South Floridians Suspend to Find Enlightenment
Photo by Stian Roenning
Eric Madrid is a 32-year-old shaman with a cropped beard, a protruding lower lip, and dark curls grown long in the back. Although he typically wears an all-black uniform, from flat-brimmed cap to high-top skate shoes, he's barefoot and stripped to his skinny jeans this January night.
He lies prostrate on a long cushioned massage table in the dining room of his 1930s Design District home, which boasts a stripper pole and an antique metal bathtub for decoration. In the corner, propped between the linoleum floor and the wall, is a canvas spray-painted with the phrase: "Be who you want to be, just choose."
Diabolic Mikey — a handsome, insanely tattooed 28-year-old who looks like Matt Damon's evil twin — slips on a pair of white latex gloves so he can stick his friend in the right pectoral using a six-inch, six-gauge skewer that looks like the tip of a syringe.
He tries once to pierce the shaman's skin. Then again. The veins in Mikey's neck bulge and his ears turn red as he gives it a third go. The skewer bounces off Madrid's armor-like skin. Ten minutes later, on the fourth try, it penetrates his hairless chest.
Madrid's eyes well up with tears. He grips his stomach with his left hand and clenches his toes. Pushing with all his might, Mikey is able to make the skewer go through about four inches of his buddy's skin and pop out the other side. He slips what looks like a tiny coat hanger on the skewer and secures it with a screw and nut on top. Eventually, three of these are inserted and secured.
Three tattooed friends take cell-phone pictures of the carnage as Madrid stands and shows off his new hooks. His pixieish girlfriend, Kerri, fills an entire paper towel's worth of blood as she dabs his chest. Next, Madrid walks through his kitchen to a backyard lit with a pit fire and filled with droning, tribal-sounding music by the band Tool.
Coco Stabs, a 250-pound version of Bamm-Bamm with wooden shower curtain rings in his ears and a sherbet-colored bun atop his otherwise shaved head, awaits Madrid. He rigs his friend to a $1,200 pulley system that's similar to one on a yacht.
Everyone is silent. Although most suspension rituals are full of laughter and delight, Madrid's first chest suspension is deathly serious.
Red rivulets dribble down his slender figure, turning him into a hipster Christ. The seven spectators who have gathered for the event gasp in awe at this modern-day religious revival.
As Coco Stabs rotates the pulley, Madrid ascends about two feet off the ground. His tented skin seems impossibly stretched at six inches and destined to tear clean off.
To an outside observer, Madrid's suspension goes from terrifyingly tense to entirely banal within 30 seconds. The skewer/coat-hanger contraptions, called Gilson hooks, do their job. Madrid looks like he's asleep standing up as he slowly swings back and forth.
Later, he explains there was more going on than met the eye. Madrid emotionally describes seeing his physical body from an outside perspective and light cascading over his body in orgasmic waves. Eventually, the pain went away. As he puts it: "It's not the suspension that hurts; it's before and after." Although in reality the suspension lasted 90 seconds, to him it lasted years. "It felt like I was flexing a psychic muscle," Madrid says. "It felt like a breath that never ended."
And although most of his fellow suspension fanatics are covered in ink, subdermal skin implants, and unusual piercings, Madrid is as clean as he was coming out of the womb, except for the vague scars that reveal he's been suspended from his back ten times.
As perhaps Miami's most veteran suspension proponent, he now leads a small crew of dudes into out-of-body experiences, or what he calls OBEs. Together they're a surrogate family of young men who have defected from traditional religious upbringings to find comfort in ancient rite-of-passage rituals and supernatural experiences.
Madrid says he's been having OBEs since he was a kid but has now learned to control his extrasensory ability. It's a skill he learned from a mysterious man named Juan Leal and is now keen to pass on.
Though other suspension teams exist in Florida, Madrid claims his is unique in that its members use the practice as a spiritual tool more than anything else. Of the four core guys and handful of ancillary participants, only Coco Stabs does it for fun.
"It's always felt like my mission here since I was a little kid to assist with a shift in consciousness," Madrid says two weeks later, when he's still feeling the suspension's euphoric buzz. "But as I grow up, I see how it doesn't fit with a lot of people's ideas."
Madrid attracts new acolytes by posting pictures of his escapades on Facebook, where his photos of the chest suspension are a wild success. He gets kudos and queries from people who want to experience one of these religious epiphanies for themselves, but he also receives questions from people who would prefer that he try yoga or meditation.
"Eric, there are easier ways to leave your body, bro... if that's the goal... we can talk about it any time," one commenter writes.
"I leave my body all the time," Madrid responds. "This was different."
The idea of piercing one's skin with a hook and then suspending oneself to achieve spiritual clarity began in North America with Mandan tribesmen, who lived in the modern-day Dakotas. To become men, Mandan boys would participate in a four-day ritual called Okipa, in which they fasted, painted themselves, and wore animal skins to perform what was known as the bull dance. All of this culminated with being skewered and hung from their chests while weighed down with animal skulls.
"The goal was to make a sacrifice for the community," says Sebastian Braun, a professor of Native American studies at the University of North Dakota. "So that is the way that you sacrifice: You fast, and then you suspend yourself. You take a little bone and fold the skin and push it through like you would attach a button to something, and you would attach a leather rope to that."
George Catlin, an American painter, was probably the first white man to observe it. He traveled through the Old West five times during the 19th Century to paint a portrait series of native people. During his adventures, he also kept a journal.
"The brave fellow, whose proud spirit can controul [sic] its agony no longer, burst out in the most lamentable and heart-rending cries that the human voice is capable of producing, crying forth a prayer to the Great Spirit to support and protect him in this dreadful trial," he wrote in the summer of 1832. "There is no hope of escape from it, nor chance for the slightest relief, until by fainting, his voice falters, and his struggling ceases, and he hangs, apparently, a still and lifeless corpse!"
And as soon as an outsider was willing to watch them, it seems suspension practitioners were willing to show off.
"Several of them, seeing me making sketches, beckoned me to look at their faces," Catlin noted.
Mandans believed they had originally lived below ground. One day, a tribe member had screwed up his courage and climbed a grapevine to check out the Great Plains. As soon as his fellow tribespeople got word of the bison-heavy paradise, many others followed suit.
The population slowly migrated above ground until a particularly overweight lady broke the vine, according to the story, which meant the vast majority of Mandans were stuck below the earth, forever desperate to see what was happening on the surface.
Thus began the tribe's obsession with upward motion. And although the last legitimate version of Okipa occurred around 1889, one American teenager — Roland Loomis — became obsessed with replicating it more than 50 years later.
Loomis (who would later change his name to Fakir Musafar) was born in 1930. He grew up on a Depression-era Native American reservation in Aberdeen, South Dakota, as a nerd who couldn't make the track team. In an interview with New Times, he said he had dreamed of past lives every night and then began piercing himself when he was 12 years old. At the age of 17, he waited until his parents left town and then engineered his first out-of-body experience by fasting, dancing, and subjecting himself to extreme sensory deprivation.
"I had to do the whole thing in secret," he says. "I was scared, but that was the whole thrill of the thing."
After a short stint in the Army as a demolition instructor, Loomis moved to San Francisco to work as a high school teacher and study theater. He was also drawn to the city's many tattoo parlors.
His dreams often centered on a large black geometric symbol that represented fire coming out of the Earth. In native cultures, such "magic marks," as they are known, imbue people with shamanic powers.
"I had this vision of me for many, many years, and I would see my body in these visions with this mark on it," he says. "It was my higher self telling me that I couldn't be me until I got this mark, and then I would come to a higher power."
In Southern California, he found himself hanging out at parties that would eventually birth the concept of "modern primitives," or people who search for identity and meaning in the rituals of the past. That group would later spawn the body modification movement in America.
During one such get-together, at a mansion near Disneyland, Loomis learned he was haunted. Doug Malloy, an audio engineer and Hollywood socialite who lived catty-corner from Nancy Sinatra, told Loomis that a young Mandan tribesman was following him. "He said it was a young American Indian from 90 years ago in a place where [I had] lived, and he gave me a full reading that said I was formerly a young man from the eastern part of South Dakota who had a Mandan father," Loomis says. "He told me I was known as 'man who had holes in his chest.' "
Soon after, Loomis traveled to the Kandan district of Tokyo, where he came across a book by Catlin, the man who first catalogued Mandan rituals in 1832.
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.
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.
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.
"When they were interviewing these people, I was so intrigued with what they called 'out-of-body experiences,' " he recalls. "I wanted to know why they were doing what they were doing."
Seeing the men hang from hooks spoke to something deep inside Madrid. His great-grandfather was a mystic, and his grandfather was a Freemason in Colombia. Other people in his family could predict when someone would die, he says. Perhaps a sixth sense was in his blood.
Then there was that annoying, persistent droning in his ear. The best way he can describe it is that it felt like a yawn. It would make him go into a trance-like state whenever it popped up.
When Madrid was 13 years old, his mother and stepfather divorced. "Not having a father has affected me in certain ways," he says. "Even though I don't feel like I consciously have a father issue, it's deep inside me."
What's more, Jeanette was diagnosed with breast cancer four years after the divorce. She stopped attending Mass because, as Eric puts it, "she didn't see the point anymore."
Instead, Jeanette began seeing a shaman named Juan Leal. He taught Qi Gong, a series of slow movements that some people believe can cure serious diseases. He had quite a presence. "People said he looked like an extraterrestrial," she says. "He was very tall and very skinny and had a peculiarly shaped head and yellow skin."
By that time, Eric had forgotten about the sensation in his ear, the dreams, and the aliens. As a 15-year-old, he was dismissive of all parental authority. He didn't want anything to do with shamanism or Leal's teachings because it might interfere with his smoking weed, listening to NOFX, and skating handrails outside the downtown courthouse. His best friend at the time, Carlos Pachai, remembers how they'd take ecstasy and pull daredevil stunts like jumping off the University of Miami engineering building.
"At that age, I didn't even believe in the stuff that [my mother] was learning," he says. "I was really ignorant of it."
But sometimes he would discuss Leal's ideas with his mom, and by the time Madrid turned 19, he had watched the guru become a presence in his mom's life. Jeanette hung a giant photo of her teacher above the TV set in the living room. He ended up introducing her to a new guy, who eventually became her third husband. Most miraculous, Jeanette claims Leal's exercises cured her breast cancer.
"I was looking in the mirror one day when I saw a red dot of light that came over my shoulder and rested on my breast," she remembers. The next day, at her biopsy, the doctors were shocked to see the tumors just melt away when prodded with a needle.
(A multitude of studies have been done to see if Qi Gong effectively treats cancer, and at least six have concluded the exercises help reduce symptoms. Still, a literature review conducted by Myeong Soo Lee at Exeter University in the United Kingdom found that the methodological quality of these studies is typically poor.)
After witnessing this miracle, Eric decided to attend one of the shaman's classes. The Argentine guru had traveled widely before coming to the United States at the age of 50. He had collected a bunch of tai-chi-like practices from monastic communities around the world.
Madrid says he tried them once and had a mind-bending dream that night in which Leal helped him escape from a pyramid.
Leal died two years ago from "blood complications." Just before he passed, Leal told the Madrids to teach others his Qi Gong moves. But there was a caveat. Eric says the master told him that if someone who wasn't ready to perform the moves tried them, he or she would run the risk of becoming schizophrenic.
"The son of a woman in [Juan's] class would take mushrooms and smoke weed and do the exercises," Madrid says. "He had to be institutionalized. I don't want that kind of responsibility."
Around the time his master died, Madrid stopped practicing Qi Gong almost entirely. But newly awakened and equipped with a psychic vocabulary he hadn't possessed at age 8, a 20-year-old Eric Madrid sought out the men from the Okipa documentary.
Madrid was working as a photographer at a party in Miami Beach when he met Pinhead. The 32-year-old Broward County man had eyebrows and a goatee tattooed onto his face. Madrid soon learned that his new buddy had a suspension rig, and on November 16, 2010, after 20 years of waiting, Madrid went up for the first time at a warehouse party in Fort Lauderdale hosted by Pinhead.
"Nobody was sure I'd be able to do it, because I have no tattoos or piercings," he says. "But I was up there for 20 or 30 minutes, and as soon as my feet touched the ground, I felt a sense of happiness, calmness, and clarity that lasted a few days."
The next year, he met Michael Hooten, the Matt Damon look-alike who pierced him this past January when they performed the Okipa ritual. They were both working on the set of the now-canceled Starz show Magic City, with Madrid as a production assistant and Hooten as an extra. The two became friends, and another convert was born.
Hooten and Madrid began suspending semiregularly with Pinhead. But the two were relying on someone who lived far away and was hard to reach, so Madrid decided to step up. In December 2013, he began building a rig in Miami. First, he bought a $500 pulley system from a place called Miami Cordage. Next, he needed a collection of Gilson hooks. A guy in Arizona charged $50 a pop. Then, of course, Madrid required a pressure steam sterilizer to keep it all safe. That ran him $270.
"I've started doing suspensions without him because we don't want to wait," he says of Pinhead. "With him, we used to go up every three or four months, but now I'm able to put people up every month."
Soon Madrid was the leader of a group that included Hooten, Coco Stabs, and a dreadlocked human-Hulk named Dazed. Franky Cruz, a young artist who was raised Seventh-day Adventist, is their latest convert and their unofficial fifth member.
In 2010, he was kicked out of New World School of the Arts for suspending during his solo debut. Now he's looking to hang regularly with Madrid and his crew. Being brought into the group, Dazed says, "is like a Dances With Wolves kind of situation. It's the classic story of a new guy being initiated as an outsider and going through an intense ritual."
Michael Hooten has slicked-back hair, "Chaotic Tendencies" tattooed across his chiseled chest, and what looks like a fishhook pierced through his gums. On this temperate January evening in Eric Madrid's backyard, he is amped. "This is a ritual that goes back further than the Bible," he says while pulling on a Newport and preparing himself for Okipa. "It's one of the oldest things there is."
But when it comes time to hang, his swagger vanishes. He hangs for a matter of seconds before he passes out and has to be let down. Then he collapses. A few seconds later, he sits slumped over on the ground, sobbing. Jenny, a psychic medium with a copper-hued Afro, a nose ring, and a permanently worried expression, tries to feed him a chocolate bar to raise his blood sugar. He says he's unprepared to eat anything. He's hyperventilating.
Like Madrid, Hooten explains later, he's looking for a release from trauma — in his case, a life-changing car wreck.
When Hooten was 11 years old, a trailer jackknifed on the Tamiami Trail during a family trip to Naples. His Jehovah's Witness parents became disabled for life, while his younger sister, Alex Halenda, walked away unscathed. Meanwhile, Hooten's face was nearly ripped off. Although it miraculously shows no scars today, the experience left him deeply troubled. Around the time of the accident, he saw a documentary about people who suspended. The image never left him.
"I spent my whole life wondering how I could meet people who did this," he says.
His father ran a window installation service before the accident but was unable to work afterward. To make ends meet, Hooten began running with a gang that referred to him as "Whitey" and "Whiteboy," according to court documents. He fell in deep with Jose Dominguez, AKA Kiko, the head of the TOYS, which stands for "Taking Over Your Space." A 2008 Miami-Dade Police Department report shows the gang had 40 members and six chapters at the time Mikey was involved. He also reported to "some kind of Italian Mafia boss-type person," according to one officer's court testimony.
"He didn't really give himself the chance to process the emotions and the sensations that were going on," his sister, Alex Halenda, hypothesizes. "I think that kind of got to his head."
Suspension turned his life around. Hooten was always angry and eager for pain. He had a beloved grandfather who would beat him if he failed to show courtesy to his mother. He grew up scrapping in schoolyards. As an adult, he tried muay thai, a martial art from Thailand, to channel his residual anger, but it didn't do much.
Meeting Madrid was pretty much the best thing that ever happened, the former gangbanger says. He traded his TOYS nickname for "Diabolic Mikey" and began working as a professional piercer near Dadeland. Suspending calmed his nerves, let him get the rage out, he says. He's done it about ten times so far.
But this January day in Eric's backyard was different. Either he wasn't ready for the pain, or he wasn't prepared for the spiritual aspect of the evening. Regardless, he was on the ground crying. "My grandfather always used to rub the back of my neck when he'd tell me something important," Hooten says. "I felt his hand there, and I even saw the red and black plaid of the shirt he always used to wear."
Other people would go up that evening. There was Dazed, the human-Hulk who chose to simply suspend from his back and skip the spiritual bullshit. He had a great time, swinging back and forth as he laughed, testing the strength of the Gilson hooks until the rig collapsed and he fell. The noise sounded like a popped tire.
Then there was Coco Stabs, the 250-pound behemoth and good-time guy who cheerily hung from his massive body and laughed when he came down.
Neither of those guys, though, had attempted Okipa. Coco Stabs doesn't prepare for his suspensions by fasting ("I stuff my face first. Fuck it. It helps the experience be more euphoric.") and gets his emotional comfort instead from fawning over his pet bunny, MJ. ("It's stands for 'Mary Jane,' because I smoke a lot of weed. It was the easiest name I could think of.")
"I've never had a spiritual experience or whatever from it. I just wanted to do it to see what else my body could handle — to cross it off my bucket list," he says about the suspensions. "Now it's just something I do to chill with my family."
"I've already got four people who want to hang," Diabolic Mikey says. "Randoms, but they say they'll pay us 400 bucks."
He, Madrid, and Coco Stabs are discussing the plan for their family business over a recent dinner at Ricky's Thai in North Miami. Although Coco and Mikey constantly hover over their iPhones, obsessing about Instagram followers and trying to cull new initiates from their feeds, Madrid has the final say about whom they will suspend.
"I want it to be like us — family," he decrees.
Indeed, Madrid wants to start a family business. While he says he'd feel guilty charging people for performing his passion, he also recognizes that the cost of owning and operating a rig is high. He's thought about advertising his new space to anyone interested, but it would be a time-and-cash suck that would attract the wrong folks. In his mind, people looking for a spiritual epiphany would be willing to pay.
"When it's free, people don't care," he says, as if casually inclined folks would be willing to undergo such intense pain on a whim or dare. "The suspensions would be full of disinterested people. When it costs money, people attach a value to it."
But even if they're willing to pay, potential candidates need to be vetted. Madrid ideally wants to find foursomes who will form their own crews after they're initiated into the practice. He's also worried about getting his own crew — which he's just deemed "the Four Horsemen" — in line.
Right now, he's focused on attracting his buddy and first acolyte, Diabolic Mikey, away from the dark arts. The former gang member with a heart of gold thinks the demons following him are a boon, Madrid explains, but his energy is draining. He'll likely find trouble if he doesn't change. Madrid wishes Mikey, with his tattoos and pseudonym, would stop embracing those demons.
"A lot of his image is a shock-value thing," Madrid says. "I don't know what happened in his life that helped him find strength in the occult, but after the suspension, he realized it was the other way around, and those energies were using him."
Although he doesn't see himself as a teacher like Juan Leal, Madrid is clearly initiating a group of Miami kids into a new way of seeing the world. He's hopeful that social media will help make the shift. He, Mikey, and even Fakir Musafar had to find out about suspension through either late-night documentaries or rare books. Posting a picture online, though, can inspire more people than other media.
"Every time I post a picture on Facebook, there's someone new who sees it and wants to try it," Madrid says. "I have a feeling that if we started a business, I could stay busy for a while."
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