When fourth-year public health student Ronella Riley decided to get her septum pierced, she wanted to find a place that would prioritize her safety.
After looking at several studios, Riley landed on Immaculate Body Piercing, a local piercing studio in Columbia that had proper safety training and certifications.
"I just wanted to be super duper safe," Riley said. "(Other studios) were cheaper, but I was like, 'No, I am not going to risk it.'"
Founder, owner and senior piercer Sarah Wooten never imagined herself owning a successful studio with a reputation for high-quality care. Now, she could not imagine doing anything else.
Wooten said she stumbled into the piercing world while waiting to get into culinary school. Her temporary job at a local piercing parlor was no more than a time-filler at first, but Wooten soon realized her passion for piercing. In a sudden career change, she made plans to open her own piercing studio.
Immaculate Body Piercing was one of the few piercing-exclusive studios in Columbia when it opened in 2007. Following the lifting of South Carolina’s tattoo ban in 2004, many piercing shops returned to their roots as tattoo studios. When tattooing was illegal across the state, piercing became added as an afterthought to keep the tattoo studios in business. One of them was Wooten’s former studio, Body Rites, where she worked as a receptionist before taking up a piercing apprenticeship.
Feeling like she did not belong in the tattoo realm, Wooten opened her own piercing studio nearby.
"Once I became a full-time piercer, I didn't want to go to culinary school like I had intended. I just really liked it (piercing) and I figured if I could do this for a living, that's great," Wooten said.
For Wooten, the familiarity of Five Points made it the right location for her studio. Although she wishes it was less "bar-heavy," she likes its proximity to the USC campus and the camaraderie between small business owners.
“I love it. It’s a nice little area … the community is really good,” Wooten said. “I didn’t envision myself going anywhere else at the time.”
Wooten described her business endeavors as “scary, stressful and great.” With a decade of experience in the piercing industry, she was not short on ideas for how to run a successful studio. Through trial and error, Wooten persevered to create the studio that it is today.
“At first I was like, oh my god, how am I going to do this? And then I just did it. I just figured it out,” Wooten said. "You just have to research, figure out the best approach and go for it."
The process was not always smooth sailing, however. During her second year of running the business, Wooten’s husband passed away, making her a single mother. She said the support of her co-workers helped her prevail.
“I was really lucky. I had a great group of people here at the shop with me who helped keep things moving while I was a wreck,” Wooten said.
Through her years in the profession, Wooten has learned that the art of piercing is more than a needle breaking skin. The industry encompasses many facets such as anatomy, global pathogens, infection control, piercing techniques and bedside manner.
The Association of Professional Piercers (APP) educates on these aspects to enhance the skills and knowledge of piercers across the country. Individual piercers can be APP members, and so can their studios. Wooten, being highly involved with the organization, said joining the APP was a no-brainer.
“To me, piercing education is really important,” Wooten said. “(The APP) is our only industry-wide organization that supports those types of things, so there was never a question of not joining.”
An APP membership sets Immaculate apart from other studios in the area, as it is the only piercing studio in the Midlands to have this distinction, meaning the studio has received the proper certifications to ensure all customers receive a piercing experience that is up to APP standards.
Maggie Kellett, who gave Riley her septum piercing, travels as a guest piercer for various studios across the country, yet she says she keeps coming back to Columbia for the warm environment Wooten has crafted.
“Immaculate, it's a fantastic shop, number one, but Sarah is like a little gem in the piercing community,” Kellett said. “I just love her to pieces, and so I love being there.”’
During her time at the studio, Riley said Immaculate had a welcoming nature, and she was pleased with the care she received.
“They’re so careful with you. They are very attentive,” Riley said. “People feel safe going to them.”
Wooten said she is grateful to be doing something she loves every day. For her, seeing the "beam of light" on happy clients' faces after a piercing means more than the act itself.
“There’s not a better job," Wooten said. "I get to make people happy all day long."