Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interview With a Human Pincushion

The spark that ignited my urge to post this interview was spurred by this article posted on ModBlog back in March. For the most part, I keep my comments there limited to praise of body modifications that I personally find to be aesthetically pleasing. After all, everyone has their opinion of what they do and do not like, and obviously this will vary from person to person, so disagreements tend to rise up. There are plenty of far more entertaining things that I can waste my time on than arguing with anonymous people on the Internet, particularly in public space, so usually just laugh when less than intelligent comments are posted and move on.

However, it really irked me that someone would comment on this particular post with the 'better-than-thou' and 'I-know-more-than-you' attitude. While I know nothing about the girl in the photo, my decade of experience in the sideshow world and generally being a Carny bestows particular knowledge that most of society is not privy to. For someone to say that "the risks are in no way greater than the benefit", it literally made me laugh heartily. That would be like saying being able to shove a sharp object into your body to make a piercing is better than having to pay for the same at a reputable shop.

The bit about how this commenter was not allowed to give out certain details due to the risk of being "blackballed from the Magician's Association Guild" was definitely the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back and initiated my response. First of all, there is a clear separation between magic and sideshow, that being magic is completely an illusion and all about presentation, where as sideshow is definitely real people doing real things. Second, speaking candidly about an act that people obviously misunderstand is not giving away any type of closely guarded secrets.

My reply was posted under the guise of GWBFC to attain anonymity and certainly not shy to keep things blunt. For the record, I have not checked to see if there was any response; that is not the reason I posted. However, I will reiterate that I feel suggesting the risks of performing such an act are outweighed by the monetary reward [which seems to be prime motivation for any kind of sideshow performer, but I digress] is entirely irresponsible.

While one would hope that performers take into consideration the risks that come along with certain things, all too often people act first and deal with consequences later. Currency is one of the dirtiest objects circulating through society, and I am willing to bet that the stapler and the staples have not been sterilized. Or even remotely sanitized. What if someone were to grab the staple gun and goes to town on themselves? Sure, let's just wipe that off on our jeans, because there is no possible chance that blood or another bodily fluid is now on the gun and can enter my own body once the skin has been punctured by a staple. Taking this scenerio one step further, what if this person has a potentially fatal disease?

Needles are one-time-use for a purpose; it cuts out the risk of cross-contamination and the risk of passing on diseases from one person to the next. This is the whole reason piercing guns are bad [and should be illegal], and applies to sharing a staple gun as well. In all honesty, I have seen people use their staple guns for other purpose [i.e. putting up fliers on telephone poles] and then later on handed it to a stranger to have money stapled to their body. There was also an instance during a live show, where another performer grabbed the staple gun and shot a couple of rounds into themselves; the same gun was used by another performer minutes later without being cleaned off in any way.

The main reason I have never elected to do this myself, is because I understand that all three objects involved are dirty. While the stapler and staples could be sterilized or sanitized, money cannot be. Swallowing swords carries the risk of death, and I would much rather do that any day of the week. At least I know where they go and what they have come in contact with, not to mention the fact that I can clean them before and after every use. In the end, this is my personal choice, and if people are happy having money stapled to their body, more power to you. However, treating the act like it's no big deal only further fuels people's carelessness and disregard of the risks involved.

Having said all this, I felt compelled to share an interview that I conducted with Barry Silver a couple of years ago, which appeared in Issue 2 of Alive On the Inside, in the hope to bring understanding to why people choose to inflict pain upon themselves, and most importantly, how to do it properly.

The current issue of James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed features one of the most well-known Human Pincushions, the Torture King himself, Tim Cridland. On the cover is a picture of the Tim piercing his mandible (lower jar). To Barry Silver, the artist’s rendering of Mr. Cridland bears striking similarities to his own mandible piercing photo taken the first time he performed the routine on stage. The cover of Shocked and Amazed, however, was published before the photo of Barry’s performance was taken. It is merely a weird coincidence that Barry’s photo, taken by David Schmidt at the Palace of Wonders looks freakishly similar to Tim’s portrait.

Or is it?

Taking several steps back to how this photograph even came into existence, we must travel down to the Palace of Wonders in D.C. During one of Barry Silver’s performances there, he impressed Kathleen Kotcher, co-writer of Shocked & Amazed, by piercing through his fore-arm at the end of his pin cushion act. Kathleen convinced James Taylor to attend his next show, where Barry duplicated the effort and also pierced his mandible on stage for the first time. To Barry’s surprise, after the show, Kathleen informed him that Tim Cridland would be on the cover of Shocked and Amazed performing the piercing. One month later, Barry posted the photo of the mandible piercing he performed at the Palace on About two weeks after that, the Shocked and Amazed cover was revealed for the first time.

Barry Silver’s inspiration to perform the piercing was derived from Tim Cridland and
Red Stuart, photos from Shocked and Amazed, and a collection of intense live performances. Barry first learned about non-permanent mandible piercing by looking photos of Tim Cridland when at one point Tim was the only American performer actively doing the piercing in his pincushion routine. Barry learned play surface piercing from his best friend at the time Alex Hillman [online friend to Shannon Larrett of BME fame], and over the years he continued to educate himself, moving on to permanent piercing and then approaching Red Stuart to learn the tricks of a “stick man” aka human pincushion.

Initiation with Fakir John “Red” Stuart.

Barry’s pincushion initiation came in the form of being ‘stabbed’ with pins in a South Street coffee shop. That night, he practiced with corsage pins at every free moment. More research opened up the world of deep muscle piercings to Barry. It seemed that Tim was not the only person to enter that territory in terms of modern American sideshow fame. Barry continued his studies, finding that people were experimenting with permanent piercings in sensitive areas such as the neck and bicep. It was around this time a friend introduced him to Jon Cobb, who appreciated the act as a means of modification.
Using the left forearm for “practice” [which Barry admitted could take more punishment as the left hand was unskilled to begin with] Barry pushed pins deep into his bodily tissue. After multiple surface piercings and permanent/non-pierced weightlifting Barry learned to stick pins into the legs and stomach. Advice came from Red Stuart, examining numerous books, and on-line sources when Barry started doing the deep muscle piercings such as the bicep, pectoral muscles etc… Barry sometimes still wonders how permanent a piercing in some of these spots can be, but after much research has decided against them for him for the most part. The small collection of Barry’s piercings [which right now include a septum, nipples, and genital] are meant to be personal, and the modifications of his non-permanent piercings are no different. Barry asked Red to teach him how to pierce the mandible, but was refused. Jon Cobb also turned down the request, citing that one had to have extensive knowledge of the mouth's anatomy.

How does an individual even come to the conclusion that they desire to pierce themselves? Even more so, to do it on a consistent basis as a form of entertainment? For Barry Silver, it began with the magic trick of putting a needle through a balloon. This sparked his interest in piercing. Hist first experience piercing another person was using a piercing gun on a young girl's ears during the time he worked at Spencer's Gifts. [Noted here that he did not want to use a piercing gun ever again.Red Stuart was the main visual reference for the pincushion act, as Barry had never seen anyone push a pin through the skin before for performance before meeting Red.

Using a syringe filled with liquid Barry would duplicate the act of piercing his cheek like he had seen Red do with a hat pin. Later, Barry was advised never to aim at the liquid crowd because of spreading germs, something brought to his attention by Jon Cobb.

Some of Barry’s magician friends used latex, glue, or other arm coverings to push pin thru to duplicate the old pincushion routine. Barry equated this to using a collapsing sword and saying you swallowed it. He was determined to seek out all the possible ways to do things.

Stick Man

There is a distinct difference between a “stick man” and Human Pincushion, though both perform the same type of act. The old stereotypical carnival “stick man” has no care for the consequences of his act; he willingly stabs himself with pins having little knowledge of the damage he can cause. Barry admittedly began this way - having friends play a form of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, where a body part would be named and then pierced. Hanging objects from surface piercings followed, and his scars serve as reminder of taking advantage of the act.

Barry feels that teaching others pincushion knowledge opens their minds. It shows the human bodies potential and that is not something easily taken in. Few people have the privilege of this knowledge. Putting a foreign object in the body can be disturbing to an audience, but it expresses the severity of the act. Even the medical community could benefit from observing the way a sharpened skewer easily slices through the skin, leaving behind no blood or marks. Nevertheless Barry shares his knowledge about the act with very few and select individuals.

Audience Participation

Including the audience in a pincushion demonstration can really open their mind to new possibilities which they did not know existed.

Having someone else push a pin through you adds a new level of safety and can result in pain, damage, or unnecessary risk. However, it proves the reality of what’s being done. Barry has found that people are often faint upon the request of participation.


There is much more to the Human Pincushion than simply jamming needles into flesh. After ‘the show’, the physical body has been altered. Though the pin may only be in place for a short period of time, there is a great deal of care and cleaning that must take place. Even still, weeks later there can be a sore reminder of a poorly done piercing, and as with all piercing there is a risk of damaging the body including but not limited to creating scar tissue.

Is the Pincushion act over after the show?

While the piercings may look temporary, this is not entirely true. Memories of past experiences remain due to the expansion of the mind. Once pain is realized, it is no longer unknown, but it can still be felt. Repeating certain piercings certain ways can leave small marks that can become visible over time and never quite go away. Diving in before testing the waters may lead to emotional reactions from friends and family, or even perhaps a significant other.

Other Pincushion Acts

Additional pincushion acts that Barry began performing include the staple gun, which he had seen Red Stuart perform first. He tried it on himself at home [something we do not encourage readers to do!] on the arm. A few years later he was stapling most of his body parts, including the top of the head. Some things are not such good ideas and accidents have occurred. During one occasion where he received monetary compensation for allowing a staple to the forehead, Barry’s skull slightly cracked.

Extreme Acts

A year into the Human Pincushion routine, Barry realized he could include “Genital Geeking” as a ding, with weights and surface piercings being a part of that act. Then the Human Dartboard was added, which he figured out by himself after seeing Disgraceland Family Freakshow perform it at Whiskey Dix. He confirmed his ideas about the act with Red Stuart. Barry purchase darts and practiced having a friend throw the darts at him outside while the two were at Applebee’s for dinner.

Photos of Gangeesh [of Disgraceland] with his eyes sewn shut led to Barry and Jon teaming up to do hardcore surface piercings on Barry’s face [which have landed in The Unholy Sideshow Movie].

Nailing Tongue to a Wooden Board

Having his tongue pierced gave Barry the advantage of hammering it to a board. He would also put safety pins through healed permanent piercings as an extra at the end of the routine [taking care to ensure he explained how that was possible].


The first photo Barry had seen of a mandible piercing had been done by Tim Cridland, but out of respect, he could not ask him how the piercing had been achieved, knowing Tim was the only one (main sideshow figure) still doing the act in the United States, as Red stopped doing the act a long time ago. Later Barry learned of another pincushion by the name of Murrugun, who bills himself as the “Prince of Pain” who also does the act.

Red refused to teach Barry how to pierce his mandible for his own safety.

The lack of people performing the mandible piercing in their pincushion act is due to the secrecy and danger of the piercing.

Collaborating with a friend, Barry ventured on a quest to attain all the data he would need to attempt it himself. In the past, Jon Cobb was making his pins. When Jon moved to Hawaii, Barry learned to make his own pins, unconsciously setting one aside for the purpose of the mandible piercing.

There was a day where Barry was secured in a regulation straitjacket, and after hours of being held captive inside it, having the cops called and generating curiosity, finally getting out of it, he realized once again, that things which may have seemed impossible where actually within grasp.

While having lunch with a friend one afternoon, Barry decided that would be the moment in time when he would first attempt the mandible piercing. The two went in the bathroom and found a suitable spot. The pin was held at the proper angle. Breathe. Pushing the pin, it glided through without hesitation, which opened the floodgates on endorphins that had been built up for three years [the length of time Barry had been considering this particular piercing]. The pin pulsed while inside, and then it was removed. There was no blood, mark or swelling, and the only pain was a small pinch from the withdraw.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this article, and the whole purpose of it being written.

The turn of events concerning the Shocked and Amazed cover prompted early release of information to dispel any notion that Barry Silver is attempting to copy Tim Cridland in any way shape or form. It is quite eerie in coincidence that a month after Barry posts a photo of himself with the mandible piercing, that a similar drawing of the Torture King exhibiting the same piercing appears on a notable sideshow publication. However, that’s all it is, and the facts presented here are for the purpose of ensuring no one else thinks or believes otherwise.

In closing, Barry would like to thank Red Stuart for teaching him the act, as well as Jon Cobb for his knowledge and support. All other knowledge for Barry’s pincushion act has been self-attained from numerous photos of other pincushions, pierced individuals in tribes, magazines, books, videos, and internet, and other media.

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