If you aren’t looking for Nomad, you’ll miss it. It’s a nondescript storefront on SE Division. Blake’s been there since 2007, but Nomad began 21 years earlier, somewhere else, and as nomads are prone to do, has worked its way across the world to Portland.
Blake doesn’t stand out in a Portland crowd these days anymore than his shop does on Division. Stretched earlobes, cartilage piercings, labret, 95% coverage in tattoos. Most of his work is covered in second-hand Levi’s and his wood-frame glasses sit on a face covered in a beard going salt and pepper gray as 50 looms on the horizon.
If he robbed a liquor store, witnesses would have a hard time describing any discerning marks. “I don’t know. He looks like, ya know, a normal guy.”
That wasn’t always the case for the aesthetic of piercings, and Blake had more than a little to do with the western culture’s exposure and subsequent embrace of a tribal tradition that goes as far back as the bronze age and beyond.
For Blake, his exposure to indigenous tribes didn’t come from National Geographic, but from his grandmother. Dr. Naomi M. Coval worked as an oral surgeon. She traveled to some of the most remote and unchanged tribes of the world. What she brought back in pictures, or so she thought, were the highlights of her exploits as an oral surgeon. Blake saw something else.
“By the time I was born, she had circumnavigated the globe sixty times. She wanted me to be an oral surgeon. I had to follow my own path. It was a bit of a disappointment for her.”
Blake had latched on to the piercing and as he grew up, becoming a lay anthologist out of passion and interest, he began to connect dots in his mind that what was going on here was more than holes and tattoos. He began to see the commonality of something that transcended, quite literally, space and time.
“These are tribes and civilizations that are separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles. Don’t you think it’s interesting that the Aztecs and the Masai were doing the same thing 2,000 years apart and on opposite sides of the world? That to me suggests a more intuitive quality which is what I believe body adornment is about. When that first hit me I was like, ‘Wow, that is the common denominator for all people.’”
Blake began piercing in ’88 in San Diego, and by 1990 was working professionally at the world’s second piercing studio, Body Manipulations.
This was a wild time for piercing. Working on Haight off Fillmore, it wasn’t the most quaint of neighborhoods. This was the stomping grounds decades earlier for the Beat Generation and the free love movement. In the 90’s it was projects and people stepping off the Fillmore 22 bus to get weird on their ears and anything else they could put a hole in. Of the freaks in the post-freak generation, Blake stood out from them all.
“Two-inch ear plugs in 1990 were unheard of. Back in ‘92, the degree of modification I had going with no precedent was significant. Fakir took one look at me and was like, ‘Dude, you are way too modified. You’ve gotta just go do your own thing. You’re on a whole tribal trip, never mind these guys. Go do your own thing.’”
So, in ’93 Blake opened the first Nomad spot in the lower Haight District. This is when he finally got to make the jewelry and do the work he had wanted to bring to the industry. Things like “freehand,” “large gauge,” and “organics” were introduced first to the piercing community by Nomad.
The Nomad gospel reached Australia, the first piercing studio on the continent. It was his East Coast shop in the US where he did the majority of his apprenticing. Nomad spanned continents and years, much like the adorned tribes that inspired Blake at a young age.
Though he doesn’t maintain his APP (Association of Professional Piercers) membership, he maintains the highest sterility levels he pioneered as a founding member.
“That shitty gun at the fucking mall. Oh, that $5 plastic barbell broke? Imagine that. You can go get it done on the cheap somewhere else or you can come to a trained professional. Sure, it’s forty bucks, but I guarantee my work and that jewelry for the rest of your natural born life.”
In 2003 he authored A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment in Western Culture, and in 2006 released a DVD of proper procedure and historical reference for advanced piercing.
In 2007, Blake moved to and has settled down in (at least for the moment) Portland. In 2009 he curated an exhibit on indigenous tribes for the Portland Art Museum. Some of his most impressive pieces are still on display as part of their permanent collection.
The Nomad philosophy is apparent in the aesthetic of the shop and even a few words with Blake. One is at least passively introduced to the story and the inspiration. Though Blake feels his work on promoting the cultural sources of piercing and adornment may best represent his legacy, you can still get a good, safe piercing at Nomad.
Blake regularly pierces children and families. His first child he ever pierced was his own, his eldest daughter Mayan. Mayan, a staple of the shop now and likely the first face you’ll see when you walk in, Blake had done everything else, so he wanted to pierce children. It may have been the toughest piercing he’s ever done and his personal philosophy is that you should only pierce a child if you have one of your own.
What really gets his juices going are the moments where he gets to play.
“There’s a handful of people out there that want this kind of one-on-one attention. I get excited when cool shit is happening. A lot of people who seek me out want something unique. They come in and are like, ‘This is my ear. It’s your blank canvas. Do your thing.’”
Before Blake did it back in ‘95, these kinds of complicated, one-offs (like ear projects) didn’t exist. Everything is made just for the project at hand. His first, inspired by attempting to push the envelope, was maybe his greatest one he’s done. The solar system with nine concentric pieces and corresponding jewels of the color of every planet had never been thought possible.
Blake’s line of organics and custom jewelry may have been duplicated over the years by biters looking to steal from the best and make a quick buck, but it can’t be replicated.
“If I had a nickel for every company that sprouted out of my good idea, I’d be fucking loaded. Guys with a whole lot more money than me would come to the shop and take a picture of our case and then just bite that shit. I don’t even post my best, coolest shit on my own Facebook page because of that.”
Blake loves the ritual that people associate with their adornment. Even if it might not be something you’ll find on his body, the adornment purist that he is, he has a great time doing it for others.
“You get every kind in here. CEOs of fortune 500 companies who want their genitals pierced. I can’t tell you who they are, but I can look in my portfolio and be like, ‘Yep, ya know whose dick that is?’ Or you get the hip couple married by a priest who all come together to ritualize the event with an earring. I mean, this guy’s old. He’s Christian. He’s an old Christian, and he’s getting his ear pierced. How rare and cool is that? I love that kind of stuff.”
Coming to Nomad is meeting Blake. He is the only piercer in-house. He still has the hands and the eyes and the passion to do the work. After all, he says, he’s got three kids and a mortgage.
“The concept of Nomad…it had to happen. I love the loyalty of 21 years of clients. I like knowing that something I leave behind will be some kind of greater awareness about indigenous culture. Being a good piercer and jeweler is just icing on the cake, but the culture thing is number one.”
It’s come full circle at Nomad now. A young Blake was impressed and inspired by the Dayak tribes of Borneo, and besides his never ending endeavor to promote respect and awareness for the roots of adornment, he has given them more: a vocation.
The Dayaks are master woodcarvers and craftsmen. Blake now makes masters of his rare, short-run organics you can find in his case. After making a master, the carving is done by the people of Borneo. Those same people that inspired him to pierce are now making the very adornment he sells to people who want to make beauty a part of themselves.
“That means that only 30 other people are going to have that earring…ever.”
It’s this kind of rarely found straddle of a respect for the past and hope for the future that you’ll find in a professional like Blake and in his quest to promote the Nomad philosophy.
In the preface of his book, Blake quotes Joseph Campbell, a professor and writer who’s best known for his work in comparative religion and mythology. Campbell’s the man who among others insisted that you need to, “Follow your bliss.” Joseph, in an interview, once said that, “A ritual can be described as the enactment of a myth. By participating in a good, sound ritual, by enacting a ritual, you’re actually experiencing a good, mythological life, and it is out of this that one can learn to live spiritually.”
Blake: “Yep. What you said, man.”
For more stories about local Portlanders doing their thing, check this out: Poppycock Magazine