Winnie Kao (aka "Buffy")
  • Winnie Kao (aka "Buffy")
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It’s karaoke night at Hennessey’s Tavern in Pacific Beach, and Erin Grimmer is feeding ice cubes to her pet plant. The plant is named Phyl, short for prophylactic, since they found him next to the condoms in Kmart. Phyl has wide black packing tape adhered around the circumference of his plastic pot because, Erin explains, Phyl is gothic. At the other end of the table, Marie Marandola argues with Nina Cibil over who gets to dress up as which Rocky Horror Picture Show character for the “dyke march” in Hillcrest.

All three girls have their tongues pierced, though their quiet, aqua-haired companion does not. All three cite the same simple reason for their piercing: it was something fun to do. In the midst of speculating about whether to seat herself on the lap of a stranger at the next table and tell him she likes White Russians, Erin pauses to elaborate on her tongue- piercing decision. “It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing,” she says.

“Part of it was a way of keeping people at a distance,” she says, “and it worked. It’s not often you walk up to someone with a mohawk and strike up a conversation.” The people who were attracted by her piercings, she says, were much like her, “a little more artistic, more independent, more willing to go a little edgy, a little more permanent with their fashion.”

Seventeen-year-old Winnie Kao goes by the name Buffy. Her appearance is quintessentially punk rock: in the middle of summer, she sucks on a cigarette in front of Pannikin wearing black tennis shoes and a long-sleeved black dress with a ladder of safety pins near the hem. Her crop of shiny Taiwanese hair frames a pretty face heavily painted with makeup brushes, in the context of which her tongue piercing seems incidental.

“I went to this place in Lemon Grove that pierced all my friends’ belly buttons and one of my friend’s eyebrows, this place where they don’t check I.D.s,” she said. “The guy at the counter was, like, ‘So, are you 18?’ I’m, like, ‘No…’ He’s, like, ‘Do you have a brother or sister who could fake a signature?’ I’m, like, ‘Nope.’ He’s, like, ‘Okay…’ I was, like, ‘Well, will they still do it?’ He’s, like, ‘I don’t know. You’ll have to talk to them.’ Because he wasn’t a piercer, he was just a tattoo artist. So the piercer, she was a girl, actually, and she came in and she was, like, ‘So! What do you need?’ And I was, like, ‘Um, I want to get my tongue pierced.’ She’s, like, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ I’m, like, ‘Good deal.’ ”

Native tribes in the American Northwest have practiced tongue piercing since before European explorers set foot here, but only in the last five years has it become common in the broader population. Ten years ago, fewer than 5 piercing shops existed in San Diego. Now there are 63. While there have been no national surveys on body piercing, a study of students at a college in rural New York found that 12 percent of female respondents had tongue bars.

Tongue piercing’s burgeoning popularity has led to a great deal of scrutiny: state governments crafting regulatory legislation, dental and medical associations publishing articles and fact sheets about metal jewelry’s toll on teeth and gums, school nurses and counselors harping on its psychological implications for young people. Those who wear tongue bars tend to think they’re not worth all the analysis.

Dr. Jefe

Jeff Fagan is one such person. In 1994 Jeff (better known as Dr. Jefe) opened Dr. Jefe’s Body Piercing in Ocean Beach. Since then, more than 60,000 piercings have taken place in his tiny whitewashed room in the back that, with its rows of cabinets and clusters of yellow bottles, looks distinctly like a doctor’s office.

Dr. Jefe is all for regulation of the piercing industry. He’s skeptical about people who probe too deeply for the emotional roots of tongue piercing — people like me, who look eagerly for answers where there may not be anything complicated to explain. A hefty man in his mid-30s, Dr. Jefe’s own piercings (in his tongue, nose, eyebrow, upper ear, and earlobes, which stretch to encompass a ring 5/8˝ in diameter) complement the gritty residue of a Philadelphia accent.

“People look way, way too far into tongue piercing and try to analyze it way too much,” he says somewhat defensively. “In some ways it’s a visual aspect. Why are you wearing your necklace?” he asks, gesturing at the carved jade around my neck. “Because it’s pretty, it’s adorning your body. Jewelry in the tongue is the same thing. You don’t need it, but you have it because it’s fun. You don’t need a sports car either.”

Dr. Jefe is not alone is his nonchalance about the matter. Marie got her tongue pierced at a mutilation party on Erin’s 18th birthday, at which the entertainment was a caravan down to Pacific Beach to get piercings and tattoos. Like Erin and Marie, almost one-third of respondents in a study of body art among college students said they took only a few minutes to decide on their piercing.

“I just woke up one day and was, like, ‘You know what? Screw it. I’m going down there. I’m getting it pierced.’ And I just went,” Buffy recalled gleefully.

Reckless as this may seem, Dr. Jefe is quick to point out that you can always change your mind about a tongue piercing. Once the jewelry is removed, the hole closes up in 48 hours. The knowledge that the procedure is not a lifetime commitment goes a long way toward explaining why many are so casual about it.

“I took it out for one day, and then I was, like, ‘No, wait, I did spend $60 and a lot of pain on that, Marie says. “So I kind of punched it back through.”

The tongue’s self-healing capabilities have an interesting consequence. For almost everyone, a tongue piercing is temporary, like a hip winter coat that’s worn for a few seasons and then discarded.

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