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    The Shift

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    A blond teacup of a human named Madelyn, all of six years old, sits on a gray cushioned table at Twisted Images, a tattoo and piercing shop on Bardstown Road. She's on a curious outing for a child on a Saturday afternoon. A large white bow fastens Madelyn’s hair away from tiny, bare ears that are on track to sparkle. Around her, two women move in fast-forward, busying themselves with black latex gloves, sterile swabs, Q-tips, needles in germ-proof packaging, two corks the size of thimbles. The women share a matching tattoo — a candle that burns from both ends, because neither takes well to slowing down. Nor do they care much for a bare canvas. Jewelry twinkles from their ears, dimples, noses, tongues — 39 piercings between the two of them, all of it accessorizing the artistry that inks nearly every peek of skin, from Lord of the Rings quotes to the Grateful Dead skull to a peacock, a nod to the Hindu god of piercing.

    One of these women, Amy Willmore, who’s part-owner of Twisted Images, stands ready at Madelyn’s left side. The other piercer, who goes by Bunny, takes the right. They squat a bit, firm their stances, get set. Madelyn grips her mother’s hands and stares straight into her eyes.

    “OK,” Willmore says, “practice breath.” Madelyn sucks in, blows out. Willmore and Bunny place corks at the back of the girl’s lobes. They each hover a needle over the exact spot they’ve determined is right for earrings, marked by a dot in green marker on each lobe.

    “Big deep breath,” Willmore says. “Hold.”

    Madelyn inflates. Mom holds her breath as well. Grandma too.

    “Blow it hard,” Willmore instructs. Two sharp needles poke through Madelyn’s soft lobes and press into the cork. An earring loaded into the back of each needle slides into home.

    Madelyn’s mouth widens, a wail ready to spill. Willmore’s quick, with an alert: “It’s over. It’s over. You have earrings.” That usually tames the screams. The whole thing’s over before a tick can tock. One second, typically. Madelyn dives into her mother’s chest, perhaps still shaken by the pinch of pain, her mouth now squiggled into a frown. “You did it! You did so good!” her mother shouts.

    Minutes later, it is with epic delight that Madelyn stands before a full-length mirror admiring the green opal earrings that make her feel so, so fancy. “Look at that smile,” Bunny cheers. “Yasssss!” Madelyn’s mom hands her daughter a $5 bill, and Madelyn tucks it into a skull, the “tip skull.”

    Willmore, who has been piercing the ears of young kids for several years now, says she’s never certain who will cry or who may chicken out. The girl before Madelyn, a six-year-old named Reagan, barely registered emotion when needles hit flesh. About a month ago, a five-year-old named Maria screamed as if she’d been plunged into a pit of porcupines. “Probably about 30 percent scream. About 60 percent cry before we touch them,” Willmore says. “They get, like, Shit, this is about to happen. Their eyes glass over.” (Adults do this too.)

    Willmore wants this childhood milestone to be fun, without trauma. Sometimes she and Bunny dress in animal onesies. Willmore, who’s in her early 40s, is a talker, a jokester. “It relieves stress putting holes in other people,” she says. She has a deep hyena-ish laugh that knocks around the old Victorian house, home to Twisted Images. “One day, we sat with a girl for two hours,” Willmore says. “Every time we got our hands near her ears, she was like, ‘No, no, no, no.’” Eventually, she was ready.

    Seven-year-old Freya sits on a couch in the peacock-blue lobby area of Twisted Images. She isn’t so ready. Freya got the dots marked on her ears but then retreated, waving Madelyn in for her turn. Willmore purposely sets aside Saturday afternoons for kids so that adults wanting piercings aren’t held up as youngsters (almost always girls) debate holes in their bodies. Willmore schedules a girl every 15 minutes. And on busy Saturdays, girls parade in and out, plucking candy from a glass bowl post-piercing. “Two pieces for two ears,” Willmore says.

    For parents, ear-piercing here is a lot different than what they remember. Mainly, there’s not that piercing gun native to shopping malls. Willmore says the gun can cause unnecessary tissue damage and isn’t as sanitary. Plus, she says, her method is quicker. Both ears at one time. (That’s how Willmore and Bunny pierce nipples, too. “It’s tandem,” Willmore says, “just a more adult version.”)

    Freya watches Madelyn leave, a grin from earring to earring. Willmore sits down beside her, whispers some sort of magic. Freya hops onto the table, brown eyes frozen open and wide as the horizon. She grips her mom’s hands while holding a stuffed elephant named Ellie. Her father plays a cartoon on Netflix. Willmore takes the left side, Bunny the right.

    “OK,” Willmore instructs, “practice breath.” Freya blows in and out, a stern focus to her face.

    “You want another practice breath?” Willmore asks.




    “OK, deep breath in. Hold.”

    It took about an hour of convincing, but here is Freya, gusting into her mother’s face as needles thread pink gems into her ears.

    “You’re done. You have earrings,” Willmore reports.

    Not one tear. Freya’s seriousness lifts to a full smile. Bunny begins to chant: “One of us! One of us! One of us!”

    This originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Nimble Needlers." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,


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