As I sat against one of the graffitied walls at the Kingspoint Mullet, watching the beads of sweat creating pools under the chin of a shirtless guy straddling a chair, I had to wonder if all of the sweat dripping from his brow was due to the miserable Sunday afternoon heat. Surely part of it was fear. I mean, I was sweating for him, and I wasn't the one who was seconds away from having metal hooks shoved into the flesh of my back.
As the piercers took aim, his brow furrowed a bit more, his eyes closed and the room grew eerily silent. And then, with one swift movement, it was done. Two three-inch spots on his back now bore metal hooks, mechanisms from which he'd soon be supporting his body weight as he hung from the rafters of the Mullet. Willingly.
It was my own preconceived notions about suspension, and perhaps about the people who practice it, that led me to tag along for a meeting and performance with the A.G.R.O. "family." Even as a person with extensive tattooing, and even with what I like to think of as a relatively open mind about body art, I still couldn't wrap my head around the idea of a person hanging from the rafters by his skin. Just couldn't do it. What in the world was suspension? And really, why were folks doing it?
The graffiti art space had been transformed for the afternoon, morphing into what appeared to be a shotgun surgery center, complete with autoclave-sterile piercing equipment, some rigging lines and a hell of a lot of antiseptic. They'd need it, though, because by the end of the afternoon, the guys from A.G.R.O. Suspension Team, Houston's antigravity relaxation organization, would have pierced -- and hung -- four people.
Human suspension, defined by suspension.org as "...hanging the human body from (or partially from) hooks pierced through the flesh in various places around the body," has been done for thousands of years, but unlike other body modifications -- tattoos, body piercing and branding -- the art of suspension hasn't been accepted into the mainstream just yet.
Where permanent ink and body jewelry are readily embraced by the masses, society has been slower to accept the practice of hanging by six inches of freshly pierced skin. Groups like A.G.R.O., and the sister group A.G.R.O. Side Show, their performance troupe, are aiming to change that stigma a bit, though.
I'll be the first to admit that pre-A.G.R.O., the idea of hanging by hooks from anywhere gave me the heebie-jeebies. My (obviously ill-informed) idea of what would be happening out at the Mullet -- and, later that evening, at Scout Bar -- involved just what you'd expect from the mind of a dramatic writer type -- I pictured that along with the meat hooks, there would be archaic piercing practices, weird chanting, odes to Beelzebub and, of course, lots of drugs, because who else would be up for this kind of thing? Needless to say, that's not quite what I encountered.
When you ask a member of A.G.R.O. why he or she does this, you'll get a myriad of reasons -- the adrenaline, the fetish quality, the natural high -- they're all reasons given for why a person would want to hang by pierced flesh. There doesn't seem to be a blanket answer for why. Nor would there be from the guy who was getting his rigging put into place; despite his solitude during the piercing process, this guy was no seasoned pro at suspension. We were witnessing his first time.
Surrounded by the members of A.G.R.O., the "rigger" -- the person charged with keeping the suspender in air with the help of the rope, his body weight and a harness -- began to hoist him up, his feet hovering only slightly above the ground. He left the ground only an inch at first, and then maybe two.
As he rocked back and forth, he quietly instructed the rigger to pull him up. As he stood on his toes, bearing his weight like a pierced ballet dancer on pointe, the rope was pulled, and into the air he flew. The silence was broken with a grin and the loud cheering of the spectators, congratulating him on a suspension well done.
These days, A.G.R.O. isn't just about suspending members at the Mullet once a month, though. They've taken it a step further, and from A.G.R.O. Suspension Team, A.G.R.O. Side Show has grown. While A.G.R.O. is mainly about the the art of suspension, Side Show is about putting on one hell of a performance while suspending.
And put on a performance they can do, as was evident only a few hours post-Mullet, when our day of suspension moved on to more air-conditioned digs at Scout Bar, where Khris Harding, one of the heads of the Houston A.G.R.O. chapter, would be performing alongside the local Houston band The Hunger.
Gone were the baby steps; Khris jumped right in, and in full body paint, no less. The piercing, which took place at the tattoo parlor that neighbors Scout Bar, was quick and effective. No flinching or sweating this time. And once those hooks were in place, there was no time to pause. He had a stage to jump on. With his "family" forming a protective barrier around him to keep the curious (and germy) hands of onlookers off the fresh piercings, off we went.
Once Khris was welcomed onto the stage and the crowd realized he was about to be hoisted above them, they went absolutely nuts. The Hunger fueled the fire, calling out the words, "Who wants to see this motherfucker fly?" and with that, it was on. There was a crushing migration of spectators moving toward the stage, as Khris contorted his body in ways that shouldn't be possible when you're hanging by hooks. My jaw was on the floor, along with the rest of the jaws in the crowd. It was insane.
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Looking around the crowd to take in their reactions, it was quite sweet to watch the members of A.G.R.O., many of them tattooed and burly, looking on with both pride and protectiveness. They were all beaming; that was a member of their group up there, hurling glow sticks and appearing to fly as he swung his body like a trapeze artist, and they were so stoked for him.
It was in that moment, as Khris was suspended at great heights with only his skin to hold him, and as I watched the faces of the members of A.G.R.O., that I realized the one consistent reason that these folks were suspending with A.G.R.O. has less to do with the actual piercing and hanging and more to do with belonging. To suspend and test the body in ways that are so uncommon, well, it's something that involves not only balls of steel, but also a whole lot of trust.
They're suspending not only for the thrill, but for the connection that comes with trusting those around you with your safety. It's a ritual of bonding with a "family" in a way that many of the members haven't had in the past. Yes, there's a fetish quality to it for some, and that may be enough to push them toward suspension, but what really keeps them around as members of A.G.R.O. is the feeling that they belong there. They've got a family here -- one that has a bit of an interesting hobby, but a family nonetheless. And rather than bonding over a cup of coffee or a beer, they're doing so while literally just hanging around.