Tangled Up In ‘Blue’: Meet The Founder Of Oakland’s Rope Bondage Studio

“Society doesn’t stop at kink’s door. The structures and histories that we’re playing with are the same ones that exist outside of it.”

October 11, 2019

Katie Tandy
Q&A
founder of VoxBody Studio, Blue

method for tying, torturing and parading prisoners may not seem ripe for a loving, consensual ritual, yet here we are.

Hojojutsu refers to a martial art used during the feudal Edo era in Japan; samurais used intricately knotted rope to torture and parade their prisoners; this focus on public shaming is very psychoculturally bound up in Japanese culture, drawing on the gestalt history and collective memory of its people.

“Its adoption into erotic practice is simply another application of rope — a tool inextricable to the culture itself,” writes Marnie Sehayek for VICE.

“At the time, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, official Tokugawa crime laws used knots to torture and extort confessions from captives and to display alleged criminals. Each public punishment specifically fit the crime, so the tie used to administer it created a legible, symbolic admonition for crowds of onlookers.”

But like anything worth its salt — anything societal and of the body — Kinbaku, the art of erotic bondage, has transmuted many times and its resulting iteration bears little resemblance to the brutality of its roots.

Master “K” — a 40-year veteran bondage teacher and author — is often considered to have written the definitive text on the subject, The Beauty of Kinbaku, a rich tome outlining the history and evolution of shibari — a general term for rope tying. He explains that in everything from Sumo wrestling and Shinto spiritual offerings to the traditional tying of a kimono bares threads of these richly rendered knots.

As the 20th century rolled around, kabuki theater began to adapt these knots and rope ties into hyper-stylized performances; the pain was removed, but the intricacy remained.

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Watercolors from VoxBody’s life drawing classes.

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“The practice of kinbaku can be characterized both as performance and ritual,” explains Heather Pennington in Kinbaku: The Liminal and the Liminoid in Ritual Performance. “It has elements of standard theatre, such as an audience, repeatable sequences of behavior executed in particular ways to achieve particular results, technique, dramatic showiness, and denouement.”

She explains American society experienced a surge of interest in the 1920s when a photography series painter by Itoh Seiyu — featuring tied women, what else? — was published and disseminated, but leading up to and during World War II it faded from the societal radar again.

But in the wake of the War, the Allies abolished censorship in 1945 and the now ubiquitous cross-pollination of kink between the east and west began, spurned on by Japanese kink magazine Kitan Club publishing the illustration “Ten Naked Tied Women” that same year.

Ten Naked Tied Women // Kitan Club

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OK. So that’s where we were, but where exactly are we going?

What is at stake in all these bound bodies?

Blue* knows. She’s the founder and owner of VoxBody in Oakland, California — an intersectional, female-owned and run entirely rope-dedicated studio all aimed at destigmatizing the way we share our corporeal selves.

VoxBody is a place to learn, to feel loved and seen, a place to take yoga and a place to get tied the hell up. Vox means “voice” in Latin and Blue — and bondage — is all about that.

I’m a busy body. I’m always curious where people grew up, what kind of child they were and if there’s any connective tissue between their fledgling selves, their current selves, and their kink?

I’m not a person that’s into rope bondage that has a memory of playing with bondage as a child — I don’t have a root experience — I don’t have one of those stories! For one thing, I discovered BDSM in my early ’40s, a bit on the more mature side than other people find it. It felt so great discovering this world at that point in my life, when I felt in a pretty grounded knowing place about myself, my sexuality, how I express myself and share my body.

So how did you eventual tumble into this intense relationship with bondage and rope?

In my ’20s and ’30s — one of the main things that played its way into discovering rope bondage was that I was a burlesque performer. This was in the early 2000s — I ran away with the circus and I loved it. I loved the play with sexuality — I loved being part of this burlesque troupe, this powerful group of women. We went out and celebrated ourselves — we did silly sexy dark acts. And that fed into me thinking about how I share myself on an outward public level versus my private time. How do we explore and express our sexuality?

I’ve also been a teacher my whole life — elementary school, art, yoga. Getting into this medium that I fell in love with — the practice of bondage — I also really love teaching it. Now that I have a studio I love being involved in the programming around the education of it. So these two life paths — which don’t necessarily indicate rope bondage! — makes sense coming together when I look back.

Vaguely, I’m also definitely interested in the marginal and misfit communities. I wasn’t interested in what I grew up around, in what they were trying to teach me about what I should be when I grew up and live my life. I’ve always been interested in pushing against that.

What draws you to this art form, this form of bondage? I know you specialize in Japanese rope-tying, and to you, how does that differ from other forms?

If someone asks my lineage and where my interests lie…I’m definitely more into Japanese than Western styles of rope tying, but that being said, rope bondage is a very current alive art form and it’s changing all the time. There are purists out there that study very specific rope bondage and there’s a lot of us who love rope and do it the way we do it. People might look at it and say that’s not pure. But to me, it’s not like we’re learning this ancient thing that is contained. It is an ongoing living process.

If you ask people in general broad strokes what the difference is…it’s a little like Western is a means to an end. I’m gonna put you in this pretty harness so you can walk around this party. I’m going to tie you to this post so I can flog or fuck you. I do this thing so you can do this other thing.

But with Japanese rope? The rope is the thing. You’re doing rope for the experience of doing rope. It’s a super generalization but there is a truth in there.

There are patterns and logic that root back to different points of Japanese history. There are people out there who are scholars of cultural roots of Japanese rope bondage — they are doing the research and the work and I don’t pretend to be that person but what I understand…

Blue ties boundMoxie // photography by HodiigethWay

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You can look at Japanese history and see the use of rope going back tens of thousands of years. There were no metal arts for a certain period because they were closed off from the west and that’s where it was developing, during the Edo period. And there are some patterns you can see in current day, but if you talk to scholars they’ll say, well, that’s not the roots. It all began when that practice of bondage became eroticized…and that’s in the last century.

Why is having this studio as a woman-owned space important?

It’s who I am, and how I show up in this community. It takes intention and effort to push up against a paradigm to say no, we all have a place here.

As a woman, I was initially doing rope within the context of an abusive relationship and I found this art form and practice so deeply healing. This way of being vulnerable and practicing intimacy and surrendering — that’s a big theme for me.

But I had to separate myself from my particular experience with a former partner. In doing so I was healing myself, but what I had experienced was not uncommon so I wanted to put myself out there and say, we can do this differently! We can create safer spaces. If a lot of us have found toxicity in the heteronormative way bondage is typically presented, we can create something different — a safer place to explore.

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Model // Cynna. Tied by Blue

At first, I started a women tying women series through kink.com and the response I saw was amazing and so affirming. Person after person after person — femmes, nonbinary, queer, trans folks — kept saying, I didn’t feel safe but wanted to learn this for so long! Here’s my path forward in something I love.

I feel so grateful that I opened the studio when I did — in a lot of ways it took on a life of its own. Like the POC groups that are run in the studio now. It seems there is finally time and space for the conversation and it’s super important that it’s happening.

What do we have to gain from being sex-positive, from sharing our bodies in this way with ourselves, with one another? How does kink intersect with feminism?

There is a saying in the kink — society doesn’t stop at kink’s door. The structures and histories that we’re playing with are the same ones that exist outside of it. If you’re a feminist during the day and doing kink at night you’re still a feminist.

The thing that makes kink and rope and BDSM possible and different is that it’s all consensual. Full stop, that’s what separates it from violence or abuse or any of those filters that people come up with when what they see is subjugation or fear. We agree to it. We have structures, we have negotiations and boundaries — hard limits that are honored. This is all done in this context. There are things we’ve been working with all along. That’s what makes kink, kink.

I do see the consent conversations have crept into the acroyoga world and the contact improv world and partner dance world. People making choices and advocating for themselves.

The other thing I would say is there has been a whole lot of us that came in not seeing ourselves represented in what we sought. As a woman who ties — a woman in the top rigger position…it’s not that they haven’t been there, but in the last 5 or 6 years there’s been so much shifting of what is the dominant paradigm.

Who is tying:being tied in terms of representation?

I want people to feel welcome here! I can say we’re inclusive, but I need to show it.

I’ve always found rope tying — in my admittedly small sample size — extremely meditative. I can really get off on the anticipatory, withholding nature of it, the symmetry of the knots, watching someone bind another’s body as they sway, suspended…

One of the things in the core curriculum that we talk about is that the thing about rope is that you’re using the element of time. If you just want bondage you can get leather cuffs and buckle them. Rope takes time to build some of these patterns; you also want the experience of the person in the rope to adjust and deal and process. To press against it, accept it. It’s physical and psychological.

You need to give some time to let the rope do the work.

In my first couple years, I was being tied at first, but then started tying more and discovered rope is amazing on this side too! It’s a process and an act of trust on the rigger side too. The person being tied is practicing trust — they’re being put in vulnerable positions — but with the person tying, they have to trust that the person being tied will tell them if it’s not right. And that’s really beautiful.

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// Photo and tying by Blue. Model // e-mechanic

I lose a sense of time, I feel super present with the person and the rope. There are risks inherent and you need to be paying attention to them — you can’t help but be hyper present.

There is even kinky neuroscience — studies of people doing rope and the data is really beautiful as to what’s happening to our mindstate. The effect of time and rope.

What do you say to people who are like, woah rope bondage feels scary/intense — like being kidnapped and tortured! — how do we destigmatize or deescalate people’s (maybe) aversion to it?

Everything we’re doing is consensual. This is a base knowledge to be clear about. And yes, people are visiting triggers and trauma and stories they’ve lived through — how do you do anything with your body and not have things come up?! — but there is a general wisdom that kink can be therapeutic, but it should not be therapy.

Sometimes, my community of friends who are not into rope, but are performers and artists — they’re asking, why do you do this?! This makes me uncomfortable!

For one thing, what we’re doing is deciding to share on a more outward level. We’re going to classes or performing or putting photographs on Instagram — we’re sharing what is our intimacy. We’re sharing our bodies and that’s a really good thing!

We should be able to talk about what turns us on and what doesn’t. And the fact that it’s so hard to have that conversation leans back to the shame we carry around. That feeds into so many consent and abuse issues we have because we can’t have healthy conversations about what we want, so our boundaries get trampled on!

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// Model is Cindershoot // photo by The Silence

Some photos are glorious and erotic and liberated and strong — you’ve got to look around and find what resonates with you.

Doing rope can be anything you want it to be! I want to make art, I want sexy time, I’m really interested in the anatomy and physicality of it — great there’s a lot there for you. I want to connect with my partner. I want to be Intimate, but not sexual. You don’t have to do any of this in one way.

This is so granular, but some of my reservations in pursuing rope-tying and bondage is that it feels like I have to have all this infrastructure — special ropes, a strong enough beam or whathaveyou to tie things to etc. What’s the best way to dip in without ya know, hiring a contractor…?

My answer is come to events! Come to public events, come to meet-ups — come here and take classes. One shouldn’t go off the ground until they’ve been doing rope for 8, 9, 10, 11 months.

If people want to have this experience, I would much rather people find someone who is going to tie them in a public setting. We have a huge kink community here — there are rope events every single night of the week! We’re spoiled here in the Bay, that’s a thing — in Idaho, your community might be harder to find! If at all. So try and spend some time learning before you punch a hole in your ceiling!

Blue is a “scene name” — kink folks often have these monikers as a means of protection; people have a right to choose what is private and what is public.

(Also! Check out this new play about shibari—Everything I See I Swallow—that won the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year…!)

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