SNAP: Rethinking the food stamp program locally

Originally published in the #5 Poppycock:

With this issue’s half-cocked concept, we turn our eyes to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, costs the American taxpayer some $80 billion annually. We take a look at how Portland and Oregon to a greater extent could rethink how this financial relief is allocated, and how our local economy might benefit.

Renamed SNAP in 2010, the Food Stamps program remains the same as it has, mostly, for decades. It is the vast majority of funding allocated by the Farm Bill, it is a point of great contention for politicos, and it is constantly under threat of reduction despite a need by many as not just supplemental income, but a cornerstone for many families.

When we get right down to it, it’s a handout from the government. Tax money used to support families same as unemployment, WIC, and welfare. SNAP is financial relief for one of life’s constant, increasing expenditures, but it’s just money. I mean, if money is money and relief is relief, could we just rethink how we use that money?

In October of this year, Oregon released benefits exceeding $98 million. That’s approximately $225 per household or $126 per person receiving benefits. SNAP is basically a gift certificate, it’s handicapped money. It’s money that can’t do everything that real money can do. You can buy candy, but not vitamins. You can buy fresh lobster, but not diapers. You can buy cake, but not medicine. With junk food allowed but soap and toothpaste not, we did away with the “supplemental nutrition” premise and examined the issue without it as a limitation in our systems. If you can do your grocery shopping at a CVS and a Chevron, but can’t buy medication or gasoline, then I think we can all agree that nutrition is taking a back seat.

We also saw an issue with limiting a buyer’s rights. If this isn’t about nutrition, then it needs to be about straightforward financial relief. If the household is receiving $225 in relief, why shouldn’t they decide what that relief is spent on? Essentially, we need to think of a better way Oregonians can spend and profit from their benefits while getting the relief they need. The ideas we came up with had to meet three criteria: scaleable, local, and sustainable.

Data isn’t readily available on the buyer’s habits, nor is it easily released as to which stores and companies are receiving a majority of the buyer’s attention.

One such piece of information was released in Oklahoma a few years ago. In 2012, Walmart received approx. 50% of the $1 billion dollars in benefits paid out that year.

Reports show that buying local keeps more dollars in the community: 48 cents on the dollar stay local compared to the 14 cents when buying from a national chain. This 34 cent difference sounds like the kind of margin that could change a community.

So, how do we make those dollars stay local, improve and enrich our communities while delivering the relief families and individuals need, without losing money?

The Hybrid

We deliver 70-80% or current SNAP benefits as is, and then we add a local discount system. Find 50, 100, maybe 500 locally owned and operated stores and companies that will honor a partially subsidized discount on goods and services. This is where the buying power of the consumer is found. There is more to life than just food, and sometimes needs change month to month. The flexibility of a local discount card allows the individual and the household to decide what they need this month. A family gets the relief they need in food and then has some flexibility in other areas of their lives. Also, it introduces a group of local business owner to a wealth of new consumers with incentive to shop with them.

Discount Card

Tweaking that somewhat, what if we took all limits off of SNAP benefits, and created a capped discount card? 50% off public transit, 40% off grocery food items, 30% off local clothing retailers, 20% off household items at local stores, 10% of car maintenance and select other local services (everything from remodeling, cleaning, improving homes and maybe even services like insurance with local companies and discounted warranties to ensure things last families longer). Same financial benefits, capped at a set amount per household per month, but the added bonuses of buying empowerment and 100% local spending. An economy keeping 48 cents on every dollar is one growing while everyone gets the help they need from the money we already allocate.

Local Store Credit

What if we actually increased benefits, but the local economy footed the difference? If the difference between chain and local in revenue circulation is 34 cents, than why not offer a discount for shopping local that is less than the gap? You see it all the time with secondhand stores. You could get $50 cash for your goods you’re selling, or get $65 in-store credit. Apply this to food stamps, and we’ve got a growing economy. You can have your benefits as a family, but what you spend locally only costs you 85 cents on the dollar compared to chain stores. Your family gets $225 a month in benefits if you want to shop at 7-11 and Walmart. Choose People’s Co-op and CHOP Butchery? That’s $258.25 in benefits.

Any of these ideas could include monthly deals and coupon books for those receiving benefits. Additional savings if recipients shop with this store or that one, locally owned. Maybe there is a credit with every household that is worth a home gardening kit designed to get a home growing part of their diet; the “teach a man to fish,” theory.

The two things standing in the way of this are obviously the buying power of this money (strictly allocated to certain goods as it is), and the lobbyists against it. Companies who partner with the US government as well as lobby for the current system have a lot to lose if restrictions change. I don’t need to point out Walmart’s stake in the SNAP market, but what about 7-11’s stake.

7-11 and the convenience store lobby has spent a lot of money to make their point that SNAP benefits should be able to be used in their locations. There’s $80 billion a year at stake here. Not to mention the stake of WIC partnership companies; maybe a bit more than a little to lose in the US grain production business.

Whether we do away with the food stamps all together and adopt a capped discount system, or if we offer subsidies to a select list of local businesses in order to encourage competition, or if we offer the scaled value system leaning toward local purchasing, we need to refuse to accept that this is the best we can do and be constantly refining the system with pilot programs and test groups. We also need to be tracking buying habits to see if the system is even doing what it was intended for. Are we throwing money away on junk food and fresh lobster, or are families actually spending the money on nutritional food stuffs? I think we might be shocked if we ever got to see those numbers as a nation.

In just one month, if we spent locally the $98 million in SNAP benefits, that would be a gross total of $47 million of revenue in our state each month that will stay local. If every dollar was spent in a chain? Just $13 million. It’s no more or less help than families were receiving before, no more expense to the taxpayer, but an increase in the wealth in our communities and does with government handouts what we need to see more of, making every dollar do more than it did before. Shopping local and empowering even the poorest of our community is that little difference that could make all the difference in Oregon if we can break our habits and makes a few changes in a system that isn’t going away any time soon and arguably went off the rails when we approved lobster but not vitamin supplements.

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Interview: Brin Levinson

20150212 Poppycock Brin Levinson-173 Edit

Artist Brin Levinson came to Portland in 2001 and has spent years since cutting his teeth in the art world. His work has been showcased in Tall Trees of Portland, the online art journal Empty Kingdom, and OPB’s art beat to name a few, not that these distinctions matter when it comes to art, but there you have it.

What are some of the small pleasures that you encounter as a painter?

There are a lot of small pleasures. One that I think a lot of people don’t know about, but I discovered when I started painting, is that it makes you see everything differently in a completely literal way. You start to see colors everywhere and everything is enhanced because you’ve trained your eyes to see subtleties. Sometimes shadows glow with color more than places in the light and it’s amazing because you never noticed before. The way ordinary things look can actually be fascinating. It feels like you’ve been let in on a secret pleasure that most people don’t know about.

What is your creative or daily routine like?

I’m not a morning person, I start the day slowly and start working usually around noon. My peak energy is in the early evening so I usually work best later in the day and often into the night. I take a lot of breaks and go outside but never really stop “working” for too long. Sometimes I hit a wall with the painting and end up spending most of the day looking at pictures and thinking which is actually a big part of the work. You can cover a lot of ground trying ideas out in your head.

How and when did you first realize that painting was what you were going to do to pay the bills?

For me it was a gradual process that took many years. I worked a lot of day jobs and did some illustration work on the side at first. Eventually I decided to see if I could get by working on art and illustration alone if I did it every day like a job. I also did some woodworking on the side and it all worked out. Over the years, my career has gotten better and I can focus more on my art without random distractions and side work for paying the bills.

What was your relationship with nature while growing up and how has that influenced your work as a painter?

I was a total nature boy, kind of like a monkey. I grew up in the country and went into the woods all the time. I used to want to live in the trees but eventually society won me over and now I live in town. I can only take it in small doses though, I’m not a big city person, I prefer a small or medium sized city. Since I’ve been assimilated into the collective, I think I miss my deeper connection to nature and that may be something that comes out in my art. 

Where do you go when you need to feel reinvigorated?

The shower. That’s pretty much why I live in a house. I also find that being in beautiful places is inspiring so I like to find new areas I haven’t seen before. The mountains are great but so are little towns and neighborhoods. Even a new viewpoint is an exciting find. I think most of all the sun is what makes us feel alive so if it’s sunny, I get in it. That’s what summer is for.

How do you know when a painting is finished?

Usually they’re never finished but they’re close enough. If nothing bothers me compositionally, it means it’s almost there. If something is off balance or distracts from the visual flow, I have to fix it. I’ve gone back and finished older pieces that felt unfinished; sometimes it takes a while before you can see what needs to happen.

Is there a goal for your paintings? Do you have a message or are the paintings themselves the messages?

The main concepts in my work came about pretty quickly after I started painting urban landscapes about ten years ago. My original intent was to paint imagery that was familiar but not necessarily recognizable to create a nostalgic feeling. I’ve tried to keep that dreamlike quality in my work while also embracing more obvious ideas that have been woven into my imagery. I love hearing what people see because it’s not always obvious what’s going on and everyone has their own take on it. 

words: ben ramsey pics: brittini  maderos

For more check out Poppycock Magazine in print at Reading Frenzy on Mississippi Ave.

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A Few Words with Portland’s Own Catherine Feeny



How did you get connected with Portland’s Fluff and Gravy to lead to this EP and LP?

This fall I got in touch with F&G out of the blue. I was familiar with some of the other artists they work with, Anna Tivel, etc. I sent them a link just saying to let me know what they think. I got an email back the next day from John (Shepski). He let me know that they had kinda spent their capital for the year, had a full roster, but wanted to see what we could work out, and so we did.

Is that a lot of what the industry for an independent artist is, sending links in emails? The modern day cold call or demo mailer?

Believe me, as an independent artist I have sent a bazillion of those emails and never get a response.

Talk to me a bit about the collaborative process for you versus the solo project. What does that bring out, pros and cons?

To be honest, I’ve never really been one to create on my own. I know there are those artists out there that produce, play all the instruments, record, write all alone, but I’ve never been one of those artists. One of my biggest supporters has been my husband, Sebastian.

Since we met in LA, a long time ago, he has always produced my albums for me. He often has played in my band, and there are a lot of other artists in Portland and beyond.

For me, collaboration is exciting. It just brings inspiration to the process. I think it was harder for me early on in my career and I started out playing songs in your own bedroom, and it is hard to share that creative process early on. It’s hard because you really want to let people know what you like, what you sound like, who you are right out of the gate. Having made a number of albums now, I am not hung up on that anymore. Now I am looking forward to collaborating wonder, “Hmm, what can you or you bring to the table?”

Clearly you’re a passionate, opinionated person with a clear view that comes through in your music. What do you concern yourself with more, your message being creatively what you wanted or listeners being touched by it?

You’re always evolving and taking information in from the world. You take it in and process it and filter it back out, expressing it, and my expression is music. My hope is to convey something to people. Certainly, I realize that every person’s relationship with music is very personal. Some people will take different things from it and that is fine. For a long time, I was concerned about being didactic. I’ve always been interested and passionate about politics and a perspective on the world, but it took some time, like a winding road, to deciding that it would come to the forefront. There’s always a hope that someone will hear the song that doesn’t agree with me and get something out of it, but I recognize that for the majority of the people who get something out of my music I am singing to the choir. That’s ok, because I think the choir needs to hear it, too. I think that is part of what was so powerful about Occupy Wall Street for me was that suddenly I heard people were saying all these things that I was thinking or saying to my husband in private. I think that if you’re able to do that in song, even for people who agree with you, you can give people solace, excitement, and some connection in the universe.

For more from our interview with Catherine, check out issue 06 of Poppycock Magazine currently on the shelves at the one and only Reading Frenzy on N Mississippi Ave.





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An Interview with Portland’s Radiation City

20150225 Radiation City-168 Edit

With their unique dreamy pop sound, it’s no wonder Portland-based band, Radiation City, has won accolades from leading publications like TIME, Rolling Stone, NPR and Nylon Magazine. Willamette Week dubbed them “Best new Band” in 2012 – an impressive feat, considering how vast the Portland music scene is. Fans refer to them as “Rad City”, which is the perfect double entendre to describe the dynamic indie group. Their most recent album, Animals in the Median, features complex layers of synthesizers, haunting harmonies, midi percussions, and clean riffs – which culminates in a charming “doo-wop” sound that can be described as both forward-thinking, yet nostalgic.

Interview Conducted by Zara Zhi 

Are you working on a follow-up album to “Animals in the Median”? Can you tell us about any new projects you guys are working on?

This record, yet to be named, is somewhat of a departure from Animals in the Median.  As we’ve grown as musicians, producers, songwriters, and people, we’ve begun to understand our strengths and weaknesses more acutely. We feel that our pop sensibilities are a strength and have decided to bring them into focus on this record. Of course, we can’t get away from the strange and sublime, but we’ve found the crossroads between succinct song craft and our usual unpredictable approach. We’ve also gotten some flack in the past for burying the vocals, which honestly is a common mistake among young bands. In some cases, heavily processed vocals can be used to great effect (aesthetically it works for garage rock records, et al) but we don’t think it works for us.

As we finish mixing that record we’ve also been keeping our hands from becoming idle. We’ve worked on other groups’ records in various capacities; Chris Marshall, Pearls, the Saxophones, Jackson Boone and Jurassica are a few groups you probably haven’t heard of, but hopefully will soon; The Decemberists, Jim James, and STRFKR are a few you probably do know. Randy [Bemrose] has also been working on a solo record for ever and that should be coming out this year too.

What inspirations do you use when you create an album?

20150225 Radiation City-155 EditLizzy Ellison:  Initially we don’t think about “the creation of an album” per se.  Songs are developed individually, and then compiled when the time comes to make one.  What inspires the first glimpse of a song can be anything from cleaning my room, to baking bread, to walking around in nice weather.  It’s when I’m not thinking about the music that it comes.  Once I’ve caught myself ruminating on an idea for long enough, I’ll record the melody on my phone.  If that stands the test of time, it will then turn into a song that still may or may not be on the next record.  It could be on one we make 6 years from now.

Randy Bemrose: I like using instruments that pull my playing one way or another. A snare that’s tuned extra tight, or a sock hat stand with a lot of give. I like habits that pull my energy level around, like sleep deprivation or eating extremely healthy. I like vices that pull my brain in weird directions: coffee, cigarettes, weed, etc…

Cameron Spies: I draw inspiration from the pop music lexicon pretty regularly – whether it’s a particularly unique groove (Motown pretty much wrote that book), or an arrangement device like a classic string orchestral gesture (Henry Mancini, Gil Evans, et al). But a lot of my inspiration is more subconscious: a melody will creep into my head while we are in the van on tour, or a chord change or lyric will emerge out of the ether. My memory sucks, so I have to record everything immediately, or it will just as easily slip back into that same ether.

What is your song-writing process?

Each person will bring in song skeletons that they believe are a good fit, and then we will retreat somewhere outside of the city to focus on our ideas and build upon the songs.  Sometimes our demoed versions will be the final versions of the tracking. In the case of the first two records, we saw them all the way through the mixing process. On Animals, we worked with a super pro mixer named Sonny DiPerri. He did an amazing job and has become a good friend, and even accommodated a lot of our stubborn ideas, even if they weren’t always the best. In recent sessions we’ve really tried to make our process less tedious and more about the core of the song.  Adding layers can be fun and somewhat rewarding, but you can layer forever and never finish a song or completely lose sight of what was the initial intention, which is the most important part. Addition by subtraction has always been our motto, but it can be difficult to actually practice that restraint with so many good ideas to sort through.

20150225 Radiation City-133 EditWill Rad City be playing at any festivals this summer?

We have some show and tour announcements coming up that will take us away for a few months, but I don’t think any festivals are on the list.  The system within the booking world is very dependent on having a record to market.  At the moment we aren’t entirely sure as to when this next one will come out.  There is so much pre-planning involved with the release of a record that this may even be a fall release.

What are Rad City’s hopes and dreams for the future?

I [Lizzy Ellison] think I can speak for the group as a whole.  We without a doubt see music as an outlet for our creativity and only hope to share that with other people who enjoy what we do.  It’s not for everyone and that’s fine.  We will continue to make interesting records that are pleasing to us and fulfill our desire to make art.  Hopefully we’ll be visiting other parts of the world in the coming year as well as collaborating with other artist communities.

Do you guys feel Portland is a good city for independent musicians?

Lizzy Ellison:  It may not be for everyone, although everyone likes to think so.  Portland at the moment is built on the idea that you can realize any ambition. For artists, that is the only thing you want to hear.  This gives artists the power to become as successful as they want in this city, because success to a lot of artists isn’t measured with money. For people just starting out, that can be terrifying, and ultimately the reason they leave.  We didn’t have any connections when we first started out, and it’s been a difficult time getting to where we are, but throughout all of it, the city has been very supportive.  I don’t think it would have survived the way it did in any other city.

Randy Bemrose: No, it’s no good for that. Its summers are a dark crystal, beautiful and cracked. Its winters, a villainous skeksis, draining your will to create. Everybody comes here in the spirit of a gelfling, dream-fasting with the first winged beauty they come across. They’ve got this shard of an idea that somehow feels so important. The stars are aligning, it’s all happening! Soon enough they realize they are paddling like everybody else; simple, kindhearted, and soon to be relieved of their essence. Succinctly, it will rob you of the best in you and leave an empty potato skin. Do not move here under any circumstance short of severe pregnancy.

Cameron Spies: Yes and no.

20150225 Radiation City-3 EditIf you guys could do a collaboration with any artist(s), who would it be?

Lizzy Ellison: At the top of my list is Air.  They are my go-to artist when I’m by myself and I never tire of their music.

Randy Bemrose: I’d love to engineer on Mark Ronson’s next production credit, or produce Tobias Jesso Jr’s next, next record.

Cameron Spies: Yoni Wolf has been a huge inspiration for me. I’d like to make a weird record with him.

What was the hardest part of your musical journey? What was the best part?

Lizzy Ellison: The hardest part has been keeping our heads clear on what our goals are.  It’s easy to get sucked into the popularity contest. Are we gonna be on “so-n-so”? Does that determine our success? Are we doing the right thing? Falling into that rabbit hole is dangerous, and ultimately not why we do this anyway. The best part is figuring that out and realizing that we love what we do, no matter what the struggles are. It doesn’t matter what some publication thinks of what we make.  We know we are making a lot of people happy and that’s the best gift in the world.

Randy Bemrose: Being a prescient, if impatient man, I have the hardest time with the hurry-up-and-wait nature of this business. That waiting is worst for me. The best part is the long stoned drive through a clear rural night with just the right album on, and nobody has said a word for hours so maybe you’re the only one awake and the wind is in your hair – still damp and salty from the show and the sea you swam in today.

What are you guys listening to right now?

Lizzy Ellison: Bo En (remix of “It’s My Party”) and everything else he does.

Randy Bemrose: Candy Claws, UMO, Dorothy Ashby, The Versatile Henry Mancini

Cameron Spies: Morgan Delt, Caribou, Nancy Sinatra, Country Hits of ’70

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Becoming Ballerina: The Portland Ballet


“Good, Nick…Now Look at him, Medea…Hold it through the note…Good, good…Which arm are you using, Nick? Yeah, that’s fine, yes.”

Nancy and Jim sit beside one another against a wall of glass reflecting the leaping, bounding dancers using every inch of Studio B of The Portland Ballet, a building nestled behind Wilson High School on Capitol Hwy across the street from a food pod easily mistaken for a dentist’s office or a start-up graphic design firm. The sun reaches in through the window and stretches across the floor turning darting shadows into caricatures as Nancy’s eyes carom from Nick to Medea, toes to fingertips, engagement to eye contact, while she starts and stops with directions and encouragement at key moments.

The sweat hadn’t dried, the hallway still bustled with dancers in all manner of half-dress between street clothes and leotards and there began the next practice, this time of four, with more onlookers than participants. Jim, Nancy, Jason, and others take up station at the head of the room as young Medea, Nick, Charlotte, and Henry keep the studio for a performance practice of a piece close to Nancy’s heart which few get to perform.

Nick and Medea, teenagers still juggling high school quizzes, are performing Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux, choreographed by Balanchine, arguably one of the most difficult performances by history’s greatest choreographer. Children performing art so cherished that it is held in a trust. The same art that Nancy and Jim, in a life lived on stages and in studios such as this, performed many times in the Los Angeles Ballet. To get to Balanchine, The Portland Ballet, and as far as it takes to earn your later fond reflections on a career well lived, it starts with that sweat still acrid in the air.


“It takes a decade to build a dancer,”

says Nancy Davis. Not train, teach, coach…but build beginning at age 8 in the average scenario; get them young like any other athlete. It is here that the dream can be made real. Children convinced by society that they can achieve anything have the audacity to believe it. They have the brazen ignorance to think that they can turn the very object of halloween costumes and themed, prepubescent birthdays into an occupation. Before long the dancer and the teacher, the builder, turn their eyes to the future and the real work begins…the audition.

It’s a room filled with fidgeting children, preteens hoping to take the next step, and young men and women in their final years preparing for academies or maybe just to fulfill a desire to dance out of a massive love and passion in this over other sports…though, no other sports are referred to as an art; even boxing is just a sweet science.

It is few children, and they are very much that at 16, that are filling out college applications as backups to dance academies. So are the cases of a few of TPB’s more prized pupils. However, in this room of adolescents and preteens pinned with numbers and stiffened by nerves, their awkward steps and unsteady movements reveal what hope looks like, the stress and anxiety of opportunity meeting preparation on a fated Saturday which had its own countdown.

Nancy and others pore over notes and exchange hushed whispers through out the proceeding audition. Notes are scribbled on slips of paper corresponding to not dancers, but numbers. They look for skill, teachability, technique, focus, but it all starts with facility, the body.

Ballet, not unlike similar athletics of strength and skill, has the occupational hazard of championing skinny women and lean men; like it or not, the societal ideal of modern beauty is pretty close to that of the perfect dancer. Heavy, chunky, almost too short, pretty stalky, a bit husky, are all judgements passed post-audition Even being too tall, can lead to disadvantages and exclusions from upper classes. While society may debate subjective beauty, ballet demands it as an objective job requirement.

Hashing over the candidates from the audition is done manically at best. 5×8 sheets are scribbled on, shuffled, matched to faces and bios. Questions of facility and teachability do battle with class sizes, courses, scholarships, and current ability.

“Up with the 4/5 class?…down with level 3…25% scholarship?… can’t let him slip away…she is definitely in…she’s 13? That can’t be right. What did we say with this one? Let me see her again. Oh, she was cute. I liked her. Yes, she’s not there yet. Maybe she can fit in with your class? Where did she come from? Do you think he’ll come here? God, she was good. He was just amazing. OK, do we all agree?”


You want the best at your school, and to get them there is competition. For a good school to become a great, storied institution there are no greater tools for recruiting than name recognition and financial assistance. Think of college basketball. We’re Duke, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky. You play here and you get to compete with the best, be on TV, free education, and maybe the NBA. That same promise can be offered by TPB even as a thriving non-profit organization. Scholarships, the ability to perform more publicly, the opportunity to work with a seasoned and impressive faculty; work with the best, become the best…

For the full story and more photos, check out issue 6 from Poppycock available at Reading Frenzy on Mississippi Ave. until summer 2015.

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#ThrowbackThursday NOMAD Piercing Studio: Meeting Papa Nomad

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.”

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