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Chest Pains: Body-Piercing Guru Fakir Musafar Helps 21st-Century San Franciscans Find Transcendence by Hook or Crook 

Wednesday, Feb 11 2015
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It's my first ritual hook-pull and I am scared shitless.

I am one of 15 men who have gathered at Alchemy, a dungeon space in SoMa with exposed brick walls and a skylight. I've been to Alchemy several times before, for kinkster play parties and a commitment ceremony. But this time is different: the group — ranging in age from their 20s up to their 60s — will be pierced, hooked, and pulled by none other than Fakir Musafar, the 84-year-old founder of the Modern Primitives movement and a hero to the temporary body-piercing community.

Standing in a circle, mostly naked except for our boots and jock straps, we chant, introduce ourselves, and share with each other our respective levels of experience. To get the endorphins flowing, some people, myself included, get strapped to a St. Andrew's cross for a light flogging to our backs and shoulders.

Then it is time. I refuse to watch anyone else until it's my turn. It reminds me of the day I went hang-gliding and insisted I be the first to run off the cliff for fear I'd chicken out if I had to see anybody else do it.

Hook-pulls (or energy pulls) are not new. Native American Plains tribes and certain groups in Polynesia, Indonesia, and elsewhere have been practicing them for centuries. (Some Hindu cultures have been doing them for nearly 3,000 years.) The ritual — an insertion of metal hooks into the skin for a prolonged period — may mark a person's entry into adulthood or other major life transition. Sometimes it's an annual rite. For practitioners in 21st-century California, the ritual often involves participants connecting themselves with the hooks to create tension through the entire group; other practitioners may suspend themselves from a ceiling for hours at a time, held up by nothing more than two stainless steel hooks attached to their chest or back. Some have spears put through their cheeks. Not only does this keep them silent, it looks really badass.

A few weeks after my maiden hook-pull, I speak by phone with Fakir, who is known among the piercing community by his first name. Born Roland Loomis in Aberdeen, S.D., in 1930, he grew up a Lutheran on an Indian reservation. There, he observed the Lakota perform three- and four-day pulling rituals and vision-seeking ceremonies at a time when even performing a Sun Dance could land indigenous people in prison for up to 20 years.

"I was hooked on this and rejected all the Christian teachings when I was about 12 years old," Fakir says. "I was supposed to be a Lutheran minister or something. I was the bright kid who knew all the answers but I didn't believe a word of it." He soon dedicated his life to searching for rituals that would help expand his consciousness, although "not the rituals of devotion like the Catholic Church or some of the Hindu things," he says. "There are many paths up the mountain, as my friend Ram Dass used to say, but the view at the top is the same."

In the decades since his youthful crisis of faith, Fakir has transformed a once-obscure practice into a burgeoning movement of people seeking spiritual transcendence through pain. After training as an electrical engineer and moving to the Bay Area to pursue an M.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University, he ran an ad agency and taught ballroom dancing. It was in 1977, at the International Tattoo Convention in Reno, that Roland Loomis came out as Fakir Musafar.

The combination of alternative spirituality and body modification that is a hook-pull was almost unheard of in Western culture until the 1970 Hollywood film A Man Called Horse, starring Richard Harris as a white man who participates in a Native American piercing initiation. Within 15 years, Fakir had appeared in the seminal 1985 documentary Dances Sacred and Profane and later the first comprehensive book on body modification, Modern Primitives, which took its title from a term Fakir coined. He's since made numerous TV and media appearances and assembled the book Spirit + Flesh, a 296-page photographic retrospective of his body-play adventures.

As piercing and tattooing have become mainstream to the point of triteness, hook-pulls have mushroomed in popularity. Today, Fakir regularly works with 50 or 100 people at a time, and several groups of that size now meet at least once a year in spots across the United States. In the Bay Area, where interest in a once-languishing BDSM subculture has exploded in recent years, the two communities have overlapped. After I had been invited to a session last year, my curiosity eventually overcame my terror and I said yes this time.

At its most basic, the hook-pull is a healing practice. "We're always doing this particular ritual with the heart chakra; that's the one that's blocked and most screwed up in our culture," Fakir says. "We have all this grief and pain and garbage that we take into our heart chakra, and we're not able to function fully and get into a broadminded, altruistic view."

The growing awareness of that late-capitalist malaise has led people to look for wisdom elsewhere. "One of the purposes [of the ritual] was to loosen up or open the heart chakra so you could respond to the chakras above that — through speech and song, through writing and the intellect, all of which are blocked if your heart chakra isn't functioning."

Fakir has taken this "body-first approach" to spirituality around the world since the 1990s, training protégés, and experiencing the bittersweet triumph of former pupils who have told him his services as a facilitator are no longer needed. By the turn of the millennium, hook-pulls had become, for some groups, almost like an extreme sporting event or a competitive exercise, sometimes called "trucking." And then there was the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, whose eponymous leader drove nails through his nose at Lollapalooza music festivals alongside the Lizardman and the world's fattest contortionist. When I ask Fakir if he believes all this has cheapened the ritual in some way, his answer surprises me. "It obscures what you get by doing it in a traditional way," he says, but he expresses no irritation with groups that have taken his techniques and turned them into the equivalent of bungee-jumping.

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Peter Lawrence Kane

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Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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