Interview With a Human Pincushion

[Originally written on this date in 2010]

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 I just laugh when less than intelligent comments are posted and move on.

However, it really irked me that someone would comment on this particular article with the ‘better-than-thou’ and ‘I-know-more-than-you’ attitude.  While I know nothing about the girl in the photo, my many years of experience in the sideshow world and generally being a Carny bestows particular knowledge that most of society is not privy to.  The fact that someone believes “the risks are in no way greater than the benefit” made me laugh heartily.

The person making that comment also stated they were not allowed to give out certain details due to the risk of being “black-balled from the Magician’s Association Guild”.  That was definitely the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and initiated my response.   There is a clear separation between magic and sideshow, that being magic is completely an illusion, and sideshow is definitely real people doing real things.  Speaking candidly about an act that people obviously misunderstand is not giving away any type of closely guarded secrets.

My reply was posted under a pseudonym to retain anonymity as I was fairly 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 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 when people allow it to be stapled to their bodies, 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 other bodily fluids are now on the gun and can enter our own body once the skin has been punctured by a staple.  Taking this scenario one step further, what if that random person had a potentially fatal disease?

In all honesty, I have seen people use their staple guns for other purposes, such as 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 a 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 subject myself to this so-called act, is because I understand that all three objects involved are very 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.  Then again, 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 2007.  There are a number of reasons behind this decision, but mainly I wanted the article to serve as one example of why someone would choose to inflict pain upon themselves.

DISCLAIMER: The interview is being published for educational purposes only and is not meant to suggest, advocate or instruct anyone to perform and of the acts discussed.  Please also be advised that some of the content may be graphic, so read at your own discretion.

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 Tim piercing his mandible (lower jar).  To Barry Silver, the artist’s rendering of the Torture King 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 Washington D.C., where during one of Barry Silver’s performances there, he impressed Kathleen Kotcher,  by piercing through his forearm at the end of his pin cushion act. Kathleen (co-writer of Shocked and Amazed) 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 the Torture King 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 social networking profiles – 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 the Torture King 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 at photos of the Torture King, when at one point he 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 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) pins were pushed deep into body tissue.  After multiple successful attempts at surface piercings and 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.  The small collection of his piercings are meant to be personal, and he feels that his non-permanent piercings are no different.  Barry asked Red to teach him how to pierce the mandible, but was met with refusal.  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, which is cited as sparking his interest in piercing.  Hist first experience with it 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 for a performance before he met 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 pins through to duplicate the old pincushion routine.  Barry equated this to using a collapsing sword and saying you swallowed it.

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 about the pincushion will expand their minds, and few people have the privilege of this knowledge.  Putting a foreign object in the body can be disturbing to an audience, as it explores the limits of pain,  but this also 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.  However, due to the extreme risks involved, 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 your body 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 and Barry has found that people 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 occur when they have been removed.  Even still, weeks later there can be a sore reminder of a poorly done piercing, and  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 can leave small marks that will 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 is something else that he had seen Red present – 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, 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, and later 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 with his eyes sewn shut led to Barry and Jon Cobb teaming up to do hardcore surface piercings on Barry’s face.  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 saw of a mandible piercing had been done by the Torture King, but out of respect, he could not ask how the piercing had been achieved.  He knew 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.

The lack of people performing the mandible piercing in their pincushion act is due to the secrecy and danger of the piercing.  At one time, Red refused to teach Barry how to pierce his mandible for his own safety.  Collaborating with a friend, Barry ventured on a quest to obtain all the data he would need to attempt it himself.  In the past, Jon Cobb was making his pins, but when Jon moved to Hawaii, Barry learned to make them on his own, 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,  he finally getting out of it and realized once again, that things which may have seemed impossible were 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, and with a push, it glided through without hesitation, which opened the floodgates on endorphins that had been built up for three years.  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.

Going back to the beginning of this article, 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 the Torture King 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 information concerning the pincushion act has been self-attained from numerous photos of other pincushions, pierced individuals in tribes, magazines, books, videos, and internet, and other media.


3 comments on “Interview With a Human Pincushion

  1. Barry Silver says:

    2003 – Chavez College of Magic
    2009 – Temple University – B.A. Sociology

    The Society of American Magicians

    T & T Entertainment, Philadelphia Zoo
    Guest Relations – Children’s Animal Exhibit

    Production of Demo Tape
    Family Friendly Entertainment
    Creative Director and Performer

    Production of “Magic the Web Series”
    Host and Coordinator of TV Pilot

    Brookstone, King of Prussia, PA
    Sales Associate & Cashier – Greeted customers entering the store

    Cole Brothers Circus
    Assistant Manager of Operations
    Ticket Sales, customer disputes, safety inspections and site relocations
    Kitty Hawk Kites, Outer Banks, NC
    Sales Associate – Taught, demonstrated and sold new products

    TrickZone, Philadelphia, PA
    Set up and managed a Magic Store

  2. Barry Silver says:


    The Magic of Barry Silver

    Web Shows

    Barry Silver @ The Art Museum

  3. Good article. I do not understand all the limits the pincushions put on safety. I have been using pins, needles for 50+ years now without cleaning or care of safety. I punctured my stomach, lungs and a lot else. The mandible act is fun and easy; you get pain going thru the saliva ducts which stings. The rest is precious, lovable fun. My entire body is punctured. Too much deep puncturing of the arms/ through the arms will make you weak; I mean thousands of punctures. Long rounded needles through muscles can also damage them, so use a little care. Locate your ligaments and avoid them. Puncturing is cathartic. It is fun, enjoyable, and feels good. Use of Short pins avoids internal damages. As a beginner, you get a lot of sting. Push it in anyway and experience the pain. Then do it 24 more times. As an old man, I often get little sting/pain if any at all. Puncturing helps with sex; I do not need Viagra. I can not puncture myself often now since my body has told me what I can and can not do; seriously, feelings in the throat, head, back, etc. Certain body feelings speak reams. Listen to them. My functionality is decreasing with my aging.

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