A controversial body-modification process that appeared in Chengdu's Sansheng Xiang on 14 May shocked onlookers, who described it as 'offensive', 'disgusting', 'sick' and 'perverted'.
The process, called "body-piercing suspension," involves suspending participants in mid-air with metal hooks pierced through their skin. Chengdu Economic Daily got up close with the operator and participants to find out more about their personal lives and inner thoughts.
Introverted kid turned social misfit
Hailing from Guiyang, the 23-year-old behind the suspension performances goes by the name of Nutter and bears dimpled hook scars on his cheeks in addition to a heavily tattooed neck and arms. He grew up as a social hermit into what most people would label a 'misfit'.
"I just don't like to be totally similar to others. I changed myself, in terms of my body and hobbies, to stand out," he said.
Nutter was a lonely child as his parents tended to their own business while holding jobs at state-owned enterprises. He did not have many friends as a quiet and introverted kid who consistently earned top grades and stayed out of trouble.
But in his second year of high school, at the age of 14, Nutter went to Thailand with his parents, where he saw a man with shiny studs in his ears, tongue and nose. Later, he saw a photo of a male drummer with studs in his lips in a fashion magazine inspiring the desire for his own piercing.
DIY piercings and traveling for lessons
Nutter removed a steel ball from a bicycle chain and adhered it to his lower lip with superglue. That night, he removed the steel ball, tearing his lip and leaving it scarred. He had no clue that piercing involves needles. He had always fainted upon seeing blood since young.
After reading up on body piercing and modification online, he spent RMB1,500 to go on his first long-distance bus trip. He went to Guangzhou, where he had his tongue, nose, and brow pierced, satisfied that he had changed his appearance and conquered his fear of blood.
His parents were shocked and furious when he got home. Some of his friends were turned off as well and tried to talk him into removing the studs. He just smiled at their remarks.
Self-experimenting and opening a studio
Nutter kept in touch with a friend who went to Canada for studies and learnt from him that piercing is common among young people in Canada and the States. He asked his friend to bring back photos, videos and equipment and then persuaded four other friends and schoolmates to try body modification. Although they were severely reprimanded by their parents, they kept at it for a year before losing interest.
He continued self-experimenting, looking for inspiring figures and like-minded people online. A year later, he proposed studying medicine to his parents, saying that he wanted to be a doctor. Actually he was planning ahead to acquire professional skills for his future career in piercing.
He dropped out after a year and in 2007 went to Kunming to study piercing and body modification from veteran Jiu Gua. In 2009, he opened a studio in Guiyang. He understood that it was an underground industry in China that mostly relied on tattooing shops and rock bars for business.
Without a proper name or signboard, his piercing business was very much reliant on a bar's clientele. He publicized his service online. His first customer was a female art student who wanted a navel ring.
Almost giving up
His source of income was unstable, and his parents threatened to stop giving him allowance. Nutter also faced pressure from friends and society, as most of his peers' pursuits were entirely different. On the verge of giving up on his alternative pursuits, Nutter removed the studs from his body, giving into his parents' wishes and societal conventions.
However, a trip to the Miao tribal villages in Xijiang, Guizhou, with his friends changed his mind when he stumbled upon tribal people with huge earholes and big earrings. He was shocked and approached them to find out more. After realizing that such a cultural tradition exists in China, Nutter decided to return to his own unusual path.
He underwent a new series of challenges, first by tattooing a distorted version of the character "善" (meaning "kindness") on his neck and other designs on his arms. His parents asked him to hide in his room or leave whenever there were visitors. After he split the tip of his tongue, inhibiting his speech and ability to eat for 10 days, his parents stopped speaking to him for a month.
He started dabbling in body suspension, which, as far as known, first appeared in China in 2006. Nutter was skeptical of it himself but eventually changed his mind and invited Jiu Gua to operate the suspension in Guiyang. Nutter wrote a 'last note' too.
First body-suspension experience
On 18 September 2009, Nutter performed his first body suspension in his own piercing studio. Both sides of his waist were pierced by three hooks each.
"The piercing was painful and the pain increased during hanging but when I'm suspended, I didn't feel a thing. I could be numb and it felt like an Out of Body Experience (OBE)," he recalled.
The suspension lasted for 20 minutes. Nutter said he felt like he was floating when he came down, as if he were stepping on cotton. But afterward he was hospitalized and put on an IV drip for two days. He tore up his 'last note' and did not tell anyone about it. He felt that his values and knowledge of reality had changed drastically, although he finds it hard to describe how.
Nutter's persistence drew positive feedback from insiders. Word spread, and customers and enthusiasts started to get in touch with him and talk about body modification through his personal website, QQ and Weibo. Some of them expressed their willingness to try body modification, but were deterred by family and societal pressures.
His determination and gradual progress towards sustaining himself financially were met with silent acceptance from his parents.
Working as a freelance body-suspension operator
Nutter carried out body suspension for two young rockers in a bar in February 2011 and then helped two girls at Chongqing's Huangjueping 501 Warehouse in April 2011.
On 14 May, Nutter was in action at Chengdu's Sansheng Xiang where two girls underwent suspension.
He had been invited to Chongqing and Chengdu by local tattoo parlors which arranged the event and the venues. Then he posted the call for participants and onlookers online. Those who are willing to be hanged do not have to fork out a single cent for the service. But audience members paid RMB40 each. He said there were about 50 people watching in both cities respectively.
However, the piercer does not see body suspension as a commercial venture, because he did not make any monetary gain after deducting expenses for medical equipment, travel and other costs.
Nutter did not inform any media although they always manage to track him online. In response to comments that the activity is 'sick' and 'perverted', Nutter feels that body modification and body suspension are not meant for everybody. However, he asserts that participants are willing and have thought through their decisions and are exercising their rights over their own bodies.
What the future holds
For the next half of the year, he has plans for more acts in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, while preparing to move his studio to Guangzhou permanently, where there are more like-minded individuals and the environment is more open. He is not sure how long his current lifestyle will last. Citing the possibility of being married with kids a few years down the road, Nutter says he might not be involved in body modification then. He strongly hopes that his children will be able to choose their own hobbies and lifestyle.
For now, the freelancer is looking to explore other options such as opening a bar or starting a business. "Look at these tall buildings behind," he pointed out, "People are allocated to cubicles. Many people think I'm a misfit or I'm horrible, but I think their life is sad and horrid for me. I wouldn't want to be in their shoes."
Participant: Yanyan, 21, Chengdu
Yanyan responded to Nutter's call for participants online in May 2011. After several exchanges, both of them signed a safety agreement, which holds Nutter responsible for operational hiccups.
Born to divorced parents, Yanyan grew up with her grandmother. Her mother is remarried with a son 11 years younger than Yanyan. Her parents hold stable jobs.
When her family gathered for the Spring Festival, Yanyan abstained from speaking to hide her tongue stud. Her brother found it amiss and asked her why she was holding a ball in her mouth. Yanyan only recently gave in to her mother's insistence to remove it after deciding it interfered with eating, since some foods get tangled on it, and, she said, desensitized her taste buds.
After the act
That night, Yanyan met some acquaintances at a bar, whom she recalled the experience to animatedly. They simply told her she is too reckless.
Although she did not get a tetanus shot, she bought hydrogen peroxide and other drugs from the pharmacy for her grandmother to help her apply at home. But she merely told her grandmother that she banged into some nails on a wall.
See Nutter's video below and his photos of the suspension at Sanshengxiang here.