Catching Up With Coolest Piercer J. Colby Smith
J. Colby Smith turns humble human bodies into celestial marvels with fine constellation-like piercings that perfectly compliment what your mama gave you. The body artiste's clean, customised style is bringing the multiple-piercing tradition favoured by emo teens into the mainstream (and winning over people like Zoë Kravitz and Skye Ferreria in the process).
J. Colby and his desirable skill set just landed in Aus, and while he's got a packed schedule of appointments care of best beauty website THE FILE, he kindly set aside some time to chat to us. The OCD piercer had much wisdom to share on underground style, beauty standards and the importance of human connection. Get acquainted below.
Lucy Jones: Hey! How are you?
J. Colby Smith: Hey, not too bad! I got up early and I'm not jetlagged too much, feeling pretty good.
Cool! So did you first get into piercings and tattoos as a rebellious teen?
Yeah... As a child I was always attracted to everything bad, anything that I wasn't supposed to do was the most attractive thing to me. I grew up in a pretty conservative family, you know, very religious and I think that I really just wanted something opposite. I kind of fell into a subculture where loud music and tattoos and piercings were just very, very common — this would have been early 90s, mid-90s — and so yeah, it's a big part of who I am. I'm so happy to still be working in an industry that as a kid I found attractive, you know, the darker side of things I always found attractive, and I'm just happy to still be dabbling in it a little bit.
Have you seen that association between piercings and counter-culture dissipate over time? Do you think they have become more and more normalised as beauty standards change?
Yeah, and I have this theory that everything great comes from the underground. It's like, if you plant a seed, that seed is eventually going to grow into a tree. So it doesn't surprise me that it is where it is today, and I pushed really hard with my career to make it this way. I'd say mid-career I started realising everyone wanted something different but there just wasn't the access to the types of things they wanted. I was working with a lot of high end designers, fine jewelry, that kind of stuff, and at this point I was piercing models, I was piercing editors, I was piercing musicians, I was piercing clothing designers, and they all loved piercings but they weren't really allowed to like it, you know? It wasn't cool to like it yet. So I really just played off of that; I was listening to what people wanted and what they were saying — and I come from kind of a punk rock background — but coming into the fashion world and looking at what's happening in the fashion industry, it's crazy! It's wild, it's wacky, it's weird, sometimes I don't fully understand it but I also didn't understand how piercings didn't fit into that. So I really just started that crusade of trying to mix what I do with what they do, and here we are today. Actually, I was talking with the girl we were shooting with today about how it used to be models would come see me and they'd be like, "Oh, if my booker finds out that I'm doing this they're going to kill me" but now it's flipped over and its almost like the more the holes these girls have the more chances they have of booking jobs which is… I mean, this is in the last six years, I can't even believe how quick that turned over!
The conversation has completely shifted.
Another good thing I find really flattering is being included more in the beauty aspect of things where for so long piercings were [seen as] aggressive, they were meant as kind of a 'Fuck you!'. But seeing piercings and my name in a publication next to the beauty section is like 'Wow', because it is something beautiful and people are starting to open their eyes to the beauty in it.
Totally, and it reminds people of all of the traditions and cultures that have practiced different types of piercings over time.
Yeah, so cool.
How you determine what piercings or positioning will suit a client?
It's always different. As soon as I meet them they're like a mystery that I'm trying to solve, but really I try to just make it as simple as possible. I'm trying to look at their style and I'm just trying to expand that style into piercings, into jewelry, into those types of things. I definitely want a bit of my signature there but I really want it to look like something they're comfortable in. You know, if you have a shirt you really love to wear but you have another shirt that by all reasons you should like to wear but you just don't? I want people to feel comfortable in their piercings the way that you're comfortable in that shirt. I want it to look like a natural extension. I don't want it to look like they're trying too hard or they're not trying hard enough; if your very simple I'm going to keep your piercings very simple and if you're very eccentric I'm going to make your piercings super eccentric.
Is there a trick to keeping things balanced or do you think it really depends on the individual?
I'm pretty OCD so I have little rules in my mind that I follow, one of them would be to create consistency with materials. I'm not a huge fan of mixing materials, which some people love to do and I think that occasionally you can do it and it works well. If you're going to mix I usually only like to do it if the jewellery is actually touching each other — think about if you're stacking rings on your finger and you have a white gold ring and a rose gold ring, it looks very intentional, you didn't make that mistake, you didn't get this random ring somewhere, you bought it to go in that stack. I really like consistency, I'll try and make everything one colour so it tells a story of 'this is planned out, this is a look I'm building on constantly'. I will always try to do heavier stuff lower, thinking about gravity, heavier stuff will always go lower and then naturally, as you go up and it's taller, I would use lighter things. Then just keeping everything spread out. I don't want to crowd too much in one spot. I really try to get people to think outside of their boxes, because sometimes people just feed off their friend and they want that exact same thing. Then, by the time we sit down and we mark it all out and we talk about it, it's like: well it looks good on your friend but this other thing would actually look a lot better on you, and it would be your thing and not your friends thing that you're copying.
I'm pretty minimal, I like neutral things. With body jewellery, I want something that looks good today and I also want it to look good ten years from now, because a lot of people wear these pieces to death and I like that. It's something that becomes part of you and it's with you through all the experiences and it pulls all the energy out of those experiences. And honestly, it just gets better with time, and also the more comfortable you get in it; it looks like it's your look.
Playing off those ideas of energy and balance, are there any kind of spiritual beliefs or ideas that are important to you?
What I like the most about what I do is the human interaction. I think human interaction is something that we really tend to take for granted because we're so caught up in social media — were always in the past or the future, checking it — and I really love interacting with people, and the energy that happens between [us]. This is one of those experiences that forces people to be completely present, you know? It's like, you're a little bit nervous, you're a little bit vulnerable, you're just really open to being in the moment; you're not worried about what you have to do tomorrow; you're not worried about what the Instagram picture is going to look like because this is real. This is happening. I'm flesh and blood. And I love it, I really do. It sounds cheesy but I see it wakes people up, it's kind of almost like they need it a little bit; they need a little bit of reminder that they're human and are vulnerable, and that human interactions are incredibly powerful and special.
Has there been any stand out, surreal moments for you in terms of clients you've worked with or achievements in your career?
I think that, just to speak on a broad scale, I always had this idea that piercings could be a lot more than the way people were perceiving them, and it's so hard to comprehend how far it would have gone. The fact that I can travel to other countries and people are aware of me, know who I am… I'm a very humble person, but it moves me. I tell this really funny story about, without naming names, but I had a client who's a celebrity and she was in Paris and she was shopping for records and all of a sudden out of the corner of her eye she started seeing somebody looking at her. And she's like 'Oh great, somebody's recognised me', like 'This is so annoying I don't want to take pictures, I don't want to talk to [anyone], I just want to buy a record'. So finally she gets in line and she's checking out and the person comes up to her and they're like, "Excuse me, did J. Colby Smith do your piercings?" and she's like, "Oh yeah, he did actually!" And my point is just that my work is something that somebody else could recognise, in another country, that is the most flattering thing I could ever hear.
Do you think there's such a thing as a bad or tacky site for a piercing?
I definitely have my opinion but I've seen it go the other way. For example, I'm not a huge fan of tongue piercings, I just think they're kind of gross, mouths are just a gross part of the body. But I do all parts of the body and the mouth is just one area that is very intimate and just very… but, I have some girls that, they have that little bit of edge, they're just trying to get a little more of that 90s 'in your face' look and I do a tongue piercing and I'm like, "Fuck, this looks really cool on you!" So there are times when you have to eat your own words, and those people are so good for me, to get me outside of my OCD box of my little rules to follow, because they're like, "I don't want to look beautiful, I wanna look rough and I wanna look mean and I wanna look aggressive." So I'm thankful for those experiences too because they push me to grow as an artist.
Do you have any piercing trend predictions?
I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where if I get tired of looking at one thing, then I try to steer it in another direction of another thing. Right now I'm really obsessed with conch piercings, which basically sit inside the middle of your ear and you can wear them as a ring or a stud. So I've been really pushing those a lot because I think that with the right jewellery they can look very elegant, but they're unique enough that it kind of catches people off guard. Not everybody understands piercing culture and things like that, so if you're on the train or at a party and it just catches the light the right way it's going to spark up a conversation. Again, it goes back to that human interaction thing, but it just really gets people thinking of like, "I had no idea". Because everyone thinks that the earlobes are the safe zone for some reason — it's digestible, everybody can relate to it — but the second you go a little bit higher, all of a sudden it's real dangerous and edgy. I think that doing a nice piece of jewellery in a unique spot can really change people's perspective on things.
Yeah, just opening people up to different ideas of what a beauty is.
Yep, exactly, and when I do stuff all I'm trying to do is focus on what looks natural. That's why I don't do any of the wacky weird stuff because it doesn't look natural — it doesn't look like something that belongs to the body. With my stuff I'm just kind of paying attention to what the body is telling me and I'm sticking a little thing here and a little thing there and it's just, not to sound cheesy, but just adorning the spots that need to be adorned.