WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- To most people, flesh is just flesh.
And then there are the body piercers. To them and their clients, flesh is a blank canvas, ripe for the kind of creative expression that comes from piercing it with surgical stainless steel -- or whatever metal suits one's taste.
Regardless of what side of the piercing equipment you may be on, the body piercing industry has been among the most adaptable and widely recognized on earth. Practiced on every continent for thousands of years and for thousands of reasons, body piercing remains a venerable force in contemporary business and culture.
"Please don't ask us if it hurts," said Paul King, a body piercer and treasurer of the Association of Professional Piercers, an industry watchdog group. "Of course there's some sensation."
But it's worth it, says King, who also gives lectures about piercing at colleges in California. "Childbirth hurts a lot more than piercing."
King told United Press International that body piercing is about a $1 billion industry in the United States, even as it rebounds slowly from the turbulence that struck after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He and others are cautiously optimistic that business will pick up and again reach the apex it did in 2000 -- "the single biggest year that body piercing has ever had," King said.
As was the case with many other businesses in the wake of the devastating Sept. 11 terror attacks, consumer demand fell through the floor. Prospective piercees didn't deem body piercing a necessity in the weeks and months after the attacks, King said, and it sank with many other industries into the red.
"We got slaughtered" in 2001, he said.
Another major player in the industry is BME -- Body Modification Ezine -- a popular online forum dedicated to educating people and promoting issues about body piercing and modification. The site is rife with shared experiences, health and safety information and photographs of pierced ears, nostrils, navels and -- for better or for worse -- male and female genitalia, among many others.
In an e-mail, BME spokesman Shannon Larratt estimated that each piercing studio in the United States grosses between $250,000 and $500,000 annually, adding that there are about 5,000 such studios listed in phonebooks.
Among the destinations in Washington, D.C., -- seemingly the most unlikely of body piercing cities -- for those seeking body modification is Fatty's Custom Tattooz, a second-floor shop on Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle.
Emerging from Fatty's with jewelry through an eyebrow or the tongue will cost approximately $65, according to Jason Simmons, a body piercer at the studio. As at other such establishments, Fatty's charges separately for piercing, which itself runs about $40, and the jewelry one later slips through the newly punched holes.
Jewelry at Fatty's starts at $13 and tops off at $250, Simmons said, while waiting for his next appointment to arrive. The latter product is for one's navel and is made of 14k gold and includes platinum chains laden with gemstones.
Surgical stainless steel tends to be among the most inexpensive of materials found in body jewelry, according to a sampling of body piercing merchants advertising on the Internet. But there are myriad happy mediums in as many forms, from gold to titanium.
The contrasts between some jewelry prices can be yawning gulfs, with a single merchant at once catering to clients with only pocket change to spare and to others with a serious propensity to spend much more. The online shopping pages at Tribalectic Body Jewelry, for example, shows a platinum ring listed at $599.95. The same ring in surgical stainless steel costs $9.95. And there are several other options between the two extremes.
As a business, Simmons, 33, has seen body piercing expand locally, suggesting increased popularity for the practice in general, but not necessarily for Fatty's, which has seen several new shops emerge in the city, which offer some competition.
"I don't see quite the same volume I saw then," Simmons said, referring to when he started working in 1996. In all, he's been piercing for 10 years.
Other ways the pastime has changed, Simmons noted, include which body parts customers opt to have pierced and, more broadly, the makeup of the clientele.
Nostril piercing now seems the order du jour. "For so long it had been navel and tongue," Simmons said.
As for customers, a "pretty sizable proportion of professionals" are coming in, he said, some in their 40s and 50s. About a third are college students. Unlike some other shops, Fatty's policy does not allow body modification to anyone under age 18.
But in terms of daily appointments to attend to, it's been "as busy as I've ever seen it," Simmons said, excusing himself to meet his next appointment.
Recently, Elliot Lyons, 19, a sophomore at American University, was one of the appointments at Fatty's. He has four piercings -- all above the neck, he notes -- including one through his lip.
What Lyons has paid varies, depending on where the work was done, he said. Having gotten his first piercing about a year ago, when he turned 18, Lyons estimated he's spent more than $100 so far.
For Lyons, the allure is simply that he likes how the piercings look. Overall, he said, his satisfaction has justified the monetary expenses. "It was worth it cause they do a pretty good job," he said.
For decent results, one should expect to pay at least $50 or $60 per piercing, said King, the piercer from California. He added that while one can get pierced for $20, "you get what you pay for."
The real professionals in the business "really get into the health and safety aspects of it," King said, considering "what is the newest information out there and how can we make it safer."