Elayne Angel

Published: 01 October, 2007 - Featured in Skin Deep 152, November, 2007

In last month’s Skin Deep we brought you an article on Female to Male Transsexual, Buck Angel. In the article Buck mentioned that he was married, so this month following on from the article is an in-depth interview with Buck’s wife – Elayne Angel, who has her own very interesting story, including the fact that she has one of the world’s only registered body modifications...


Lets start at the beginning. Tell us about your childhood.

I’m a former valley girl, I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. However, I wasn’t a traditional valley girl, I always had my own things going on. I was into fashion and used to dress strangely, but at the same time I was a good student, always a straight A student, and a good girl. I stood out from the other kids from an early age, as in many ways I didn’t conform. As a shaven headed, heavily tattooed and pierced woman, that is probably still the case. 

You are renowned for your work as a body piercer.  At what stage of your life did you become interested in that form of body modification?

From the time I was little child I wanted my ears pierced. When I was 5, I was begging my parents and when I was 7 they finally let me. By the time I was 12, I was already piercing myself, and, by my early teens, I was piercing other people and other parts of my body, so you could say I’ve been into it for most of my life. I didn’t really see it on other people, it’s just something I came up with on my own. 

So how did things progress from then on?

Once I found out about the piercing studio, Gauntlet, things moved on quite quickly.

For those who don't know, tell us something about Gauntlet.

Gauntlet was started by Jim Ward in the 1970’s and I started to work there in the 80’s, at that time I had gone back to school to study marketing and management. Jim had decided to move back to San Francisco and was planning to close the shop, but luckily someone suggested that he talked to me before making a final decision. So I put on a little business suit and had a job interview. He asked me how good my piercing skills were, to which I replied, “better than most”, so he hired me and went off to San Francisco, leaving me in charge and so I ended up running the shop. Gauntlet was the first and only piercing studio in the United States at that time.

I believe you met Fakir whilst you were working in Gauntlet.

That’s right, but that was after we opened the San Francisco branch, which was where I worked with Fakir.  The original shop was in West Hollywood, California, my job title there was Vice President of Southern California Operations.

As I said before, when I started working there we were the only piercing studio in the US. Ultimately others did open but even at the time I left the studio, piercing speciality shops were still extremely rare. There were tattoo studios that also offered piercing as an extra, but nobody offered the range, which we were accomplished at performing.

What was your speciality?

I’m generally considered responsible for the popularity of the tongue piercing, that was my fault. Jim had never managed to do one that anybody kept. I had the first multiple tongue piercing, I named the Lorum and I invented the Forchette and I also perfected the female genital piercing known as the Triangle. Back in those days people didn’t even have eyebrow piercings, it was all new. Jim and his gang were all about nipples and genitals, apart from that there was very little else going on.

From what Fakir tells me, most of the customers in the early days were from the gay leather or SM community.

That was the original clientele. I was working there at the time the book, ‘Modern Primitives’ came out, this generated a more diverse client base, so I was seen as the studios friendly female face, before that it had become somewhat underground by the gay community. I got a lot of media attention and appeared on a lot of TV shows, I was in lots of newspapers, including the National Enquirer, which is sort of like the Sun newspaper in the UK. So things exploded, and it was then that I realised what an impact the media could have. It was around 1989-90 when things really started to happen and a little later in the 90’s, I think it was in ‘93 or ‘94, the Aerosmith video came out with the naval piercing thing and that sparked off another trend. Paul King who worked for me was the piercer featured in the video. After that video, naval piercing just exploded and its now one of the most popular piercings, unfortunately so in some ways, as its actually one of the piercings that takes the longest time to heal.

What happened when you left Gauntlet?

A friend of mine died and that made me feel that I should live a little more, see other places and do other things. On the basis of Cliff’s life and death, I decided that I would quit the job and travel for six months to a year and then move somewhere and open my own business, and that’s what I did. I travelled for eleven months, all around the US, working along the way and then New Orleans picked me. I had a studio called, ‘Rings Of Desire’ in the French quarter there for twelve years. After the hurricane, only one of my employees returned and I decided to close the studio.

You were at one time married to the infamous tattooist, Alex Binnie. When and how did you  two meet?

I met Alex when I was in Amsterdam for a tattoo convention, that was in 1990. Our relationship lasted a couple of years. At first we had a long distance thing going on as they wouldn’t let him into the US, so I came over to the UK and we decided to get married. After that Alex moved over to America and set up his own tattoo studio inside Gauntlet but after a while he decided to move back to the UK and nowadays we are just friends.

The body mod scene has moved on so fast since the early days and so many people are now trying for more extreme forms of modification. As something of a piercing purist, how do you feel about the new trends?

I really have two things to say about that. The first is that people do consider me to be primarily an advocate for body art, tattoos or piercings. But more than that, I’m really an advocate for being yourself, whatever that may be. For me, and myself, that involves having body art that primarily consists of tattoos and piercings but I do also have some scarification that I invented called, ‘etching’. In some ways I am old fashioned and some of the more extreme mods that people are doing nowadays are not for me. However, as an advocate for being yourself, if those things are really you, rather than your neighbour, then go for it.

Lets now talk about your tattoos.

The first piece I got was my wings. They were done by Bob Roberts, that was in 1986, as far as I remember. Certainly at that time there were not many heavily tattooed women out there, so it was quite a full on thing to do, especially for a first tattoo.

What was the inspiration behind the wings?

Well I had seen a woman who had a full back piece comprising of a dragon which was not within a scene as such, it was just a single image back piece, which was huge, and that just blew me away, I loved the impact it had. So I started thinking about what imagery I would like. The actual piece I chose was inspired by a t-shirt from a restaurant called Angeli in Los Angeles. I’ve always had dreams about flying so it just seemed to fit. Anyway, I thought about it for a year and when I still wanted it so badly that I couldn’t sleep at night, I went ahead and got it done. I went in to see Bob on a number of occasions to discuss the design and I think at first he thought I was talking out of my ear when I came in with blank skin and told him that I wanted to get my whole back done, but after a while he realised that I was deadly serious and we got things started.  So once the wings were finished it was about five years before I decided to get Alex Binnie to do my arms. After that it was several years more before I got Juli Moon, who is now in Boston, to do my legs. At the time, I flew from California to New Hampshire to get them done and we did the whole thing from my waist to my toes over eight sessions within a period of eleven days, a total of fifty-nine hours of tattooing. That was an intense experience, pretty heavy duty, she skinned me from the waist down, (laughs).

You told me once that your wings are registered.

Yes. They are registered with the US Patent & Trademark Office, and they are, in fact, the first body art or human feature of any sort to receive any registration by that office. There was actually an international article written about it, which stated that it was a world first. The wings are service marked in relation to piercing services, so it was clearly illegal when a girl did a commercial for her piercing studio, whilst standing in front of my poster. So having them registered protects them in terms of my piercing services because my wings are well known along with my logo and my studio name, ‘Wings Of Desire’. So basically that means that nobody can use them in piercing commerce. Unfortunately, the registration does not afford legal protection against someone getting my wings tattooed onto their body, but they shouldn’t anyway because they are mine, and, as such, should be protected on moral grounds.

What is the significance of the R you have tattooed within one of the designs?

That was done in conjunction with the registration of my wings. It was actually quite funny. My attorney said, “I’ve never before advised someone to get a tattoo, but if you get that done it affords greater legal protection for past and future damages and attorney’s fees”. He suggested that I get the little encircled R tattooed on and so I did. If I didn’t have the little R attached to my artwork, I would only be able to get either past or future damages, in the event of a lawsuit, though I can’t remember which one. In basic terms, having the encircled R, which is the indicia of registration, affords me much greater protection if someone were to use my artwork within their advertisement. Anyway, I couldn’t stand the idea of getting this gal to get all of her gear set up just in order to just do a little R on my arse so I suggested that we put some flames on my head, which she did. The tattooists name is Joey Galiger. When I evacuated from New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, I also had her do a little script to commemorate that event.
How do you feel about people copying tattoos in general?

Well you know, I was interviewed for an article that somebody did about wing tattoos, they are that popular. I never imagined when I got mine done that they would be such a popular theme. I have a file of photos of people who have copied my wings, and I know in some way that’s a form of flattery, but its one I just don’t understand. My wings are so personal to me, and of course someone can also want wings, but why does it have to be my wings? I don’t get it. I’m not insulted, just bewildered.

I believe that the last tattoos you got were the ones on your hands.

Actually I had been planning to get my hands done for some time but doing as much piercing, for as long as I did, they were not out of gloves long enough for that to happen. After I closed my studio the time seemed right and they were the only work that I got in New Orleans, they were done by Walt Clark. They are an extension of the work on my arms, done by Alex Binnie, but we miniaturised the design so that it would fit.

Earlier you mentioned the fact that you had a studio in New Orleans at the time of the hurricane. What can you tell us about the effects Katrina had?

We, that is my husband Buck and myself, did evacuate in time, which was great, as we were not actually there for the event itself. We watched the storm on TV, thinking like so many people we knew, that we had lost everything, so we went through the emotional and mental stages of that before we actually returned. We were away for about five weeks and when we returned, the only way I could describe things would be as ‘post apocalyptic’. The area smelt like dead bodies, there were flies everywhere, nothing to eat. Being there was an unforgettable experience. New Orleans it will never be the same.   

You are currently working on a book about body piercing, tell us more about that.

There is no book, at least not in the United States, that offers an authoritative, comprehensive, factual guide to body piercing for consumers and for people who deal with them, like medical professionals, parents, people working in education and suchlike. Its particularly important for medical professionals as, in some case, people are not being cared for properly, they don’t know what an infection looks like, or how to treat it. You don’t have to take out body jewellery for an MRI or an x-ray, if it’s not in the area of examination, so on and so forth. So far the book is over five hundred manuscript pages and its now close to being finished. I’ve been working on it since 2004 and it’s a huge undertaking, but I really do believe that such a book needs to be available. It’s important that people who care about their bodies and want to get something done properly should know that there are risks to piercing, if it’s not done right, and this book will provide all of that information. It’s a first, and it’s currently with a publisher, who is looking at my sample chapters and my press pack. They say, when writing a book, be the first or be the best, and this is both, so someone is surely going to want to publish it.

You are married to Buck Angel.  Can you tell us how you met?

We actually met via the Internet. I was living in New Orleans, he was living in Los Angeles, so it was long distance for a short time, and then it was ON.

Were you aware of Buck’s past history at that time?

We actually grew up in the same area and had passed one another in a variety of situations but we had never actually met. So I knew who he was, and once I connected the two and realised that he was the guy I had seen back then, things made sense.

How did you remember him?

He looked like trouble, and he was, at the time. So it’s great that we met later as we have all these friends, people, and situations in common, even though we weren’t together at the time. He’s all man, and was at the time, even though I knew his history.

Did the fact that Buck was not born biologically male impact in any way on your attitude towards him when you did finally meet?

Not in any negative way. On a positive note, there is certainly something more to a man who has lived, shall we say, in other shoes, who has empathy for things that a biological man never would. That’s not to say that he’s less of a man in any way, it’s just that he’s had more life experience.

Is there anything else you would like to say about body art?

With regard to body art, I would say, “look inside for your inspiration”. I do think that too many people get body art and body modification because they see it on somebody else, or because they see it in the media, and to me, that is not a real expression of what body art is meant to be. So, look inside and if there is nothing in there to bring out onto your body, then leave it off the outside as well. For people to get work because they thought it looked cool on somebody else really dissolves the meaning for those of us who do have meaningful body art. So, have some depth, or leave it out.

Anything about life In general?

Buck Angel for president of course!


Text and Photography Ashley (http://www.savageskin.co.uk/) Photography Assistant: Michele Martinoli


Skin Deep 152 1 November 2007 152