Currently reading : Urban Primitive: Raven and Daemon Rowanchilde
I recently came across this fascinating interview from www.bme.com with body modification artists Raven and Daemon Rowanchilde talking about their ritualistic events which is frankly too good not to share.
BME: You’ve organized a number of ritual events in the Toronto area, including an annual ball dance / kavadi. How did these come about, and could you tell me a bit about them?
RAVEN: The ritual events came largely out of the growing number of people who had experienced powerful psychological transformations during their tattooing, piercing or scarification experiences. Daemon and I had over a decade of experience with bodily ordeals as rites of transformation. Since Urban Primitive provided a supporting atmosphere in which to have these types of experiences, many people starting asking us if we would organize more community-based events. As a student of social anthropology at U of T, I focused the majority of my research on pain inducing, body modifying rituals of pre-industrial indigenous societies. In particular, I became interested in male genital modification and that interest translated into a paper that I got published in the journal Human Nature. My interest in body modification extended into the varieties of ways that pre-industrial cultures explored voluntary pain induction as spiritual ritual. The spiritual component of pain rituals constituted an almost universal phenomenon among pre-industrial indigenous societies.
Also at that time, Fakir Musafar had been actively involved in his own explorations of pain rituals. Initially Fakir’s focus was to simply explore techniques used by other cultures to attain ecstatic states of consciousness. These early explorations appealed to Daemon and I.
Rituals of the flesh act out committment.
– Raven Rowanchilde, UP: TUJ
BME: What role does spiritual ritual play in a society that appears (?) to be largely devoid of it? How can it help people?
RAVEN: I don’t beleive that our society is devoid of spiritual ritual. However, many young people, in particular, find little connection with spiritual rituals that are highly mediated by priests, etc. They need more direct experiences to inform their beliefs and values. Bodily ordeals provide a platform for direct experience with states of consciousness that can be perceived as spiritual.
Scenes from Toronto ball dances organized by Raven and Daemon.
BME: If someone wants to involve a ritual event, what should they know? Are there any dangerous, psychological or physical in events such as a ball dance?
RAVEN: I suggest that anyone wanting to explore bodily ordeals as spiritual ritual get some practical grounding in safe, sane and consensual SM practices. Take an SM 101 course to get practical information on safety. I also recommend exploring Tantra for breath control techniques, mental focus and bodily movement. If you plan to participate in an existing group or community, find out who these people are and what their intentions are. Ask lots of questions: What precautions do they take for safety? How much experience do they have in a particular practice? Do they provide a workshop explaining procedures, safety, concerns? Are they making a profit? Do you have to sign over your mortgage? After experience with both large and small events, I recommend small, private group experiences with an experienced spotter or “Ground Control” for each participant. In the case of a ball dance, the Ground Control is generally responsible for suturing, collecting the fallen balls or bells, monitoring the dancer during the ceremony, removal of sutures and clean up, and downloading after the ritual.
From a physical standpoint, the G.C. significantly reduces the risk of infection with proper knowledge of pre and post suture preparations. The G.C. must also be prepared to deal with the possibility fainting or falling dancers. Psychological concerns present more potential problems. People have spontaneously relived memories of childhood abuse during a ball dance. A few of the people that I interviewed for my online book talked about such experiences. The G.C. has to be aware that when someone experiences a painful memory, they may: a) need to stop the ritual immediately b) decide (with gentle encouragement) to continue with the ritual to work through the trauma, and c) require an empathetic listener during the download after the ritual.
BME: How do these rituals relate to BDSM? Are people who find meaning in a ball dance usually into “alternative lifestyles”, or can it be meaningful for people without prior experience?
RAVEN: Both. People with no prior SM experience had the advantage of no pre-conceptions or expectations that can sometime colour the experience. On the other hand, SM folk have the advantage of familiarity to work through the pain and push their limits. Many people assume that SM folk are more inclined to these rituals, but this is not generally the case. A lot of SM folk want SM to be accepted by the mainstream. The erotic platform of “kinky sex” was easier to consume and digest by the mainstream. Spiritual ritual involving pain, however, are considered so far “out there” that they resist being appropriated as fashion. I say, “resist” because, as we later found out, the power of the commodification machine is extremely powerful and this threatened to turn rituals that were very meaningful to many people into a fad.
The most blatant example is an article in the (second) premiere issue of In the Flesh that featured a young man named Devin Murfin hanging from flesh hooks. He claimed he was doing an O-kee-pa ceremony and that he was planning a “gang hang” which he planned to videotape and then sell the tapes.
Murfin hasn’t a clue what an O-kee-pa ceremony is. There is a four hundred year old history surrounding the O-kee-pa (sometimes referred to as the Sundance) that is culture-specific to the Plains Indians. The ceremony is very elaborate and involves an entire year of preparation and the participation of the entire group. I was very fortunate to have participated in a peyote ceremony with Cheyenne and Arapaho people in Oklahoma. Later, my Cheyenne friends invited me to attend a Sundance ceremony. The Cheyenne perform the Sundance every summer. The ceremony allows them to renew and revitalize their culture. This is particularly important when we consider the attempts at cultural genocide they have endured.
Unfortunately, Murfin hurts this renewal process with his blatant appropriation and commodification of the ceremony. Sparrow and I wrote a very long letter to the editors of In the Flesh discussing our concerns. They published our letter and promptly dismissed us using the same lame arguments that have justified cultural genocide for hundreds of years.
BME: Your one-year-book, “Transformation in the Urban Jungle” discussed some of these issues — What is this title referring to?
RAVEN: I wrote the book in response to the growing media misrepresentation of people exploring spiritual rituals involving pain. I also wanted to address the issue of cultural appropriation in a way that reflected the attitudes and concerns of the people that I interviewed. Transformation in the Urban Jungle refers to the healing component of spiritual rituals involving pain. I wrote the book in an academic style to demonstrate to readers that a large body of theoretical literature supports some of the ideas in the book. I also wanted to challenge some of the long-standing theoretical notions in the psychiatric community regarding “self-mutilation”. We turned the book launch into a ritual. On the Winter Solstice, I gathered a group of twenty close friends and acquaintances to participate in a piercing ceremony. I thanked everyone for attending and asked that the focus of the ceremony be that the book enlighten both participants and non participants of such rituals and promote understanding. My friend Peter Dawson lead a short meditation and had everyone bless a blue stone for me to hold when Maribelle did my Aphrodite piercing (aka Christina). Sparrow launched the book onto BME just as Maribelle pushed the needle through freehand. I screamed in a way that I hadn’t done even when Jim Ward pierced my clitoris. The room went silent. It was a moment that I could only describe as epiphany. I burst into tears. Since BME published the book over a year ago, I’ve had scores of people emailing their thanks. The book also generated considerable academic interest; in addition to graduate students exploring body modification for their theses, local psychologists have initiated new research that re-examines the idea that self-injurious behaviour may actually have a therapeutic effect.
BME: As an academic, your background is as a “cultural anthropologist”. What exactly is this, and how does affect your involvement with ritual and body modification?
RAVEN: I have tried to inject the long-standing theories surrounding body modification, particularly in male genital modification, with a new perspective, one that is informed by my experiences and those of others. I have guest lectured at both U of T and York several times in the last two years. I also presented my paper, Male Genital Modification: A Sexual Selection Interpretation at a conference of die-hard evolutionists in Montreal. I have also tried to generate interest among young students to increase academic exploration of body modification. I get a lot of email from both undergraduate and graduate students asking for information, sources etc.
BME: Some people have objected that events such as Kavadi, ball dances, and other rituals that borrow from the religious and spirital ceremonies of other cultures, and that this “theft” is offensive to the original culture. As someone who has organized these events, how would you respond to this?
RAVEN: Those are valid objections. Daemon and I were very conscious of informing participants that we were simply exploring tools or techniques for transformation, much the same way that tattooing, piercing, scarification or branding can be tools for transformation. We never attached any culture-specific meaning/s. We didn’t dictate what the participants should think or feel; the ceremonies were very individual experiences. We did provide a pre-ritual workshop outlining methods, addressing questions and concerns and providing practical breathing, chanting, movement exercises to facilitate a more powerful and integrated experiences. Overall, participants had very positive experiences.
DAEMON: We’re exploring the past not because we want to return to the past; that’s impossible. Our intention is to draw inspiration from the past and use the insights that we gain to inform the present and future. One example that comes to mind, is my recent experimental archaeology project with Dr. Julian Siggers. Julian works for the Discovery Channel. When I tattooed Julian several years ago, we talked about our mutual interest in indigenous body art and formed a strong friendship over time. Julian wanted to do a television piece on the Ice Man. Julian hypothesized that a sharp, pointed instrument found in a leather pouch attached to the Ice Man’s clothing, may have been used for tattooing the designs on the Ice Man’s body. As part of the presentation for Discovery Canada, Julian duplicated the Ice Man’s tool using different materials: caribou antler, cow bone and chert. Julian didn’t tell me which tool was the exact replica of the one found on the Ice Man. On camera, I hand tattooed Julian with each of the tools. The one that worked the best was the cow bone and I used that to complete his tattoo. After I confirmed that the cow bone worked the best, Julian informed me that the instrument found on the Ice Man was made of cow bone.
BME: What does someone need to be careful of to be respectful to other cultures when borrowing elements of their rituals?
RAVEN: Honour the source of your inspiration in some way during the ritual. Be clear that you are not claiming access to culture-specific rituals or their meanings.
DAEMON: And if possible, ask.
BME: Tell me a bit about your involvement with North American native groups seeking to revive traditional ritual and body art.
RAVEN: During the course of researching and writing my book, I met two Native women who had very interesting tattoo designs on their arms and face. Initially, they wanted to contact Daemon and I because they were interested in the work we were doing with transformation rituals. After I interviewed them for the book, we discussed our mutual interest in traditional body art forms. They asked me if I had any sources that weren’t Europeanized woodcuts a la Theodore De Bry, etc. Unfortunately, most of the pictoral sources of traditional Native body art is a fabrication of the European imagination. Many of the representations were based on the descriptions of European travellers which were then re-interpreted by European artists who had never seen the people. What little documented information we have of Native Canadian tattoos was written by the Jesuits. I spent an entire day at the U of T library pouring over volumes of the Jesuit Relations looking for decent descriptions of tattoos. A motor vehicle accident curtailed my research activities, but I understand that similar research (perhaps more appropriately) is being undertaken by others in the Native community.
BME: What role does your own pagan background and belief structure play in all of this?
RAVEN: My pagan spirituality informs everything that I experience.
BME: While we’re talking about rituals from other cultures, what about rituals that involve psychedelics, which an important part of the rituals of almost all cultures. How does an Urban Primitive deal with radical chemical experiences like DMT — Is it ritual that makes the difference between enlightenment and insanity?
RAVEN: This is so important. Like bodily ordeals, psychedelics can be powerful tools for insight and healing. Ritual context does make a difference, however, even rituals can be misused. I know people who do psychedelic “rituals” every week! They may believe that they are discovering new insights when they have become enamoured of the projections of their own mind. Drug induced catharsis rituals and rites of passage can become addictionsin and of themselves. Drug misuse happens long before one realizes it and it can exact an enormous toll on one’s physical, psychological and social well being. Despite my seventeen years of disciplined psychedelic ritual exploration, I spent much of last year misusing pain killers and anesthetics following a car accident. Now I practice meditation and only do psychedelic rituals once or twice a year. The only “drug” that I do on a daily basis is a nootropic called Pikamilone.
BME: In the first issue of “Body Play” there is a photo of you getting branding by Fakir — Was this your first experience with branding?
RAVEN: Yes. I met Fakir at a Living In Leather conference in 1993. We hit it off right away. I bottomed to him at a dungeon party. Later I asked him to pierce me. When I came for my appointment, I saw a photo that he had of a young woman with a branding. I knew right away that “this was it”. I told Fakir that I wanted to ritualize my branding experience. He enthusiastically agreed. I invited close friends and a few acquaintances. Dead Can Dance played on the ghetto blaster. I allowed a photographer and a videographer, provided that they were respectful. I dedicated my branding to the healing of all sentient beings who were suffering. I lay my head in my girlfriend’s lap and focused on my breathing to slow down my heart rate. I was so excited that when I heard the sound of the propane torch heating the metal, I though my heart would burst out of my rib cage. The first strike made me suck in my breath. I became aware of a strange, yet familiar acrid-sweet smell. When I realized that that was the smell of my burning flesh, I silently dedicated as my sacrificial incense to the gods. I felt a warm euphoria wash over me after the third strike until the sixteen strike. Half an hour later, the branding was done and I felt ecstatic.
Art thou willing to suffer in order to learn?
– Raven Rowanchilde, UP: TUJ
BME: A bit over a year later, “Body Play” published a photo of a beautiful photo of a large back brand that you did. How did you progress from being branded to being a brander?
RAVEN: I experimented a lot on cardboard, oranges and the willing flesh of my slaves. What interested me most about branding was the catharsis that it could induce. Sparrow’s branding was the most powerful catharsis ritual that I participated in. His release was so powerful, even in the context of a “profane” public setting, that not one person was left unaffected by what they saw.
BME: How did you learn? If someone wants to learn, how should they go about that?
RAVEN: Source as much information as you possibly can. Then… practice, practice, practice.
BME: Does ritual play an important role in branding?
RAVEN: Branding, perhaps more so than tattooing or piercing, lends itself more to ritual experience. I believe that branding, by virtue of olfactory stimulation and intensity of sensation, can invoke ancestral memories. Branding also has a profound history of therapeutic and spiritual application.
BME: When the two of you met and got involved in 1984 due to your mutual interest in paganism (at the opening of your shop, “The Witchy Shoppe”), did you also share an interest in Body Art at that point?
RAVEN: Daemon had been tattooing for a few years when I met him in 1984. I had been exploring bodily ordeals, i.e. flogging, bondage, blood control (constriction, blood letting), sensory deprivation, fasting, breath control as part of my spiritual practice for several years. When we got together our separate interests merged and evolved into our current practices.
BME: To mark your marriage (tell me if you’d prefer another term), you share tattoos — Tell me a bit about the role that body art plays in your relationship.
RAVEN: Daemon and I got handfasted in 1989. We wanted to permanently mark our spiritual committment to one another with ankle tattoos.
DAEMON: Everything that we do, are and will be gets expressed somehow, somewhere in the body.
BME: How has your personal involvement with ritual and spiritually transformative body art affected your own life?
RAVEN: Body art has affected both of us in a very profound way. I detailed some of my personal experiences in UPTUJ, including getting my clitoris pierced in a sexual reclamation ritual.
DAEMON: My personal involvement with ritual and spiritually transformative body art has marked points of transition, e.g. my palang piercing literally punched me into a new level of being. It gave me more courage and confidence to make changes in my life. My other piercings, tattoos and brandings also helped me transform psychological programs that held back my spiritual growth.
BME: Is that why you try to share these experiences with others and help them to achieve them?
BME: What role how the net played in the life of UP?
RAVEN: The Net has allowed us to access a global population, both in terms of artistic recognition and to articulate our philosophical disposition. It has been particularly lucrative for Daemon during his convention tours in Europe. He tours almost six months a year in Germany, Austria, Belgium, England, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Switzerland and Italy. Since people are able to view his portfolio online, the internet has facilitated the recognition of his work to the degree that he is one of the busiest artists at every convention. We also have a regular stream of clients who come up from the U.S. for tattoos because they have seen Daemon’s work online.
BME: You are known internationally for being one of “THE” people to come to for tribal work and have a distinctive flowing style. Did you start with this, or did it develop over time? How?
DAEMON: My style has and still is developing. When I started out years ago, I wanted to break down the design to its simplest form and develop it from there. My interest in tattooing began after my first tattoo at the age of 18. At this time the desire to do this kind of work seemed purely physical, an unconscious urge that over many years to come would reveal itself as being so important and full of meaning that it would change my outlook on life forever! I was self taught and only tattooed on and off sporadically for many years as I explored the various arts and built myself the foundation that I now rest on. I “did my time” touching up and fixing old tattoos for free until I had the skill and confidence to attempt a complete piece on my own. At this time tattooing was not a career move, but purely an exploration into experience and artistic expression.
To further my knowledge and understanding of what I then considered “Body Design” I completed a Fine Arts degree at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. I studied the Experimental Arts to both loosen up my creativity and stimulate my imagination. I studied Fine Art to discipline myself and to learn how to paint and draw the human form, both in its natural state as well as in motion. I was fascinated by the dynamics of the human body in motion and how these dynamics could be enhanced creatively by a skillfully placed and well executed design. I soon took human anatomy to learn from the “inside” how these interrelationships worked. During the second half of the term I went to the University of Toronto to dissect human cadavers. This might not seem so romantic, but was quite necessary to fully understand the dynamic relationship between the various parts of the body. In my final year, I did an independent study project that examined tattooing as a legitimate art form.
During the years that followed, I put many hours into tattooing and painting. While working on my clients I became much more aware of the process of transformation and the experiences that this process often evoked. These experiences ranged from a simple euphoric afterglow that lasted for a couple of weeks, to a full blown cathartic release that shook the very foundation of their being. I started paying closer attention to the factors that led to these experiences. In the years that followed, I devoted all the time I had to both perfecting my skill as an artist and researching/ exploring the most effective ways to set the ground for a true and spontaneous transformation. I believe these two elements must be both present and in balance to allow a full “tattoo experience” to take place.
In terms of style, I took precision and definition further than it had been previously explored in black tribal design. I sometimes spent twice as long on a piece as someone else, but the quality, flow and crispness of the lines compensated for any extra discomfort and expense. I am presently exploring the marriage of black daemonic tribal with gray watershaded patterning that reflects the energy and vitality of the particular piece and the individual wearing it. This not only further integrates the art with the person, it becomes a personal energetic signature or fingerprint of that person.
BME: What’s the most important thing a person should consider when getting/planning a tattoo?
DAEMON: A person should realize that the tattoo is not just being placed on your body; it is becoming a part of you, an extension of yourself.
BME: What do you do to help provide that?
DAEMON: I divide it into three parts:
1) Pre-Tattoo Experience – a full and formal consultation prior to being tattooed, to allow the artist and the client the time to get to know each other and to arrive at the best possible design and placement.
2) “Set And Setting” – creating an atmosphere that will provide the most effective environment and allow for an unrehearsed,spontaneous and open experience. This is further enhanced by allowing the client their input into the choice of music, incense,candles and the people that they wish present for their experience.
3) Post-Tattoo Experience – Including after care, healing and reflection.
BME: You’ve said that pain is an important part of getting tattooed. What role does the ritual of tattooing play, and what role does the end aesthetic result play? Dependingon the situation, would you “make” the tattoo hurt more for some people? (You may want to reword that question)
DAEMON: The aesthetic is as important as the experience. It is a permanent marker of the experience and when it is executed beautifully, it remains a positive reminder for the rest of the person’s life. As far as the pain element, tattooing, especially with larger work, is an rite of endurance. I find that the most powerful experiences occur with tattoos that require six hours or more to complete.
BME: You’ve also done some work with some very interesting methods of scarification, one of those being tattoo gun scarification which to the best of my knowledge, you originated. Could you tell me a bit about that?
DAEMON: Well I just wanted a better, more accurate method of cutting the skin with greater control. The blade that I attach to the needle-bar is not a scalpel(which I understand most people use),but a blade more like an X-acto. The blade cuts differently, and does not allow the skin to knit back together the way that a scalpel does. The blade is very small, which together with the quick up and down sawing action of the machine, allows me the accuracy and controle that I need.
BME: How does scarification relate to the other body arts?
DAEMON: In scarification, nothing gets left under the skin to colour it with unless there is some kind of irritant or another introduced. This Idea appeals to some people-no metal hanging from a piercing, no ink under the skin, just a design made out of your own flesh!!
BME: What do you think of many people who are starting to treat scarification as a purely visual event, with no respect for the underlying spiritual event? What do you think they’re missing?
RAVEN: It is inevitable, especially since the techniques have improved the overall visual quality, that scarification has become represented more as an art or fashion form. I hesitate to get dogmatic about the spiritual component of scarification. While I believe that acknowledgement of the spiritual allows for a richer experience, it is not for everyone, nor should anyone insist that it be strictly a spiritual practice.
DAEMON: They’re just two different schools of thought which at times do overlap to form a whole new level of experience.
You can follow Daemon on Instagram here : http://instagram.com/urbanprimitivetattoo