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‘My family have run our London piercing salon for 30 years. We’ve had A-list celebrity clients and pierced everything from an elbow to a face’

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“Take a deep breath,” Julia instructs me. “It doesn’t hurt when you take a deep breath.” In one quick movement, she’s pierced my ear with a needle and threaded a gold stud through it. There’s a short flush of pain, like having a blood test done, perhaps. In the mirror, my new piercings shine back at me.

I’m at Metal Morphosis, a family-owned piercing salon on Newburgh Street, in Soho. When I visit on a sunny Thursday afternoon, there’s a steady stream of people coming in and emerging with newly-studded ears, noses and eyebrows. “We’re doing between 60 to 100 piercings a day. On Saturdays, its closer to between 80 and 100,” says company director Ben Harris, who lives in Peckham. “I worked out that we’ve pierced over half a million people since we launched it 30 years ago.”

Metal Morphosis started life in Old Compton Street in 1991, in the days when Madonna and Naomi Campbell’s belly button piercings were inspiring others to follow suit. It was the brainchild of Ben’s father, Matthew Harris, who had been working as a jeweller at East London’s Petticoat Lane Market. Customers started to ask if he could pierce them, so Matthew decided to enlist the help of his father Ivan, a pharmacist, to do just that.

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“Heavy piercing is not as popular as it was in the 90s,” says Ben. “It’s all about pretty, dainty stuff now.”

Today, 33 year-old Ben and 56 year-old Matthew run the business, which also has a branch in Hackney, together. Ben explains: “My dad manages the piercing side of things, and I manage everything else.” Despite having 16 staff, which includes one of Ben’s sisters, Matthew will still step in for an afternoon of piercing. “My dad’s probably done 20 per cent of that [half a million]. He’s seen it all,” says Ben.

Under Ben, the business moved from Old Compton Street to Selfridges, taking piercing, as he puts it, “from back street to high street”. The next step, in 2011, was Topshop’s flagship store on Oxford Street, but when Philip Green’s flagship store closed, Metal Morphosis had to leave. The Carnaby premises, with its black shop front and pink neon lightning bolt logo, opened in November last year, and the Harrises breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved, because the lawyers and solicitors said: ‘You’ve got too many staff and the shops are shut. It’s going to be tough to come back.’ But we really have turned it around,” says Ben.

As their website puts it, the aim is to “help people feel more like themselves”. Ben elaborates: “We’re all about self-expression – people being whoever they want to be.”

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Metal Morphosis was based in Topshop’s flagship store for 10 years

Metal Morphosis has a diverse customer base – as you might expect across half a million piercings. Its Topshop location was popular with mothers and their children, students and celebrities. According to Ben, the shop has pierced Little Mix, Kate Moss and Rihanna, amongst many others.

The youngest customers range from seven (accompanied by their parents, of course); the oldest, says senior piercer Julien, was an 88 year-old man who had both his nipples pierced as a surprise for his girlfriend. Julien recently pierced an 84 year-old woman’s ears – she was going on a cruise with her fiancé, and he’d bought her some earrings without realising she’d didn’t have her ears pierced. Julien says: “She never had them done, and now that she’s almost 90, she wanted them done.”

“It gives you a good feeling when they leave your shop happy,” says Ben. “I get a really good kick out of that. And I think that’s why I’ve stuck around, because it is stressful – any retail business is stressful.”

In 30 years, Metal Morphosis has gained long-term, loyal customers. Ben says, for example, that they have a customer who comes in every other week for a piercing. “He comes in and basically lets the piercer design his face.” Doesn’t he run out of space? “He takes them out and gets new ones…he’s been a customer of ours for years,” says Ben.

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Ben and his father Matthew, who run Metal Morphosis

There are other unusual requests too: elbow, fingers, genitals, through the top of the nose. They’ve been asked for hand web piercings (the skin between the thumb and index finger) in place of a wedding ring. “You refuse requests for piercings quite often,” says Julian. “People don’t realise that [some piercings] would never, ever last.”

And of course there are horror stories. “We had a guy call up and say: ‘My piercing’s infected’,” Ben begins. They asked him what he’d been using to clean the piercing – saline solution, as recommended? “He said: ‘No, I’ve been using my urine.'”

In a piercing shop, there’s generally an expectation that the staff will be heavily-pierced themselves. Kenia, who is working when I visit, has 14 piercings, while piercer Cheryl, I’m told, has 70. Ben and Matthew, in contrast, are almost piercing-free, with just their lobes pierced. Is Ben tempted to change that? “They’ve been trying to do my nipple and my septum for years, but I’ve gone 10 years in the business and I’ve only done my lobes. I think I’m alright. I would have done it by now. We don’t even have a single tattoo on us, me and dad.”

Although they agree in their personal aesthetics, there are challenges to running a business with your father, says Ben. They find themselves talking about work all the time, for one. “It’s quite hard to separate business and pleasure…When [my dad] comes over, we don’t talk about business.” He adds: “It gets a bit much, because it is my life – I live and breathe it. And it’s been quite stressful.”

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Ben with Matthew, his fiancée Liv, and baby Jagger

Last year, Ben and his fiancée had a baby, Jagger, who is now four months old. “He’s been the real drive for me in this business because my grandad and dad started it, and then I came into the business,” says Ben, who is ambivalent about encouraging Jagger to take on the family trade. “I don’t know if I want my son to get involved in the piercing world – I’ll let him flourish and find his own thing.”

In its three generations of ownership, Ben has taken Metal Morphosis in a more youthful, poppier direction. “It’s really changed from what it was back then. Piercing was a really raw, quite a judgemental thing,” says Ben. “It’s the norm now – everyone’s got piercings. It’s great. Everyone should be accepted if they want to look a certain way.”

He adds: “It’s a great industry to be involved in – I’m really proud of what we’ve done.”

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