Picture the scene: five people, each with hideously distorted heads, tubes sticking into their faces. Reminiscent of a medical experiment gone hideously wrong, you’d be forgiven for thinking they had a gross infection or disease. They look like alien abductees, fresh from invasive research by their interplanetary masters. But these are Japanese club kids, otherwise known as bagelheads, deliberately disfiguring themselves by experimenting with saline inflations.
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This extreme body modification isn’t new, but it’s growing in popularity – particularly across Japan in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka where modders are converging on clubs, eager to swell themselves. Sites such as BMEzine.com are full to bursting with photos of engorged body parts – heads, arms, tits and arses.
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This surge in popularity on the alternative club scene could be due to the fact that saline inflations aren’t permanent. BMEzine founder Shannon Larratt reckons that tens of thousands of people have tried inflating themselves.
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“It’s primarily a play activity,” he says. “I think most of the time it’s done on its own, rather than with other types of play. I’ve seen people combine it with play piercing but, on the whole, that’s not something I’d recommend because of infection risks.”
Saline inflations first hit the big time in 2002 when Shannon’s book, ModCon: The Secret World Of Extreme Body Modification was published. It documented three years of Shannon’s annual invite-only body mod convention in Toronto, Canada, and the cover showed performance artist Jerome Abramovitch looking like the devil, with what looked like a bagel wedged under his skin on his forehead. He’d performed the saline injection in 2000, but the publication of the pictures captured the imaginations of fetish clubbers worldwide and the art of skin inflating looked set to rise (and rise).
Photographer Ryoichi ‘Keroppy’ Maeda has been covering the body mod scene since 1992, translated Modcon into Japanese and has written his own book about underground modding, Scar Factory. He understands why saline infusions have become popular. “Things like suspensions are really quick. But saline infusion is a gradual process and you become a freak progressively. That’s the joy of it,” he explains. “You can enjoy watching it by having a few drinks and gradually seeing a transformation, but if you’re looking all the time, you can’t see the difference. If you meander off and come back, it’s a real surprise.”
H marks the spot
For people keen to experience the inflating world for themselves, Keroppy advises a trip to Tokyo’s Department H. It’s a long-running club with an ‘anything goes’ policy, and Japan’s monthly pansexual gathering of drag queens, latex lovers, furries, freaks, goths, BDSM aficionados – plus the world’s top body mod experts. A quick scout around and you’ll find lines of experimentalists getting injected in their foreheads, arms and hands and waiting for the effects to take hold. “It takes about two hours to inflate, and then takes about a night to diffuse,” Keroppy explains. “It appears prominently in some areas and in others it gets absorbed. In the forehead it’s easy to see, whereas the arm absorbs it quite quickly.”
In February Keroppy and Bizarre body mod favourite Samppa Von Cyborg held a Dolphin vs Birds night, pitching the saline enthusiasts (dolphins) against the hook suspensionists (birds). Although the techniques are radically different, they both hold the same appeal – the temporary transformation of the body. Keroppy likens the experience of suspension to bungee jumping and the infusions to scuba diving: “Inflation isn’t painful, it’s more of a weird sensation – but it is the act of using the body and seeking another experience. It’s a bit tight. If your head gets really full, you feel a lot of pressure.”
Body mod artist and Department H regular Sasori has tried infusions three times. “The first time, you feel scared because you’re exploring the unknown,” he admits. “But that’s the nature of body modification activities. It’s not dangerous, though. It’s just water – there are no scars. It’s a dull pain and sometimes you might get a headache, but it doesn’t last forever.”
The phenomenon of saline inflations isn’t exclusive to Japan, but the nature of Japanese subculture and the propensity for its people to take things to extreme new levels means that body inflating has ballooned in the East. It’s certainly boosting Samppa’s workload: “Japan’s kids are really extreme with anything,” he says, “not just with body modifications. They’ll save up and get things done, then save up again and get something done the next time I’m in Japan. It lets me go over once every four months or so.”
Keroppy has also noticed this penchant for the extreme in Japan. “Body mod pioneer Lukas Zpira and Samppa both come here regularly, and it’s because they have good clients,” he explains. “Kids will say things like, ‘do things that have never been done before.’ Japanese people want
to be the world’s most over-the-top.”
So if you can’t wait for the rest of the world to catch up with Department H, book a ticket to Tokyo and let someone stick a tube in your head. It’ll be plain saline from here on in…
Body mod pioneer Samppa Von Cyborg on how saline inflation works
The professional body piercer will use a saline bag, tube and needle. It works in a similar way to a hospital drip, so the bag needs to be raised above the body part picked for puffing.
* Body inflators never make their own saline solution and steer clear of tap water, due to the risk of infection.
* The needle is placed under the skin but not in a vein – or the build-up of pressure could mean exploding blood vessels all over the show.
* While it’s not that dangerous, some people who’ve done it regularly have found their skin has permanently explanded.
* The most interesting place to inflate is the forehead, as the taut skin means the effects are extremely obvious.
* Inflatees can prod the inflated lumps to make them look more interesting.
BMEzine.com founder Shannon Larratt talks saline injections
When did you start seeing people getting saline infusions?
I’ve seen them since the mid-1990s, but they existed long before that. Many people got into them independently using things like basketball needles and pumps to inflate, so I’m sure they date back many years.
How do people use them?
It’s a play activity, and not a permanent body modification – though doing it regularly on your testicles can permanently stretch the scrotum.
Do you recommend them? Are they safe?
I don’t know if I’d recommend them, but I’m all for someone doing them if they want to experiment. It’s not something I’ve done myself. It’s safe if the person follows basic sterility control and cleanliness issues – but if they don’t, it can be dangerous. An infection trapped inside the scrotum can be life-threatening.
Have you seen any extreme cases?
An interesting variation is using food colouring in the saline, which discolours the inflated tissue.