Fakir Musafar



“One night in a small house on the South Dakota plains, a boy later known as Fakir Musafar went down to the basement and lashed himself to a coal bin wall. His parents were away for the night, and a longdreamed-of plan could at last be realized. First he hammered heavy metal staples into the battered wood, making the outline of a human body. Next, he tied his limbs and torso into the frame, laboriously immobilizing himself inch by inch until only his hands were free. Then he secured them, too, with the use of cleverly designed hooks. Finally, the gray room fell silent. The only sound the seventeen-year-old heard was his own heartbeat, as tides of numbness slowly advanced up his body.


“Minutes became hours. Dreamy sensations grew dark and suffocating until finally there was no feeling at all. Even the methodical thudding of blood stopped. The youth wondered if he was dying. Suddenly he was jolted by a snapping noise, followed by a high-pitched humming sound — and then nothing. That’s when the visions began. He saw his own body hanging limply on the coal bin wall and realized that while inert, it was not dead. In fact, he was able to roam at will, a disembodied consciousness free of time and space. There was no fear, only joyous liberation. A flash of insight revealed time as being measurable only when one is in the body — but now he was outside of his.


“Experiment over, the intrepid teenager somehow managed to wrest loose of his bounds and collapsed onto the cold cement floor, where he lay motionless until dawn. He would never be the same again. Nor for that matter would the many people to pass through Fakir’s life in the years to come, seeking and learning from the same kind of transcendent moment he experienced that night long ago.”


Mark Thompson,

Introduction to SPIRIT + FLESH by Fakir Musafar.


Roland Edmund Loomis was born August 10, 1930, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, on what had been Sioux tribal lands just fifty years before. The Loomis family lived near the Sisseton-Wahpeton reservation; the spirituality and respect for nature of the indigenous Dakota-Lakota cultures were formative influences on Roland as a boy.


His parents were individualists in their own quiet way. His father, Victor, was a barnstorming airmail pilot. His mother, Eva, defied her Minnesota family to attend business college in Aberdeen, where she and Victor met, fell in love, and raised four children, Roland being the eldest. His earliest childhood memories were of passing clouds spied from the back cockpit of his father’s biplane.


His parents enrolled Roland in a Lutheran school, where he dutifully did as he was told, not wanting to be seen as different — which he quietly understood from an early age he was. “My biggest problem as a child,” he recalled in a 1992 interview, “was spacing out. I would literally go into trance states at the drop of a hat. It was very difficult for me, because I thought I was going nuts. Bells would ring, I’d have audio and visual hallucinations. I devoured books, that was my only escape. And I found out I was really interested in how other cultures lived.”


He soaked up regional Native American lore about secret ceremonies and summoning spirits. He found himself drawn to National Geographic features that described and illustrated body modification and adornment practices in so-called “primitive” societies. When he first saw photos of people with scarification, tattoos and piercings, “instantly the light went on,” he recalled. “Very often I could recognize that whatever they said about these people in the photo caption was not what was going on. I could look at them and feel how that person felt at the moment the picture was taken.” He had few friends in school but made Indian friends on the nearby tribal lands. “They were treated very badly, worse than dogs. I found a kinship because I was a loner. I always felt I was on the edge, on the fringes of society.”


His first experimentations with body play date to his early adolescence. He used a bag of his mother’s clothespins and clipped them onto his skin, making fans of them. In the same years he also grew fascinated by piercing. “I desperately wanted to pierce my nose, but that would have been too visible. But I had another spot that nobody ever looked at and didn’t exist as far as these people were concerned, and that was my cock.” He performed his first self-piercing at the age of fourteen, with a nail driven through a clothespin clamped on his foreskin overnight, inspired by the New Guinea technique in National Geographic.


By the time he entered high school, the thirst for transcendent experience had become an all-consuming project. Every available moment was occupied alone in his mother’s root cellar, where he set up a darkroom, using his genuine interest in photography to conceal the research he conducted on his own body. He gave himself a tattoo like those traditional among the Bedouins, by pricking his skin with a bundle of needles dipped in India ink. Another day was spent wrapped in heavy coils of chain to find out what effect that encumbrance might bring. He hooked rows of lead fishing weights onto his chest, again to discover the results. Other times he tightly corseted his waist with strips of leather, called itaburi in New Guinea, to see how narrow-waisted he could become. He recorded his adventures with an old folding vest-pocket camera an uncle carried in World War I. He taught himself to develop film by reading a book.


He learned about Hindu holy men, sadhu, who sewed coconuts onto their bodies, shackled themselves to weights for years, and performed any number of almost unimaginable acts of physical mortification. He learned about the Sun Dance, traditionally enacted by men from native tribes in his area until Christian authorities put an end to it. During this ritual, brave warriors pulled for hours, sometimes days, or hung from lodge poles or trees, attached by ropes tied to hooks pierced through the flesh of the chest or back, with the goal of connecting to an inner fire or sacred spirit. Sometimes the tribe was very hungry, and out of the agonizing reverie of the ritual, a vision of where the buffalo had gone would emerge.


It was by reading the newspaper one morning that Roland came across his future name. According to “Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not,’” Musafar was a twelfth-century Sufi fakir who wandered Persia for many years with daggers, padlocks, and mirrors attached to his body. He tried to educate people about the visions and mysteries he had discovered but was spurned and died broken-hearted. Roland clipped the column of the paper and put it away, a foretoken of the long struggle and new identity ahead.


After high school, Roland enrolled in Northern State Teachers College in Aberdeen. He enjoyed his studies in electrical engineering and in education, but they could not displace the centrality of his basement investigations, the self-applied tattoos, temporary and permanent piercings, branding, extreme waist reduction with belts, and prolonged dancing with weighted flesh hooks (later known as a “Ball Dance”), all of it documented with a secondhand Rolleicord camera. A timer or trip-switch released the shutter: another negative that, as far as he knew, might forever be shared with no one.


In 1957, in Bizarre, the magazine created by John Willie (LHOF 2009), he published a pseudonymous article about his emulation of the boys of New Guinea, whose waists were narrowed by the itaburi. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Bizarre was an underground publication, published infrequently and only sold in the thousands. But it served as an outlet for social nonconformists, and contributed to what would eventually become the fetish fashion, kink-BDSM, and body-modification phenomena of today.


After two years in the U.S. Army — instructing others in the use of explosives! — he moved to San Francisco. He studied creative writing and theater at S.F. State and became a costume designer. He longed to revive the hourglass corset but found historical patterns unsuited to modern bodies. So he set about creating new patterns and techniques and founded the Hourglass Corset Company. Advertised in the “girlie” magazines of the day, it had some success among corset-fanciers, whose number however was insufficient to support a corseting business. Meanwhile, Fakir systematically reduced his own waist to 19”, and pierced his nipples too.


He corresponded guardedly within a narrow underground of fetish publications. He traveled quietly to Japan to observe a culture with its own styles and fans of body modification, especially large all-body allegorical tattoos. At a bookseller’s in the Kanda section of Tokyo, he found and bought a treasure: a leather-bound original copy of George Catlin’s 1867 edition of O-Kee-Pa: A Religious Ceremony and Other Customs of the Mandans, With Thirteen Illustrations.


How did this rare book get to Japan? In some nineteenth-century missionary’s trunk? Roland’s heart raced at the illustrations of men suspended by body piercings. The text documented what he had long suspected. This was a deeply spiritual body ritual, initiation, and a journey to unseen worlds, similar to the Sioux Sun Dance with which he was familiar, but with a physical and psychic guide called a Ka-See-Ka.


In 1963, in Oakland, California, Roland met Davy Jones, the official tattooist for the Hell’s Angels — at last a tattoo artist who understood his desire to get the large blackwork tattoo he had seen in his visions since he was seventeen. Like Roland, Jones believed tattoos are more than decoration: they are magic marks that can both record and participate in profound changes in one’s life. Over a three-month period, Jones gave Roland his tribal blackwork tattoo. “As far as I know, it was the first tattoo of its kind in 20th-century Western culture,” Roland wrote. “Turns out a similar magic tattoo was recorded in a watercolor painting by Karl Bodmer in 1883. It was on a Yanktonai medicine man in Eastern South Dakota, about ninety miles from where I was born.”


Roland pleaded with Jones to help him experience the O-KeePa suspension ritual, to be his Ka-See-Ka. Since there were no pure-blood Mandan Indians or culture left, they had to improvise and recreate the ritual based on the description in Catlin’s book. With the sun just rising, Roland pierced two deep holes in his chest. In an empty garage fitted to their best-guess semblance of a Mandan initiation lodge, Roland stood on a stool and Davy hooked his chest piercings to a rope in the ceiling. Inch by inch he lifted Roland up until he was on tiptoe. With about eighty percent of his weight on the piercings, the sensation was so intense Roland knew he either had to give up or swing free. He took the gamble, stepped off the supporting stool, and let his entire weight hang on body piercings.


“No more pain,” he wrote later of that moment. “Only a warm, pleasant, floating sensation. I looked above and saw a blinding white light. It spoke to me: ‘Hello, I am you and you are me and I’m as close to God as you’ll ever be.’” Roland came to call this his second transformative experience. (The first one is recounted in the quote that opens this biography).


Later that same year, 1967, he asked Davy Jones to again be his guide, his Ka-See-Ka, for a Hindu body ritual: taking the Kavadi. He had long been transfixed by a photo in an old National Geographic of Kavadi-bearing: men locked in portable cages with hundreds of long irons spears pierced into their chests and back. Davy agreed to put him in a Kavadi, if one could be made — but wanted a signed statement releasing him from liability in case Roland was injured, or worse.


They settled on forty-eight long spears. After an hour or so, the hot sensation of so many rods pierced into his body transmuted to euphoria. Roland started to float and fly and danced in a joyous frenzy. The spears rattled in their sockets and thrust themselves deeper into his flesh. “I lost all track of time,” he wrote. “I was totally engulfed in flame, a ball of fire. My consciousness floated up into the rafters of the building. I watched my robot body trapped inside the Kavadi cage running around in crazy circles below. A friend of Davy shot pictures. I danced like this for two hours.”


Roland supported himself as an Arthur Murray dance teacher, then as a Silicon Valley advertising executive, still keeping his “body play” research private. But with the advent of the 1970s, the sexual revolution brought on a movement for gay liberation, and suddenly people and things once branded queer no longer seemed so odd. Roland was emboldened. In 1972, he connected with a fetish group in Southern California eager to try some of his practices: small waist training in corsets, bondage, body piercings, tattoos and branding. On one of his visits a curious, eccentric man showed up: Doug Malloy. He too was a proponent of body modification for the transformation it could initiate, not the visual and artistic aspects, and he and Roland hit it off.


“Doug Malloy” was the pseudonym of a kinky multimillionaire who’d made a fortune inventing Muzak and became the godfather/patron of the body-modification movement. What had been the secret obsession of a few blossomed into an underground network. The growing demand soon obliged them to hold private group piercing sessions in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1977, with Doug’s vision and financial help, the first body piercing studio anywhere opened to the public on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. This one of-a-kind shop was called the Gauntlet and was operated by the legendary Jim Ward.


That same year, encouraged by new friendships and the zeitgeist, Roland increasingly shed the carefully polished persona of “The Perfect Gentleman” (the title of one of his most iconic self-portraits) to reveal himself as his namesake, Fakir Musafar. He came out publicly at the first international tattoo convention in Reno in 1977, dazzling crowds with his repertoire of skillful tricks. He had various-sized piercings in his body by then. He inserted daggers through holes in his chest, he lay on beds of nails, he balanced his entire weight on the edge of a machete. As colorful to spectators as any sideshow — and doubtless just as disreputable to some — Fakir’s act was redeemed by the sincerity of his convictions. More profound transformations were taking place beneath the surface of these amazing feats than most viewers could imagine.


Fakir, Jim Ward and Doug Malloy started a publication called Piercing Fans International Quarterly. Fakir wrote extensively on his pet “body play” subjects with photos of his own adventures and those of the handful of friends he dubbed “modern primitives” in a 1978 issue. Deemed obscene and banned in some countries, confiscated by postal customs authorities in others, PFIQ survived till 1997 when the Gauntlet was sold. (It failed under the new ownership and closed the following year.)


In 1981, Fakir met film producers Mark and Dan Jury, who were planning a documentary about American subcultures with anthropologist Charles Gatewood. The team wanted to include Fakir’s work in the still unnamed film. In the summer of 1982, Fakir took a month off to prepare for the fulfillment of an old vision: to do a Sun Dance and Oglala style suspension (an outdoor variation of the Mandan O-Kee-Pa ritual) as close to the tribal versions as possible. He scouted remote locations and was drawn by a sense of the sacred to the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, near Devils Tower and Sun Dance, Wyoming.


Jim Ward and Fakir did the Sun Dance together: “We were joined by blood,” Fakir wrote of that day. The Jurys came away with some sensitive and remarkable film. And Fakir had a third life-changing transformative experience, which he described as “a trip to and through the physical sun and out into the cosmos.” It took three years to edit the film, titled Dances Sacred and Profane. It premiered at the Roxie theater in San Francisco in 1986, was shown in film festivals worldwide, but was too far ahead of its time to become a commercial success.


Attending the film’s premiere was an acquaintance, Carla, whose nom de kink was (and is) Cléo Dubois, educator, mystic, and sometime dominatrix. She had known Fakir through the Society of Janus, where he was popular for his talks on Body Play, and in San Francisco’s gay leather, pansexual kink, and body-modification circles. That night, watching the film “I saw him hanging by flesh hooks,” Carla remembers, “and I fell in love with him in that moment.” They married and remained together until his death from lung cancer on August 1st of last year (2018).


Your body belongs to you, Fakir witnessed over and over again to people, so do what you want with it! Every ecstasy, every departure from the body that contained him advanced his transformation into a technician of the sacred, which is what a shaman is. His photographs documented it all. Fakir refined his craft when he was eighteen, shooting weddings and school events. His skill in the darkroom was honed by necessity, but also by the sheer pleasure of watching images arise ghostlike from the bottom of his developing trays. Over the years, his technique kept pace with his intent. His pictures are in a lineage of male confessional photography, spanning from F. Holland Day to Robert Mapplethorpe.


But he also used his camera to record his lifelong gender explorations, beginning in his early teens. He felt assigned to no fixed spot on the gender spectrum. He loved and honored his female personae, perhaps the most public and best-loved being “Fakiki,” a frequent attendee of Black Leather Wings’ (a leather offshoot of the Radical Faeries) rituals and annual gatherings.


Sexual orientation is another category, like gender, that simply made no sense when applied to Fakir. Asked if he was a gay man, he would unfailingly answer yes — but then, what was he when he was Fakiki? And when he was Roland Loomis, madly loving and devoted husband of Carla Loomis?


Sexuality only figured as one of Fakir’s preoccupations because of its power to mediate inner, other-than-sensory experience. He stood comfortably astride the expanding “alternative” realms of body modification, gender exploration, and leather/BDSM, seeing a unity among them which it seems only in this new century have we begun to see ourselves. He never conformed to the übermasculine image leathermen once cultivated so assiduously, but leatherfolks always recognized in him a fellow-traveler for whom sensory experience was a vehicle to something greater, a larger Self, a spirit unbound. Many influences have shaped the evolution of leather over the last forty years; Fakir and the trends he helped to launch are among the most significant.


An interviewer asked him: How much does body modification have to do with sexuality? With love and belonging? “Basically all shamanic tradition is through the body-first way,” Fakir responded.

“[Sexual energy] builds and builds and we can go into altered states of consciousness. It’s like always being on the edge of orgasm. And as the arousal level goes up, your feeling or response towards physical sensations goes down. You don’t experience pain in the same way.


“A society that functions by trying to make things as painless and as comfortable as possible might be missing the boat because a lot of what we’re here to learn in life may be locked away. There are people who realize the value of hardship and people who climb up cliffs. There’s a validity in doing this other than getting up the wall. I can’t speak too authentically on what goes on and what went on in these so-called primitive cultures. Remember, there aren’t many left and most of the things that I used as role-models no longer existed when I found them.


“What we do know is that when young men were initiated, usually each one had a guide, a mentor, a KaSee-Ka. I liken that to SM. We have a sadist and a masochist, we have a top and a bottom. Under the best conditions, this gets to be a shamanic trip and the top is a guide and the bottom, or the masochist, is the one who takes the trip. But unlike the way some people practice SM, to really be a Ka-See-Ka, you’re not just an operator, you’re not just the manipulator, you have to go on the trip too.”


In 1989, after sifting through twenty-seven hours of interviews with Fakir and several hundred of his photographs, V. Vale and Andrea Juno published MODERN PRIMITIVES: Tattoos, Piercing, Scarification — An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual. Fakir had suggested the book, even the title, to them in 1982. The first print run sold out in a matter of months; it has been reprinted many times. Its impact on contemporary culture is incalculable. By the 1990s, Fakir was being invited all over the world to conduct workshops, to speak, to lead conferences.


He kicked off two new projects in 1991. First was a magazine called BodyPlay & Modern Primitives Quarterly. Second was a body-piercing school, to pass on what the founders of the contemporary body piercing movement had learned by trial and error. For the next nine years, the magazine documented and photographed the body modification/body ritual movement. News outlets and television came knocking at Fakir’s door, not wanting to be left out. And then came the internet.


By the turn of the millennium, Fakir knew that what he had started was not just a fad. But as the practices he pioneered spread rapidly through the culture, it pained him to see them diluted and diffused. What he had done with Jim Ward as a spiritual ritual in Wyoming devolved into a novelty, something to amuse a crowd in a night club, a carnival act designed for shock and awe.


To counteract this trend, Fakir focused his energies on education and the training of protégés to carry the torch. He gathered together a core group of devoted instructors to pass on the techniques, common sense principles and spiritual aspects of the body piercing and body branding. He established the institution known as “Fakir Intensives,” organized and self-sustaining even if Fakir himself is no longer there to guide it.


Perhaps his crowning educational innovation was his “Spirit + Flesh” workshops. These day-long events include background on the cultural origins of the rituals, contemporary adaptation, spiritual intent, physical exercises, psychic purification and invocation, and the ritual dance itself, with tribal drumming. “Spirit + Flesh” workshops continue to be held. The torch has been passed. And since his death, Fakir’s archives have found a home in the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley.


“Why was I obsessed to modify my body?” Fakir wrote. “In retrospect, probably for the same reasons early explorers risked the hazards of sailing uncharted seas, seeking rewards of some kind, treasure or knowledge. In my journey I sought to explore the seas of consciousness, my own inner self. The most personal and accessible vehicle was my own body.


“Body is the Door to Spirit!”



Patrick Mulcahey



For inquiring minds:


Bean, Joseph W. “Magical Masochist: A Conversation with Fakir Musafar.” 303-319 in Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice, edited by Mark Thompson. Boston: Alyson Publications. 1991.


Leland Carina, “Interview with Cléo Dubois.” Leatherati, September 19, 2012. https://leatherati.com/ interview-with-cleo-dubois-7aff0720b012


Mike Featherstone, editor, Body Modification, London: Sage Publications. 2000.


Fakir Musafar, Introduction by Mark Thompson, SPIRIT + FLESH, Arena Editions, 2002.


Fakir Musafar, “Epilogue. Body Play: My Journey,” in Bodies Under Siege: Self-Mutilation, Non-Suicidal Self-Injury, and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry by Armando Favazza, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University Press, 3rd edition, 2011.


Fakir Musafar, V. Vale, and Andrea Juno. “Fakir Musafar [Interview].” 6-24 in Modern Primitives, edited by V. Vale and Andrea Juno. San Francisco, CA: Re Search Publications. 1989.


Rebecca McClen Novick and David Jay Brown. Voices from the Edge: Conversations with Jerry Garcia, Ram Dass, Annie Sprinkle, Matthew Fox, Jaron Lanier & Others . Brainchild Productions, 2013.*


Daniel E. Slotnick. “Fakir Musafar, Whose ‘Body Play’ Went to Extremes, Dies at 87.” New York Times, August 13, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/13/obituaries/fakir-musafar-whose-body-playwent-to-extremes-dies-at-87.html


Carolyn Zinko. “Couple Brought Bondage and Body Piercing Out of the Dark.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 2017.


*edited and condensed for clarity

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