“I’m one of two piercers at New York Adorned, and I’ve been there for seven years now. I came out to New York and I thought I would get off the plane, and there would be a hundred amazing tattoo shops and piercing studios, and fancy this and fancy that. I looked around and the only place that had the reputation and the caliber was New York Adorned. I had known about it for a long time before coming here; it’s been a venue to some of the biggest names in tattooing.
When I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, I always idolized tattoo artists and piercers. So me and my friends would go and skateboard in front of a tattoo shop in my hometown, Ogden, Utah, just hoping one of these guys would see us outside and give us five or ask us for a cigarette or something. At that age, you’re so impressionable, and you make up your mind who your idols are, and I just found people who I thought were cool. Later on I was working at a crappy job—at a warehouse with forklifts—and my friend was opening his own tattoo shop in a small college town. He basically asked me to come along, and he taught me how to pierce. This was in 2000. I came to New York on a whim. I had some friends who were coming out here, and they kept saying, ‘Come to New York, come to New York!’ I really liked where I lived, I had a really great job—by then I was running a vegan café, and I had a book club, I put on video screenings, all kinds of political awareness stuff, blah blah blah. Anyway, my friends asked me to come out here, and I fought it and fought it, and then the day before they moved, I woke up in the middle of my sleep, and I sat straight up in bed, and I realized how unhappy I was, and how I needed change. I packed all my stuff up and left the next day. When I came to New York, I didn’t know what I was going to do—it was like my life crossroads. As soon as I got here, though, I met somebody who knew somebody at New York Adorned. The whole thing about coming from Salt Lake to New York is that I felt like I was being pulled toward something like a magnetic force. I am definitely superstitious, like with the number 108. It’s sort of become my lucky number.
The difference between what I do and the industry standard is—I think piercing is in a lot of ways meant to look intimidating or extreme. A lot of it is about ‘how big that ring in her ear is.’ I try to do things to look more delicate and pretty, and I feel like a lot of other people focus more on extremes. And honestly—and this is going to sound funny to say—for me, less is more, aesthetically. I’ve become quite famous for saying ‘no.’ People see something on their friend and they want the same thing, but maybe their anatomy is different; maybe it just doesn’t work. It’s not so much about saying ‘no,’ it’s more about being honest. I try to look at each person as an individual and customize something to their needs. Everyone’s different. It could be the type of material, it could be a number of things, but there are a few things I can tweak to make it customized to that person.
I really like the mix of people who I meet, ‘cause they change every 20 minutes—all the different personalities. I’d say I’m reserved, but when I’m working I have 20 minutes to unlock a person, figure out what makes them tick, what they like, what they don’t like. I change for every person; it’s part of why I’m successful. I can adopt so many different personalities. If somebody wants to be shy, I can be shy back to them. If somebody wants to be aggressive, I can be aggressive back to them. If someone wants to talk shit to me, I can talk shit back to them. Because it’s such an intimate experience, I think people are in a vulnerable space so they tend to open up. If I pass them on the street, they’re not going to say the same shit that they would in there. So it’s cool, I feel like I bond with them very quickly; it’s just a nice moment shared between two people. And at the store, a lot of us have worked together for a long time, so there’s a lot of jokes, and a lot of teasing. Like for example, if I have a really pretty girl in my room, one of the guys, without fail, will stick his head in and say, ‘Oh Colby, your girlfriend called. She wants you to pick up some milk on the way home.’ [Laughs] It’s cool though, there’s a lot of talent there. Just being surrounded by artists, in general...the energy; there’s so much creativity.
I like to pick up fashion magazines, like Love or V, and I’ll go through them and draw piercings on the models. That way I can experiment with the way things fall or lay on paper before it’s a $500 piece of jewelry. It keeps me inspired, and it keeps me fresh. The first revelation I had about making my own jewelry—and I think a lot of it also just comes from understanding how piercings work and how things will lay and how things should fall—was when I was troubleshooting a problem in my head where I had a good friend of mine who was an actress, and she wanted the look of a thin, fitted ring in her septum. But the problem with the septum ring she had was that they’re not easy to remove, and she would go to work and need to shoot, and she'd try to take it out herself, and then end up mangling it, and come back and buy a new one. And that was the cycle that just kept repeating and repeating. So literally after a couple months—I swear to God I was asleep and I woke up—I just realized that I could achieve what I wanted with a chain. I could make it user-friendly, where it just loops onto a retainer so it could easily be taken on and off. Plus, with a chain, it still gives the look of being delicate, and it’s got a little bit of movement to it. It’s so simple—a chain was everything I needed right there. I basically wanted to understand how jewelry worked, so I started taking some jewelry classes—basic goldsmithing and silversmithing. I wanted to know what was and wasn't possible, so if I was dreaming up something it wouldn’t just be this weird impossible idea. Then, with the septum stuff, I ended up having a lot of excess chain on hand, and I just started dressing things up for people here and there. I have a little tiny studio at my house, with a little jewelry bench. Everything I do I don’t need that much equipment for.
I’m mostly excited to see really pretty things going on with piercings. It’s kind of moved away from the nineties-tacky thing, although there is a little bit of the nineties coming back. But I’m happy to see piercing on the runways; it’s exciting, opening it up to a whole new crowd. Piercings have been pretty dominant in our culture for a while now, but I feel like they’ve always been kept out of the magazines and off the runways for whatever reason, like they’re a little too edgy. But for me, fashion is edgy; to me, it makes sense, that that’s where they would go, right? Fashion is always really pushing the envelope. There’s some pretty crazy stuff on the runway, and it’s weird that it’s always been toned down when it comes to piercings. I really like the recent stuff, where it’s not even subtle: I notice huge conch piercings on billboards or in magazine ads. People are coming in and trying to imitate those things. I’m into everything, but the Givenchy conch is not my personal aesthetic.”
—as told to ITG
J. Colby Smith photographed by Emily Weiss in New York on July 17th, 2012