Discovering the art of rope bondage

In the same way that the Polecats fought the stigma of pole-dancing being an exclusively titillating dance, Joyen Santos aims to establish her brand of rope art.
In the same way that the Polecats fought the stigma of pole-dancing being an exclusively titillating dance, Joyen Santos aims to establish her brand of rope art.

The room was cast in dark red light. A low and easy beat pulsated through the atmosphere. Two layers of black chairs were arranged in a circle, and in the center stood rope artist Joyen Santos. She wore a fishnet bodysuit, knee-high stiletto boots, and an unsmiling expression. Her model was a porcelain-skinned Chinese girl who went by the stage name Opiumtwin. She was dressed in a floral black kimono.

Santos began the show by binding her model’s arms, creating an intricate pattern that ran across her upper back as she did so. Coil by coil she contorted the rest of Opiumtwin’s body, bending the knees, sticking one leg up straight, hunching the torso, until the final figure was hoisted and pulled up onto a harness that hung from the ceiling. Santos slowly spun her work of art around, so that each person in the room could appreciate the form fully. At one point she lit candles and trickled hot wax onto the model’s butt and bare chest. She invited the audience to come forward and do the same.

There is no denying the sensual vibe in the room, but it is not the main flavor of the show. Instead of the hungry horniness that is often associated with bondage or males at strip clubs, people watch with hushed interest and reverence — the same way they would behave while walking around an art gallery. They are there to behold.

The rope artist community

Santos, who’s been practicing her art for three years now, considers herself a very young rope artist compared to her colleagues in the country — some of whom have been at it for 10 to 20 years. Most practitioners prefer to practice in private, under pseudonyms and masks because it is not accepted by the mainstream. But it is definitely nothing new.

Santos shares, “I can’t say that I haven’t received my fair share of discrimination, angered feminist groups and been called the abuser or the abused. It’s a very conservative country, so I can’t blame them for choosing to stay underground.” She has since taken it upon herself to be an ambassador for the community and those who want to get in. “I choose to be public.”

She describes her fellow rope artists as very normal individuals. “We’re the people that you commute with, go to work with, and see at bars. Nasa loob ang kulo, kumbaga.” They connect through fetlife.com, a “kinky Facebook” where people post naked pictures and fetishes. “And then when you meet them in person, call center agent pala. They’re not even in the art scene — as in super mundane. And their other life is that they’re this hardcore slave that you can do anything to.”

Indeed, there have been many occasions during organized public meet-ups that classmates, colleagues and acquaintances have bumped into one another. “Oh, so you’re into this?” “Shhhhh!”

“I can’t say that I haven’t received my fair share of discrimination, angered feminist groups and been called the abuser or the abused,” Santos shares.
“I can’t say that I haven’t received my fair share of discrimination, angered feminist groups and been called the abuser or the abused,” Santos shares.

Rope bondage as performance art

The reasons for getting into rope bondage vary from person to person. BDSM and sexual pleasure are just some of them. Santos herself does it for the sake of art. A film graduate from the University of the Philippines, she likes to take photos of her models and put on live shows. “I’m primarily a performer when it comes to this. It’s just a medium, like the way a painter chooses to use oil.”

She discovered rope bondage via her love for Japanese culture — how they are able to turn the most mundane things, like sushi making or a tea ceremony, into something meaningful and honorable — an art that has to go through a step-by-step process. And while she doesn’t deny the hentai associations with her chosen craft (a subgenre of manga that focuses on transformation, often perverse), that is not the kind of show that she puts on. Rope bondage isn’t something she does privately, and neither does she disclose what she does during sex. “I’m a performing artist. That’s what I try to portray it as,” she says. She likens it to how the Polecats had to fight the stigma of pole-dancing being an exclusively titillating dance, but eventually were able to establish it into a sport. Joyen aims to do the same for her brand of art.

She tested the market recently by performing for Pineapple Lab’s “Friday Freakshow” the whole month of July. Pineapple Lab is a newly opened cultural center and photography gallery that endeavors to be a stage for fringe art in the Philippines. “There’s more to the art world than just plays, ballet, sculptures and paintings by dead artists,” Santos says. “Pineapple Lab is for the people who are in the background, who are not recognized in Philippine art.” She considers it her second home, which has treated her well and paid her in full despite the market’s initial zero exposure to her art. And to audiences who have grown weary of the established forms of entertainment, it serves as a venue to see and experience something new.

Enthusiastic reception and BDSM hype

Santos’ shows have been received well, with audiences approaching her with a gleam in their eyes, asking if they can be tied up next. She wonders if it has anything to do with 50 Shades of Grey’s popularization of BDSM.

But Santos would rather have people approach her and ask about bondage, instead of them trying it straight after watching the movie or reading the book. It is an activity that poses many dangers, the most serious of which are nerve damage, strangulation and death. Even emerging unharmed will leave you with bruises where the ropes once were coiled.

On the legal end, Joyen requires release, consent and medical information forms from her models beforehand. And when it comes to the actual practice, she believes that being safe doesn’t mean the absence of risk. It means being aware of the risks, and knowing what to do in the event that they happen. She makes it a point to get to know her models, see if they have good rapport; she talks to them at length about what they’re agreeing to, and she practices with them without an audience.

Bodily awareness and good communication are keys to keeping the activity safe. “I establish that no matter how many people are watching, if you say that you can’t do it anymore, I’ll let you down — even if it means cutting the rope, which is very expensive. Hospital bills are more expensive. Your reputation is more expensive. You can’t have any injured models. Their safety is paramount, and I have to make them realize that.”

Indeed, throughout the show Santos is very attentive toward her model, constantly checking in before she proceeds. She calls them her “bunnies,” a term of endearment. And even in a room full of people, they share a level of communication that is beyond verbal.

Across different forms, shapes, and sizes, Santos likes her models beautiful, inside out. “I’m basically like an X-rated Dove ad.”
Across different forms, shapes, and sizes, Santos likes her models beautiful, inside out. “I’m basically like an X-rated Dove ad.”

Beauty in all shapes and sizes

There is no one type of person who asks to be tied up. Santos has been approached by professional marketers, tattoo artists, a pep squad drummer with a fear of loud sounds, and many more. They are different kinds of people with different levels of confidence and body types.

Her limit is that they have to identify as female. It’s an aesthetic matter, as she prefers her models to have a certain amount of fat. Men, for example, don’t have breasts to stop the tie from rolling up their chests. Their bodies come with many corners, as opposed to the abundance of curves that you can wrap around a female body.

Given that qualification, Santos has had models from a petite 4’8” (142 cms) all the way to 5’9” (175 cms). She has tied up athletic bodies, beautifully plus-sized women, those with model proportions to not-so-model proportions, androgenes, transvestites and cross dressers. Some prefer to be naked, while others would rather be fully clothed. “Both have their pros and cons, and you can make it pretty either way,” Santos says.

Her last condition when choosing a model is that they be beautiful, inside and out. “I’m basically like an X-rated Dove ad. Beauty comes in all forms, shapes and sizes. With my models, it has to show through — and it will show through.”

***

For more information and upcoming events, visit www.facebook.com/pineapplelab.

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Originally published in The Philippine Star SUPREME (15 August 2015)

Photos by Romain Rivierre

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