It seems like every shopping center in every city in OC has a tattoo shop in it, but that's exactly what makes Barbella Studios in Costa Mesa so different. For a brief time, there were a couple of tattooers who worked out of Barbella, but for the last 13 years, the shop has been known for the other common form of body modification, the oft-overlooked art of piercing.
Stephen Von Frankenstein has been captain of Barbella's ship since the beginning and is a large part of the studio's reputation for being among the best places to get pierced in all of California. Like many great artistic business ventures, Barbella wasn't even Von Frankenstein's idea when it came about. He'd actually only been in the industry for less than two years when his friend asked if he'd manage the piercing side of their new business.
"When we first started, it was just my friend and me," Von Frankenstein says. "We brought in apprentices to help, but then I realized how much help we'd need."
Since that stretch of 2002, Von Frankenstein hasn't left the helm of Barbella (not to say he hasn't considered quitting and/or entirely changing career paths at least a few times), but he's also never owned it. Presently, it's owned by the nationally respected body modification company High Priestess, but it took the studio a mixed bag of previous owners to get there.
"I think the thing that helped the evolution of Barbella is that each owner has had their own spin on it," Von Frankenstein says. "It's evolved into something new with each one. One of the first owners was very business-minded, so he introduced the paperwork and forms we needed. We hated it at the time, but it was the structure that people needed. We butted heads, but if it wasn't for him we wouldn't be here, we might not even have paychecks."
After working with an owner he really got along with, Von Frankenstein feared that Barbella could take a turn for the worst when the owner could no longer support the shop about three years ago. Instead of some scumbag who didn't know much about the art form buying the shop, that's when High Priestess took over.
"High Priestess came down from Oregon and saved our asses," Von Frankenstein says. "They gave us the money to do what the shop is doing. I'd say 50 percent of our evolution has been over the last three years."
The evolution of Barbella is important, because it's also the evolution of piercing as both an art and science. In the '90s, piercing was viewed as more of a trend than anything, and it certainly wasn't as scientific as it's become in recent years. Considering its historic roots, there are plenty of unknown aspects for much of the world.
"Piercing as an art is as old as humans are, but piercing as a science is still very new," Von Frankenstein says. "The things I've learned in 16 years and that I've watched the industry learn in 16 years, it's totally changed. There's no book on this thing. I've watched the industry evolve into a community where people are teaching at piercing conferences. Not conventions, actual conferences."
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Ultimately, the industry can evolve all it wants, but piercing's place in the world is still going to come down to how society feels about it. In Von Frankenstein's eyes, that's improving too.
"People will still ask my girlfriend 'But you're pretty, why would you do that to your face?' but society is still a lot better about it than before," Von Frankenstein says. "When I got my septum pierced 20 years ago, people were scared to sit next to me. Now, you go into Target and no one bats an eye. Maybe kids are still getting shot in school, but if there's one little thing that shows progress in society, people being more accepting of piercings and tattoos gives me hope."
Barbella Studios, 1799 Newport Blvd. A106, Costa Mesa, 949-629-9999, Instagram: @svonfrankenstein