By Kristina Martin
True to form for Pittsburgh, Hot Rod Piercing Company’s background involves a good story and some grit.
“A little fact that I like to give: No matter how much [the business grows over time], this whole thing only happened because Tim did not want a job” that he basically was expected to do, at the time, piercer William Scott says of owner and founder Tim Girone. “In the ’90s, Tim took a look at what the system looked like and brought body piercing to Pittsburgh.”
Hot Rod — which marks 30 years in business this year — has evolved over time, just like the Steel City, and as per its motto, the company is adept at “keeping Pittsburgh beautiful.”
A member of the Association of Professional Piercers, the shop employs a team that maintains current piercer certifications and, as Girone says, “is moving with modern trends.”
For anyone who’d like to visit the shop, to get a piercing or to buy jewelry, the South Side space is tidy, hip and inviting. They require appointments for piercings but will squeeze in jewelry buyers in between piercing bookings.
While patrons wait, the full experience of receiving guidance and stellar customer service starts with the ring selection: Patrons may expect to hear honest feedback about their selections, while also gaining new ideas and receiving care instructions.
The early days
Girone grew up in Philadelphia, where he says he “had started to dabble in piercing as a hobby.” He attended California University of Pennsylvania for a “short time” and met his wife, Barb, before heading back to the City of Brotherly Love. In the ’90s, he returned to Pittsburgh, which is where his professional piercing journey began.
At the time, piercing wasn’t what it is today — in terms of the accessibility of options and information. Girone used the Yellow Pages to find a piercer (back then, piercers often worked in tattoo parlors on select days) and had an unfortunate experience, leaving him to finish the piercing himself before leaving the parlor and dealing with “excruciating” pain. For piercing inspiration, he gathered ideas from magazines, including bondage publications, given that the internet wasn’t yet widely accessible.
Back then, piercing sometimes had a “punk rock” reputation, conjuring visions of eyebrow rings and the like. Girone started piercing part-time for an alternative South Side store before moving on and renting part of an Oakland tattoo shop in 1993.
Girone explains that “piercing is more technical and scientific” than tattooing; therefore, he opened a stand-alone second site in 1995. Girone says his South Side space at 95 S. 16th St., was the first area shop solely dedicated to piercing. For the next 24 years, he operated two sites within two miles of each other. Girone eventually shuttered the Oakland site in 2019, due to his planned relocation to Oregon, which prompted him to map out how the Pittsburgh staff would run the shop.
“They carried out my original plan and added to it,” says Girone, who still handles tasks such as payroll and taxes for Hot Rod. “In my second month gone [after moving to Oregon], it was Hot Rod’s biggest month in business, to date.”
Evolving with an open mind
Girone has trained that team and worked to impart knowledge of classic techniques and concepts, in part because of the group was “very willing to learn.” In some cases, those employees are customers-turned-staffers, such as Max Bradshaw, an apprentice who has a “love for the whole industry,” says Girone.
Girone’s tried and true recipe for success with piercing is to offer the best experience — use quality products and follow the Association of Professional Piercers guidelines to offer a consistent experience in terms of cleanliness and sterilization.
Equally important to Girone, though, is simply to be kind to customers.
“Coaching is a really big part of the job — it’s part of being a good piercer,” says shop manager Derek Ratkus, noting that a piercer should “match the client’s energy.”
Engaging with and guiding customers who are about to be pierced will generally go even better when the piercer also is pierced, according to Ratkus and shop piercer William Scott.
“Looking the part is a big thing,” says Scott.
Style and creativity
As for trends and influences, Scott — whose career decision was inspired by early-2000s social networking site MySpace — along with piercer Tanner Thurman, tend to like classic jewelry. Other teammates, such as jewelry stylist Aly Scott and Ratkus, will vote to stock on-trend jewelry. Hot Rod Piercing Company has a variety of inventory items, acknowledging the wide range of customers — soccer moms, lawyers, and many others.
“Piercing has definitely become a different service and vibe than [it was when I was] going into it,” says Girone. “It’s more refined and distinguished than it ever used to be.”
Speaking of refinement: The 1990s were a period marked with limited jewelry options — circular barbells, for example — and piercing experimentation. Surface piercings on flat parts of the body with curved bars were more of a thing back then. However, today, things have shifted.
“Once artists could promote work on social [media] — and the same with tattoo [artists] — we really saw [piercing] grow in popularity amongst a pretty diverse crowd,” says Ratkus, who’s been with Hot Rod for eight years.
In a single day, the team can help customers with a snake bite (a pair of lower lip piercings), an eyebrow piercing and a 14K designer earring. Scott, whose has worked at Hot Rod for nine years, credits social media and the accessibility of celebrities’ everyday details for some of the influence and popularity of piercing. He adds that customers visited during the Olympics and requested piercings to match Simone Biles.
Some days at the shop are quite busy, while others may ebb and flow.
Still, Ratkus says: “We’re a piercing shop; pretty much every day is a great day.”
Kristina Martin has a background as a magazine editor, and she’s currently a freelancer. Her articles generally focus on lifestyle topics, including food, weddings, wellness — and the hometown she loves.