When the hooks go into his body, Cameron Bameron doesn't flinch.
“Deep breath,” says Sarah Conforti. Bameron inhales. On his exhale, she plunges a sharp, massive piece of metal through the skin just above his nipple.
Bameron, 29, is lying shirtless on a towel on the floor of an abandoned, graffiti-covered warehouse. It's a Sunday, and afternoon light streams through the wooden beams overhead. Unsuspecting hikers stroll by just yards away as Conforti, a professional piercer, pinches the flesh on the other side of Bameron's chest, pulls it up, and repeats the piercing process a second time.
With two massive hooks now lying flat against his body, Bameron closes his eyes and relaxes.
Conforti and Bameron are at Murphy Ranch, an abandoned hideaway tucked off a walking trail in the Santa Monica Mountains in Brentwood. As the glistening Range Rovers of some of the city's wealthiest residents meander along roads about a mile away, Bameron and a few others are getting ready to hang by their skin like so many slabs of meat.
If all goes well, they'll sail through the air as if they're human swings.
The hookers, as they sometimes refer to themselves, are with the group A.G.R.O., or Anti-Gravity Relaxation Organization, a monthly meet-up dedicated to suspending participants, often using shark and salmon hooks doctored to go through human flesh.
About 20 people are here on this particular Sunday. Some are here to suspend, others to pierce or man the rigging, and still more just to watch and provide encouragement.
Sitting against half-broken walls or slumped on rickety stairs, the group looks like a consortium of grown-up goth kids. Most are dressed in black, and some have taken body modification to extremes — one woman has on her hand carvings done with a scalpel, her flesh the equivalent of a slice of rubber sacrificed to a middle-school art class.
But their looks belie the reason they're there. It's not to shock the outside world but to find a sense of community, to transcend everyday existence, and to prove to themselves — and only themselves — what they're made of.
Derived from a Native American rite of passage, modern-day body suspension has morphed into a small but growing offshoot of the body-modification community. A.G.R.O., launched in May 2012 by Tim Taylor, 35, and 29-year-old Jennifer Cohen (who goes by Miss Olive), is one of about four groups practicing in the L.A. area.
Some, like the group where Taylor and Cohen originally met, are performance-oriented. But the notion of suspending in order to entertain other people left the pair feeling cold.
“We do this to be free, to do what we want to do,” Taylor says. The performance group “goes against everything that you're trying to get out of this.”
A.G.R.O. began getting together monthly at different locations around the city, hauling its gear and a core group of 10 to 20 people to anyplace that would have them.
The community they've created is part of what draws people to suspension in the first place, Taylor says.
“I think the biggest reason why people do this is belonging, a sense of family, a sense of group and love and support,” he says, “and knowing these people have your back no matter what. You can trust them with your life, because you have.”
A greater connection is formed, he adds, when people go through something so punishing together.
“When you go through war, you go through jail, you go through anything that's a physical thing, you create a bond that you never create anywhere else,” he says. “You know that no matter what happens, if that person's beside you, they're gonna be 'ride or die' for you because of that bond that was created in that moment.”
Yet it's not hard to blame outsiders for being instinctively averse. When Taylor first heard of people suspending, “It was about 1995 or 1996 and there was a show,” he says. “These guys were gonna put themselves on hooks and wing around. I wanted to pass out when I saw them. I was, like, 'I will never fucking do this in my life. These people are fucking crazy.' ”
Once he tried it for the first time, though, there was no turning back. And as he's gotten more experienced, he's also become accustomed to the many reasons people choose to endure such profound pain.
“It could be anything from abuse as a child so they want to feel pain,” he says, “to boredom in their lives and they've never felt pain and they just want to feel something different.”
For others, the physical hurt is a way of reminding themselves of what they can withstand.
“I always was interested in extreme bodily challenges,” Cohen says. “It was about feeling proud of myself because I could endure these things and achieve these things.”
That's also the case with Bameron. The chest suspension is widely agreed to be one of the most painful, and he doesn't get far off the ground before he opts to come down, stumbles over to the ground and collapses. But as he brings his knees to his chest, which is dripping one small trail of blood, and Conforti removes his hooks, it's as though a weight has been lifted.
“I got over my fear once again,” he says later. “I felt a sense of accomplishment.”
As Bameron recovers, 20-year-old Hannah Peters, whose brother is working the ropes, decides on a whim that she wants to do a suspension from her back. It's her first time going up, and she barely makes it; after the hooks are in, she has to take about five minutes to sit down, vomit and regain her composure.
But once she has, she's off the ground in about 60 seconds. Her brother, who is not lifting her, comes over and gives her a push. Her skin stretched and bleeding ever so slightly, she begins to swing in an arc from one side of the branch to the other. Cohen looks on with a mixture of pride and delight.
Later, she explains that this is the moment some suspenders live for. The pain, she says, is a means to an end.
“It's the one form of pain they submit to,” she says, “because it was worth the flight. It's worth being able to fly.”
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