Alongside the jewelry in the display cases of Rockstar, the piercing shop on Thayer Street, there hangs a picture of a man with long spikes protruding from each side of his chest. The spikes project upward and cross each other to form a halo around the man, Fakir Musafar, who is one of the founders of modern piercing and has trained all of the body piercers who work at Rockstar.
"For Fakir, there is no such thing as pain. There is only sensation which can bring you into different states of perception," said Billy Wood, a piercer at Rockstar who took Fakir's basic body piercing class in 2006.
Musafar is considered the founder of the Modern Primitive Movement, which uses body modification practices such as piercing, branding and tattoos to change one's body. A pioneer of modern piercing techniques, he is also the director of the Fakir Body and Branding Intensives in San Francisco — a school that offers courses in basic branding as well as basic and advanced body piercing. The Fakir School currently provides the only comprehensive introduction to body piecing in the country.
Musafar incorporates shamanistic beliefs as a means to "letting the flesh be a pathway to the spirit," Wood said.
"Everybody owes something to Fakir," Wood said. "If it wasn't for him there wouldn't be body piercing."
The ‘flow of energy'
There are about 10 students and multiple instructors in Musafar's basic course, which lasts for one week and covers all basic body piercing as well as health and safety, anatomy, aesthetics and the spiritual aspect of piercing.
While the instructors focus on the technical aspects of piercing, "the thing Fakir really focuses on is the magic behind the piercing, the flow of energy," Wood said.
"Unless you have been there, I can't ever really describe it," he added.
A student can also become a professional body piercer through an apprenticeship. By going through the Fakir school, though, students have the advantage of seeing different instructors' techniques, according to Jef Saunders, owner of Rockstar and assistant at the Fakir School. Students do not need any prior experience to participate.
When he took the class, though Wood already had several years of piercing experience, "I think I got a lot more of the spiritual connection," he said.
But just because the school does not require previous experience for its basic class does not mean the course is easy.
The course begins with basic tutorials on health and safety as well as piercing techniques and introductory shamanism. The students begin practicing by piercing cardboard, and then move on to practicing on each other.
"It is tough though. It is not easy," Saunders said. "The tools are totally foreign," and the jewelry can be counter-intuitive and difficult to handle.
After hours of practicing further on oranges and clay models both in class and in hotel rooms, on the final day of class, the public is invited for a free piercing by the students.
"The place is mobbed for volunteers," Saunders said, "partly because it is free, partly because they will leave with a good piercing."
An instructor observes each student while they are piercing the volunteer, and will stop them if the student is doing something wrong.
"The school does not make you a good piercer, I wish it could," Saunders said. "You have to bring experience and intelligence to the table. It gives them the tools to become a good piercer."
Saunders did not become interested in piercing until he was in college and, one day, went to get his ears pierced with his girlfriend.
"If anything felt like a calling in my life, this was it," he said.
Saunders then apprenticed at a piercing shop in Connecticut from 1997 to 1999. He took the Fakir Intensives Basic Piercing Intensive in 1999 and the Advanced Intensive in 2000.
Wood, on the other hand, first pierced himself when he was 13 years old in a church on Mardi Gras. He then went on to apprentice at several shops around Providence and took the basic Fakir course in 2006. He is currently waiting for the next advanced course to be offered.
Piercing the ‘spiritual oneness'
The spiritual aspect taught at the Fakir School plays an important role at Rockstar, though it may not be obvious to some clients.
Saunders tries to incorporate the spiritual aspect to become a better piercer. If a piercer were to have the mentality that they are simply piercing a navel, "then things tend not to heal well," Saunders said. "If you get taught from day one that you are making a hole in someone's spiritual oneness as well as their physical oneness, it really does help."
The spiritual side of piercing allows one to "go beyond just piercing someone and sticking a piece of jewelry in them," Wood said.
The advanced class covers more unusual body piercing techniques and also delves more deeply into the shamanistic side of piercing. To get into the class, students must have a portfolio and have attended the beginner class. In this course, there are usually eight students and 10 to 12 instructors.
"The advanced class is in many ways a family reunion," Saunders said.
Fakir is also known for his use of O-Kee-Pa suspension, a Native American sun dance in which two hooks are inserted into the skin and the person is suspended by the hooks. He also performs the Kavadi Dance, a Hindu torture ritual involving a halo of spikes inserted into the body.
In the 1970s, Fakir teamed up with Jim Ward to experiment and develop modern piercing techniques. Among other endeavors, they experimented with using hospital forceps designed to hold gauze as a tool for navel piercing.
"It just happened to work beautifully," Saunders said. "The entire community of body piercing owes a lot to him."
Though they draw on Fakir's teachings, the piercers at Rockstar do not incorporate all of his techniques and spirituality into their work.
"In an East Coast-based shop, people do not want to you burn incense and chant, ‘Ohm,'" Saunders said. "We focus on our personal intent — part of it is just treating people well."