Cover Story

A loose-knit group of adventurers may be hanging around near you


Cover image for Jun 23, 2010

Aaron Collins barely flinches as the last deep-sea fishing hook is thrust through the skin of his back. It’s 4:30 on a recent Saturday afternoon and Collins, whose black faux-hawk is flecked with blue dye, is lying shirtless on his stomach half a mile down a trail off of the Pali Highway. Sunlight peers through the trees, which hang over the quiet trail like haunted canopies. Squatting next to him is Kalie Capadona, who is slender and pale and boasts a 1 ¾-inch gauge in each ear lobe and black tattoos across her chest. Clad in latex gloves, she’s responsible for “throwing hooks” into Collins’ back–industry slang for piercing through one layer of skin with an 8-gague deep-sea fishing hook (about the size of a Q-tip stem), then exiting through a second point, located an inch-and-a-half below. Points of entry and exit are marked by Sharpie dots, which cover scar tissue from Collins previous suspensions–too many to recall. Collins takes a deep breath and stands up with four hooks in his back, two symmetrically flanking each shoulder blade. “Let’s rock and roll,” he says.

Rolando Dela Vega, a brawny, 28-year-old Panama native with a mohawked afro, ties white nylon string to a homemade metal rig, then crisscrosses it through the eye of each hook sticking out of Collins’ back. The rig dangles from a block and tackle tied 20-feet up in a tree, which shades the trail sporadically traversed by cane-wielding hikers and their dogs.

Standing up, Collins takes a deep breath. He grits his teeth then briskly pulls down on the rope that controls the block and tackle–right hand over left hand over right over left. In a matter of seconds, Collins hoists his body off the ground by the skin on his back. His legs kick wildly in the air, like a scene from the Roadrunner cartoons.

Then for a few minutes he simply hangs, dangling vertically four feet off the ground and executing what is known as a suicide suspension. From the front, Collins isn’t exactly smiling, but he’s close to it, his eyes beaming with tranquility. From the back, the hooks heave his skin, creating a landscape of two fleshy mountains. A single rivulet of blood trickles from one mountaintop then stops at the bottom of Collins’ shoulder blade.

Five minutes after Collins’ ascent, Boyd Ako, a 25-year-old local boy clad in black, saunters towards Collins and gently shoves his hanging body, sending him gliding through the air. As Collins momentum builds, Ako and Dela Vega sidestep his swinging body.

“This reminds me of riding the swings when I was a little kid,” Collins yelps, as his momentum builds, lifting his body higher. “I feel like I’m going to fly over the tree.”

The Viking, by punk band Lars Frederiksen & The Bastards, blares from an iHome system perched on the trail’s edge. As he swings, Collins sings along:

I don’t know a heaven

but I’ve made peace with hell.

Been shot at, been stabbed

been beatin’ up real bad.

Survived everything without being killed.

Katie Moriarty, a sandy blonde, doe-eyed college student from Washington who was in Hawaii visiting her sister, had only one observation after witnessing her first suspension: “I’m just glad that’s not me.”

Ghosts in the machine

Collins is a sprightly 28 years old and, save for a ring pierced through his septum, has a boyishly innocent face and spiky hair. Besides body modification, his life-long passion is computers. He understands computer codes the way Beethoven understood a score of music, and hacked into his first computer in Arizona when he was 8. When he turned 18, Collins got his first tattoo: the word “hacker” in katakana across the center of his upper-back. He followed it with the theory of calculus sprawled across the right side of his torso. Today he’s a computer engineer working in Maui, a career he self-deprecatingly refers to as “an overpaid hacker.”

To Collins, we’re all machines–fancy machines, yes, but like the computers he invades and distorts, machines that can be broken, re-designed and manipulated to operate in ways they weren’t originally intended. Hanging from fishing hooks is Collins’ way of hacking his body. Each suspension explores his body’s capacity to be re-designed.

This fascination has led to other means of transformation. Four years ago, Steve Haworth, a body modification artist based in Arizona, surgically inserted a tiny magnet in the tip of Collins’ pointer finger that can detect electrical currents–a benefit for someone who works with computers and frequently gets shocked. Another magnet located in the skin between his pointer and thumb was implanted with more romantic intentions. Collins’ girlfriend, who lives in Switzerland, has one in her hand that corresponds with his. “When we hold hands they fit together,” he said.

Collins compares the sensation of suspending to hitting a runner’s high, particularly mile 18 of a marathon. Physiologically, this makes sense: Hanging from hooks causes the body to go into shock, resulting in an endorphin rush.

“For me, it’s about pushing my body to the limit,” said Collins, whose penis is ribbed with a piece of hexagon-shaped silicone flaunting beads at each corner. “There’s a certain point when you’re running a marathon when your body’s like, ‘Fuck this, I can’t go any farther.’ Your body shuts down and it’s just like ‘I’m done.’ And you kind of just force yourself to push through it.”

He also believes that through suspensions he’s getting in touch with archaic codes rarely accessed in the human body. “It’s a very primitive code,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve picked up an animal by the nape and their arms will go limp, their heads will drop to the side, and the same exact thing happens when you suspend from your back. Your arms go limp, your head kind of crimps to the side, and you don’t really have the ability to control it anymore. There’s this code left over in us that’s telling us: ‘You need to submit now.’”

A floating village

Collins estimates that there are 40 people in Hawaii who suspend. He’s met more than half of them. Between Maui and Oahu, he and his friends make a point to either suspend or assist with suspensions once a month. Sometimes Collins gets lucky and does two a month, which gives his skin just enough time to heal between each piercing. Typically these suspensions take place in the woods, or in someone’s backyard. Occasionally, they’ll also happen at night.

Suspension made its Hawaii debut in 1997, at an event called Hawaii’s Fetish Ball at a warehouse on Nimitz. At the ball a Dallas-based suspension collective known as Traumatic Stress Discipline (TSD), performed thanks to an invitation from Gus Diamond, the founder of the now-defunct Paragon Piercing on Kapiolani Boulevard. Diamond apprenticed under Allen Falkner, the founder of TSD, who’s also known as the Father of Modern Suspension.

The practice of suspending the body from hooks has its first traceable roots dating to the 19th century. A number of American Indian tribes practiced a ritual known as the Sun Dance to commemorate the summer solstice, with hopes of leaving their bodies and having visions. According to written accounts, after fasting, tribesman would pierce their backs or chests and suspend from sacred trees, where they’d hang until the piercings ripped through their flesh. The ritual was seen as a form of spiritual regeneration, and could take days to complete.

For modern practitioners, ripping through flesh is never the goal. Neither is pretending to revive a lost American Indian ritual. Instead, motivations range from shock-value and performance art to transcendence and mental clarity. In general, the consensus underpinning all motivations is pretty simple, if not hard to believe: Hanging from hooks feels divine.

“It’s a beautiful euphoria,” said Chris “Defibrillator,” the founder of 808 Defibrillator Productions, a company that promotes punk shows in Honolulu’s Chinatown. “The only thing I could compare it to is meditation. But rather than wait however long it takes to get to that euphoric state…this just pushes you faster into euphoria.”

As euphoric as the sensation may be, there is no denying the pain. A needle flaunting a laser-sharp razor tip is used to pierce the hooks through the skin, and the act of hoisting the body into the air can induce nausea and vomiting, particularly for people not used to the pains of body modification.

“I’ve had people faint on me,” said Collins, noting that the first experience suspending is always the most painful. “It’s kind of like tattoos: six years for your first one, two weeks for your second one.”

The first time

Boyd Ako, a heavyset Big Island boy, attempted his first suspension that Saturday afternoon off the Pali. He’d contemplated suspending since 2003, when he hacked into Collins’ computer at Netstop Café, where he worked as a barista, and encountered pictures of Collins hanging from hooks in Arizona. “Coming from Big Island,” Ako said, “it was mainly a culture shock.” At the Café, Ako introduced himself to Collins and mentioned the pictures. The chance encounter between the two hackers grew into a friendship, as the subcultures they each associated with–Ako with gothic/industrial, Collins with punk–frequently crossed paths.

What finally brought Ako to take the plunge was a desire to have an out-of-body experience, something he hasn’t been able to do since starting his career doing hardware support for the government, which requires polygraph drug testing, three years ago.

Since, “I’ve been exploring other avenues of going to a different place in my mind,” he said. With six hooks pierced in his back (each hook can support 60 pounds of dynamic weight, 90 pounds of static weight), Ako cautiously pulled the rope controlling the block and tackle.

After 15 minutes, his eyes, which remained closed for most of the pulling, began to water. He was still floor-bound. Collins and Dela Vega came to his side and softly chanted mantras of encouragement–“You can do anything you put your mind to”–which shortly turned into expressions of submission. “If you’re not comfortable, don’t do it,” Aarons said. “You can always do it next time.”

A few minutes later, Ako, still on the ground, shook his head and released his grip on the rope. The slopes on his back deflated. Collins immediately fetched a pair of scissors and cut the nylon rope attaching the hooks to the metal harness. “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s just not your time.”

Ako said he knew before getting pierced that he wasn’t going to make it off the ground. “It’s definitely in the mind,” he said, a few minutes after letting go, with the hooks still poking out of his back. He said he was close, but compared the mental obstacle holding him down to a scenario: someone preparing to hammer him with a bat. “Your first reaction is to block it or dodge it and that was me dodging that bat,” he said. “Eventually I know I’m just going to have to straight up face the bat.”

An hour earlier Dela Vega faced the bat. “It’s not the fact that it hurts–of course it hurts–but it’s a matter of actually accepting it,” said Dela Vega, who has four hooks pierced through his tattoo, which read “Luck Punk” in graffiti-style lettering. “For me it’s like accepting anything–accepting death, accepting a gift, accepting love from somebody, you know what I mean? Once you accept it, you’re good. It doesn’t hurt so much anymore.”

He took a drag of his cigarette then continued.

“It puts everything in perspective. There’s so many times I want to smack someone in the face on a day-to-day basis–this makes me realize that I don’t want to hurt anybody. I can do enough damage to myself.”

Dela Vega’s face clenched in anguish as he slowly began to pull on the rope. His arms shook and his legs, still rooted to the dirt, trembled. After 10 minutes, he teetered on his tiptoes in slow motion, then elevated off the ground. The transition from the ground to the air was most discernible on Dela Vega’s face, which suddenly brimmed with serenity.

“I’m happier than I’ve been in a while,” he said, swinging. “It’s your body telling you, ‘You can do this. You can continue on.’”

“Pain is not a factor.”

Between piercings and hangings, the eight friends convened in the woods share small talk about Furry porn, new piercings and gossip about other people in the body modification scene. Conversations repeatedly return to past suspensions, and get discussed with the same fervor ex-athletes employ to rhapsodize about their high school heydays. There was that one time Capadona hung for nearly an hour from chains fastened under a bridge between Hanauma Bay and Sandy’s, overlooking the ocean. The 25-year-old was topless, which sparked the interest of a few fishermen nearby–until they saw the hooks in her back. There was that other time, at the now defunct Detox bar, when Capadona did a public suspension accompanying a friend’s art show. After coming down, a guy in the audience approached Capadona and called her a “cunt.”

“I was like, ‘Really dude? We have hooks in our chest,” Capadona said. “Obviously pain is not a factor.’”

Today, suspensions are broadly distinguished between public–a form of performance or entertainment in nightclubs–and private–suspensions in nature or other isolated environments among a group of friends, done more for the benefit of the person suspending.

On a rainy Friday night in January, Ashley Suzuki, a petite, 20-year-old with a black bob, performed a suicide suspension from the ceiling of Alter Solum, a nightclub on King Street. The event was called Heaven and Hell, billed as a night of dominatrices, dungeons and industrial-gothic music.

Surrounding a hanging Suzuki was a crowd of around 75 people, which included everyone from a tanned Asian boy sporting a crew cut and board shorts, to a girl wearing a hot-pink leopard print hat with Mickey Mouse ears and knee-high leather boots. Dan Eternal, the owner of Eternal Body art who pierced Suzuki, smiled enthusiastically as flashes emitted from a succession of digital cameras. Industrial house music, with brooding bass lines and dark cult-like voices, blared courtesy of DJ Nocturna, Hawai’i’s own “Queen of Darkness.”

While in the air, Suzuki took a puff of someone’s cigarette, reviewed pictures on her friend’s digital camera, and caressed Poota, Dan Eternal’s black Poodle-Maltese mix. The hooks framed a tattoo of the Suzuki car label located in the middle of Suzuki’s back.

Less than ten minutes after suspending, most of the crowd shifted to the opposite side of the club to witness a spectacle of a different sort: a man, naked save for a thong around his knees and a blindfold over his eyes, had his arms and legs tied to a 6-foot wooden cross. Seven clothespins clinched his penis as dominatrices poured wax on his chest and ran their nails down his back.

A foot above the ground, a hanging Suzuki turned her head to witness the naked man.

She winced. The first thought that came to her mind was, “That’s kind of weird.”

“I was little thrown off,” Suzuki later recalled. “I didn’t know they were going to go that far.”