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An Interview with Sacred Debris – Lynn Loheide & Ari Pimsler

It’s always daunting to speak with people that I really admire so I was incredibly honoured to spend some time chatting with Lynn Loheide and Ari Pimsler on behalf of the renowned archivist team at Sacred Debris. Sacred preserve and document all aspects of piercing and body modification past, present and future. Working alongside historian Shawn Porter to share the invaluable history of our industry, Lynn and Ari are integral entities in this world and it was a privilege to hear their take on body modification. 
Lynn is a worldwide travelling piercer and educator. Ari works to support animal rights and piercers at Marigold Adornment in Vermont, USA. 

G: Lynn, you’re involved in the body suspension world, do you want to talk a little about the global history of suspension?

L:  I think one of the coolest things about being in suspension, especially modern suspension, is that it’s currently a very global thing. There’s teams literally all over the world. There’s international events. You can work with folks from everywhere. But also historically, it’s a very global thing. 

Lynn during a suspension with their team Skynthesis

I really like some of the more anthropological looks at piercing and modification. It’s so fascinating just how many different cultures had some variation or version of suspension or hook pull or flesh pull. It just really speaks to the amount of understanding and awareness. Of catharsis and awakening that the process of suspension brings to so many different people, across so many different walks of life. Across so much time, people still find so much solace in it. 

The suspension community is a very small but pretty close knit community that does a really good job of working well with each other and sharing information.

G: What types of people do you meet in the suspension world, is it mainly body modification folks?

L:  I guess I would actually say it’s a really even mix of people. If you work in the industry, you have easier access to suspension, to tools, to supplies, to knowledge. And to practitioners and groups through networking and connections. 

But my team’s Skynthesis Body Suspension, particularly works with first timers. A lot of people would be surprised by how many folks are not really into body modification and are still called to suspension.

I think one thing that is very well proven, is that suspension is for most folks, a way of processing and dealing with trauma. Some of the really unique subsets of people we get in suspension, who aren’t in the piercing/tattoo/body modification industry, are a lot of veterans who’ve experienced PTSD. And people who experienced a lot of horrors in that line of work. A lot of folks who have different abilities or are disabled. Suspension can be a way of freeing their body or a way of experiencing pain that’s in their control. People who’ve experienced interpersonal and relational trauma and domestic violence. 

There are a lot of piercers and a lot of tattoo artists and a lot of body modification enthusiasts and clients, but it’s also a lot of people who see the act of suspension and it just speaks to something very deep within them. I think that’s part of why we also have seen it so cross-culturally through all of history and so many different groups and cultures and religions have turned to acts like suspension as a way of dealing with trauma and processing difficult emotions and experiences.

G: How far back can we trace acts of body modification?

L: I would say it’s old as we have written history. We have one of the oldest recorded records of cultural piercing in the Bible. And we have records that date back further than that, there’s writings from the time of the code of Hammurabi where we think they’re talking about things that relate with either scarification or piercing. 

We know that throughout history, piercing was not only a religious rite but also a business transaction. Piercing was a sign of marriage and it was used to denote slaves and type of slave and quality of slave. We know that that goes back to the Middle East and to Africa. 

But if we expand our viewpoint on what constitutes body modification and we start to incorporate religious rituals that include acts of self-flagellation, removing of a limb, removing of a finger, removing a part of the scalp, trephination, foot binding, skull lengthening. All of these forms of body modification date back thousands and thousands of years. If you expand your perception of body modification outside of just tattoo and piercing, this has been happening for a long time. The oldest mummy we have has tattoos and 0 gauge ears.

A: There is a decent wealth of information on these things, it’s not a subject that’s necessarily shied away from. There are tons and tons of books both written by piercers and not-piercers that cover that subject -it’s very accessible. Early body mod history is fascinating for a lot of people, even if they want nothing to do with getting a piercing or a tattoo. I think that’s a big reason why we don’t tend to focus on that too much. If anyone’s looking for books, there are some great ones that are accessible. Marks of Civilization is a fantastic book.

In my opinion, one of the best books out there was written by Blake Perlingieri who ran Nomad, A Brief History of the Evolution of Body Adornment: Ancient Origins and Today. There are awesome resources if you’re interested in really going far back. But that feels oddly much more accessible than the last 30 to 40 years of our version of body piercing and what we’ve kind of has come to embody as the industry.

G: Why do you think that is? 

L: Because that was stuff that happened far enough ago that now it’s interesting to people again, right? At the time that people were practicing this scarification and this piercing, it wasn’t really something that people thought to document very well because it was a very normal part of culture back then. Enough time passes and enough people die out, and we lose enough connection and then it becomes interesting again. Back then, whatever cool body modification they were doing was akin to writing a detailed journal about how you toasted your toast for breakfast in the morning. But we’ve had enough experience with watching history disappear that we know that if we as Sacred Debris don’t take our time now to document what happened in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, then we are gonna lose it. 

Right now, people are looking at stuff way back then and also what’s happening right now and things within, usually the last 50 to 70 years, we look at it as too recent to consider. So what happens is, people have hundreds of thousands of photographs and journal entries and original tattoo art and blood play prints just sitting in bins in their garage because they’re from 40 years ago. And they think no one cares about it because It’s not old enough to be history and it’s not new enough to be cool.

Then that garage floods or then someone passes away and their kids don’t know what to do with it. They throw it out and 40 years from now, people are gonna go, ‘oh my God we have like five pictures of Bud Navaro and we don’t know anything about him, but we know he was cool. We’re trying to prevent those same mistakes that we’ve made in the past and document the things that to a lot of the people that we’re interviewing and talking to, is basically like talking about high school and remembering locker combinations.

We know that in a couple more years it’s going to be incredibly important parts of our history that we could have easily accidentally lost. 

A: I think it’s also fair to chime in and say this is something that comes out of the queer and fetish community and you are always gonna have a significant whitewashing of things that come out of those communities.

You can go back and find plenty of records of things that as a community we like to say these things are ours – we invented it! Obviously things like scarification and piercing etc. are pulled from other cultures, but a lot of the gay and fetish community were doing that before piercing was a business and embraced it. So as progressive as our industry may seem in context to, for example, Wall Street and as progressive as we may be as more varied people and identities enter the field, you are always gonna struggle with getting a really coherent, unbiased look when the starting point comes from groups that have historically been under fire. 

G:  In your time researching the history of our industry and the subcultures that encompass it, what significant changes have you noticed over the last few years?

A: I feel like it’s hard to answer that without sounding too salty but it feels like piercing has gotten significantly more conservative. That’s not to say that after any experimental phase things start to get more dialled in and there’s less of a need for outlandish things because we know what has a better chance of working than others. But it’s that sentiment of this dogmatic mentality, that this is the way things are done, no ifs, ands, or buts, black and white right or wrong. You stifle the voices, whether it’s in person or online from trying to question or say otherwise, and in turn stifle creativity.  It stops forward momentum.

Ari performing a pubic hook pull many moons ago

 I think a really good look at that is with jewellery. You have essentially the same few companies that we’ve had for years now. It’s wonderful that these companies are thriving but severely limiting input is actually to our detriment.  The last true game changing innovation was with Neometal – thats 1997! Without new ideas and fresh eyes we’re doomed to just repurpose what’s already out there over and over.

If we are telling people it’s do or die, do not go outside the box or you’re gonna get dog-piled for doing it, that sucks. That makes it really hard for piercing to grow and evolve from where it is. We sure as shit could use a lot more kindness to make the sort of upper echelon “standard” that we want people to be at more accessible and inviting. It’s hard to want to be in the thick of anything when you know the attitude is borderline fanatical. 

L: I think Ari is right. I would phrase it as like we’ve seen the commodification of body piercing, especially in the last couple of years. I would say the last five where body piercing, especially the piercing we look at and write about at Sacred Debris, was experimental.  It was weird. it was a niche community of people doing something because they really loved it. It was kinky, it was queer, and now piercing is luxury and expensive, and it’s about how it looks on Instagram. Somewhere in between Instagram posts and Statim cycles, we very much became very conservative and very sanitised.

I do think we are seeing a resurgence, especially since Covid, that is mirroring what happened to piercing in the 80’s and 90’s during the AIDS epidemic where we are seeing a lot of anti-trans legislature, a lot of anti-trans rhetoric at the same time that we’re seeing this amazing growth in visibility for the trans community.

Lynn facilitating a suspension

And just like what happened with the gay community, when one group was very harshly ostracised and pushed aside and told that they don’t matter and they’re not important. It’s really easy for people to say, ‘fuck you. I’m not gonna conform to what you want me to be’. I think we’re seeing, especially a lot of trans youth and trans clients, really starting to push boundaries. We’re seeing a resurgence of genital piercing, of cool large gauge, custom genital work, of people starting to talk online about how they can do weird, cool things with their genitals. And in the past it was gay men who wanted to do weird, cool, kinky stuff and now it’s trans kids who wanna have weird, cool genitals that don’t look like any gender.

These same kids are out there, getting and they’ve made rhino piercings popular in 2023! Paired centre eyebrows, large gauge cartilage stuff is on the rise. We’re gonna see that continue because for the last couple of years, it’s been trending towards skinny, conventionally pretty models in gold and diamonds. Now, we’re definitely seeing that resurgence in the trans community of people who are already willing to say, ‘well, you hate me because I look and express my gender the way I want to. You’re already gonna treat me like shit for who I am so I might as well get the fucking face tattoo, put the horns in my forehead and split my dick while I’m at it.’

I have a little bit more hope that it’s, once again, going back to queer and fetish roots, that we are gonna see that more. And hopefully it’s a less experimental, maybe more controlled experimental renaissance. Focus more on gender affirming work and what we can do with genital piercings and body piercings that push the boundaries in a safe way, but create specifically non-binary or masculine or feminine effects or looks.

While piercing has moved in a very commodified, very capitalist direction recently, I think we’re starting to see that cycle back.

G: I can only speak from my experience in the UK but we have certainly seen the increased demand for larger gauge and genital work.

L: And that aspect of piercing was always queer and kinky. I think throughout the late 2000s and 2010s, piercing became just mainstream enough that it was all nostrils, ears, gold and diamonds. And the industry really encouraged that narrative. It used to be that any piercing was pushing back against ‘The Man’. Then for a while any piercing was ‘The Man’, it was even cooler, more rebellious, not to have piercings or tattoos. I think now we’re seeing that resurgence of people who feel comfortable looking and having these really extreme modifications because they’re already dealing with discrimination for how they look.

We are also seeing that resurgence of queer fetish spaces. I think it overlaps with the fact that there was a sanitation of the queer community over the last 10 years. How much ‘Kink at Pride’ discourse have we all seen on the internet? We did see a sanitisation of queer spaces and I think also kind of aligned with the sanitisation of body piercing and body modification. Now that we’re seeing that swing the other way, I think it’s happening in piercing.

G: What would you like to see in the future of the body modification industry?

A:  I think American piercing in particular has a real problem with working with children and they don’t realise it is not a worldwide view. I think if people really give a shit about safety then hopefully they will start to embrace working with children. It’s a really critical component of piercing. It’s one of the last sectors that is almost entirely experience based at a time when piercing has shifted to more heavily focus on the aesthetic end.

They are there to try something new. As a rite of passage its easily the most common and widespread in all cultures. It’s all about learning consent for their body and getting over something scary and a really incredible experience for them that I think lasts a lifetime, even if they take the earrings out at some point. It feels really sad that we exist in a place where not only do people not want to work on children, which caveat is fine if you are not comfortable with it, but it’s so hostile in some  aspects that you can’t even get a recommendation on who to then go to. I think some people are actually worried about putting it out there because they don’t want blowback from the community, which in turn makes it difficult to get a network of people for certain age ranges together because they don’t wanna take a bunch of shit for it. 

I would love for that to be something that we fix moving forward. That at least it’s a comfortable place where people who want to pierce young children, babies, anything like that, can be more open about advertising those services and help others who are interested in learning them.

G: We see it in the UK too, a lot of piercers aren’t comfortable with doing or discussing piercings on younger children.

A: For most populations it’s a tremendously important rite of passage. It’s something that no matter how much shouting the piercing community does you are not gonna prevent people from continuing that. And so to me the actual safe thing to do is to embrace it and provide a place where they can get it done in a sanitary environment with good jewellery, rather than saying “don’t fucking do that” which is really just pissing in the wind (and disrespectful to those communities).

L: As an extension of what Ari said, I would love to see folks approach each other with an assumption of at least neutral intent, if not good intent. Rather than always assuming bad intent. I feel like, no matter what you post about in a piercing only space, people immediately assume that you had the worst intentions or that you didn’t do anything right, that you didn’t care to run anything by your client. Even when it’s a really good, really well-respected piercer posting something like an experimental piercing they did or asking for help with finding a referral for piercing a child or a client in a certain situation. There is a lot of automatically assuming negative intent.

For me though, the really big thing I would like to see is  the continuation of restructuring apprenticeships and front of house positions.  I would love to see even more studios doing paid apprenticeships and taking better care of their apprentices. And I would love to see more recognition for front of house in the industry. I would really love to see the APP or the UKAPP offer, a membership type that is specific to the front of house, that acknowledges it as its own career. As opposed to just lumping everyone in this associate member form. I would love to see more classes directed towards the front of house and towards apprentices.

We’ve made a lot of strides in the last five years in regards to abuse in apprenticeships and mistreatment of apprentices. But I think we still have a long way to go before most of the industry is on board with that. I hope positive change keeps moving in that direction. And I hope people who have a lot of influence in the industry and organisations that have a lot of influence, step up and start acknowledging these positions in bigger ways. The APP released their apprenticeship guidelines, which are great and I hope that they do something similar to that in the future with front of house, and I hope we see that from the international organisations as well.

Words can’t express how grateful I am for the powerful insights and time that Ari and Lynn shared with me for this interview. I hope some of it resonates and that you enjoyed it as much as I did. Special thanks to legendary Shawn Porter for all of his support and for all the work he continues to do. Please consider supporting Sacred Debris and be a part of preserving the history of piercing, people and practices.

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An Interview with Ryan – Clinical Nurse Practioner

There’s something special about a smoking area. Leaving the chaos of an afterparty to stand in the cold and smoke, Machester drizzle in the air. Piercers everywhere. It’s September 2022 at the Stilleto Piercing Supplies party, the smoking area is refuge for those needing a breather. Initiating inebriated chatter, I’m drawn to Ryan’s calming demeanour. Who is this man I’ve seen loitering in the background of industry events? Who does he work for? Where does he pierce? What the fuck is that on his head? Ryan was kind enough to share his time with me month’s after our initial meeting to talk about what he does, why he loves body modification and how he works to promote self expression and body autonomy.

Gemma: First thing’s first, tell us what you do for a living.

Ryan: I am a clinical nurse practitioner and I work in a high security mental health hospital. I predominantly work with men with personality disorders and possibly other comorbid mental illnesses who have committed serious offences. There’s thought to be a link between their mental health, their personality and their risk.

G: That’s heavy. And although it’s not entirely related to the body modification industry, you’ve been around this scene for a long time right?

R: There’s definitely a cross over there in the mental health and body mod worlds. As a mental health professional and at the grand old age of 42, I realised that I was autistic. Hence the feeling different and not really fitting in etc. In my late teens I’d been exploring what that was about and came across BME and saw people doing all these awesome, incredible things that I was too scared to do. It gave me a bit of an idea about ownership of your own body.

When I was growing up, I didn’t really feel like I fit in or that I was accepted. Almost like my body wasn’t mine. I began getting pierced, experimenting with self piercing, things like that. I just really fell in love with body modification in general.

Speaking of BME, it’s fitting that it’s 10 years today since Shannon Larratt passed away. I’ve got a ritual planned later.

G: What was your first experience with body modification?

R: My first piercing, at the tender age of 19, was a labret piercing with a ridiculously long spike. Well, I say ridiculously long – it certainly was for the time. It was maybe 18mm. And then flood gates opened.

My ex partner wasn’t really supportive about some of the things I wanted to do. I sort of compromised and then got divorced at 28. I said “well, I can just be me. And that’s alright. Maybe some people will accept me for that.”

I’m overly geeky and research everything to death. I had fairly normal piercings to begin with. My original labret piercing is now 16mm. I stretched that, it’s never been cut. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but at the time you couldn’t really buy a labret plug. It was very hard to get hold of. I ended up getting into woodworking to make earplugs and labret plugs, and got working with Delrin and Teflon. Most of my large gauge jewellery I’ve made myself over the years. 

My tragus was punched at 4mm originally and that’s stretched up to 10mm now. Basically the swelling in my ear canal meant that I was deaf for a week after every stretch. I did it in half millimetre increments., I mean, it’s ridiculously silly that you make yourself deaf temporarily for a piercing.

G:  It looks cool though. Can you tell us about your tongue split?

R: Yeah, I like it. It’s something different. 

The tongue split.

I have this odd thing sometimes that if something scares me, I’ll stop and think about it and go, “why does that scare me?” If there’s actually a rational reason for it,  you know, serious risks or things like that. I think, well yeah, that’s a stupid thing and I’m not doing that.

But if it’s just a stupid thing, but not necessarily that risky then I start to think, “well maybe, I could”.

I got my tongue split I guess about 14 or 15 years ago.I don’t know if anybody was offering it in the UK at the time. I’d seen it on BME and it was kind of a new thing. There was talk in the modification community about “Was it okay? Isn’t it cool that the body can do this thing? What’s the better method? How safe is this?” A little bit of experimentation. I had it done with an electrocautery scalpel. 

It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It is not to be recommended. Tasted weird and smelled like burnt scrambled eggs. I had to sit on a little pad to ground myself as well in case I got electrocuted from it. A very unpleasant and weird experience.

G: That’s really hardcore. Have you been on the other side and performed any piercings or modifications for other people?

R: I made a decision never to do it professionally because I love it and I’m really geeky for it. I didn’t want it to become work and I didn’t ever want to think like “God, just another piercing I have to do”. I like the specialness of it.

I might have had opportunities but it’s not really where I wanted to take my life. When I discovered the field of mental health, I knew that was my vocation. I absolutely love it. It’s such a privilege to get to know people in that depth and share some of the most intimate and difficult parts of their life and try and help ’em with it.

Modification I guess is a hobby. Having said that, I’ve self pierced, I’ve pierced family and friends, I’ve thrown hooks [pierced in order to insert hooks] as part of the suspension team. I enjoy the ritual of it. Procedural stuff I’m not so keen on to be honest. So yeah, I’ve done a reasonable bit of stuff and then when I first started hanging around a lot of professional piercers it was slightly terrifying that I knew more about their industry in a lot of the cases. I hope that’s changed a bit now.

At the first UKAPP conference, people would ask me questions assuming that I was a professional piercer. I kind of had to pretend to be a professional piercer to be the first one because they changed the rules at the last minute. Initially it was open to everybody, so I got a ticket and then they said you have to be a professional piercer. My friend was trading there and he told me to come anyway to help him out and he’d vouch for me. Everyone’s just assumed that I’m a piercer ever since. 

G: How long have you worked in mental health?

R: This will be around 23 years I think.

I’d done the typical thing of going to uni as you’re expected to do, and I studied law. I’m kind of a nerdy for the law and always found it interesting. But I knew it would lead to a life of being sat in an office for an awful lot of time, doing a lot of paperwork and memorising a lot of information.

Not things I enjoy. So I dropped out of university and as a person in their early 20s, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was doing a lot of animal rights protests, I lived and helped at an animal sanctuary where I was living in a caravan. The caravan flooded and I became homeless. I thought, “you know what, I’m a little bit bored of being poor and not doing something.” I randomly found a job as a mental healthcare assistant. I was kind of blown away by it and really just found it fascinating.

G: Some people might consider you quite heavily modified. Can you talk about how that has impacted your professional career?

R: When it comes to qualifying as a nurse, there’s still this weird sort of ‘Florence Nightingale complex’ where if you are a nurse, you should be female and you should be prim and proper and look a certain way.

Even in mental, forensic and secure mental health services, there’s still a degree of that. I think I quite deliberately sort of pushed the boundaries a bit. There were quite a few conversations with managers along the way but I think at the hospital where I work, as I became more experienced and established, I hope people think I’m good at my job and polite and respectful, and how I look has no impact on my job at all.

In fact, if anything, it’s often a bit of a help for engagement. The people that I work with have often come from prison. They’re likely tattooed and pierced themselves. More tattoos than piercing I guess. A lot of the guys I work with are really institutionalised. They’ve never really been outside some kind of care or custodial setting a lot of them, or not for long.

They’re interested. You look a bit different maybe, or not like other people they’ve had bad experiences with. I was doing a review at Broadmoor Hospital, auditing and giving them some ideas on how to work with some patients. The patients I met were absolutely fine with my appearance. Some were a bit wary, but they’re gonna be wary of meeting a new person, regardless of how they look. A lot of people were really interested. But the staff were in uproar. “How have you let this person in?!” The staff were not allowed any facial piercings at all, tattoos couldn’t be above the collar, below the sleeve sort of thing. 

It’s a little pride that I’ve got, certainly at my place of work. I’ve seen there are more staff that have come through over the years, and they’ve got stretched ears and facial piercings. I kind of think, maybe I’ve changed the environment a bit. People have accepted me for how I look so it’s really hard for them to tell somebody else not to have modifications. 

G: It’s good that you may have opened that door for other people because I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals and it’s always the nurses with piercings or tattoos that make me feel comfortable. They feel more human.

R: Being human is the absolute crux of a healthcare job, which sadly people sometimes forget for a number of reasons. You are a human trying to help another human and that commonality is sort of where you start. I think certainly in terms of my patients, they’re interested in how I look. I’ve talked about suspension with some of my patients, and this might be people that have really seriously self-harmed for example, and they’ve often received a really negative response to that. For understandable reasons, they’ve felt shamed and then we’re trying to figure out what this is about. For some people, particularly with trauma, there is an element of self ownership in that and maybe there’s some crossover with modification in that way. 

I’m not suggesting anybody should self harm or that self harm is a positive thing, but I do think there is a big cross over with modification and harm reduction. I’m a relatively healthy expression of that. 

G: This dialogue comes up a lot when we talk about body modification. What we do is sort of facilitate a form of self harm through modification. Not only does it fucking hurt, people are in a very vulnerable place when they come in and they’re putting their safety in your hands. A lot of people go through a difficult time and they want to get a piercing at the end of it or a tattoo to commemorate that experience. 

Do you think, as an industry, that we have a positive effect on mental health?

R: There’s potential for an enormous amount of positivity. There’s potential for an enormous amount of harm as well. It’s what you do with it. Like you say, people are at a vulnerable point potentially. Practitioners need a really rigorous understanding of consent, having trauma informed practice. Things like that are getting better in my opinion.

It’s always gonna be a real mixed bag. Remembering to be human and remembering that’s part of your job when you’ve got 20 clients booked in for a day. That’s hard. I mean, that’s part of why I’ve not wanted to pierce professionally. Because I don’t wanna forget the bit that’s important.

G: I think as an industry, and society as a whole, we’ve got much better with talking about mental health and why it matters. Have you noticed that from your side working in the mental health field?

R: I think it’s definitely become more of an open conversation. In terms of the modification community, it’s always been there. People that choose that as a career or are heavily modified, I suspect are more likely to have experienced some difficulties with mental health than the average person in the population. Or at least are dealing with it in a different way and I think there’s always been an awareness of that. Traditionally, the industry has been made of people who feel they don’t fit in very well. They tend to be outsiders. There’s been change in that as well for sure. 

That kind of links to the point of thinking about trauma and thinking about the significance and meaning to somebody. If you pay no attention to that, somebody could have an absolutely appalling experience. If you pay a lot of attention to it, you could make it something that’s life-changing and quite memorable for somebody. 

G: What changes have you seen in your time both working in mental health and being around the modification industry?

R: In terms of the industry, semi regulation seems to have become a thing and I suppose maybe I’m biased by the people that I know and come into contact with because I’m sure there are lots of terrible shops out there. Piercing’s such a new industry, there has been a learning process. I think some of the procedures that I’ve had, some of the things I’ve experimented with and thought that might work in hindsight, it’s absolutely ridiculous. Once upon a time it was a bit more wild west. It was a case of “let’s find out.” Something on paper sounds like it might be a good idea. Let’s see if that works or not. 

The internet communities were where people were sharing their experiences and their information and that’s what really brought us together. It seems that now we have a more professional, slightly more uniform set of standards. It’ll be interesting to see if that becomes some kind of actual regulation or licensing at some point. But I’m very much two minds about that. The wild west part of me wants to say no, let’s all just experiment and that’s wonderful because it’s consenting people. But yeah, I think that’s possibly a minority of people. The majority of people that come into a shop to get pierced, just wanna know that it’s safe and it’s gonna heal.

G:  Absolutely, as a piercer we aim to give you the best possible chance of healing. We make sure the procedure is safe and clean and that we’re using the highest quality jewellery and equipment. But then it’s on the client to follow the proper aftercare and keep in touch if there’s any issues.

R: I suppose that’s part of the problem. You can do the absolute best procedure in the world and if somebody doesn’t take care of it then it can ruin the whole piercing. It’s a relatively unique thing, it’s a collaboration between the practitioner and their client.

And I think it’s really important as a professional to remember that this experience is significant for that person. It might just be your 11 o’clock appointment and you might not remember their face but they know who you are. I’ve experienced that in mental health work as well, I’ve had people thank me for what help I’ve provided them and I’ve honestly not had a memory of them. It can be really awkward at that moment but I’m also really happy that I’ve managed to touch their lives. I suppose, as that relationship develops and you see the same client or a patient over a period of time like some of the guys I’ve worked with now, I’ve known a number of ’em over a decade. So it is a real intense relationship and you know someone inside out.

G: What changes have you seen in mental health care over the years? 

R: It’s become less industrialised. I think it’s better with individual care than it used to be, I’ve been in high security for a long time so I’m not really at a ‘street level’ where you’re working with the community. But I think there’s now a better understanding of trauma in particular, and I think that’s something that absolutely has to be pushed through because my personal view is mental health and trauma are essentially the same thing. That’s not something I managed to come up with myself.

I was doing some teaching and we put together a presentation for a panel of people that use services. Experts by experience. And there was a slide that said, somebody’s mental health problems can be directly impacted by trauma. And trauma may be the root cause of difficulties for people. I think it was the only correction on the whole presentation that they wanted to feed back. They said “no, we don’t think trauma and mental health are linked. We know they are the same.”

In the past I’ve said that I work with people who have committed violent offences or people that have this diagnosis or that diagnosis. But essentially I work with exceptionally traumatised people that have then gone on to traumatise other people. As a society, a lot of our problems are that we’ve got these little cycles of trauma going on. 

In mental health it used to be almost like you’ve been hit by some kind of illness stick. You’ve just got a mental illness and that’s it. I think it’s difficult to accept trauma because it’s harder to deal with than just giving somebody a pill.

G: From my limited time in piercing, everyone seems very accepting and supportive of mental health struggles.

R: There’s perhaps more of an understanding of difference and that need for individuality. I suppose particularly when you’re looking at heavy modification and more extreme stuff, you have to be an incredibly open and curious person to do that. 

G: Can we talk about your experience with body suspension?

R: Getting into suspension was a similar journey as my tongue split. It was something I saw and immediately thought, “That’s scary, I couldn’t do that.” And that became “Why can’t I do that?” I started researching and finding out more. I had another friend and knew a couple of people who were interested, and we sort of got together and talked about it and just decided to really learn. We were deliberately self taught. I think the suspension community tends to sort of build by rote. So somebody’s done it and it’s kind of worked, so this is how we do it then. You’ll get other suspension teams who do it their way and they’re not very good at knowing why. Which is a real contrast compared to the body modification community, particularly when heavy modifications were something of an industry. You have to know why. Because if you don’t, you can really hurt people. 

Ryan faciliating a suspension for a friend

With the suspension team, every team member started to learn all of the different roles and we came up with our own protocol. And then when we finally went out and met other teams that were doing it and started talking with them, nobody knew why they did things the way they did. That’s just the way it’s done. Everyone had their own methods and reasoning but didn’t really share too much.

G: It seems that suspension is a very closed and tight knit community.

R: I guess there’s not many people that do it. It is something that is potentially really quite dangerous. So people can be cagey about giving information and letting people in. And there’s fear of judgement with it as well, it’s something not many people understand. I think most people can understand tattoos as a form of art even if it’s not for them. But you want to hang from hooks?! There’s not always that kind of understanding. 

I think what often gets people involved in suspension is seeing the aftermath for people. Or hearing people that have done it talking about it positively and when you just look at it, it’s not just a performance. I’m sure there’s people that for them it becomes just a performance. But I think it’s probably quite hard to do that because it’s instant mindfulness when you’re suspended. That’s how I think of suspension. You can’t think of anything else. You are there. You’re right here, right now, and this is what’s happening and that’s all your brain is gonna manage. You can’t be thinking about a shopping list or the fact you go on holiday next week, did I leave the oven on? Your brain’s totally not geared for that and I really like that. It’s incredibly zen and there’s things that might float up in your mind. My experience with suspending people and being suspended, is you can’t always predict what things will float up. Your subconscious just kind of puts it out in the moment and you can kind of work through it then. I’ve personally found it an incredibly healing and a powerful experience.

But you can’t go into it going, “I’m gonna have this kind of suspension” because it doesn’t work like that. For me, I’ve seen people go and think they’ll have a happy, high energy suspension and then actually it ended up being almost like a memorial. They’re thinking about that and just the energy from it’s so powerful.

That’s why I love doing it and being around it and being part of that process for people. I do all the bits, I’m geeky about aftercare, I’m geeky about rigging and stuff like that, but talking somebody up, guiding them through the process. It’s almost kind of shamanic because they’re having this transformative process that you are never gonna fully understand but you get to facilitate and you’re there for that. 

Even just piercings, tattoos and other modifications, it’s a similar kind of thing. It can be that. To understand that you can be overwhelmed and that is okay, and that you’re strong enough to do it. It’s often quite euphoric as well for both physical and spiritual reasons, I guess. 

This is the bit that’s the crossover between my professional work as a nurse and the modification world. It’s that real, intimate core of who we are, that transformative experience and that wanting to guide somebody through their bit of the journey. 

G: The patients you work with, are they in hospital long term?

R: Yeah, by any kind of ‘normal’ standards it’s long term. A really quick admission might be a couple of years, something like that. Most people would go on to another secure facility, either a prison or more often they’ll go to a medium secure hospital. It’s kind of handing them off on that part of their journey and trying to guide ’em through that and prepare them for it. You never really get to know the end outcomes for people, it becomes a bit fuzzy as people work further through the system. I know there’s guys I’ve worked with that have been completely hopeless and never thought they’d get anywhere, but they’ve got partners and families and jobs and just cracking on with life now. So it does happen and it’s important to bear in mind. It’s not fast and the rewards often aren’t immediate in my job. Remembering that this can happen and holding hope for people, that’s a big part of it. 

Things can get better for people however bad it’s got. 

Image courtesty of Church of Body Modification

G: That is incredible. You are doing such an honourable service to people. What else do you get up to?

R: Since 2010, I’ve been Minister for the Church of Body Modification. I’m the only minister outside of North America now. I don’t talk about it a lot and this seems like an opportunity. 

Essentially all the stuff that we’ve been talking about, that bodily autonomy, the spiritual transformation that can happen through modification -that’s basically what we believe. Whatever else you believe is up to you, but that is the core tenant. It is your body and you can utilise that as part of your spiritual journey.

I think people hear the word church and think it’s going and doing hymns or having to believe in a certain dogma or whatever. In this sense it means assembly in terms of, you know, we are a group of people that believe this and I think that’s important. It’s really sad that it’s not always recognised in the modification industry. I think it’s a real shame that in terms of heavier mods and things very much in legal grey area, but the consensus seems to be no we won’t invest in this industry after Mac’s trial. And that was it, it was never raised as a defence. I dunno whether it was pertinent to those cases or not but actually if that is a spiritual practice for somebody, in this country’s legal system, we’ve got human rights to have access to that. And I think some of the downside of the commercialization of the industry and it becoming bigger, while standards have improved as a result, I think it also can become more like a purchase or a fashion accessory. Which it always has been for some people and that’s fine. But it sometimes belittles the fact that modification could be hugely important to people. 

G: The more clinical and the more restricted that we get, I do think it takes away that human element of it. We’ve improved as a industry but we’ve lost a bit of that experimentation and that grassroots, punk edge. 

R: And it limits people’s ability to explore the body. The weird irony about our legal system is not only can you not consent, you can’t now do things with your own body or you can’t do them safely. You know, if you want to chop your own hand off, not that I’d recommended it, you can legally. But if you get somebody else to do that, definitely not fine.

Obviously that’s an extreme example, but when you’re talking about a tongue split or ear pointing it’s a pretty different thing, isn’t it? It’s not so obviously permanently disabling, which is maybe why it might get the judgement. 

G: I’m a big believer that people should be able to do what they want with their bodies as long as it’s safe. But who is to say what is safe? Where do we draw that line? 

R: To an extent, that should be the individual’s choice surely. If you wanna do something unsafe with your body, as long as it doesn’t impact others, well that’s okay. I think it’s different when you’re doing something unsafe with someone else’s body and this is when we get into a lot of blurry grey areas with it.

G:  There’s a lot of heavy modification going on in places like Southern America at the minute. If you want to cut the tip of your nose off, you are well within your rights to. But is that disabling to you? Is that then impacting on other people? Is there a safe way to do that? Should there be psychological intervention? And who gets to make those rules. It generates a very interesting conversation about body autonomy. 

R: There’s something arbitrary and there’s something cultural about it. Certainly in terms of the extremity that people will go. A part of me does think, why are we making rules about what people can do unless we need to protect somebody from themselves. Which I guess sometimes we do, but we probably need to do that less than we think

I suppose all types of modification, no matter what the extent, have an element of permanence. In some regards even a piercing, you are kind of disabling yourself. If you’ve got a lip piercing for example, it might cause some dental damage. A tongue split, you might have a bit of a speech impediment. But on the grand scale of things, it’s not a big thing. 

G: Are there any meet-ups or events within the Church of Body Modification?

R: Not really anymore, it’s exceptionally small now. In the BME days it had more hype. And what you’ve got now is a handful of people that identify in their free time and do a little bit with it. Occasionally in the States there’s been advocacy in legal cases. A lot more, it’s just kind of an advocacy role, letting people know it’s okay. Really just educating that, yeah, this process can be a spiritual experience if you want it to be. Don’t limit yourself if you don’t want to.

I think people see it cynically and some of the origins were cynical on part of some of the people. But even with that, it doesn’t mean that the basic tenants aren’t true. 

I must admit, in my early conversations with my work and management, it was very much “What are these piercings about” and I knew that they were really strict on dress code. That was much more important than someone’s performance. And I didn’t lie, but I did say, you know, primarily it’s kind of a religious thing for me. That person left me alone from that day.  

Generally each one of my mods encourages that sense of self ownership and identity. There are certain things that are aesthetic. I’m afraid I’m mostly one of those people that everything has a little story for me. It’s an aspect of myself, it’s a reflection sometimes of my life and my relationships. It might seem weird but I’m a bit shy. I wouldn’t have things written in script on me that are easy to identify. I’ll have a picture or a pattern or something that’s in runes, glyphs that the vast majority of people would never be able to figure out. 

There’s an odd dichotomy of being a visibly modified person, and in part I think it’s the cost for me of being happy in myself. It gets complicated because, if I’m honest I kind of want people to notice that I’m a bit different and have set myself apart and I like challenging people’s perceptions.

They think I’m gonna be a violent thug and I think I’m actually quite a kind, reasonable human being. As reasonable as any of us get. I think something that I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve got older is people will ask me questions. I’ll have strangers stop me in the street and ask about the markings on my head. “Is that a tattoo? Is it branding?”. It’s great that people are curious and I can maybe educate them a little bit or bring something a bit colourful to this sometimes dull world. That’s no bad thing

I like being a modified professional. Something I’ve found interesting, as I’ve got promoted and mixed with people higher up the food chain, they’re people who don’t ask anymore. And my guess is they kind of go, “well, you’ve ended up at this meeting, so you must be a relatively sane human being.” I’d like to think that any misconceptions or judgments they had, I’m able to demonstrate that I’m okay and maybe they’ll go away with a little bit of that in mind.

G: I think it is really important that people see somebody expressing themselves the way that you do, in a professional role. You might have to work a bit harder than other people, unfortunately, but if you’re good at your job, your modifications will not hold you back.

R: Being one of the early people to do something you are gonna get discriminated against, but hopefully people will be less so in future.

I remember a really interesting conversation with Anna when she said about how hard it had been as a woman in the industry and she was kind of okay with it being hard. I don’t wanna speak on behalf of Anna and she may have changed her mind on things now. But I think, it’s great that she’s worked hard to be respected in her industry but it shouldn’t have to be harder for people because of how they look or identify, 

I can’t really complain in terms of discrimination because I’ve deliberately set out knowing it would make my life harder. A lot of people that get discriminated against, don’t have a choice. That’s just how it is.

G: So we pierce a lot of teachers and they always comment about how they have to punish students for having body piercings because that’s the policy. It’s unfortunately hypocritical and it’s policing autonomy in my opinion.

R: What the hell are we teaching people as a society that you can’t express yourself and you can’t be yourself. It’s an awful message culturally.

It’s definitely a value that I hold dear, you should just be able to be you. Whatever the hell you are, whoever you are. I would love a society that’s more accepting of each other.

If you ever get the pleasure of meeting Ryan, he sure is an incredible human and a wonder to be around. Very grateful for his time and yours if you made it to the end. Keep being you, whoever the hell you are.

A kind message to the Church of Body Modification from BME founder Shannon Larratt. Rest in peace.

You can read more of our interviews here:

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An Interview with Aiko Hosten – Piercer, Podcaster, Practioner of Suspenion and Shibari

Sunday can be an odd day. A cold Sunday morning at Rogue was quickly warmed up by the wonderful energy facilitated by Aiko Hosten, Alicia and our very own Aiden. Body modification in all its many forms, brings people from all over the world together over their shared interest in the weird and wonderful. Aiko has traveled the world learning and sharing his experiences as a body piercer, suspension practitioner, shibari rigger and podcast host. It was an honor to hang out (pun intended) with Aiko and chat about their experiences on both sides of the pointy end.

Gemma:  Tell us your origin story Aiko

Aiko: I have always been interested in piercing and tattooing since I was younger. I was getting tattooed and pierced a few times before I applied for an apprenticeship at the studio I’m working at now. I never got the apprenticeship but I started piercing at home and then a local studio where I was living was looking for a piercer. I applied for it, and they offered me an apprenticeship which was more like, “here’s a needle, there’s a customer, do your thing.” 

It was a biker shop, so there were a few bikers that did some piercings back in the day, which helped me in the beginning, but was not really an apprenticeship. So I started educating myself through BMXnet, APP etc. I was 22, so that’s about eight years ago. I worked there for almost a year and then quit the job cuz it was too much stress working for a biker. 

That was a gap of a year or two until I found some people to start our own studio. After a few months, the tattooer and the other piercer quit. So I took the studio on myself with my best friend and ran the studio for almost three years right before the pandemic hit. We pulled the plug  because a lot of renovations needed to be done and it was not really worth staying there for me.

Right before the pandemic hit, I switched to another studio where I was piercing. Then I broke my foot so I was stuck at home for two or three weeks. But the good thing was, I was still working part-time at a supermarket so I still had money coming in monthly and I had to work two to three days in the supermarket, which kept me sane.

G: When did you first get into suspension? 

A: My first memory of seeing a picture of suspension was in the library when I was passing through books of ancient history, African culture, North American culture and everything. I think it was one of the National Geographic books about the Sun Dance ritual. So that triggered me when I was young and I always wanted to know more about it. I researched more, got on BME back in the day. I start scrolling there, clicking around ‘Are you allowed to be here? Are you 18? Definitely. Yes.’

And then it wasn’t until I was like 21/22 when I got the opportunity to suspend myself. It was with Indy Voet, a piercer who is now a hand-poke tattoo artists and Kevin Garcia who now works at Contraseptik

Lift yourself up.

They did my first suspension and it wasn’t bad, but it was not what I was expecting it to be. Maybe it was just location wise that wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted more of a ritual and this was more like, ‘Hey, let’s have fun, just being friends together figuring it out’  which is perfectly fine and I can do that now. But for my first time, I was more hoping for a ritual experience.

 It took about another year until I got the opportunity to be suspended by Beto and Eugenia together with the Pink Flamingo Crew, and that blew my mind. To me, that time feels more like a first experience than my actual first time.

G: What made the experience so much better with Pink Flamingo Fly?

A: It all started with the location. it was a squat somewhere in Brussels, it looked like an old ruin. The garden was so filled with plants and nature,it was so beautiful. It was great weather and it was sort of an outside experience because the building was like ruins.

The connection I had with Beto and Eugenia at that time, helping me suspend it was mind blowing to me. It gave me more of an outer body experience, more the thing that I wanted to experience for my first time.

G: How did you get started as a suspension facilitator? 

A: I suspended a few times with the Flamingo crew and it triggered me to learn more about it. I just started talking with a few practitioners in Belgium including a tattoo artist friend of mine and some other practitioners in the world. At first I just did some suspensions with a friend of mine who used to do suspensions, who taught me the basics of how to prep the skin, how to find a great spot and everything. Then I did some seminars at BMXnet, went to some conferences and that’s how I rolled into it.

G: What do you enjoy about facilitating body suspension for people?

A: For me, it’s a look in the eyes. When you suspend someone or help someone suspend, you can see the light change in their eyes. It’s a magical feeling. You can just feel the energy. You put a lot of energy into that person to help them. But you get so much love and connection back and that’s what I love about it. It is amazing to do. I can say the best thing to do in the world for me. I love piercing, don’t get me wrong, I would never stop piercing. But suspension that little more.

G: I can really see that connection between the two worlds of body piercing and body suspension. For me and for a lot of piercers I speak with, our favorite part of the job is after you’ve done the piercing and that client looks in the mirror and they’re like “fuck yeah, I did that scary thing just for me.” And you’ve helped facilitate that. I guess with suspension, it’s a bit like that on a bigger scale. 

A: Yeah because it’s guiding them to get through the pain, to get over the fear. The fear is understandable especially the first time you do something. Guiding them to that next level is amazing. 

G: Can you tell us about some highlights from your suspension journey? 

A: There are a few. A top one for sure is  the first time I met Charlyne. I went to “Hang You” in Galicia organized by Alex Pereiro, I was in Madrid and I got on the plane by myself to fly to Galicia.Charlyne was on the same plane and she already spotted me. I was going to meet up with some friends to take a cab together and I was waiting outside. Charlyne walked up to me and she was like, “Hey, are you going to the Suscon (suspension conference)? And I nervously said yeah, why? I knew who she was, but I didn’t think she knew me but she asked to share a ride. We got a big cab for six of us, me and Charlyne were already talking and she asked if I wanted to do a spinning beam with her. I’d never done it, but sure. And just the connection me and Charlyne made there and during our first suspension together was, it was like brother and sister connecting together. That was one of the best experiences I’ve had during a suspension myself.

Throwing hooks in tandem. Such a powerful moment.

The second top time is also with Charlyne. Well, most of them are involved with Charlyne actually. It was my first Suspension Sunday, like a real small event, I organised because Charlyne was coming to visit. It was at a local club that hosted BDSM parties, and because of that – I was able to rent it to do suspenion there. It was just so fun doing that, organizing that myself and that started me doing it more and more. 

Another top experience was doing a suspension here in Belgium, it was at a huge squat. They had a skate pool and everything built inside. Me, Joan and Charlene went there, and did a few amazing suspensions there. It was fucking cold there, but it was so warm at the same time. All the people living there came to check it out.and some even suspended for the first time. It was amazing to just be able to do that.

Of course the Pirate Piercing suspension hangout was a great time. My boss had bought an old piece of land, a big wooded area, and we did a suspension there. We had a few first timers there. It was nice to be hanging out, drinking, chilling, placing hooks, making mistakes, doing stupid shit.

G: Can you tell us about some of your experiences traveling and volunteering?

 A: The first traveling I did was a Galicia convention, which was actually right in between Covid lockdowns. I volunteered at the APP convention in Las Vegas. I’ve been over to the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. I’m trying to travel way more cuz I’m tired of just staying in Belgium. I love Belgium, but traveling is so much more fun. Meeting a lot of people and suspension gives me the opportunity to do it. 

G: What’s the body modification scene like in Belgium compared to other places you’ve visited?

A:  Honestly, we’re a little behind. Quality jewelry isn’t that big in Belgium or the Netherlands compared to places like the UK, US or Canada. I was one of the founders of the APP Benelux, which for personal reasons I’m not involved anymore. I still think quality jewelry should be promoted a little bit more.In Belgium, I think there are like four or five studios that really promote quality jewelry. There are a lot of studios that are working up their standards. 

Tattooing is big in Belgium, especially in Antwerp. It’s really huge. A lot of quality tattooers. There’s a lot of other people doing it safely.

G: I’d love to talk about your suspension performances and events.

A: I rolled into it. A  friend of mine here in Antwerp is really big in the BDSM community and he also does some suspensions within BDSM, more hook play and needle play. He was talking to me one day about trying to promote health and safety in the BDSM community and I said if you ever need somebody to talk about hygiene when it comes to blood play/piercing etc, I’m totally up to that. A few weeks later he messaged me about doing a performance. 

I like being on a stage so we worked something out. A friend of mine helped and  we did the first performance where she was suspended in a scorpion position and then we dropped her to a two point back placement, just to show the possibilities. The day after, they got sick so I had to do something by myself. I pierced myself on stage, did everything safely by myself and it just rolled from there.

Suspending from the knee

Now, they keep asking me to come back to do some small performances, which is perfectly fine. I love doing it, it’s fun. I have an excuse to suspend myself. With the performances, I’m not good at shocking people. So I try to do what I would do for somebody in a sort of ritual setting. I’m not gonna say it’s a ritual that I do, but I just try to focus on the suspension and not on the pain and the hooks, which is always involved but it’s not the main attention. 

G: So it’s not performative, it’s not for the shock value, it’s just like sharing an experience with a room of people. In a BDSM club. 

A:  I love the audience but I’m not really involved with the BDSM scene really. But the piercing world, the suspension world, a lot of it became what it is now because of the BDSM world.

G: Any upcoming plans for 2023?

A: Charlyne is coming back in May and we’re doing a suspension Sunday here in Antwerp. I have a lot of travel plans. I’m going to Italy for SusCon as a guest. Then after that there’s APP then I’m going to Oslo. I hope to go back to Croatia to suspend above the sea again, but we’ll have to see. Travel is expensive. I also want to go back to Canada to do some suspensions because I’ve been there in the past. to meet up with Alicia but I want to go back and do suspensions there as well. We’re looking for a location, looking for people who wanted to help, cuz traveling there with all the gear sucks.

Thank you Aiko for your time, your incredible work and your passion for what you do. It was such a privilege to have you visit Rogue and share your knowledge and experience with everyone. Safe travels for the year ahead and we’ll see you soon!