Standing outside Ink Addiction Tattoo and Body Piercing in Eureka, Kat, a third-generation local and social worker by day, says a few things that are frankly hard to swallow. For one, she claims to have a needle phobia, yet her body is festooned with surface piercings. Stainless steel balls cling to her sternum and rows of them run down the back of her neck. But give her a TB test, she says, and she's likely to pass out cold. Nonetheless, inside the tattoo parlor at this very moment, Ben Ragains, Kat's trusted piercer, is getting ready to insert four massive tuna hooks under the skin of her back.
The anticipation has made her hyper. Kat's in her mid-30s but looks younger, with an athlete's body, an easy smile and dirty-blond hair to her shoulders. She keeps taking slugs of water from a plastic bottle and shifting nervously from one foot to the other. She can't stand still. Her body is swimming with endorphins. Dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin -- she knows them by name, and she knows their effects. In fact, she's become rather addicted to them. "It's really cool," she says in a jittery voice. "It's fun. It makes you smile."
She also says she's scared of heights, yet in less than three hours she'll be dangling from a ceiling beam in a back-alley Eureka art gallery, swinging athletically from a nylon rope that's been looped through a pulley and tethered to the hooks in her back. A crowd of 50 or so will be gaping, gasping and cheering as she kicks off walls and soars through the air like some repertory Peter Pan -- aside from the blood that will be dripping down her back.
This will be Kat's seventh suspension. (Kat asked us not to use her full name. Her dad doesn't know she does this, and she really doesn't want him to find out.) She's been suspended at HumBrews, in the basement of the Eureka Veterans Hall, at an erotic ball and a fetish party. Each time she's gotten a bit more comfortable with it. On the last couple she even let other people hold the rope, leaving her hands free. That was a difficult mental hurdle because she's a control freak, she says. Lately she's been thinking it's time to take things to the next level. She got into suspensions because the rush of getting pierced had grown diluted over time. It did the trick: The euphoria she felt after her first few hangings lasted a week or more. Now, though, she's begun looking for new frontiers, new phobias to overcome. "For some reason I have this thing against getting pierced in my legs," she says. "I think I need to open up and do the Superman style -- two in the upper back, two in the lower, one on each thigh and one on each calf."
Her craziest claim -- the one that really stretches credulity -- is that being hung from hooks in your skin, like some sort of torture victim, doesn't really hurt. "A paper cut is way worse than a suspension," she says. "A paper cut -- you're gonna get lime in it three days later. You're gonna keep bumping it." A piercing, on the other hand, is just one deep breath away. "You inhale," she says, taking a deep lungful, "you exhale, and it's done. I mean, how bad is that? I feel it for like three seconds."
OK, but the hanging. The stretching.
That's nothing, she says. Like grabbing a cat by the scruff of its neck. On the other hand, she admits, "My idea of pain might be a little skewed."
Ragains is a mellow, soft-spoken man with long hair and an eight-inch goatee. Inside, he has carefully arranged his piercing tools on a rolling metal table lined with paper towels. Old school hip hop plays through the store's speakers. Kat lies face-down on a massage table, surrounded by half a dozen curious onlookers, including her boyfriend, Jerry, and a burly bald man who's just received two new tattoos -- "Wax on" and "Wax off," that timeless Karate Kid couplet, in blocky, faux-Asian lettering on the underside of each forearm. Ragains makes pinpoint marks on Kat's back with toothpicks whose tips have been dipped in tattoo ink. Then, with black-rubber-gloved hands, he gathers a large fold of Kat's back skin and holds it with a pair of ratcheting forceps, carefully lining up two ink marks near her left shoulder.
He grabs a needle. Actually, "needle" isn't quite the right term. It's more like a straw -- hollow, three inches long, an eighth of an inch in diameter and beveled at one end to create a razor-sharp edge. When he pushes this shaft through her skin, it emerges with a tiny plug of flesh nestled in its concave tip.
"This part is really relaxing to me," Kat says. Some part of her body, at least, remains more rational: The muscles in her back, she explains, tense up involuntarily after the first needle goes through, which makes each consecutive piercing a little more difficult. Ragains has wrapped plastic tape around his middle finger as a sort of makeshift thimble. If he didn't, he explains, the resistance of Kat's scarred, tense back flesh would likely cause the needle to puncture his own skin.
With three of the four needles inserted, Ewok Loki Tree, a bearded redhead and one of the shop's four tattoo artists, steps in with a hook. They're eight-gauge, same width as the needles, and unlike regular tuna hooks these have no barbs. Ewok lines up a hook's tip to the needle's back end and pushes, forcing the needle through like a tent pole slipping through a canvas sleeve. Soon, all four hooks are inserted, and Kat, unfazed, pops up off the massage table to get a look in the mirror. She fiddles with the right shoulder strap of her tie-dyed tank top, trying to decide which side of the hook it should rest on, while onlookers capture the moment on their camera phones. "That was cool, Benny," says one. The skin tubes jacketing each hook are puffy and white, and her upper back has turned pink, but there's no bleeding. That will come later.
"I get a lot of, 'Oh, did you go trolling and get hooked?'" Kat says with feigned displeasure. She's chipper, on a natural high that won't peak until tonight's show. The truth is that she craves the attention. Exhibitionism is central. She knows that suspensions go back hundreds of years and have deep cultural significance for certain Native American tribes, like the Mandan and the Oglala Sioux, for whom they were part of a rite-of-passage ritual known as Sun Dance. Kat doesn't want to disrespect those traditions, and that's the extent of her thoughts in that direction. For her, suspension is about something else entirely. This is a woman who got her tongue pierced in front of her speech class at College of the Redwoods.
She's recalling this story about an hour later as she and her boyfriend and a few others walk north on Third Street. Ragains, meanwhile, is on a ladder a few blocks away, wrapping a heavy chain around a ceiling beam inside the Empire Squared gallery, a converted industrial warehouse in the alley behind Northcoast Horticulture Supply. Members of E2, an outsider-art collective, have enthusiastically agreed to host tonight's "happening." While Ragains and his assistants set up the suspension rigging, Kat takes the opportunity to grab a drink at the Shanty -- or rather, the opportunity to be seen grabbing a drink at the Shanty with half a pound of fish hooks in her back.
So anyway, she says, resuming her story, students for this speech class were encouraged to bring in props. She brought Ben, her piercer, and did a speech on body modifications. She went last so that students who were grossed out could leave. None did, she says. In fact, students from the next class showed up early to watch. "Ben pierced my tongue, and then I went to math class."
She smiles at the memory, then looks ahead at the bar's teal concrete walls. The empty sidewalk out front glows pink with ambient neon. "Is anyone even at the Shanty?" she asks with concern. But, happily, when she swings the door open it's bustling. She orders a cocktail, removes her sweatshirt and grabs a stool.
People stare, cringe, point, then belatedly try to play it cool. A pretty young woman at the bar does a double-take, then walks excitedly over to the table. "I'm sorry," she says, "how did you start that?" Her name is Nicole Yohe. She's 26 and moved here last December from Pennsylvania by way of Los Angeles. She's read about human suspensions but never seen one in person, and she can't contain her delight.
"What does it feel like right now?" she asks.
"It feels like a heavy earring," Kat says, then launches into an explanation of the mechanics involved. Each hook is rated to hold 80 pounds, she explains, and the skin can hold a lot more than that, provided the weight is evenly distributed. "Look at a leather jacket," she says. "That's skin." As for herself, she tells Nicole, she's actually pretty mild-mannered, a nine-to-five girl. She owns a couple Pomeranians whom she cares about deeply. (Twice she's passed out at the vet's office during a canine exam; once she had to be revived with doggy oxygen, she says.) She works with the physically and mentally disabled, and tomorrow morning she has to be up by six for a five-hour horse-riding clinic in Westhaven. "This is my alter ego," she says with a nod over her shoulder. "I'd be in bed right now if I wasn't doing this."
"I'm so excited to have met you," Nicole says, though it hardly needed to be articulated. Her eyes are practically shooting happiness sparkles. Kat suggests she and her friend come watch, and Nicole quickly agrees. Everyone downs the last of their drinks and heads out the door.
The alley that leads to the gallery is dark with a sour, salty pungency coming from the nearby fish processing facility. "It smells like murder alley," someone quips. Back at the gallery a crowd has started to form, some milling about outside smoking cigarettes, others sitting inside on the cement floor, leaning against the walls and eyeballing the art on the walls, which appears to have been left behind after a recent showing. In a dark corner a woman is playing an eerie, campy dirge on a KORG keyboard. The name "Stranger Than Fact" is stitched into the fabric draping her keyboard stand. As she launches into a Jello Biafra cover, her voice wavering in minor keys, a young woman in a black flamenco dress emerges from a doorway with a Pabst in one hand and a metal bowl brimming with freshly popped popcorn in the other. She walks around the room offering nibbles. At the door, a man called Candyman is requesting five-dollar donations to benefit the financially struggling artists' collective.
The suspension rigging dangles ominously in the middle of the room: A two-foot wooden crossbar, braced with metal plating and implanted with steel rings, is attached via carabiners to a swivel, with thick cords of green rope leading to the pulley wheel chained high above. Kat, already the focus of attention, saunters across the room and gives her shoulders a quick series of prizefighter shrugs. "Is my back ready?" she asks no one in particular. Ragains positions her under the rigging and starts rubbing lubricant all over her upper back -- to allow smoother hook movement while she's swinging, Kat says. Ragains then ties her to the rigging, running a yellow cord back and forth through the steel rings and the eyelets of the hooks in Kat's back, zigzagging it like he's lacing up a shoe. When he's done he cinches a tight knot at each edge, snips off the excess cord with scissors and retreats to the side of the room, carrying the loose end of the rope with him.
By now the crowd has all filed in from outside and formed into a dense semicircle, maintaining a cautionary distance. After warning a few stragglers that she'll need more space, Kat stands alone in the center of the room, a floodlight casting her crisp shadow on the gallery's back wall. With her fingertips tucked into her pockets, she gazes at the rigging directly above and gives her shoulders a couple of quick twists, like a marionette checking its strings. A smudge of blood has appeared beneath one of the four hooks. The synth music fades out, and for a moment the room is completely silent.
"We about ready to do this thingy?" Kat asks the crowd. They respond with loud whistles and a collective "Wooo!" But they immediately fall silent again. "I want some energy," Kat says. "C'mon." The crowd obliges. On cue, Stranger Than Fact launches into a new song, a pulsing, synthetic requiem. Kat reaches up with her left hand and grips the rope.
Google "human body suspension" and you'll mostly find pictures of tattooed, self-consciously morbid men and women hanging stock-still from their hooked flesh, like gruesome exhibits in a goth torture museum. That's not Kat's style. With rapid, inverted hand-over-hand grabs, she quickly hoists herself upward, her denim-clad legs bicycling against empty air, back skin stretched in four circus-tent peaks. At roughly five feet off the ground she halts her ascent and begins swinging her legs back and forth to gain momentum, like a kid on a swing set. The crowd stares in stunned silence. One girl covers her mouth with her hand. Others watch through the displays on their smartphones.
After some wriggling to change the angle of her trajectory, Kat starts gaining height. With a deft bare foot she pushes off her shadow on the wall and the room bursts into cheers. She deftly twists 180 degrees and kicks off a vertical beam in the center of the room. Back and forth she soars, spinning and contorting with acrobatic flair. She white-knuckle clasps the rope to her chest, but after a minute or so she allows Ragains to take the tether, leaving her hands free and prompting another roar from the audience. Kat spreads her arms wide, bends her knees and glides through the air -- eyes half closed, wind in her hair. Her audience eats it up.
Earlier, outside Ink Addiction, Kat said she probably wouldn't do suspensions if she lived in a city or somewhere they were more common. The shock factor is an important part of the performance, she said, because she feeds off the energy of the crowd. It allows her to let go of her inhibitions, to escape entirely from her workaday life. When the crowd is into it, the pain dissipates. "The only pain I ever feel is a little bit of burning at the piercing sites," she said. "But that's not what I'm thinking about. 'What am I gonna do next?' 'How am I gonna wow them?' That's what I'm thinking."
Swinging. Posing. Flying. Kat asks Ragains to let her down for a second, and she gestures to Nicole Yohe, the young Pennsylvania woman from the Shanty. Yohe emerges tentatively from the crowd, and Kat motions for her to turn around. When Kat's feet hit the concrete, she steps in behind Yohe and hooks her forearms under Yohe's armpits. Ragains quickly pulls down on the rope, lifting both women into the air. Kat is now supporting the body weight of two people with the fish hooks in her back, something she's never done before -- a new frontier -- and it sends the audience into a frenzy, cheering and hollering as the two women drift through the room in elliptical orbits. Yohe's face -- eyes wide and mouth agape -- is pure rapture.
A few minutes later, after releasing Yohe and taking a few more languid swings, Kat is ready for a break. Ragains lets her down, unclips a carabiner and slips the crossbar apparatus over Kat's head, letting it dangle on her chest from the hooks in her back, which by now is actively bleeding -- crimson splatters mixed with slick lubricant running in chaotic rivulets from her hooks and down into her tank top. The crowd is abuzz, and they greet Kat like a rock star. "That was ... exhilarating," says a breathless girl in her early 20s. "I just realized I had my hand over my mouth," says another. Shaina Lerner, the woman who'd been performing as Stranger Than Fact, says this is not what she expected. She'd seen pictures and videos of other suspensions -- somber, morbid affairs -- but this was different. "It was freakin' perfect," she says. "Beautiful. I can't wait for another hanging."
Kat goes up once more, later in the evening, but by now some of the crowd has gone home; the energy has sagged a bit and Kat doesn't stay up for long. Ragains snips the cords with scissors, and after some more mingling with her new fans, Kat straddles a chair backwards so Ragains can remove the hooks and clean the wounds. The skin of her back has been pulled away from the muscles, creating four rounded air pockets that Ragains must deflate to prevent infection. He rubs them with his rubber gloved hands like he's smoothing out a sticker. Blood bubbles from Kat's back wounds as the air escapes, and again, incredibly, she claims it doesn't hurt a bit.
By the time Kat and her boyfriend Jerry emerge from Empire Squared it's close to midnight. The air outside is colder, but it still smells like rotting fish. Kat hops down the steps, a spring in her step, and sighs, long and whimsical. "Back to my real life," she says.