to remind folks that the APP (association of professional piercers) isn’t the end all be all. I know when I was a young apprentice the refrain was always “go to an APP member. Learn at an APP studio” I had this naive, innocent mindset that the APP was perfect, that any member was amazing and worth learning from and that finding a member would guarantee me a safe, quality apprenticeship. That line of thinking has led myself and many others to foolishly trust that just because we found an APP member we would get a good or even a safe apprenticeship. Sadly that isn’t the case. The APP does not certify skill and while it has suggested guidelines for a safe apprenticeship they do not require members follow those. That means APP members can still provide you with unsafe apprenticeships, train you incorrectly, and even refuse to pay you or abuse you. And unfortunately, the APP can not do anything in most of those instances. You should hold APP members to the same standards you hold non manners. Ask good questions, assess the situation, and make sure you are 100% that a studio and mentor is a good fit for you. Don’t just trust that because someone is a member it automatically makes them a good piercer or mentor- it doesn’t. Be aware of the risks and issues with abuse in apprenticeships and be wary, even of members.

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Apprenticeship Standards Stay the Same

Being in a studio that is safe and high quality doesn’t change what an apprenticeship should look like. You should still get 1-2 years of training minimum (in my opinion a good apprenticeship is 2-4 years long). You should still spend a few months learning about sterilization, skin prep, surface disinfection, cross continuation, glove donning, tools, and jewelry before you ever begin learning about anatomy, technique, and actually piercing. All of those topics and more are crucial for a foundational education. Piercing isn’t just about learning to push a needle through skin- knowing the basics about how to work cleanly, how your tools work, and how your jewelry works all shape a great piercer.

Beyond that, apprentices need guidance and training before they start piecing. And no, just watching your mentor do certain piercings is not actual training. Your mentor should be allowing you to shadow and observe them yes, but they should also sit down with you and discuss technique, marking, and jewelry. You should look at photos together, discuss angles. Practice with needles on leather or fake skin, discuss body positioning and hand positioning. You should start with jewelry changes first, and work at your comfort level. Sometimes your mentor needs to give you a push of encouragement, but you shouldn’t be doing piercings you haven’t been specifically trained for.

The standards and fundamentals that make an apprenticeship a great and safe one apply to all apprenticeships, regardless of what studio they are at or who your mentor is.

Clients Deserve Safety

The biggest complaint I see with apprenticeships like this is that the apprentice is often left alone to pierce. Either before they have had any training or just before it’s reasonable for them to be piercing solo or doing certain piercings without guidance. There is seemingly this mentality that just because they are in a good studio with good jewelry they should be ready faster to handle things solo. And it’s one thing for a mentor to want the apprentice to try to do some work without them directly in the room. It’s another entirely to ask an apprentice to work solo without a mentor even present in the studio at all. And beyond the discussion of what’s proper in an apprenticeship, the conversation here needs to be about the client.

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Apprentices do make mistakes. Even toward the end of their apprenticeship, even on “simple” piercings. They can and do make mistakes. It’s essential that they have a more experienced piercer to defer to in these situations who can fix things for them. Because in our line of work if we make a mistake we can’t just bolt a new part on. Mistakes cost clients their health, safety, and comfort. An incorrectly done or placed piercing can cause pain, scarring, and even worse. So it’s so important and essential that an apprentice have someone present who can correct a mistake if they make one and make sure the client is safe. Even if the mentor isn’t directly in the room with their apprentice, they should at least be in the studio and able to assist, for both the apprentice and the clients sake.

Beyond that, it’s the clients who suffer when an apprentice is not given the proper training or made to pierce on their own too soon. Sure, the apprentice will likely eventually figure out techniques that work for them and what angles are good. But that education is going to come at the expense of the clients bodies on whom they practice and learn. So they will make mistakes, some that can cause permanent scarring, effect self confidence, relationships, and even leave clients needing medical intervention or surgery. It is unacceptable to put clients in the position to endure these high costs of learning, and it’s even worse when it’s happening at a studio clients should be able to trust is safe, clean, and always cares about their well being.

Client trust is a huge part of how we end up in this situation. Clients very faithfully trust high quality studios who do well by them, and by all accounts its a good studio with good jewelry and safe practices. So clients trust when they come in that whenever is doing their piercings knows what they are doing and will pierce them correct. That high level of trust and faith in quality studios is what allows mentors to simply throw apprentices on piercing shifts or into client interactions without proper training, And they’ll still have regular clients and still get business because of the clients faith and trust in the studio. Even as an untrained apprentice is making mistakes and hurting these same clients. It’s an especially heartbreaking situation that is not only doing a disservice to the apprentice, but to all the clients who trust the studio as well.

Difficult Discussions

If you are reading this blog and thinking that this sounds like you or your situation, then it is time to have some difficult discussions. You’ll need to sit down with your mentor and discuss the fact that you haven’t been getting the training and education you deserve. You should advocate for yourself- remind them that you came to this studio because of its amazing reputation, this piercers skills and knowledge, and the safe services they provide. But that you want to offer all those services to that same level- and that means being given proper training and education, and not being thrown to the wolves at first chance.

I will not promise you these conversations will be easy. And you should have a backup plan in mind- because while I always hope that these conversations end with the mentor realizing where they are failing their apprentice and stepping up to the plate, that isn’t always the case. When I confronted my former mentor after nearly 2 years of work and barely any training, it ended with my quitting. Because she refused to train me in the ways I and my clients deserved. And I refused to be a piercer who did bad work or potentially hurt clients. So I did end up leaving to pursue a third apprenticeship (where I ultimately did get proper, through, in-depth education and had a mentor by my side 24/7 for 4 years.) In between studios I worked jobs night shift stocking warehouses, and many others work in coffee shops, book stores, or anything that can pay the bill while they work to get back into the industry.

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To close, I have a letter to the mentors in these situations. My hope is this blog can be a starting point for these difficult discussions and possibly even something referenced and used to allow apprentices to advocate for better treatment and education.

A Note to Mentors

Taking on an apprentice is one of the most amazing things we as piercers can do in this industry. Ensuring the next generation has great education, strong skills, and becomes piercers we can be proud of is huge. And I think when we have been piercing for a while it is very easy to get lost in our workflow, our goals, and our methods. We can forget what it felt like to be a young apprentice- nervous, unsure, and needing guidance. And in forgetting that I think we can often, even accidentally, fail our apprentices. By rushing over topics that are second nature to us, but our apprentices don’t fully grasp at all. By assuming that some things should just be known or picked up around the studio, and not taking the time to sit down and properly educate our apprentices about those things. And, of course, the plague of a busy studio- never having enough hands. It’s so easy to say “my apprentice can handle these helixes” and put them on the schedule and write it off as an “easy” piercing. But remember- there are no easy piercings. Every client presents a unique challenge, a unique situation we need to approach. Apprentices, no matter how smart or motivated or dedicated don’t have the same years of experience and time we do at piercing. And there’s no way to cheat that level of experience- they simply have to take the time to get it.

Remember as a mentor to slow down for your apprentice and move at their speed. Remind yourself what it felt like to be young and anxious and just starting out. And many of us had subpar apprenticeships- where we were made to do things too soon or incorrectly. We may have survived, but we don’t have to leave the next generation to deal with the same. Give your apprentice the experience you wish you had when you were in their shoes.

I hope this helps, and to all of the apprentices and apprentice hopefuls out there please know that I see you. I appreciate you. And my inbox is always open. Be it for critique, advice, help, or just someone to talk to. I’m here to help, and I’m rooting for you!