Home Culture Erotic Rope Bondage Is an Art Form.

Erotic Rope Bondage Is an Art Form.

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They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but can the same be said about bondage?

Shibari originated back in thirteenth century Japan as hojojutsu, a method for restraining and punishing criminals. Today, however, the Japanese practice that literally means “to tie,“ is treated as a consensual experience for the purposes of art or arousal with a rigger (“top” or “dom”) tying up another person (“bottom,” “sub” or “bunny”). It might sound foreign to some, but Shibari has not only become increasingly visible within the BDSM community, but it has also become entwined in pop culture at large. Just think about some of the bondage motifs popularized by celebrities like Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Madonna, or do a search on Instagram for #shibari and more than 256,000 results will display.

“Discovering the many reasons why people get into Shibari was like going down the rabbit hole,” says Aaron McPolin, a 28-year-old fashion and beauty photographer based in Perth, Western Australia. “It’s not just one facet that draws people in; there are many different sides and that’s what makes it such an interesting art form.” He became so captivated by the practice that he created a series of photos called “A Tender Dissolution” that was exhibited last year and released internationally as a book this month.

“I have friends who are in [the BDSM] scene and it’s often misconstrued and misrepresented as creepy or something to be ashamed about,” McPolin explains. “But my goal is to show Shibari and BDSM culture in a way that can be accepted and dissolve any bad connotations. I want people to see its purest form, which is the artistry and the human body.” Such artistry abounds in the images McPolin created with artist/illustrator Calliope Bridge, rope artist Paul Kabzinski and florist Samara Flavel. At once delicate and audacious, “A Tender Dissolution” elegantly juxtaposes intricate rope and knot patterns, ornamental florals (comprised of native Western Australia flowers) and sculptural composition with lissome, nude models who exude more of a mystical sensuality than overt sexuality.

Still, McPolin realizes there are those who will instantly deem the images too explicit or unsettling. “It’s like, oh no, there’s boobs,” he laughs. “But that says more about the person looking at it than it does the actual artwork. Being tied up is not normal for most, but these are people’s bodies and these are their choices. When you don’t judge, you break down your barriers and dissolve your preconceptions. I photographed my models mainly without showing their faces because I wanted people to put themselves in that space rather than focusing on the model.”

It’s such an in-depth art form and skill set that you can’t ever stop learning.

The chance to create compelling images is part of what drives Jesse Flanagan, a 34-year-old Shibari artist based in Dallas, Texas. He’s been practicing Shibari and photographing it exclusively for almost five years. “It’s such an in-depth art form and skill set that you can’t ever stop learning. It’s like playing a musical instrument. If you look at it within the context of other BDSM play, there’s only so many ways you can throw handcuffs on somebody, whereas there are dozens of different ways I can think of right off the top of my head that you can tie someone’s hands together.”

For his more than 18,000 followers on Instagram, Flanagan shares images that feature his own elaborate ties on models who are often contorted in strikingly strenuous poses and sometimes dressed in cosplay outfits. “The photos generally have the model in a serene pose even if she’s suspended in the air. I use dramatic lighting to show the figure or musculature [of the model] as well as to accentuate the texture of the rope and the drama associated with that. It’s almost a hyper-realistic level of the figure. It’s an idealization of what kink can be. It’s kink fan art.”

As someone who actually ties the rope and takes the photos, Flanagan says there is a clear distinction between practicing Shibari for public consumption versus private gratification. “It comes down to what it means to the individual who is tying and being tied. For photography, I can see Shibari as an art form. For play, I can see it as more BDSM.” As he reveals, “My most positive experiences with rope are the ones I have with people that I don’t photograph. It’s more about the emotional exchange with that person. For the purposes of play with rope, the thing that I seek out more than anything else is the reaction that I’m giving to a person. Are they enjoying themselves? Are they getting what they want out of the dynamic that we’re creating? For me, that’s a very different thing than setting up a photo shoot. Rope is just a tool with which you can convey whatever emotion or need that you want to express. What you put into it is what you get out of it.”

"A Tender Dissolution", Courtesy Aaron McPolin
“A Tender Dissolution”, Courtesy Aaron McPolin

But practitioners of shibari don’t just do partake for shock value or even the beauty of it. According to a 2015 New York magazine article, there is preliminary scientific evidence that suggests bondage can actually reduce stress and anxiety. Referred to as “rope space” or “rope drunk,” the sensation is akin to a runner’s high where people experience physical, physiological and psychological changes. “I’ve witnessed people who’ve had Shibari performed on them and for weeks afterwards they’re more relaxed and present,” affirms McPolin. “It’s the build-up of adrenaline that you get because you can’t escape the environment and then the endorphins of being untied. Shibari isn’t just a tool of beauty; it’s a tool for practical purposes.”

Whatever the reasons for practicing Shibari, Flanagan understands that the key is keeping an open mind. “I think it’s a healthy attitude to want to learn regardless of what you do. I freely admit that not all my shots are for all people, but I hope that overall it’s inspiring and compelling in some way. Being part of the kink community and the BDSM community has definitely opened my eyes to things like inclusion and consent more so than the vanilla world has. There is a tremendous amount of respect and that’s something we could all learn from.” McPolin agrees in the way that shibari requires a great trust and “commitment unlike anything else I’ve seen. That’s why I think that people in BDSM are much more connected with trust than other people.”

Both a method to restrain and to liberate, Shibari is a paradox that will no doubt continue to evolve, just as it has over the centuries. “I think eventually Shibari will be widely accepted not just as a practice but also as an art form,” says McPolin. “I don’t think Fifty Shades of Grey did it any favors. It missed the mark because that character was an abusive person and that is not what BDSM is about.”

“Ultimately, I hope people will reserve judgment and become curious about the unknown and realize that you can actually find beauty in something that is considered taboo.”

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