monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #136

Spirit Made Flesh

Fakir Musafar might well be called the grandfather of the body modification movement. In 1944, decades before tattooing, piercing, and other forms of body decoration were to become both a spiritual movement and a popular fad, Fakir (then 14-year-old Roland Loomis living in Aberdeen, South Dakota) began to explore the possibilities of his body in a way that was radically different from the body explorations of the adolescent boys and girls around him.

Like most adolescents, Roland was obsessively fascinated with the emerging potentials of his body. Like most adolescents, he explored those bodily potentials in secret -- safe from the interpretations and potential judgments of parents and other adults, of friends and peers. But while most boys and girls his age were content to preoccupy themselves with the exciting worlds of masturbation and athletics, Roland's process of discovering the possibilities of his body took him far beyond the realms of explicit sexual arousal, baseball, and football. Young Roland was fascinated less by what he could do with his body than by what he could to his body, and by the emotional, sensory, and transsensory places he quickly discovered he could reach through what he could do to his body. By Roland's accounts, he even found worlds to explore that took him out of his physical body entirely.

Adapting many of the body-altering rituals he learned were common in other cultures, Roland related to his body as a combination of laboratory and playground, submitting himself to a wide variety of elaborate and imaginative ritual exercises to test what his body was capable of, and where it was capable of taking him -- not only physically, but emotionally, psychically, and spiritually as well. He lashed himself to a frame of staples he had hammered into the basement wall of his family's coal bin, and hung there until all sensation left his body and he began to have visions. He gave himself tattoos by dipping bundles of sewing needles in india ink and using them to dye his skin. He put various holes in his skin, small at first, larger later, and began embedding increasingly massive objects in those holes. He cinched his waist down, incrementally over time, until he could reduce it to a fraction of its initial diameter. He spent hours walking around, weighted down by a hundred pounds of chains, to see what would happen as a result.

What Roland quickly discovered was that his body was capable of much more than he might have expected. More importantly, he found that through various forms of body alteration he could alter his mental state as radically as he was altering himself physically. He was as intrigued with the physical and psychic worlds he was discovering as any 21st-century adolescent is drawn to the magical new worlds he or she discovers through marijuana or LSD.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Roland discovered the immense personal power that comes from taking ownership of one's body back from the rules and expectations of the people and the society around us -- the power that comes when we realize our bodies are our own to do with as we please, to use as we want, to take us on whatever journeys of pleasure and pain we choose, whatever comforts or challenges call to us, to teach us about ourselves, about life, about the vast possibilities of being fully alive, much more than the culture that divides flesh from spirit can ever imagine possible.

Eventually Roland chose the name Fakir Musafar for the adventuresome explorer he had discovered in himself, after a twelfth-century Sufi who wandered Persia altering his body and trying unsuccessfully to interest the people around him in the wonders he found. In the late 1970s, Fakir made his way to San Francisco where widespread interest in paganism, personal transformation, sexual exploration, and body adornment were coming together in an explosive mix destined to shatter the cultural boundaries of a nation in upheaval. He met photographer Charles Gatewood, and the publishers of Re/Search magazine who featured him prominently in a book-length issue titled "Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and Ritual." Perhaps more than any other single publication, that issue of Re/Search spread the word about the body modification far and wide, igniting widespread popular interest in body play that ranged from serious spiritual pursuit to the most superficial quest to get in on the latest hip fashion.

For Fakir, the connection between body alteration and serious spirituality was unbreakable. He began to offer classes and workshops in body modification of all sorts. He founded Body Play magazine as an ongoing outlet for information on the possibilities of all forms of body alteration. He had found his community, his calling, his contribution to the world, all of which continue to this day. Fakir will turn 73 in August. Thousands have participated personally in his workshops and classes, and many times that number have been exposed to his ideas in print.

From the beginning, Fakir/Roland made a point of photographing his increasingly ambitious experiments on himself, delighting in the possibilities of visually documenting the logistical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of his journeys in physical alteration. One hundred and forty of these photographs have now been put together as Spirit + Flesh, an astounding array of Fakir's images collected in an elegant, oversized, hardcover volume, recently published by Arena Editions.

Covering a span of more than fifty years -- from 1948 through 2001 -- the duotone reproductions in Spirit + Flesh take the viewer on a visual journey into the myriad possibilities of body alteration and adornment. Most are photos of Fakir himself -- ranging from primitive early experiments with delayed-shutter-release self-portraits to later, more experienced documentations of rituals and altered body states. Some are photos of other explorers in the body modification community, pursuing their own forms of transcendence, often with Fakir's guidance and assistance.

We see photos of Fakir's waist, dramatically compressed to a mere 19 inches. We see dozens of weighted balls hooked to and hanging from his chest in a replication of the Native American tradition of ball dancing. We see him lying on a bed of nails (a means of entering a trance state), and lowering his full weight across a series of half a dozen parallel machete blades. We see Fakir as the "perfect gentleman" of the late 1950s -- neatly trimmed hair, horn-rimmed glasses, starched white shirt, slender necktie, tailored slacks, cigarette held casually between two fingers. Only his minuscule waist announces that this is anything but your typical mid-American. mid-20th-century businessman. And then we see him with his clothes removed, bold tattoos covering his back and groin, large metal rings transsecting enlarged holes in his nipples, heavy spears passing through the deep piercings in his chest that have become a permanent feature of his anatomy.

We see photos of Fakir suspended above the ground in any number of configurations. In one photo he is upright, hanging from a sturdy wooden frame, supported only by the broad belt that girdles his shrunken waist. In another he is hanging horizontally, his full weight pulling against hooks through his skin that run all the way down his body, from chest to thighs to shins. In a third he is entranced by a variation of the Mandan O-Kee-Pa ritual, the full weight of his body hanging on the two broad hooks that enter and leave the deep piercings in his chest, while his hands lay peacefully crossed over his belly.

The photos are surprising, shocking at first. How can such things be possible? Is what we are seeing pleasure or pain? Why would anyone want to do such things to their body? The contraptions seem grotesque; the activities easier to associate with abuse than with spiritual pursuit.

But the looks on Fakir's face, and on the faces of the other ritualists he photographs, belie our initial frightened reactions. If we take the time to look carefully, it becomes clear that these are people at peace, not in turmoil, people in states of transcendence not to be confused with the sensations of a stubbed toe or an accidentally punctured finger. Curiosity replaces shock. What are these photos really about? Something is going on here that lies beyond what most of us experience in our daily lives. The effect of the photographic images is cumulative, the building of a collective expansion in our notion of what is possible. The photographs offer windows into worlds beyond what is known and obvious, worlds that might be interesting to experience and explore for ourselves, worlds that might go so far as to radically change our view of ourselves, of life, and of what we see around us -- worlds waiting to be entered through the magic of the body. Spirit made flesh indeed.

And that, as Fakir emphasizes repeatedly in his workshops, his writing, and his photography, is precisely the point. "The subject matter of my photography is people," he notes in his short afterword to Spirit + Flesh. "Human beings. Bodies in transition. My joy comes from encouraging human metamorphosis. My bliss comes from watching, recording, and sharing these transitions with others."

Signed copies of Spirit +Flesh are available from Fakir at his web site.

Spirit + Flesh, 140 duotone photographs by Fakir Musafar, with introductory text by Mark Thompson, Arena Editions, 2002, 196 pages, hardbound, $50, ISBN 1-892041-57-X.

This article first appeared in Spectator magazine. If you'd like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives." Two books edited by David -- Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self -- are available from him by mail order.