In body modification, the spirit and body
dance together in a rhythmic balance.
What is the prevailing view of the “body” in 2003 when ever increasing numbers of people are using their body to express and explore “life in a body”? What is really going on in the minds and psyches of those who pierce, tattoo, cut, brand, sculpt and other wise use their body as a plaything? Is this use of the body something beautiful and enriching? Or is this perversion? If we take a broad multicultural view of this behavior, which some in our culture like to call “mutilation”, a better understanding may very well snap into focus. And to truly understand body modification may also require an adjustment in our mindset — and might involve a calculated and deliberate attempt to rise above cultural biases by which we have been observing and describing such behavior for several thousand years.
Early Experiments by Fakir
Left: Pierced septum (1948), Right: Nineteen inch waist (1959)
In my personal experimentation and work with body modifiers over the past fifty years, I have been brought very close to the subject. So close in fact, I have sometimes been called “the father of the modern primitive movement”. I was bitten by the urge to modify my own body at a very early age and I found non-destructive ways to satisfy that urge. I practiced them in secret for thirty years. Unfortunately, I was also driven into deep isolation and shame, as are so many others, for lack of any social sanction. I was a bright boy, so I knew that if I let it be known what I felt and was doing to myself I would probably been institutionalized and the key thrown away!
For years I haunted libraries, searched archives, and listened intently to the tales of Native American elders were I grew up in South Dakota. I was looking for any trace of sanction for what I felt and practiced in secret. In other cultures I did find acceptance, reasons, and traditions honoring this urge to modify the body. In fact, the mental and emotional states associated with the act (ecstasy, trance, disconnection and disassociation) were frequently considered “States of Grace”, not perversion or sickness.
I ended my isolation when a wise and understanding mentor encouraged me to “go public” with what I had been doing in secret for so many years. He arranged a showing at the only place where I might find a receptive audience: the first International Tattoo Convention held in Reno, Nevada in 1977. There I “came out of the closet” and showed it all: body piercings, contortions, large blackwork tattoos (novel in 1977), disconnection from body sensation while on beds of blades and spikes. The highly tattooed and pierced audience ate it up. They understood and honored in me what had also moved them to mark and pierce their own bodies. From that moment on, I felt we started making our own new culture and social sanctions.
Left: Reno 1977; Fakir pulls a tattooed belly dancer across the Holiday Inn ballroom with his new deep chest piercings attached to a valet cart. Right: Reno 1977; Fakir lays on a bed of nails and Sailor Sid then breaks stone blocks on his back with a sledgehammer.
After this warm welcome, I openly searched for others who viewed “life in a body” very differently from the majority of our society. I found them by the hundreds and eventually thousands. We had all heard the sound of a “different drummer” and responded to the beat. But the beat was not the beat of the prevailing anti-body Western Judeo-Christian culture in which we were living.
Whether we were Native Americans returning to traditional ways, or urban aboriginals responding to some inner universal archetype, one thing was clear — we had all rejected the Western cultural biases about ownership and use of the body. To us, our bodies belonged to us! We had rejected the strong Judeo-Christian programming and emotional conditioning we had all been subjected to. Our bodies did not belong to some distant God sitting on a throne; or to that God’s priest or spokesperson; or to a father, mother or spouse; or to the state or its monarch, ruler or dictator; or to social institutions of the military, educational, correctional or medical establishment. And the kind of language used to describe our behavior (“self-mutilation”) was in itself a negative and prejudicial form of control and domination.
At first, these newer views about the body and what it could be used for were only expressed or practiced in the budding subcultures of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s — in hippie, punk, radical sex, gay, sadomasochistic, tattooing and pierced body circles. My own connection with these subcultures began as far back as 1955 when I started to share body piercing and other body rites with other individuals and various cultural sub-groups. I needed a meaningful name to call our now socialized (versus isolated) practices. To me it had always been “play”, so I coined the term “Body Play”. To me, Body Play is the deliberate and ritualized modification of the body whether permanent or temporary. I felt it as a deep-rooted, universal urge that transcends time and cultural boundaries. As a behavior, Body Play is either accepted, condoned and made a part of the culture — or it is seen as a threat to established social order and institutions and forbidden or made unlawful.
|UPDATE ON APP 2003 AND OTHER RECENT EVENTS
In early June, I had a heart-warming experience at the 2003 APP Conference in Las Vegas. I was honored to give the opening day program called “Anthropology”. This two-hour presentation covered the origins of body piercing both as enhancement and ritual. It concluded with a brief history of contemporary body piercing — its beginnings and pioneers. We were totally amazed at the number of APP attendees who wanted to hear me. About 250 waited in the hall and eventually another large room had to be opened to accommodate the crowd. I showed slides and videos and got a five-minute standing ovation when I finished the presentation. I covered a lot of information I’ve included in this “Rants & Raves” column. So if you missed APP, you can get much of what I presented right here and in my next two columns. Thank you APP and Bethra for inviting me to Las Vegas! To see a few snapshots of my visit to APP, click here.
Bear had the biggest ear loops at APP. Fakir’s partner Carla easily puts her arms through the five-inch circles. Right:
The “Old Guys” meet again at APP 2003 (Bear, Fakir and Blake).
On the same subject, another significant event at this year’s APP was the introduction of Blake Perlingieri’s handsome new book “A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment in Western Culture: Ancient Origins and Today”
. Don’t let the long title scare you. This book is a “must have”
for all serious modifiers, tattoo and piercing shops: about 150 oversize pages (many in full color) on heavy glossy paper, hundreds of rare photos never before published. It includes sections on the earliest known modifiers in Western society, like Ethel Granger and the Great Omi from the 1920s and 1930s. And (blush, blush) a long section on me and my recollections of the history of contemporary body piercing. The book is published by Nomad and can be purchased directly from Nomad by check or money order. The book is available at bodyplay.com
along with my own “Spirit + Flesh”
with your PayPal account. You can also get Blake’s book at the Nomad Museum
The last June event I want to mention in this column is the week-long shamanic and healing body rituals our Northern California group just experienced in the beautiful hills north of San Francisco. Over 30 enthusiastic devotees were pierced with hooks, some both in front and back, for a five-hour ecstatic energy dance in the bright afternoon sun. It meant so much to the participants to be able let go totally, to find the inner fire and peace we all long to reach, that I have decided to open up and facilitate this unique experience to more participants next year. Check my next columns in BME for more details on energy-pull and suspension events. If you or a group in your area are already doing this kind of ritual I would like to hear from you. Write me an email and tell me what you are doing. For a preview of what we are doing here in Northern California, click here for photos.
More of Fakir’s Early ExperimentsLeft: Wearing lead (1962), Right: O-Kee-Pa (1963)
Body Play is a process and kind of “magic” that courts unusual feelings and states of awareness, which in the end result in elevated consciousness. That is, we know something we didn’t know before our “Body Play”. In practice, Body Play is aimed at increasing “body awareness” and making clear the boundaries between “body” and “spirit”. It makes one acutely aware of one or more body parts. For example, if you pierce an ear (or whatever) you are more aware that it (or the whatever) exists. When you compress the torso with a tight corset, you are constantly aware you have a waist. When that body state feels normal, the bodymod is repeated until you are again aware of that body part (the ear piercing is made larger or the corset is made tighter). Finally, no matter how extreme you apply the “change of body state”, that change soon feels natural and you are empowered through the process of taking control and making the change. In body modification, the Spirit and Body dance together in a rhythmic balance.
In the 1970s, an eccentric millionaire in Los Angeles brought a number of “body players” together. His name was Doug Malloy and I first met him in 1972 after he had seen some photos of my early experiments dating back to 1944. We used to meet monthly in the back of Los Angeles restaurants for what we called “T&P (tattoo & piercing) Parties”. The numbers were small, never more than ten to fourteen persons, all we could gather in those days. We shared experiences, did “show-and-tell” and often arranged to meet again later in the day to help each other implement various piercings and bodymods. Over a course of several years, we developed and defined what would eventually become the lexicon of contemporary body piercings: types of piercings, techniques to make them and tools. At one meeting in 1975 I recall we tried to list everyone we knew in Western society who had pierced nipples. There were only seven, all males, except one woman who had been pierced in 1965. None of us in that group could conceive that we would, within a few years, have pierced hundreds of nipples, and that many of those we pierced would later also pierce hundreds more. By the late l980s the sight of pierced nipples — thousands of them — would be commonplace at all large subculture gatherings like Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco.
By the late 1980s, other forms of body modification and socialized body rituals were also emerging from the shadows of American subculture: tribal tattoos, cutting, branding, trance dancing, suspensions and body sculpting. In many ways, I felt responsible for encouraging some of it. In a quiet way in l983 I proposed production of a book on body modification and extreme body rites to ReSearch Publications of San Francisco. They began by taking twenty-seven hours of interviews with me. Along with this edited text, I provided about seventy photos of myself; self-portraits I had taken during my thirty years of secret experimentation. To round out the book, the publishers added other individuals who were also pioneers in modern body liberation. I suggested the title: “Modern Primitives” (a term I had coined in 1978 for an article in PFIQ magazine to describe myself and a handful of other “atavists” I knew). The net result was a book of unprecedented popularity and influence in the subcultures. Since its release in 1989, this book has gone through many reprints and sold tens of thousands of copies. After fourteen years in print, it is still being sold. As a result of this one book, thousands of people, mostly young, were prompted to question established notions of what they could do with their body — what was ritual not sickness, what was physical enhancement not mutilation. The Modern Primitives Movement was born!