Gauging the art of body modifications and piercings

When it comes to piercings, many people in the Iowa City area find meaning in modifying their bodies.


Contributed (Judd Barron)

Editors Note: This story was written before COVID-19 had an impact on Iowa City. The piercing shops mentioned are temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Are you ready?” he asked me, grabbing a small tube of Neosporin and carefully dabbing some on my ear.

I nodded, and he began the steady process of pushing a long, 8g metal taper into my earlobe. I had been gauging my ears – or stretching out my initial earlobe piercings — since I was 12 or 13 — I knew what to expect by now.  Still, I gritted my teeth as it stretched the soft tissue ever so slightly, as was routine every month or two.

“You’re much tougher than your mom,” my dad would joke, then kiss me on the head before leaving the bathroom. My dad had helped my mom gauge her ears, and had done his own as well.

I remember wanting to be a part of that world, seeing the beautiful bright plugs my mom would wear in her ears, noticing how tough my dad looked with them in. It was an act of trust, and catharsis, the pain, and subsequent healing, as I watched the holes in my ears grow large enough to hold that beautiful jewelry.


Ear stretching, or gauging, has a rich history in cultures all around the globe. Otzi the IceMan, a mummy dating back to 3500 to 3100 BCE had stretched earlobes, and historical figures such as Buddha and King Tut are often depicted in art with stretched earlobes as well. For some, gauging has deep cultural meaning, like for members of the Mursi tribe in Ethiopia, whose gauges gain them a higher degree of respect, and for some gauging holds personal meaning, unique to the individual.

When Adam Krueger, a woodshop instructor in the University of Iowa School of Art, initially pierced his ears at 19, he knew he wanted to gauge them. What was a slow process at first eventually became an opportunity for him to get deeply involved in the process.

“As I started getting closer to a quarter of an inch, I was actually taking art classes at the time, doing my undergraduate work and doing a lot of ceramics. I realized that I could start making the plugs myself on the throwing wheel,” he said. “It actually got me a little bit more involved in the whole stretching process, because, I could go at a little bit of a different pace, making plugs the size I wanted and also financially I wasn’t hampered.”

Krueger said he got more involved in the piercing community after offering some of his ceramic plugs to a local jewelry store, and as he continued to stretch his ears, thought more about what the process meant to him.

“The more I did it, and the more I got involved with it, the more I think it felt like I was creating this interesting relationship with my body,” he said. “It’s kind of like watching your hair grow. Every so many months you need a haircut, or every so often you need to shave, or trim your nails. I found it was another one of those things that added to an overall connection and sense of what my body does and what I can do with my body.”

Krueger has since moved from making his own ceramic plugs to his own wooden ones. His most recent batch, he said, comes from a cherry tree he cut down from his own backyard.

Krueger said that despite his relationship with gauging, he doesn’t recommend it for everyone.

“If somebody’s interested in it, a good way to approach it is to just start slow, and see if you like it,” he said. “I know I’ve got friends whose parents forced them to get their ears pierced when they were kids and they just can’t stand wearing regular studded earrings; it’s too much effort, it’s too much work and it just doesn’t really add anything. And then there’s people like myself who get really involved with it and really enjoy the process and it’s something that you can find your own personal meaning in it.”

JayR Wilson, a piercer of 14 years, understands the deeper meaning that piercings can have on an individual. Wilson and his wife Valerie, a Reiki practitioner and energy worker, opened Golden Aura, a piercing and metaphysical shop in Marion, Iowa. Reiki is a Japanese healing technique that focuses on energy work and energy transfers.

The shop came from a need to offer a more holistic environment than typical piercing shops, which often are paired with tattoo parlors, and can have a more intense atmosphere.

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“I was really finding that a lot of clients were seeking something different,” Wilson said. “You know, it’s that tattoo piercing environment. I mean, it works, there’s a lot of people that enjoy that environment. But I have a lot of clients that were like, ‘Can we shut the door? Can we turn the music down? Can we like, just chill and breathe and meditate a bit?’ ”

This led Wilson to open his own shop, which offers piercing services in a more holistic environment. He said they cater each piercing experience to the individual customer.

“Here we may probe a little further, pursue it a little more, like ‘What are you looking to get out of the pierce? What are you looking to achieve? I mean, are you looking to unlock something per se?’ he said. “We’ve created this environment to really engage more into that aspect of things.”

Wilson said that through his many years piercing, he learned to be more intentional of the experience he shares with those he pierces.

“When somebody gets a piercing, there’s something more taking place than just the physical aspect of piercing,” he said. “When we interact with somebody, we’re exchanging energy. So as a piercing practitioner, I mean, when we puncture somebody’s physical body, we’re also entering that energy body, there’s energies being released, and there’s an exchange of energy taking place.”

Wilson said when it comes to piercings and body modifications, people seek them out for different reasons, whether it be spiritual exploration, self-expression, or a reclamation of the body.

“I’ve worked with a lot of clients who’ve had, you know, a wide array of traumatic experience from A to Z, and they may get a piercing to say, ‘This is my body, I’m going to do this, I’m going to reclaim this aspect, and it’s mine going forward,’ ” he said. “That’s a reminder.”

Additionally, Wilson said that while many think of gauges, scarification, implants, or tongue splitting when they think of the term “body modification,” it can also encompass more generally accepted procedures, such as lip injections or plastic surgery.

“Everyone I think has their own definition (of body modification) like, ‘Oh my gosh, that guy has implants on his forehead, he has horns, that’s just crazy.’ To that individual, that’s a self-expression,” he said. “Whereas you see a bodybuilder in the gym, I mean, that’s body modification. They’re modifying their body to fit whatever structure they envision for themselves and their physical body.”

Wilson said he believes that as society progresses and evolves, it will become more and more accepting of what was once seen as taboo.

In Iowa City, Release Body Modification offers a variety of piercing services, from mild nose and earlobe piercings, to the more intensive modifications, such as tongue splitting.

Abbey Jackson, the manager for Release, said unique piercings and body modifications, such as dermals or tongue piercings have been on the rise in recent years.

“When it comes to different body mods and stuff, I’m sure everyone’s got their own reasons for doing them,” she said. “It’s also become more accepted in a lot of places. I know even like five years ago, a lot of times jobs would be like, ‘No piercings, no hair colors, nothing like that,’ and slowly but surely, people are getting more facial piercings, people are getting facial tattoos too, it’s becoming more popular.”

According to a 2017 Statista survey, 21 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds surveyed had four or five piercings; for 30 to 59 year-olds, 17 percent had four or five piercings, and 13 percent had six to ten.


While I was at home, visiting my family over spring break, I asked my parents why they had gauged their ears in the first place. My mom said when she took classes at the University of Wisconsin when I was in grade school, she’d been inspired by a woman who’d worn large, intricate wooden plugs in her ears.

For my father, it was an act of rebellion against the anxiety of growing older; even though he was a young dad — to this day he’s a spry 45 — he had three kids. They gauged their ears together; my dad said that gauging my mom’s ears was a bonding experience between the two of them, an act of trust.

I wear my plugs in my ears now, even though I’ve taken breaks from it from time to time. Part of it is to wear beautiful stone plugs in them; plugs made out of rose quartz are my absolute favorite. But the other part of it is that when I put them in my ears, I feel a little closer to my mom and dad, no matter if we’re far apart.