The subculture of body suspension

HANGING OUT: Skindependent recently showed an installation of body suspension at ArtBox gallery.
Martin Booth
HANGING OUT: Skindependent recently showed an installation of body suspension at ArtBox gallery.

Metal hooks inserted into skin? Dangling in mid air? The phrase "hanging out" has taken on new meaning, thanks to body suspension.

Closely linked with the wider world of body modification, suspension involves an individual's skin being pierced with large sterilised metal hooks, from which they are then hung.

Thought to have originated in India and used in ancient cultures for millennia, the current form has been adapted by body modification aficionados and combines physics and spirituality.

Arriving at the nondescript Blenheim Rd address on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I'm greeted by a jarring juxtaposition between a hairdressing salon and an operating theatre.

Dance music pumps from a stereo. The walls are white. The floor is polished wood. People in surgical masks and gloves are casually standing around. Elaborate harnesses and pulley systems dangle from the ceiling.

A woman lies face down on a massage table.

She is tended to by a man with elaborate tattoos wearing a surgical mask, plastic apron and gloves.

A large metal hook is inserted under the skin on her back. A piece of flesh is grabbed, the hook is pushed in until it slides in and out the other side. No blood is visible. The man in a mask asks "are you a bleeder?" I don't hear the reply.

A suspension artist, who is responsible for setting up the elaborate array of hooks, ropes, and pulleys for the suspension, monitors proceedings. She strokes the woman's hair and utters reassurances in soothing tones.

The suspension process itself is carried out surprisingly slowly.

The woman is elevated in tiny increments. Each time the ropes and pulleys are constantly monitored and altered. These rigging methods are borrowed from techniques developed for stage rigging, construction and rock climbing.

At one point the woman swears loudly. She apologetically says "sorry guys".

After half an hour or so, we have lift off and her body gently rocks back and forth in the air.

She laughs wildly, eliciting applause from onlookers.

A woman with an intricate hairstyle sits down beside me and bites into an apple.

Between bites she informs that suspension styles differ. She'd like to try a "Superman suspension" - hooks that run the length of a person's back and legs.

Eden Thomson is the head of Christchurch group Skindependent Suspension.

A professional body piercer at Absolution Studio, he was introduced to suspension seven years ago.

"I remember thinking it was definitely something I was not keen on trying," he recalls. "It was the line I drew for myself. Yet, it grew on me. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try it until finally it came time to experience it for myself. I did, and I fell in love."

Skindependent has been operating in Christchurch for over five years. A picture book, FIVE, to celebrate this anniversary, was released in December.

Obviously, there are risks.

These include infection, nerve and tendon damage due to improper hook placement and suspension shock syndrome if someone is vertically suspended for too long.

Thomson says that two of the crew hold first aid and CPR certificates and have had blood- borne pathogens training.

"As far as negative effects the most common is people feeling light-headed," he says. "We have never had anyone faint, but given the activity, people can become light-headed. Of course, like anything, if it is not done safely with the right knowledge, gear and experience then the repercussions can be quite great."

Why do it?

Thomson believes it's something that cannot be fully understood until it is experienced.

At the session I attended people describe their experiences as "relaxing", "cathartic" and "spiritual".

Some do it for spiritual reasons, others do it as a personal challenge - "if I can do this I can do anything" - similar to the way some people like to strap rubber bands to their legs and bungy jump off a bridge.

In Christchurch the subculture is somewhat underground.

Thomson says my being allowed access is unusual, adding that the group tends to shy away from media coverage because of the "often negative impact it can have on body suspension and the community".

Skindependent has a Facebook page which has nearly 1100 likes and a core group meets for regular "Sunday sessions" to suspend themselves and "hang out" together.

Recently the group ventured into the public eye with an installation at ArtBox gallery.

"It was really well received and executed beautifully. I am pleased with the efforts of everyone involved and very thankful to ArtBox for letting us utilise the space and be able to demonstrate to public what it is exactly we do."

He says suspension has an "amazing following" in Christchurch and is a "lively culture" gaining increasing momentum locally and abroad.

"Whether it is suspension enthusiasts, frequent fliers or crew members, everyone is a part of this. No-one is judged or questioned for their love of it, they are accepted no matter what. I think that is pretty special."

Next January Christchurch will host SusCon Australasia, a convention held specifically for suspension.

"I am lucky to have the help of my mentor Havve Fjell who runs the Oslo SusCon in Norway and Allen Falkner who runs the Dallas Practitioners SusCon."

Thomson says he has long conversations with first-timers, with a focus on health, both before and after their suspensions.

The most shocking thing about seeing a suspension for the first time is watching someone's flesh stretch like chewing gum as it supports the weight of the body but, although it is uncomfortable to watch, I'm assured it is completely safe if done correctly.

To reassure, the woman I watched dangle from hooks lifts her T-shirt to show me her back, which I had imagined would be stretched and distorted beyond her thin frame, but it isn't.

Still grinning, she tells me that initially she felt a slight pressure then an immense rush of joy.

I'll take her word for it.


Blood Borne Pathogen and Principles of Infection Control seminar, 45 Harvard Avenue, Wigram, 10am-6pm, January 21. These classes are specifically designed for practitioners of the modification industry and cover topics relating to traditional tattooing, cosmetic tattooing and body piercing. Email skindependent_

The Australasian SusCon convention will be held in Christchurch from January 22-24, 2015.

The Press