Piercer finds peace in modifying others’ looks

Sarah Gravino thought she could get away from Buffalo. At 17 years old, she set out on a westbound train with only a backpack on her shoulders. It was out West that she would develop a stronger interest in piercing, receive the proper education and prepare to conquer the world with a needle.

But she couldn’t resist the pull of her hometown for too long. A couple years later, she moved back to Buffalo because of family, and to open her own shop.

“Buffalo is like a boomerang,” Gravino said. “You can’t leave it for too long. Everyone comes back.”

She opened her piercing parlor down the road from CowPok, in a building named The Hempery, but she soon realized that owning her own shop was not in the cards for her. In 1998, she decided that she “really hated” working for herself, and decided to shut the place down.

“It was too much of a pain in the butt,” Gravino said. “I ran into one of the guys from CowPok at Pano’s [one day], and he was like,  ‘How’s the store?’ I was like, ‘I closed it.’”

Gravino was invited to come hang out at the store, to get an idea of how she would fit in with the rest of the crew. She only got to demonstrate her skill once in the first week of being there.

On Oct. 30, 1998, CowPok held a half-off piercing sale. When Gravino walked into the shop that day, the line of people out the door made her quickly realize that she was about to get a crash course in becoming a CowPok piercer.

“They were like, ‘Hey there’s your table, go,’” she said. “In my first day I probably did 100 piercings.”

Since then, Gravino has made a smooth transition to the role of shop mom.

“The people who work here could be my children,” she said. “If you have any questions about food, or medication, or if you have a yeast infection, or you have athlete’s foot…That’s why I’m shop mom, if anybody has any questions about anything that they don’t want to necessarily ask their mom.”

Gravino’s non-judgmental outlook explains why she has been welcomed as shop mom and why no piercing or story is too weird for her. The shop’s demographic consists mainly of 18 to 24-year-old girls, but Gravino has pierced everyone, even those in their 80s.

“I think with my personality, I don’t judge anyone for anything,” she said. “People use this as therapy, they tell me all sorts of stories. And I don’t judge any of it. I’m just here to make them sparkle.”

For her, it’s always about the story — and she loves seeing smiles on her customers’ faces after getting a piercing they’ve wanted for years. But if she had to pick a favorite part of the job, she said that it would be disappointing people.

“I disappoint people on a daily basis,” she said. “’Wait you’re done? The jewelry’s not in, is it?’ (they say.) I’m like a piercing ninja.”

The only part of her job that Gravino doesn’t like is the customers who think they know everything. Some question her directions and try to tell her how they believe things should be done based on hearsay. And for the most part, they are incorrect.

“(They’re like,) ‘My friend said I should use peroxide and aspirin,’” Gravino said mockingly. “You just smile and nod.”

In her time away from the shop, Gravino likes to do a little bit of everything, especially hit the gym.

“I live at the gym,” she said. “I hike. I play the fiddle. I have two pit bulls that I walk everywhere. I have two kids that I walk everywhere. I grow my own food and have animals. I do lots of canning.”

Gravino’s various interests may infer that she tries just about everything. This holds true, at least in the realm of body modifications. She gave tattooing a go when she was younger, on a friend in a shop with clean tools, although she chalks that experience up to being young and dumb.

Her first body piercing was an experimental effort as well. She gathered the proper tools, confident that piercing a friend’s tongue would be a simple maneuver.

“I had been pierced many a time, and I realized, hey, it’s not that hard,” she said. “And I did it, and my rudimentary tools actually got the job done in a very quick and not-so-painful way and it turned out perfect. And I realized, wow, I should do this.

“It’s kind of like if you make a recipe and you’re like, ‘Oh this turned out great,’ you’re going to make it again.”

Although she is good at what she does, Gravino stays grounded, as do her coworkers. All of the CowPok employee profiles are complete misrepresentations of themselves, which they do to poke fun at tattoo artists and piercers that take themselves too seriously.

“Tattoos are for hookers,” Gravino said. “I say that all the time and I wonder if people take me seriously. Piercings are for pirates and tattoos are for hookers… It doesn’t matter where I learned and how long I’ve been doing it, as long as I’m proficient and not an a—–e.”

Although she enjoys tattoos, Gravino didn’t seriously think about becoming a tattoo artist. She said she would never want to split herself between two areas of expertise, because then she wouldn’t be really good at either.

“If you just built cabinets all day, after 20 years, you’re probably really good at building cabinets,” she said.

Well, it’s already been 15. And thanks to a CowPok love story, Gravino has also been married for 14. Her job is more than just a job, and she doesn’t see why she would ever want to leave.

“If I could be here forever, I probably would,” she said. “If you have the dream job, why would you get rid of it?”


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Twitter: @WulffSamantha