At Sacred Heart Studio, co-owner Tim Young takes on a navel.
At Sacred Heart Studio, co-owner Tim Young takes on a navel.
Deron Neblett

A Few Minor Problems

Maryanne never had a problem letting her 14-year-old daughter spend the night at her best friend's house. The girl's parents weren't usually at home, but she considered her daughter responsible for her age. Another girlfriend was there, too. The three girls planned teenage activities for the evening: movies, games and makeup.

Perhaps Maryanne's daughter was feeling a little gutsy that Saturday afternoon when she and her friends walked about three blocks from the house on Hawthorne to Bomb Records, a body-piercing shop on Westheimer (body-piercing only $15, it boasts) where the attendant granted her wish for a navel ring.

Inside, it's hard to tell that Bomb is a piercing studio. There is almost no room to even sit down. A long L-shaped counter runs the entire length of the store. To the right, it looks like a flea market -- there are bumper stickers, greeting cards, patches, CDs and other assorted goodies. Toward the back an impressive collection of adult toys are displayed. Next to the end of the counter, a sliding door leads to a space the size of a small gas-station bathroom, equipped with a chair, an ancient-looking sterilizing device, a dirty sink, a bottle of mouthwash and the remains of liquid soap. Maryanne's daughter couldn't even have invited her friends in with her for moral support; there's just not enough room.

Reassured by the piercer that everything was fine, she went through with her impulsive act. Using money she earned baby-sitting, she handed over $54 in cash. The piercer didn't ask for ID or parental permission; he didn't give her a receipt or aftercare instructions.

It took only a few days before a neighborhood mom told Maryanne about the secret ring, after which she promptly marched her daughter to Sacred Heart Studio, also on Westheimer, to have it removed.

Maryanne (who did not want us to use her real name because she wants to protect her daughter's privacy) was outraged that some man had probed and poked at her daughter. Maryanne never confronted the owner of Bomb (her daughter didn't want her to), but she did file a complaint with the Texas Department of Health.

Last year a bill was passed making all body-piercing studios obligated to follow certain regulations. Now, anyone under 18 must have the proper parental consent before getting pierced, and any studio that performs body piercing must have a license from the Texas Department of Health.

Members of the Association of Professional Piercers pressed legislators with their concerns for six years before the law was passed. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, led the charge on it from the senate.

Steve Joyner, vice president of the Association of Professional Piercers, found it outrageous that they had to work so hard to find support. "It's just minor surgery," he says. "Cosmetologists have to go through hundreds of hours of school and training just to cut someone's hair, and we're putting puncture wounds in your body, and we don't have any training requirements. I find that ignorant."

"There was such a large issue of minors being pierced and parents raising hell," says Joyner, who's also a piercer at Taurian Body Piercing.

In September 1999 parental consent became state law for any procedure except ear piercing, but studio owners were given a nine-month grace period. June 1, 2000, was the enforcement deadline. Today, all potential piercees must sign a form saying they are of age and that, to their knowledge, they are not infected with any bloodborne diseases.

After amendments to the bill, studios were required to apply for a state license. In the beginning this was granted after an inspection, but now the health department will mail a license sight unseen. The license certifies that the piercing facility is practicing in compliance with all health and safety standards. But Joyner says one studio in Houston has just installed a sink with running water, and that some are just now learning to use sterilization equipment.

Since June 1 there have been four complaints to the health department about two of the Houston-area piercing shops, which number about 30. Three of the complaints concerned Bomb. One anonymous Bomb complainant says the "firm may not have means to sterilize nor have hot running water and is piercing minors." A man who identified himself as the owner of Bomb refused to comment to the Houston Press.

Joyner and Tim Young, co-owner of Sacred Heart Studio, are disappointed in the weak follow-through. Joyner, however, doesn't put all the blame on the piercers. "As far as I'm concerned, it's not on the studios right now, it's on the state," he says.

After the legislation passed, the health department put a notice on its Web site and sent letters to every piercing studio it knew of, along with an application for a license, which costs $140 per year. Ideally that money would go toward paying for investigators to inspect the piercing vendors. However, state money goes into a generic pot, and if the health department finds another, more pressing issue, it will use whatever money is in the collection plate. For Joyner, therein lies the crux of the problem. "Until we have our money being used for our industry, there's no way that [the law] can be 100 percent enforced."

In addition to money constraints, investigators are not completely sure what to look for when inspecting a piercing studio, Joyner says. Stephen Beekman, drug program manager at the health department, agrees. "We're still training and developing our policy and procedure on how to conduct inspections. We don't know exactly what to look for this year, but hopefully we'll develop it and fine-tune it by next year," he says.

The department hasn't inspected any studios in Houston yet, and it doesn't anticipate starting anytime soon, simply because money is tight. "It would be a rare occasion for us to come to Houston for a piercing studio. There would have to be a report of an immediate health risk," Beekman admits. If a report does not tell of such a risk, the complaint is usually handled by letter.

A consistently noncompliant studio could eventually be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. Before the new laws, the maximum charge was a Class C misdemeanor, but it rarely went that far. Stretched to its limit, the department has the power to shut down a store, "but we usually try to work with the studio before that could happen," Beekman explains. If a studio is found to be noncompliant by an inspector, it's given three opportunities, plus a face-to-face conference and a surprise compliance inspection before the case is handed over to the enforcement division. "Our job is to assist our clientele. We try to do our part at being the friendly government department," Beekman says. For legal action, a police report would have to be filed, and at that point the police can either pursue it or not. "It's up to them," he says.

The miseducation of piercers may be the most hazardous thing in a piercing studio, Joyner says. "These guys who haven't had any training read these manuals and look at their stores trying to figure out how to make their store look like what's on paper. It's simply a lack of education," he says.

The health risk for both the piercers and the recipients is hepatitis B. "It's not a major risk for body piercing, but it can happen," says Scott Damon, health communication specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Damon explains that a lot of states will "make sure a parlor is sterilizing things."

"The best protection is, before you get stuck in the arm, or wherever, to ask about the sterilization procedure, and if you're not happy, then there's other places to go. [The studio] shouldn't be tossing needles in a pool of alcohol or anything," Damon says.


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