An Apprenticeship Guide for Mentors

From Left to Right: Kelly Carvara, Steve Joyner, Peter Jett, Megan Raposa and myself (Jef Saunders).
Kelly, Pete and Megan have all apprenticed under me. 

I have taken on more apprentices than any piercer I know.  Over the years, I have taken on a staggering five apprentices, four of whom completed their apprenticeships and are still piercing to this very day (namely Billy Wood Jr, Kelly Carvara, Peter Sherman Jett and Megan Raposa).  To say I am proud to have been a part of their training is an understatement.  They are wonderful piercers who have taught me a lot along the way.  I have also been an instructor for the Fakir Intensives for nearly a decade, which means I have been a part in the training of literally hundreds of young piercers.

I’ve taken on a lot of apprentices who have become successful piercers in their own right, and that is rare. Even more uncommon is the fact that I am on wonderful terms with all of my apprentices. This happens far less frequently than it should, but I think I’ve developed an approach that works.

I am heavily influenced by Fakir Musafar's philosophy in training piercers.  Fakir believes that participating in the ritual of body piercing is your birthright as a human being.  That philosophy was very foreign to me when I first attended the Fakir Intensives, but it changed the way I feel about body piercing.  I’ve felt compelled since I attended the Fakir Intensives to share with others.  

I understand when my colleagues don't share my enthusiasm for training new piercers.  It does feel, to an extent, like training the competitors of tomorrow.  

Many of us have bad experiences when training new piercers, or are still recovering from the harrowing experience that was our own apprenticeship.  There are steps to take in the process of taking on an apprentice that can prevent problems, and these steps are essential to a good experience for both mentor and apprentice.

Realistic Expectations

First, it's important to consider what a mentor can reasonably expect from their apprentice.  All too often, I see sky high expectations being the downfall of what could be a mutually beneficial relationship.  Expectations should be as specific as possible. It is appropriate to expect your apprentice to be timely, which is very specific.  “Be at the shop by 11:45 am everyday”.  Every policy you have should be clear cut and written out.  Some qualities you may want in an apprentice can’t be so simply put.  For example, it is appropriate to expect professionalism from your apprentice.  The mentor should be prepared to be the person who teaches that.  "Professionalism" can mean a lot to different people, and being specific about what that means to you will only help the apprenticeship proceed smoothly.  When you take on an apprentice, teaching them the subtleties and nuances of your shop and your piercing philosophy is your responsibility.

End Hazing of Apprentices
Greek Fraternity Paddle Kits - Greek Sorority Paddles Kits
(I got this image from the website, I shit you not, )

Many piercing mentors have recollections of their apprenticeships that are unpleasant to say the least.  Intense abuses and indignities of all kinds seemed to be heaped upon them while they were learning. What bothers me is that these mentors are all too willing to perpetuate this ridiculous cycle.  I believe hazing to be counterproductive, and a bad example.  If you are one of those piercers who was hazed relentlessly, you should  make sure that you are the last piercer hazed in your “lineage”.  I believe it’s nothing short of your professional responsibility.  "It used to be hard because my mentor was mean, but learning to pierce well is actually hard enough without distractions.  I want you to focus your energy on learning, not surviving".  

Many piercers think the younger generation is softer, weaker, and has it easier.  (If you wanted to turn into your parents, congratulations, you are on your way)

"In my day we needed needle pushers! And we felt lucky to have them"!
What they don’t understand is that our predecessors thought that way about us.  I think being cranky about the younger generation doesn't really get you anywhere. I think the more positive approach is to believe that each successive generation has been instrumental to the progress of this beautiful artform we all love.  Yes, we have made it easier for those who follow us, but that's the point. We’ve given the younger generation an opportunity to build on what we have done, and what our predecessors did before us. 

I have yet to hear a persuasive reason to make apprenticeships abusive.  As a mentor, making the piercing portion of an apprenticeship the most challenging part is a gift to the industry, the apprentice, and my clientele.  We are building the foundation of better, safer, more innovative piercing in the future.


It is undeniably challenging as a mentor to watch your apprentice make mistakes.  We have a nasty tendency of forgiving ourselves for the mistakes we made along the way, but we often fail to extend that patience to our trainees.  If you’ve ever watched an apprentice grab the wrong size jewelry for a piercing more than once, or struggle with a captive ball that you could put in with your eyes closed, you understand this frustration.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, making mistakes is part of learning. It is the mentor's job to prevent as many mistakes as possible, and be a safety net when necessary.  It isn't easy for mentor OR apprentice but it's part of the process.  What you need realize is that you simply cannot expect or demand perfection from people.  If your apprentice was already good at piercing, they wouldn’t need you.

How to Avoid Training Your Competition (Part A)

Perhaps you are hesitant to take on an apprentice because you don’t want them opening a shop next door in a year.  Every mentor worries about this... and it is, indeed, a possibility.

The first step to avoiding this is spending time with your potential apprentice beforehand.  The apprentices I’ve taken on have, for the most part, spent time as desk staff for me before they were officially taken on to train as a piercer.  This gave me an opportunity to learn their character, but more importantly it was an opportunity to build a solid bond between us.

Signing an agreement with an apprentice is a good idea.  In it, you can write in explicit detail what apprentice’s responsibilities are, how long they can expect to train for, and how long you’d like them to pierce for you as an employee following their apprenticeship. It is important to make this agreement plausible to fulfill.  You are training someone to be a piercer, you are not buying an indentured servant.  

I’d caution anyone from expecting more than two or three years of work from an apprentice.  Why? You need to be prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. Life happens to other people, as much as life happens to you.  What I mean by that is this: people fall in love, people move away, and people change careers.  If you’ve treated your apprentice/employee well, paid them fairly, and they elect to move on then you can rest easy knowing that you’ve done your part.  On the other hand, if you choose to treat your apprentice poorly, you can’t expect much from them in return.  If you abuse them, underpay them, and put them in tenuous financial/professional situations, I want to assure you of the fact that your apprenticeship agreement means nothing.  

The implicit part of the apprenticeship contract is probably more important than any legalese you can pack onto a page.  The implicit contract is your continued good will toward your apprentice. If you don’t fulfill that part of your agreement, you can consider the whole thing null and void.  You reap what you sow.  If you want a good apprentice/mentor relationship, you need to be a shining example of trustworthiness, respect and integrity.

How to Avoid Training Your Competition (Part B)
I would like to take this opportunity to digress a bit, and I beg your indulgence.  I believe a confidence in oneself is essential to being a mentor.   I mean this with no disrespect to other piercers, nor do I say it with arrogance or spite:

I have no competition.

I don’t mean financially, obviously there are other shops near mine, and every shop gets a piece of the pie.  (I tend to worry about this a lot less than some of my colleagues do.  I will address that in a future blog entry.)  I don’t mean professionally, there are piercers that can do work I am in awe of, and I have recommended clients of mine to trusted colleagues if I thought they were the better piercer for the job.  What I mean is that what is special about the way I pierce is ME.  No one can do it quite like I do.  

No one else is Jef Saunders.  

Instagram media Hand job on my buddy @that_cut_dho ✂️ One of the illest barbers I know! 
#tattoo #tattoos #tattoosnob #tattooart #tattoo_artwork #tattoosofinstagram #rose #rosetattoo #blackandgrey #blackworkerssubmission #thedailytattoos #artnerd2014 #prophetsandpoets #inkedphilly #phillyink #philadelphia #savemyink #inksav #inkjunkeyz #picstitch #the_inkmasters  #iphonesia #igdaily #instadaily #instagood #igart
(okay there’s this tattoo artist Jeff Saunders, and he’s pretty awesome.  But you know what I mean. 
Check his Instagram
Again, that doesn’t mean I think I’m the best piercer in the world.  What it means is that I am confident in my shop, my health and safety, my bedside manner, and my technique. I'm a very good piercer, and hopefully I am getting better. 

If someone can open up across the street from me and be better than I am… well that’s my fault, not theirs.  

Obviously no one wants extra competitors.  I certainly don’t.  That said,  it isn’t a concern of mine when I take on an apprentice.   I think the confidence I have in my abilities and my shop helps me concentrate on what’s important with an apprentice: being a good mentor.  

How to be a mentor

There are a lot of different ways to train a new piercer.  I have a personal formula that seems to work well for me.  If you’ve ever read my “Open Letter to all Would-Be Piercing Apprentices”, I lay it out in detail.  I usually wait for the potential apprentice to attend the Fakir Intensives in San Francisco.  I then take them on as desk staff at my shop.  Once it is clear that we have a good working relationship, and I am satisfied that we will both enjoy working together in the future, we begin the real apprenticeship.

That part involves a lot of observation.  Once an appropriate amount of observation has taken place, the apprentice slowly begins taking on more and more responsibilities. Those responsibilities include: setting up my StatIM cassettes, client prepping and marking piercing placement, and then finally they pierce under supervision.  I focus on the apprentice watching as much piercing as possible, and leave chores and other responsibilities as secondary.

You may elect to take a different path.  I don’t believe there is one right way to apprentice someone.  What I think is necessary, especially for first-time mentors, is to commit as much of your plan to writing as possible.  It helps to have specific goals in mind.  What might that look like?  Here’s an example :
I'll be honest, I haven't done this sort of paperwork with my previous apprentices.  Future apprentices will be required to document things in far greater detail.

It’s up to you, as the mentor, to decide the amount of observation an apprentice should do before moving onto marking and before proceeding to piercing with supervision (unless that is specified by local law).  Having specific numbers also makes sure that you aren’t rushing, or unnecessarily delaying, an apprentice segueing into “body piercer” status.

Health & Safety

An apprentice needs to be trained appropriately in health and safety, and that isn’t a task to be taken lightly.  I would suggest an industry specific Bloodborne Pathogens Class (like those available through Health Educators, Inc, Progressive Mentorship, or the Association of Professional Piercers online class) be a requirement day one.  CPR and First Aid are also very important for all piercers and apprentices.  

I see many apprentices thrown into “tool scrubbing duty” right off the bat, and I do not understand the logic.  Decontamination of tools is the most dangerous part of our job as piercers.  A mistake in the decontamination room could also be disastrous for everyone working at the shop.  Why would you ever give this job to the least qualified person? You should only give this job to apprentices who have proven themselves to be thorough, conscientious and trustworthy.  Supervise the decontamination of tools to be absolutely certain PPE has been donned and utilized appropriately, as well as making sure the job is done correctly.  (This may be yet another reason to consider exclusively disposable tools at a piercing studio.  I'll post more on that in future blog posts. )

Having a thorough Exposure Control Plan is obviously an important document in every piercing studio.  I have found that when explaining the ECP to my trainees, they get a new respect and understanding of our policies.  I have a nasty knack for expecting my employees to be mind readers.  This has lead me to write down as much as possible for them.  Having an employee handbook, and written protocols for every job in the studio, is strongly suggested.  This way your apprentice always has written guidelines to fall back on in your absence.
From Left to Right: me, Billy Wood Jr and Megan Feeley.  Billy apprenticed under me, and Megan manages Rockstar Body Piercing.  Photo courtesy Autumn Swisher.

Taking on an apprentice is an enormous responsibility. I mean huge.  Think about it: if all goes according to plan, you haven’t trained someone to be your employee, you’ve given them a career.  That’s an incredible gift!

But it is a gift, and should be seen as such.  If you train a piercer thinking about what you can get out of it, you will most likely have an unpleasant experience.  Your attitude going into this experience is of the utmost importance.  I would strongly suggest taking on an apprentice only after you’ve considered the following questions:
Am I okay with my apprentice working somewhere else in the future?
Am I okay with my apprentice deciding this work isn’t for them?
Am I okay with my apprentice eventually owning their own shop?
Do I honestly have enough experience, training, and knowledge to train a new piercer?
Am I prepared for the extra time, work, and effort to train a new piercer?
Am I okay with my apprentice becoming a better piercer than I am?

(That last one is a doozie, one that few can honestly answer “yes” to.)

I am genuinely excited for the future of body piercing. The open exchange of ideas and broad availability of information worldwide has created a golden age for the advancement of piercing safety and technique.  Those experienced piercers who opt to train new people are doing a great service to the next generation of piercing clients.  My hope is that this will also be a generation of piercers and mentors that develop lifelong bonds of friendship and camaraderie.  

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An Apprenticeship Guide for Mentors by Jef Saunders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

As of 2017 I now pierce full time at Gamma Piercing in Ann Arbor, Michigan! Please visit our website or stop by and say hello!