Body Play: State of Grace or Sickness?
Part II: The New Culture Matures
Today is August 10. My seventy-third birthday! It’s a good day to reflect, remember, and take stock of what has happened to me and the world around me. During the 1960s, since I’d “gone public”, I found new opportunities for personal exploration. Instead of isolation, there were now kindred spirits — others to give me encouragement and sanction for a whole new round of “body play” adventures. I asked sympathetic friends, like Davy Jones, my newly found tattoo artist, to put me in a “Kavadi” frame like that of the Savite Hindus. I was pierced by ninety four-foot long steel rods in my chest and back. I danced for many hours with this fifty-pound load. I went into a state of ecstasy and drifted out of my body. It was sweet. It was bliss. I got to know what the Tamil Hindus had experienced as long as a thousand years ago. I repeated “Taking Kavadi” many times after that, and eventually I was asked by other Modern Primitives to put them in it as well. I did so and also acted as a shaman who could safely guide them through the hazards of the “unseen worlds” to which they went.
1967: TAKING KAVADI; SELF PORTRAIT WITH DAVY JONES
In another body ritual, I invited trusted friends to pierce my chest with two large hooks and suspend me by these piercings in the style of the Ogalala Sioux Sun Dance and Mandan O-Kee-Pa ceremonies. That experience proved to be truly transformative; life-altering. After I swung free it took only about ten seconds and I was lifted out of my body where I drifted up to a White Light that radiated incredible love and understanding. The Light said, “Hello, I am you and you are me. And I am as close to God as you will ever be!”
In a timeless space, I had a long telepathic conversation with the White Light. I got answers to many questions. I was never the same after that remarkable trip. Years later I discovered that many others had had a similar life-altering transformation during what is called “the near death experience”. But mine was voluntary and sought after as part of my “body play”.
I repeated the hanging several times after the first one in 1976. Each one contained its own lessons to learn and special places to visit. My fifth hanging was beautifully filmed in Wyoming for a documentary by Mark and Dan Jury, released in 1985 as Dances Sacred & Profane. A video with segments of this hanging and a Sun Dance will soon be available on my web site. I have not done this kind of suspension in recent years — one does not have to repeat a body ritual again and again if the first one resulted in a truly transformative experience. The job is done!
By 1990, the Modern Primitive Movement, with its intricate web of body expression and exploration, had come to bloom. Body piercing was now a mainstream business in large cities — mostly as a result of the diligence of a handful of people in the original 1970s T&P group mentioned in my last column. In 1990 and 1991 I worked as a commercial piercer in one of the largest of these studios in San Francisco. Since I also did, and had done for some years, private ritualized piercing I couldn’t help but introduce this element into what was developing into a commercialized personal service industry. I was curious: why did these hundreds of mostly young people flocking to our studio want piercings? I knew from years of research many of the reasons why people in other cultures did it, but how about these contemporary Modern Primitives?
In the so called “primitive” tribal societies I had studied and visited, about a dozen recurring reasons kept appearing for the practice of body piercing, marking, and modification rites:
Since I was now doing ten to twenty piercings a day, I had plenty of opportunity to ask reasons of contemporary piercees. In the privacy of the piercing booths we used in a commercial studio, I would encourage ritual and ask, “You don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to, but if you don’t mind, could you tell me why you’re getting your nipples pierced today?” Or, “Have you been thinking about doing this for very long? Does it have any special meaning for you?”
I expected answers like “I’m getting this because I think it’s cool” or “I want this piercing ’cause all my friends have it”.
To my surprise, most piercing clients in San Francisco gave me more meaningful answers. The reasons were not very different, in most cases, from those I had found in other cultures where body piercing was sanctioned and a part of cultural tradition… But a few of the reasons were radically skewed from those of other cultures; reasons never or seldom heard in tribal cultures. One that came up often in San Francisco, especially among young women, was a sad commentary on the abusiveness and disregard for others’ Sacred Space in our society. “I’m getting my genitals pierced today to reclaim them as my own. I’ve been used and abused. My body was taken without my consent by another. Now, by this ritual of piercing, I claim my body back. I heal my wounds.“
Some reasons were more obvious and traditional, such as the identification and status marking of certain subgroups like bikers, or the Club Fuck girls of Los Angeles who all wore small colored rings in their nasal septum. But the most common reason given for a body piercing usually involved a rite-of-passage or memorial to some one near and dear to the piercee.
In 1990, while I was piercing commercially, I met Dr. Armando Favazza, M.D., a renowned psychiatric expert on self-mutilation. We were both appearing on a television talk show on self-mutilation and body modification, mostly that of young women who slashed themselves with razor blades. In addition to Dr. Favazza and myself, the program also featured Raelyn Gallina who is renowned for and openly does cuttings on others (primarily women) in socialized rituals. Raelyn and I packed the studio audience with highly modified people, all of whom were either heavily pierced, tattooed, or cut with intricate patterns. They were all very articulate and positive about their experiences. For his side of what became a television debate, Dr. Favazza brought in a young woman “cutter” from Los Angeles who had a long history of isolated cutting and psychiatric treatment. She had just been released from a hospital. I felt sorry for Dr. Favazza — he didn’t have much of a chance to present his side of the story in this setting. We overpowered many of the negatives with our enthusiasm.
After the program, the young cutter from Los Angeles connected with other women in the audience whose urge to express deep feelings by body ritual had been more social and sanctioned than hers. In listening to their conversations, I had the feeling that if this woman had been in San Francisco and had connected sooner with a supportive peer group like this one, her shame and negative experiences as an isolated cutter might have taken a different turn… that she might have avoided the psychiatric ward. Dr. Favazza also noticed this interaction of his patient with the other women cutters and it seemed to register deep in his consciousness. I gave the psychiatrist a tour of the widespread display and acceptance of body modification in San Francisco. In the long run, that kind of exposure added a whole new dimension to his work. He eventually revised his psychiatric text book Bodies Under Siege and a new edition was called Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry (John Hopkins University Press, Second Edition, 1996).
By 1991, the Modern Primitive Movement was receiving widespread public notice, which in itself was a type of sanction. Rock stars and clothing models began to appear in mass media with body piercings and tattoos. Maverick clothing and personal styles became fashionable. I gave countless television interviews and wrote extensively for the alternative press about these changes. Hundreds of young people responded to the message. They wanted more: more information, more opportunity, and more guidance in body arts and ancient rituals, and more instruction in safe and social ways to express themselves through the body. To provide a reliable channel of information, I started a magazine called Body Play & Modern Primitives Quarterly. This magazine lasted for nine years and served its purpose well through 1999. Then other forums, along with BME, came into being to fill the gap.
For the general public who wanted guided group exploration of body rituals, I started a series of workshops on “Ecstatic Shamanism” in the mid-nineties; these workshops have been given in major cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, and Washington DC. They are becoming ever more popular and are continuing on in the new century (see my web site for up coming shamanic events). And, close to my heart, in 1990 I started Fakir Intensives to teach the art, skills, safe medical practice, and magic of body piercing and branding. I started this school on my kitchen table with two students. Now it has expanded to monthly classes with ten students and seven very dedicated and skilled instructors. To date this educational enterprise has trained over 1,400 body piercers and branders. Fakir Intensives are registered with the State of California as a Career Vocational Training Institution and instructors are certified for the subjects they teach. This represents a huge advance in social sanction for our body modification passions!
All of these recent activities have given permission and sanction to thousands of young people eager to modify their own and other people’s bodies. Some are sincere, grounded, thoughtful, and stable, open to advice and counsel. Others are so overwhelmed with their passion, so quick to act, that I have adopted a practice of intervening and stalling any rash, hasty, or risky bodymod actions whenever possible. I advise them to study the traditions and reasons behind the practices they are going to do and to consider the risks and possible dangers: physical, mental, spiritual, and psychic. If, for example, a young man wants to do a real Sun Dance, I would encourage him to learn all about the Native American tradition from which it came. I would advise him to find a trustworthy medicine man or shaman and only do the ritual if that mentor felt he was properly prepared and ready.
I’ve had a number or people ask me to help them take the Spear Kavadi of the Hindus. One woman, a Christian, asked at least a dozen times. I made her wait two years until I felt her motives were clear and she was appreciative of the Hindu tradition from which it came. Then I asked her to prepare herself so that finally, on a sunny summer day in Northern California, I could put her into the Kavadi cage for half a day. She had a marvelous transformative experience during the ritual. A few years later, I also hung this same women horizontally by twenty-two piercings in a thousand year old Redwood tree where she drifted into the unseen world and visited her own private hell and heaven. Again she had a deep transformative experience that a few years later prepared her to pass from this physical world altogether!
Others who also facilitate modern day body modifications have adopted a similar practice. Raelyn Gallina, for example, was recently asked by a protégé body piercer trained in my courses to make a series of slashes across his face. The requested modification was radical; the decision to do it was somewhat impulsive. When he went to Raelyn to get this cutting, she asked him if he had given it much thought; seriously considered the consequences. She made three lines with a permanent red marker where he wanted the slashes on his face. She told him to wear the marks for seven days. If he still wanted the cutting at the end of the waiting period, she would do it. This is the type of approach serious, responsible body modifiers should be taking. But not everyone involved in the modern body modification trend are this conscientious. Some see the trend as a way to commercialize and exploit this “urge” that runs so deep.
Why do we do it? Why do people through all ages and in many cultures seek expression of life through the body, through sensation and modifications? I’ve felt the “urge” myself and have come to terms with it. I’ve investigated this phenomena — it runs very deep and is a significant part of human development. The more I look, the more I am convinced that the “urge” wells up from profound universal archetypes that may even be encoded in our genes. Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel and explore the universality of this “urge”. As a young man, I was emotionally moved by the body worship of the Savite Tamil Hindus in such cultural rites as the Thaipusam Festival. As a teenager, I had seen photos of them in old National Geographic magazines — on the streets of South India with a hundred limes suspended from body piercings, in arched frameworks supported by long iron spikes embedded in the chest and back, suspended by large hooks in the back or chest, with long spikes pierced through their tongues and cheeks. The glazed look in the eyes and their seeming indifference to pain said something.
I vowed to witness this event some day, to soak in and understand first-hand what was happening inside these unique people that I had only observed externally in pictures and movies. So after waiting fifty years, in 1995 I finally had my chance to attend a Thaipusam Festival in Penang, Malaysia (see Body Play Magazine, Issue #11). I was not disappointed. A million people gathered — over two hundred thousand in Penang, a half million in Kuala Lumpur, and another quarter million in Singapore on the auspicious day. These were not tourists but devotees with their priests, family, and friends assembled for massive and openly sanctioned public worship through the body. In Penang, the procession streets were purified by smashing over two million coconuts whose milk is believed to clear the way for the passing of the image of Lord Muruga (also know to the Tamils as Murugan, Subramanya, Velan, Kumara, and many other names, each indicating an aspect of an unseen deity).
The atmosphere on the morning of the body piercing and procession ritual was heady and intoxicating. As I watched group after group of Tamil Hindus get pierced to cries of