Fakir Musafar, a gasp-inducing practitioner and leading advocate of “body play” — the term he used to describe piercing, branding, tattooing, footbinding, corseting, body suspension and other practices that stretch, contort or otherwise alter the human form — died Aug. 1 at his home in Menlo Park, Calif. He was 87.
The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Cléo Dubois.
A self-described “shaman, artist, master piercer and body modifier,” Mr. Musafar was “an astronaut of inner spaces,” the photographer Charles Gatewood once said, part of a “sub-sub-subculture” that crept into public view in the 1970s.
Initially centered on the gay sadomasochism and fetish communities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, it spawned what Mr. Musafar described as an international if occasionally over-the-top movement, in which entertainment sometimes replaced what he saw as the spiritual nourishment attainable through body play.
“By using your body, modifying your body, you can go into states of consciousness and discover the true nature of life and yourself,” he told Shannon Larratt, founder of the body modification website BMEzine.
Mr. Musafar called himself a “modern primitive” — a phrase that became the title of an influential 1989 book, dubbed the “body-mod bible” by the New York Times — and traced his practices to ancient traditions, drawing inspiration from sources including Islamic mysticism, Hinduism, Native American ceremonies, and the tattooing cultures of Borneo and the Marquesas Islands.
He began with clothespins, using them to stretch his skin in childhood, and at 14 made his first piercing, inspired by a photo in National Geographic of a South Seas islander who had bored a hole in his nostril.
Inserting a nail into one side of a clothespin, creating a clamp, he pierced his genitals, the one place he believed his body modifications would go unseen. “I put in a little copper ring,” he told Larratt in 1997, by then in his late 60s, “and I still have that piercing today.”
Mr. Musafar gave himself his first tattoo as a teenager, using his mother’s sewing needles, India ink and Listerine as an antiseptic. About that same time, inspired by a photo of “a wasp-waisted boy” from tribal New Guinea, he began cinching a belt around his waist at night, drawing it tighter until he experienced “shifts in consciousness.” He later used corsets of his own design to narrow his midriff by about half, giving himself a 19-inch waist.
While Mr. Musafar’s practices grew increasingly exotic as he got older — at one point he hung two dozen one-pound weights from piercings on his chest — he kept them secret from all but his closest friends, using his birth name of Roland Edmund Loomis while working as an ad man in Silicon Valley.
He “came out,” as he put it, at an international tattoo convention in 1977, when he performed in Reno, Nev., using the Musafar name for the first time. He said he adopted it after reading a Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon about Musafar, a Persian shaman who purportedly pierced six daggers through his chest, saying, “You can learn about God through your body.”
That saying became a kind of motto for Mr. Musafar, who spread his philosophy and practices through a magazine, Body Play and Modern Primitives Quarterly, and through a school in San Francisco, Fakir Body Piercing and Branding Intensives. Founded in 1991, the school had trained 1,400 people as of 2017, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last year.
Mr. Musafar also toured the country and appeared in television specials and documentaries, most notably the 1985 film “Dances Sacred and Profane,” directed by Dan and Mark Jury. The documentary featured Gatewood, whom Mr. Musafar coaxed onto a bed of nails, and a scene in which Mr. Musafar hung naked from a cottonwood tree, suspended by ropes attached to pins in his chest — the result of deep piercings that, he said, were performed “under trance” and left no bleeding or trace of injury.
He described the practice as a variation on a Native American Sun Dance ritual, which he encountered while growing up on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. (Mr. Musafar was not an American Indian, a fact that led some critics to accuse him of cultural appropriation.)
After hanging for two or three hours in a “ripping flesh ceremony,” he then hung “for 20 minutes on a rope attached to iron hooks that go through holes in his chest,” the Times reported. Mr. Musafar later compared the experience to watching the final, psychedelic scenes of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“I was up there,” he said, “with the creators of the universe.”
Mr. Musafar was born in Aberdeen, S.D., on Aug. 10, 1930. His father was a mechanic, and his mother was a homemaker who wanted him to become a Lutheran minister.
“I found you could get by better in this world if you didn’t flaunt your differences,” Mr. Musafar told Larratt, claiming that before entering puberty he had psychometric and psychokinetic abilities. He affected an interest in photography, he said, as a cover for his primary hobby, which he feared would get him committed to an insane asylum.
“I could go into my mother’s fruit cellar, lock the door, and I was always developing film under a red light,” he said. “Actually I would be in there ripping flesh.”
Mr. Musafar graduated in 1952 from Northern State Teachers College (now Northern State University) in Aberdeen. After Army service during the Korean War, he received a master’s degree in technical theater and creative writing from San Francisco State University in 1956. He taught ballroom dance before entering advertising.
In 1990, Mr. Musafar married Dubois, a former dominatrix who teaches bondage, discipline and sadomasochism play to couples. They had long known one another, she told the Chronicle, but her affection for him blossomed after the premiere of “Dances Sacred and Profane.” “I saw him hanging by flesh hooks,” she said, “and I fell in love with him in that moment.”
In addition to his wife of Menlo Park, survivors include a stepson; a brother; and a sister.
To those who said his practices were too extreme, Mr. Musafar responded that his body modifications were only a few steps removed from yoga, sun tanning or the wearing of high heels, each of which he considered a form of “body play.”
“There are many paths up the mountain,” he often said in interviews, quoting the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, “but the view at the top is the same.”