He opened O-Kee-Pa: A Religious Ceremony and Other Customs of the Mandans and gasped at its 13 illustrations of men hanging from their chests. He immediately understood it was something he must do, and in 1967, he finally emulated it in an empty garage, using Catlin's book as his only guide.

"[He] would take mushrooms and smoke weed and do the exercises. He had to be institutionalized."

Months later, he began work as a professional piercer and starting hosting his own body modification parties. Eventually, he began flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles on weekends to provide his services to walk-ins at an abandoned flower shop on Santa Monica Boulevard. "It was the first door in America, Europe, or Canada where someone could walk in and request any kind of piercing they wanted," he says. In 1977 in Reno, he suspended publicly at the world's first tattoo convention as Fakir Musafar, a name he swiped from a Ripley's cartoon about a piercing fanatic in 12th-century Persia. He never went back to his birth name.

Soon, he and a group of about five people started suspending regularly. The subculture grew "like a virus," he says. Of course, tribal tattoos and piercings are more common nowadays, and people are practicing suspension all the way down in Miami.

Antonio Angelo prepares to suspend for the first time at a tattoo shop party in Hollywood. Hanging from the back is considered the safest and least painful way for initiates to suspend.
Antonio Angelo/antonioangelo.com
Antonio Angelo prepares to suspend for the first time at a tattoo shop party in Hollywood. Hanging from the back is considered the safest and least painful way for initiates to suspend.

Although the skin is elastic, one brave enough to Google "suspension gone wrong" can see a fair share of accidents. Still, the ritual is reasonably safe. If people fall, it's typically because they're not using enough hooks or doing something stupid, like hanging their 250-pound buddy from his left elbow.

"It's hard to believe, but there is an incredible amount of elasticity and stretchability in the skin," says Martin Zaic, head of the dermatology department at Florida International University's medical school. "How does an ocean liner stay afloat? Distribution of weight." (While the strongest area to suspend from is the back, the weakest is the chest, where the skin is much thinner.)

Musafar doesn't like where the scene has gone. As he sees it, people who suspend break down into three types: those who do it for sport, those who do it for performance, and those who appreciate its meaning. At the end of March, Musafar will speak at SusCon in Dallas, a three-day suspension convention that drew 253 attendees last year. His talk will focus on how the spiritual subculture he founded has been co-opted.

"My biggest problem right now, since I've been kind of responsible for bringing these rituals into our culture, is that people are missing the main purpose of the people who originated it," he says. "People bring in the form and substance of it, but they don't bring in the reason of why you do it and the end result of what you're supposed to do. It's like fun and games."

From the time he was a kid, Eric Madrid was always in pain. He had breathing problems, stomach issues, you name it. He often went to the hospital. In his 20s, he almost electrocuted himself accidentally when he was on acid and pierced the nape of his neck for fun. Ask him what his most painful memory is, and he'll say that's like asking you to describe your most memorable Tuesday off the top of your head.

Still, suspension is such an intense experience that it's impossible to predict who can handle it. "Some people are fight, and some people are flight," he says. "A big, built guy might freak out, and a little girl might be totally fine."

When Madrid first suspended, he was "not impressed" by the pain. He took the four hooks in his back without complaint and swung around for about 20 minutes with his arms out like a little kid playing airplane. Although he had a great time, disappointment lingered afterward.

"I felt a strong sense of euphoria for weeks after," he says. "But I guess the reason I originally wanted to do it is because I wanted to try something that would change me. That didn't happen."

The hipster spiritualist was born May 11, 1981, with full lips, an inquisitive mind, and a bizarre droning in his ear. Besides this chronic nuisance, he was a normal kid growing up in Doral. His mom, Jean­ette Madrid, remembers a rambunctious little boy who loved camping, fishing, and swimming. His favorite activity, though, was competitive rollerblading, which he would do alongside Franky Morales, a now-world-class professional skater.

The two would jump off ledges and staircases with the kind of fearlessness possessed only by juveniles convinced of their own immortality. Jeanette says her son craved adrenaline from the time he could walk. He also made audacious claims — that he could run faster than a car, that reptile people visited him nightly in his sleep.

"It used to scare me, because I thought he was hallucinating or something was wrong with my kid," she says of her son's vivid dreams.

Young Eric would barely sleep when he visited his grandfather in Cutler Ridge. There, away from the watchful eye of his Catholic mother, he could stay up and cruise late-night cable shows. One such program altered his life. Madrid was 8 years old when he saw his first suspension in a documentary. Although he doesn't remember the title, the subject stayed with him.

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