Georg Birns isn’t the first guy that you’d pick for a fight unless you were interested in a challenge. He’s also not the guy you might peg to be a successful businessman or an extremely dedicated, loving husband and father but he’s that and more. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
People have stories and Georg has a particularly cool one; he agreed to give a bit of it for this interview. On the outside you see a burly guy who’s pierced and tattoo’d from head to toe. He looks like an old school hardcore. I used to refer to him as ‘The King’ of piercing and tattoo… but only half-jokingly. When you’ve been in the game as long as he has and set the bar as high as he has, you have a legitimate claim to the throne imo. As one of the owners of High Priestess Piercing and Tattoo (HPP), not only has he seen things in the scene evolve, he’s pushed them to evolve. And what was once only a scene has become an industry.
Not long ago piercing was the stuff of the fringe and tattoos had more association with jail/prison time than expensive artists and successful people. We’ve come a long way, baby: These days tattoos are a regular part of the 1st world and sported by people at all socioeconomic levels, including professional athletes, business people, and soccer moms. Piercing isn’t far behind tattoo. If interested in piercing, I highly recommend a journey to HPP’s ‘1-11’ event (held on January 11 in Eugene, OR) as the atmosphere is incredible and sort of hard to describe. Most of the photos in this article are from the 1-11 but I encourage the reader to view them with an open mind; I chose a few pics that give Georg a maniacal look but this was all in good fun. The photos have a shock value because some of what you’ll see seems extreme. It was kind of extreme, but there was definitely something profound happening that will be explored a little in the article.
The HPP Missions Statement: High Priestess is committed to meeting the unique and individual needs of each one of our clients by providing the highest-quality body-modifications available anywhere. We aim to maintain our profitability, our sense of humor, and our moderate growth, while continuing to offer our staff benefits and safe, aesthetically pleasing work environments.
Daniel: How long has High Priestess Piercing and Tattoo been in biz?
Georg:The shop has been incorporated for about 18 years.
Daniel: And you aren’t the only owner: It was originally started by another guy who is now one of your partners, correct?
Georg: It was originally opened by Melissa Wise and her apprentice Joshua Bryant after taking a Guantlet piercing seminar. They had the guidance of a well respected tattoo shop above HPP and a great location. One by one the staff grew, taking on new “partners” as time went by, and ran more like a collective. I came on the scene around 98. I was traveling from San Fransico to Seattle doing guest spots and looking for a place to call home. I got off the train in Eugene to visit with old college buddies and eventually ran into the HPP crew. At first I was the odd man out. I barely made the thumbs up from whole crew. I was different. I had credible training, experience and worked all over the US absorbing as much as I could……before internet……. Many of the piercers were not properly trained or lacked any social customer service skills. Those who embraced me coming aboard were about the change and those who were not eventually left. Slowly the partnerships dwindled down to mainly Josh.
Daniel: The story I was told is that you purchased shop when your partner Josh was struggling with alcohol and couldn’t run it himself. He told me you purchased the shop from him for nearly nothing and could have sent him packing.
Georg: He was a wreck, his buyout was a mere 500 dollar check. I got a business in severe distress and debt. I really didn’t even want the responsibility of a business. I had just freed myself up from owning a shop in Lawrence Kansas and wanted to travel. Having built a successful shop or two previously I knew it would take hard work. I ate, breathed and slept at HPP for the first 5 years. I had also learned to come to terms with having partners again. I put key and loyal people in place to work for a piece. Josh too. He sobered up and became the level headed guy in our administrative mix. It has been the most vital decision I ever made. By giving up a piece of the control I could finally relax. I now had people in place to do all the stuff I was now dated or ignorant to…accounting, employee management, repairs, yada yadda……I had outgrown my own abilities and recognized it was time to find people to pinpoint the specific tasks I could no longer bullshit my way through.
Daniel: Now how many shops are you guys running, either under the High Priestess name or under others? And how many employees?
Georg: In 2004 we purchased 2 HTC’s of Arizona: 20 years old, and piercing industry icon shops. We expanded in Oregon to both college town’s campus. We opened up in Salem and Roseburg. Opened a boutique in Uptown Phoenix, Az. And last year purchased Barbella Piercing in Long Beach, CA. Then there’s the road unit….. In all about 75 employees and about 18 independent artists. We now have a full administrative staff in Oregon and Arizona. I sit at home now and facebook.
Daniel: What are the roots of piercing and tattoo in your life? There was a first tattoo and a first piercing for you, but you didn’t stop there. What does it do for you? And do you think there are other people who have the same kind of attraction to it? Across time and across the world, people have done this.
Georg: I was blown away by the street culture fashion of NYC and of course first generation in the MTV era. I had this constant exposure to all walks of modern life growing up on the east coast. Always fascinated by early punks, I was drawn to piercings. I was into tattoos. I drew on myself constantly, bought books and magazines on piercing (PFIQ- a Guantlet produced magazine with how to’s) and even odd porno to learn about BDSM piercings….. all this before the internet. Very limited information out there. The only places to get pierced were in seedy sex club venues and tattoo shops. If one wanted to be clean, a medical professional or friend armed with a syringe and make shift piece of jewelry would help. I got lucky enough to have few friends send me down the right path. I used my better sense of business ethics to lead the way. It wasn’t ’til I had been piercing awhile that I felt any bond to any ritualistic or tribal esthetics. It all started with National Geographic. I collected any issues relating to primitive piercing rites, traveled abroad to witness said acts and cultures and now offer our own community bloodrite gathering. The number of participants grow every year.
Daniel: How do you think of piercing and tattoo these days? Is it art, neotribalism, trend, or…?
Georg: For me the act of receiving tattoos and piercings has changed. My life has evolved from the days of care-free consequences. I am now living differently, and interact with my children’s teachers and friend’s parents. I have grown jaded of answering “all the questions”. I am still involved with the business aspect but my days of relating with the 15 year girl coming in for a navel piercing are long over. Most of the time it’s the Mom in the group that say’s “OH! You pierced my navel before I had her” and points to daughter’s navel. I think piercing is here to stay. I see the older generation spending the money on super high end gold, while the youngster’s flock to the trends.
Daniel: I got into a conversation with someone who complimented my gauges and, at one point, we talked about how clean your shops are: I said that they’re cleaner than a doctor’s office and she said, “I’m a nurse and they’re cleaner than the doctor’s office that I work in”. She took her daughter to you guys for piercings. Plus, your employees are some of the nicest and most service oriented folks anywhere. How did you come to set such high standards?
Georg: So what made our shops successful??? We did not just create a hole in a person. We made it an experience. We had to win the confidence of a person whom we’d never met to do the most sacred of all acts…. going underneath the skin and hello… I’m not a doctor. We fought the stereo types of being seedy and unprofessional perverts in the back of head shops and rowdy tattoo parlors. We legitimized the industry by being friendly, knowledgeable and safe. We did everything over the top so that even medical personnel felt comfortable coming in.
Daniel: How do you manage to maintain the standards, compete, and grow?
Georg: We take pride in our mission statement and stay educated by attending the Association of Professional Piercers conference every year. All the latest techniques and jewelry fashions. However nowadays it’s about being the first kid on the block with the newest here-and-now fashion, high end gold, elaborate organics and of course stellar customer service to contrast the newage of internet competition. Now that piercing has been labeled mainstream, the jewelry market has plateaued with most crappy import knockoffs easily available from 7-11 to the mall…..We don’t compete with them. We can only educate our clients in the quality of jewelry and just hope they have the ability to resist buying trash. There’s a market for the high end stuff that we like to adhere to.
Daniel: Talk about the 1-11 Project generally : When I was there, I thought the vibe was incredibly supportive. In fact, there are a lot of good adjectives for the event imo; it wasn’t the freakshow I expected. People were definitely pushing limits, both personally and maybe generally, in terms of what’s possible. What kind of feedback do you get from attendees?
Georg: Now for that other topic of suspension. 1-11 is actually a 15 year old event that got passed back and forth with a PDX crew. It was symbolic for communal blood ritual cleansing that was in tune with seasonal change. We have hosted it here in Eugene for the last 5. We also host an end of July camp at Alsea Falls. That is my most preferred environment in which to connect with blood gods.
As far as acceptance…. many sensationalize the experience. We avoid turning it into the selfie on hooks. We are dealing with adults in a private and most safe place. I’m not into the shock and awe to the normies. I feel the need to safeguard the practice by not doing it publically and without warnings.
Daniel: When you were coming up, did you picturing it going the way it did – either as a businessman, or from a personal perspective?
Georg: …So in all, I still feel connected to piercing as it is what I know best. I learned the business partly through trial and error, I paid my dues and I passed down the info to those wanting to do the job. I enjoy my children more and would rather do jiu jitsu. You know what I mean most…….
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