Why you should care
Because it’s not about the shock value and freak shows.
Fakir Musafar, a founding father of body modification — meaning the deliberate altering of one’s physical appearance — is usually pictured in leather corsets or elaborate piercing apparatuses. But when we connect via Skype from his home in Menlo Park, California, he’s wearing khaki pants and a T-shirt stamped with the periodic table of elements. Long before septum piercings and full-sleeve tattoos became commonplace, while the world watched I Love Lucy and ate TV dinners, Fakir experimented with self-applied tattoos, branding, extreme waist reduction and dancing with weighted fleshhooks. At 86, he still performs fleshhook suspensions and other ritualistic piercing ceremonies, but today, with just one wooden ear gauge visible, he’s telling me about his school of thought, known as the Modern Primitive movement. Body modification (he prefers the term “bodyplay”), he explains, “allows you to reconnect … with your spirit inside and not be so lost in your body consciousness.”
Born Roland Loomis on August 10, 1930, Fakir grew up on a Sioux Indian reservation in northeastern South Dakota. Though he is not Native American, he felt a profound attraction to indigenous ceremony and religion. As government agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs encouraged tribes to shed their beliefs in favor of mainstream American culture, Fakir absorbed as much as he could from elders when he visited his Sioux, Blackfoot and Lakota classmates. One ceremony they spoke of was the Sun Dance, in which a group of holy men pierce their chests with sharpened bone and tether themselves to a central pole in an act of reverence and prayer. Indigenous tribes believe that if the Sun Dance — deemed illegal by the U.S. government when Fakir first learned of it — is not performed every year, the earth will lose touch with the creative power of the universe and be unable to regenerate.
Fakir refers to his childhood and early teens as a “period of discovery,” when he had visions and researched piercing and meditation practices of cultures the world over. At 14, inspired by a South Pacific tribe that pierces young men’s nostrils with a coconut shell as a rite of passage, he decided to give himself his first piercing. But as a choirboy, he couldn’t be seen with a nose ring in church, so he chose a place on his body no one would notice: his genitals. “It hurt,” he says, smiling, “but I figured if they could do it in the South Pacific, I could do it in South Dakota!” And so began the young man’s spiritual journey. As Dr. John A. Rush, author of Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding, and Implants, explains, “Fakir Musafar exhibits a feature lacking in Western culture, that is, ritual specifically designed to move the individual from child to adult.”
What was serious, personal and universal started becoming ‘sport,’ ‘showbiz.’
Fakir continued to experiment and, at 17, describes having his first out-of-body experience when he re-created an Eskimo ceremony in the basement while his parents were out of town. Strapped to a wall and unable to move, he felt his spirit lift from his body and soon could see himself from across the room. “That was my first big revelation: I’m not my body,” he says. “What I think is me just lives in there. It’s like when you get in a car and drive a car, you’re not the car when you get out.”
In the early 1960s, after serving two years in the Army, he moved to San Francisco and connected with the city’s fledgling body-modification and S&M communities. He performed one of his first fleshhook suspension ceremonies, the O-Kee-Pa ritual of the Mandan Indians, in 1967 under the supervision of his friend and fellow body-mod enthusiast Davy Jones. Ten years later, Roland Loomis became Fakir Musafar (after a 12th-century Sufi mystic) at the first International Tattoo Convention in Reno, Nevada. The event, where Fakir reclined on a bed of nails, inserted daggers into his chest and pulled a belly dancer on a baggage cart around the room from piercings in his chest, was a coming-out of sorts and established him as a leader of the body-mod movement.
Since then, he has toured the world to deliver talks, host conferences and preside over spiritual ceremonies such as the Sun Dance introduced by the Sioux elders in his youth. He has also appeared on television — NBC, CNN, Discovery Channel — and been the subject of several documentaries, including Dances Sacred and Profane (1985) and Canal+’s La Nuit du Cyclone (1999). Fakir’s writings have been published in anthologies such as Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry, and, for seven years, he produced Body Play and Modern Primitives, a magazine for “unusual people doing unusual things with their bodies.”
Still very much engaged in body-mod circles, Fakir told me he was headed to the Black Leather Wings gathering, a pagan/S&M/shamanic rites faerie festival, the day after our interview, hoping to spread enlightenment through his work. “He is a pioneer, liberator, explorer, masochist, visionary, artist, spiritual seeker — and also a regular guy from South Dakota and my loving husband of 26 years,” says his wife and ceremonial partner, Cléo Dubois.
For his part, Fakir is delighted that his work and message have reached so many people, but he admits to feeling responsible for what he sees as the “misuse and misunderstanding” of the Modern Primitive movement. “What was serious, personal and universal started becoming ‘sport,’ ‘showbiz,’” he says. I ask if he believes some body-mod practitioners have taken the current trend too far, and what too far means to him. “Going too far for me is physical disablement and disfigurement,” he responds, “to the point of utter rejection by most members of a society. And I must remember that in today’s culture, it is not generally a practice to honor or remember pioneers … the elders.”
As an elder and a Modern Primitive living in the heart of Silicon Valley, blocks from Facebook’s corporate headquarters and a few miles from the Googleplex, Fakir is witness to this rejection of the past and obsession with the future on a daily basis. And he interprets our present fascination with virtual reality and digital avatars as just the latest expression of humans’ fundamental desire for spiritual disembodiment. “They can do this … without Oculus,” he says with a winking smile. “I am into making people more conscious of the apps we are all created with.”