Lend me your ear: How body piercing became a fashion statement

Maria Tash

Body piercing was once an act of rebellion - now it’s a fashion statement. Carolyn Moore meets the woman who drove the craze - celebrity piercer Maria Tash.

Do you remember your first piercing? Twenty years ago that would have been something of a redundant question, since most people’s first piercing would also have been their last. You got your ears pierced, and if you went through a rebellious phase you might have stuck a darning needle through your lobe to give yourself a second piercing; it was far from sophisticated but it did the job.

Then the '90s gave birth to grunge, and with it came a revival of some of the aesthetic markers of the punk movement. First nose piercings had an alt fashion moment, and then in 1993 supermodel Christy Turlington stalked the catwalk with a sparkling appendage nestled in her navel and a trend was born. Slowly but surely the subculture of body piercing began to go mainstream. Piercing guns were out, needles were in, and nobody’s eyebrows, nipples or navels were safe from fashion’s latest obsession.

In the 25 years since, we’ve been through so many trend cycles with piercing that most people over the age of 30 can remember their first, second or third piercings, and many of us still bear the scars of our dalliance with a needle even if we left our navel rings in the noughties along with our ultra low rise jeans and crop tops. Whether Britney inspired you to bedazzle your midriff or Xtina’s facial studs were more your style, like every passing trend, the kind of piercing you had and the jewellery you wore in it remains frozen as a moment in time.

What’s clear today though is that while piercing trends may come and go, the art of body adornment is here to stay – hardly surprising given its long history. When the 5,000-year-old mummified Ötzi was found in the Austrian Alps, his pierced ears offered yet more proof that body modification has been part of the story of humans for thousands of years. There are records of body piercings from ancient civilisations who used them for symbolism, spirituality or status, right up to the 1890s when an apparent embrace of nipple piercing by the demimonde of Parisian society first indicated that piercing had taken a turn towards the subversive in Western culture.

It was this subversive edge that was seized upon by the punk movement in the late 70s, and again in the early 90s, but if the broad appeal of body piercing in the noughties saw it transition from an act of rebellion to a mere fashion statement, then this decade has seen it evolve into something altogether more personal; charting a course back to its roots as a form of self-expression with an almost spiritual intent. From the 30-something beauty editor I spoke to who pierced her bellybutton to own her post-pregnancy stretch marks to the influencer who told me she adds a diamond stud to her ear to mark every career milestone, today’s piercings are chic, meaningful, and more than a passing fad.

One woman in particular has played a pivotal role in that transition. Her name is Maria Tash, and when today’s It Girls want to add a new piercing to their collection, they make a dash to their nearest Tash store.

You’ll recognise her work instantly — ears adorned with multiple glistening studs, hoops and chains — and though she didn’t coin the term, if you search ‘curated ear’ on Instagram, you’ll find upwards of 20,000 examples of what is now her signature look. If not pierced personally by Tash or a highly trained professional at one of her six international salons, these ‘curated ears’ are likely inspired by the look she has popularised, or showcasing the exquisite fine jewellery range she has designed with today’s more sophisticated piercing devotee in mind.

“The ‘90s were a period of great piercing experimentation,” she says, recalling her early days piercing friends and clients in her apartment in New York. “I tried so many variations and clients were very open to receiving the first of certain looks, but we’ve come a long way since then. Tools are better, metals are better, and we know what works in all parts of the body – especially the ears.”

Tash too has come a long way since those early days. Unable to find jewellery she liked, she started making her own in 1993, replacing the chunky surgical steel and garish gems that defined body piercing in the 90s with precious metals and gemstones. Combining her delicate jewellery with a specialist technique called forward-facing piercing, which takes the angles of the piercing into consideration rather than going in perpendicular to the tissue, she has raised the bar for piercing. Since launching her first eponymous ‘piercing spa’ in New York's East Village in 1993, she’s become the queen of high-end piercing, with an aesthetic that derives less from the grungy roots of contemporary piercing and more from the delicate embellishment of Eastern piercing traditions, but she rejects any accusation that she’s taken the edge off a rebellious subculture.

“I have been in the industry for such a long time,” she says. “I know many of the original artists who invented certain piercings, and I paid my dues by doing thousands of piercings in Manhattan in the early to mid 1990s.

“I think most piercers now have embraced the idea of creating beautiful looks with fine jewellery that’s not tribal,” she adds, “and as more and more people saw higher quality jewellery and more attractive piercings, it allowed piercing to infiltrate the culture and become more acceptable,” she says of its enduring appeal.

“Large steel spikes and thick industrial rings to me are symbolic of the genesis of the piercing era, but are now almost throwback wear,” she says of the way the industry has evolved, “but this shift has enabled piercers to stay in the industry as a career.”

As with her other stores in New York, London, Rome and Dubai, the Maria Tash salon in Brown Thomas began life as a pop up, but she has aspirations to open stores in every major city. And why not? Beloved of celebrities, Tash counts everyone from Hailey Baldwin to Queen Rania of Jordan among her clientele. When Scarlett Johansson debuted an edgy crop in 2017, it showcased her curated ear to perfection, and when fashion darling Zoe Kravitz wants to give her high fashion red carpet looks some edge, she accessorises with an assortment of luxurious fine jewellery in her septum or her ear.

Tash has brought the beauty back to the art of adornment, in a way that transcends age, fads, and cultural boundaries. With her background in astronomy, it’s hard not to draw a parallel between the almost celestial clusters of jewels she embeds in the ear and sparkling stars nestled in the night sky, but she says her inspiration is more grounded.

My interest in astronomy is more of a cosmological one. What I love is the medical aspect of piercing – it appeals to my science background – and its beauty and rebellious edge.

“In the mid-1980s I was mesmerised by goths and punks. London goths were pretty punks who borrowed from Indian aesthetics with multiple nostril and septum piercings and elaborate silver jewellery,” she recalls, explaining that smaller, more specialist and curved needles have made once unimaginable piercings possible – like the daith, for example; the wedge of cartiledge in the middle of the ear, so popular with Dublin clients it was quickly christened ‘the Dublin daith’.

“With all its nooks and folds, the ear is a fun and versatile canvas to embed with gorgeous jewellery that makes you feel more beautiful,” she says. “I like when the ear is used to tell a story, like that of a flower whose jeweled petals are coming off and landing in different pierced parts of the ear. Some of the piercings you see in the modern piercing industry are without cultural precedence. The rook, daith and other hidden planes of ear tissue – you don’t see those piercings in old imagery, even in elaborate Indian or Pakistani wedding photos that show 22k jewellery climbing up the ear rim.”

This, she says, is down to the creativity of western piercers who have applied modern surgical techniques to the body and ear. “Curved needles for sutures served as inspiration to curve piercing needles,” she explains, enabling piercers to put jewellery “where it had never been seen before.”

When it comes to experimenting, she’s far from done. “There is always new ground to explore with piercing and jewellery design. Part of my purpose is to figure that out.”

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