The Philadelphia Project
Jason Pfohl is a good friend of Infinite. He provides the studio with amazing jewelry from Gorilla Glass, the company he owns and runs out of Oaxaca, Mexico, and is a frequent visitor to the studio when he finds himself on the East Coast.
He’s also a personal friend of mine. More specifically, I’m travel friends with Jason. He is one of the handful of people I know who, though we don’t talk regularly, I connect with on a very real level when our travel schedules intersect. When we’re together, we talk about not only the piercing industry, but art and design as well. We have similar backgrounds in craft, with mine in metals and jewelry and his in glass. We geek out on books, as both our collections are overtaking each of our living spaces. Traveling, we frequent museums together—and we both consider the Barnes museum here in Philly to be one of our least favorites. I’ve been a frequent guest of his in Oaxaca, and he will often stay with me when his travels bring him through Philadelphia.
Jason emailed me this past April saying that he would soon be coming through town. He was sponsoring an upcoming art installation and performance in Philly put on by the NYC-based suspension group SKIN, traveling with a photographer who would be documenting the two days of the event. He wrote:
I have a new concept I want to do. It is a “lifestyle” catalog that will focus on people and some new jewelry, something that is not a product catalog, but will be advertising new styles. It occurred to me that maybe we could do a photoshoot with the Infinite staff and feature you and your team for the first one. What do you think?
What a coincidence! For the past year, I’ve been working with Andi Grushka (who manages web operations here at Infinite) on a photo series we’ve taken to calling The Philadelphia Project. The Philadelphia project documents the local, regional identity, look and style of Philadelphia-area models and body modification enthusiasts. We want to give a visual definition to what we see as the “Philly look.” We’ve been working on this series as an extension of promotional photography we’ve done for Infinite Body Piercing.
We recently set up a Website to showcase this work, eclecticbody.com, where we talk about the impetus for the project:
The modern body piercing industry started in Los Angeles in the mid-’70s. (If you want the full story, check out Jim Ward’s fascinating memoir, Running the Gauntlet.) Even today, body piercing is still more highly concentrated in California than the rest of the U.S. Many of the larger jewelry manufacturers and distributors are located in and around California, and the amount of noteworthy piercing studios there far outnumber anywhere else. With this concentration of piercers, studios, and jewelry companies around the West Coast, it’s no surprise that the models and styles featured in the photography jewelry vendors use to promote their lines have often had a very identifiable West-Coast feel to them.
What is the West Coast look? It’s a little San Francisco hippy and Hollywood movie star, a bit of Burning Man with a generous helping of Suicide Girls’ risqué. It’s a bright, sunny sort of youthful vitality, from a part of the country that has perfected American glamour, in movies, magazines—and even porn. It’s California fashion for body piercers.
There are noteworthy regional variations: Maya Jewelry promotes a sleek California fashion; Tawapa models have a unique twist on a Los Angeles aesthetic. Diablo Organics has perfected the alluring Texan appeal (especially with their annual calendar), and Buddha Jewelry has established a refreshing northern variant on this West Coast look, coming out of Seattle.
The Philly Look
All of this begs the question: what is the East Coast equivalent? What’s the fashion that our customers aspire to? More specifically, what is the “Philly look?” It’s easier to define a style when you’re looking at it from the other side of the country; it’s harder to describe what I’m in the middle of. What is the attitude, the culture that influences the style here? As I wrote in the blog for the Philadelphia Project:
Philly is outspoken. We value bluntness—to a fault. This extends to how we dress. We eschew artificial glamor for (what we see as) honesty. We wear jeans to fancy restaurants, distressed and worn t-shirts to the theater, ripped jeans to gallery openings. Heels aren’t the norm for women. (It’s hard to ride a bike or walk on cobblestone streets in heels.) Our glamor is in our street wear, our urban fashion. We’ll excitedly attend the opening of a new concept restaurant, but we’ll also wait in line at the launch of a new line of sneakers. We’re a city where fashion is functional, where the clothes you wear need to work taking trains, riding bikes, or taking trips to the Italian Market. Our fashion is utilitarian, but cosmopolitan.
But we are not homogenous in anything, much less our style. We are also a diverse culture. Not only in terms of race, but diverse in our attitudes, body types, and sexual identities. We are all different, and unapologetic about who we are. We are suspicious of artifice, and of pretense.
Philadelphia has a vibrant body-art culture. I often forget, until I again find myself in other parts of the country, that not everywhere can you go into Starbucks and be routinely served by tattoo-sleeved baristas, or see shelves being stocked at Whole Foods by a woman with prominent hand and throat tattoos. Philadelphia has had looks at its tattoo culture, and it has its street photography. But, as I continued to photograph models, either staff or others, for promotional work for Infinite, I’ve struggled to define that elusive Philly style, especially as it relates to body piercing and piercing culture. How do we see ourselves, and what’s the image we present to others?
This was the spark that finally turned this idea into a project. Andi and I started looking for models, preferably from the Philly/NYC/Baltimore/DC area; models who we can use as inspiration for clients of Infinite Body Piercing—and models who we want to photograph just for fun. We started eclecticbody.com as an online portfolio of models and shoots for this project.
Gorilla Glass’ Lifestyle Guide
This is why I was so excited to hear about Jason’s upcoming trip to Philly, and his idea for a photo project and product look book. I talked to him about photos that Andi and I had been working on, documenting what I thought was an underrepresented look in the larger body piercing industry. He decided to make Philly one of the city’s on his photo tour to photograph the Infinite staff modeling his jewelry. We set a date, and I emailed him what piercings the staff had, and what size jewelry they needed.
We had talked about finding a location that represented Philadelphia as much as the models did, and I suggested the small, graffiti-covered alley around the corner from the studio. When Jason and his photographer, Romina Hierro, arrived in the City, it was a beautiful spring day—perfect for photos. We spent an entire day rotating the staff, deciding on different spots, different poses, and different jewelry. We roped in everyone who was working that day, and even convinced a few employees to let us have part of their day off. I have an amazing staff, and we worked really hard to get them to show off their distinct personalities in photos, both individually and in small groups.
Romina took the bulk of the images, while I followed behind, taking behind-the-scenes shots and additional photos of the staff when they weren’t posing for her. When we went through the trove of images from the day, both Romina’s and mine, we knew we had some good stuff. Jason returned to Mexico and scrapped his original idea of a multiple-city project, instead focusing solely on the shots from Philadelphia. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited to see the proofs when Jason swung back through Philly again, and even more excited to see the finished product at APP this year—along with the poster and images he used for product branding. Jason was kind enough to let me include a bit of text in the back of the book, talking about the studio, and Philly in general:
Philadelphia has a vibrant and very visible piercing and tattoo culture,” James says, “but it’s different from what goes on on the West Coast. It’s even different than what’s happening in New York. There’s a diversity here that’s not often represented in other places—and not in the way ‘diverse’ is usually used, as just a reference to race, sexuality, or gender identity. Philadelphia body art enthusiasts are varied in background, income, body type, and even basic interests. There really isn’t a ‘Philly type’ as much as there is something here that influences many different types of people.
You can see it in the clients who visit us, and in the staff employed at the studio. Philadelphia is like nowhere else.
Jason was gracious enough to send us a box of Gorilla Glass’ first Gorilla Lifestyle booklets. For a limited time, these are available free for the asking at Infinite Body Piercing. (We have a few posters left too.) Copies are also free through our online store. We just ask you pay for shipping—or add it to a jewelry order to have shipping costs waived. We have only 100 copies, so get yours before they’re gone!
For more on The Philadelphia Project, check out eclecticbody.com.