Behind the sinuous scenes of kinbaku, as explained by professional teacher Georg Barkas

By Francesca Johnson

Published Nov 12, 2021 at 09:11 AM

Reading time: 6 minutes

Bodies beautifully bound, ropes wrapped in an intricate series of patterns, art crystalised in moments of suspension—these are all descriptions of kinbaku, an ancient practice of Japanese rope bondage. Composed of elegant knots that wind themselves around the human frame and gracefully play with restriction and shape, kinbaku marries complex construction with the bewitching art of bondage. The result captivates and provokes intrigue into the world of contorted shapes and the manipulation of human anatomy. Kinbaku is performance, sculpture and an extreme exercise of trust—topped with a knot instead of a bow.

Here at Screen Shot, we like to dive into the deep end of the internet and explore all the treasures we can find along the way. Sex-positive and proud—be it kink, erotica or the mysteries of sexy subcultures—we love to keep up with the latest sex trends, and kinbaku happens to be one of them.

Kinks are crossing slowly into mainstream conversations everyday. From lactation to sex furniture, several fetishes are bought into light as we speak. As it should. Through the spaces made to discuss sex, different practices like polyamory and BDSM are being discovered by many. Yet, a simple scroll through #kinbaku on Instagram will lead you to an intricate paradise featuring over 400,000 posts. Safe to say, it’s clearly garnered some interest on the internet. But you may be surprised to find out that this particular practice is actually centuries old.

Artists and enthusiasts alike have gathered in a community around the world to participate in this Japanese art form. Many have adopted the practice as part of their lifestyle, and welcomed us as outsiders, into their world through fashion editorials, publications and art galleries. BDSM is slowly trickling into the public consciousness with a little push from the explosion of interest in this art of rope bondage over the recent years. Master practitioners like Naka Akira are now at the forefront, still putting out the fires left behind the trailblaze of 50 Shades of Gray and pushing bondage to the mainstream while inviting us to witness the more profound forms of bondage.

Even bondagewear is all the rage now, with celebrities like Rihanna, FKA Twigs, Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion sporting custom creations by designer Yeha Leung and her BDSM brand Creepyyeha regularly. i-D reported that the brand got a head start in 2011 “as an aesthetics Tumblr celebrating kinky lingerie and pastel goth fashion,” growing into fabulous fashion wear consisting of garters, harnesses and sexy leather galore. It’s easier than ever before to be suited and booted in latex and leather cuffs. So fashion is going ‘hardcore’, but what about the artistic tradition and history this fetishwear comes from?

What is kinbaku?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, kinbaku is a Japanese practice that came long before the nipple-freeing, throat-choking, handcuffing, smut-loving culture of the internet age. Translated, kinbaku means ‘tight binding’, where the person tying (or rigger) ties the person in ropes (or model) in an intricate pattern with rope. Within this practice, the bottom is sometimes suspended in midair too. Also known as shibari, the term is often used interchangeably as it is a general Japanese word meaning ‘to tie’. The outcome of such a careful craft is stunning and striking, leading many to admire both the end product and the trusted collaboration it takes to get there.

The artistic background of kinbaku dates back to Japan’s Edo period—where the country was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate (a military government) and its 300 regional great lords (called daimyos). Here, the practice evolved from shunga—Japanese erotica that also served the dual purpose of sex education for budding newlyweds—and Shijuhatte—often referred to as the Japanese Kama Sutra. With its aesthetic and sexual appeal, it’s not hard to trace the connection between kinbaku and its erotic art roots like Katsushika Hokusai‘s Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife—an iconic reference to rope erotica.

In an interview with VICE, Master “K”—teacher and author of The Beauty of Kinbaku, talked about kinbaku’s practical and decorative functions. Outside of its seductive elements, the practice also doubles up as “Shinto spiritual offerings, Sumo wrestling, and traditional kimono.” In fact, kinbaku was also performed onstage in kabuki theater first seen in the 20th Century.

However, kinbaku is inseparable from its erotic roots as its past is established in twisted, torture ritualism. The brutal art comes primarily from its past in war with a martial art called hojojutsuvery different from the practice as we know it today. According to 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.” Pretty grim, right?

More than just BDSM, the variety of kinbaku

To the uninitiated, kinbaku doesn’t seem to have moved too far from its roots in torture. However, practitioners, media outlets like Kinbaku Today and active rope community members would fiercely disagree. In fact, they even argue that it’s therapeutic, given the fact that submissive partners often enter the ‘sub-space’ of meditation and liberation from the experience of bondage.

In order to learn more about the world of rope, we decided to chat with an expert. Luckily, Georg Barkas, a kinbaku teacher at Barkas Kinbaku, currently based in Vancouver, and author of Archaeology of Personalities: a linguistic approach to erotic rope bondage was more than willing to take us through the basics. Barkas offers in-person teaching lessons about kinbaku to teach the art of erotic rope bondage. Through their site, people can book sessions and tailored learning experiences with the practitioner influenced by the teachings of internationally recognised and undisputed masters of kinbaku practice like Osada Ryu, the late Yukimura Ryu and Nawashi Kanna San (successor of the legendary Akechi Denki).

Here’s what Barkas had to share.

Why are people drawn to kinbaku?

“I can only speak for myself. I originally got into it after seeing someone’s facial expression while being in ropes. I told myself, ‘I want to be able to recreate those expressions’. […] I know that others who have talked to me are drawn to it for various reasons; aesthetics, athletics, eroticism, mediation, and more. It’s very diverse and also dependent on first encounters. People come to our workshops and haven’t even thought before that ropes can offer something else from what they have experienced so far.”

What first motivated you to become a kinbaku teacher?

“At some point a teacher asked me to assist and a short time after that, around 2,000 people in Vienna started asking me if I can give workshops about my approach to ropes. Since I already had teaching experience from university, it was relatively easy to adapt.”

Explain a typical kinbaku session with you—are there different classes for different needs?

“What happens in a teaching session: aside from the ones where students come with specific wishes, or the ongoing regular trainings at our space, I try to take the students with me on a journey through possibilities depending on where they want to go. Some classes are more technical in the sense of rope patterns, and some are more technical in terms of communication skills. Some are more emotional. […] As for a tying session, what I want to create with ropes is a space within which the person in ropes feels safe enough to share their vulnerabilities, at least some of them.”

Are there things that bother you about kinbaku’s depiction in mainstream media? Such as kinbaku and shibari, often being referred to as ‘just another BDSM kink’.

“There are many things that bother me. […] For some, Shibari is nothing but yet another kink and that is fine. For others, it is not and that must also be fine. What I would wish for in terms of representation is that those who have the resources to portrait Shibari/Kinbaku would show the diversity of approaches rather than just the BDSM side of the story.”

Are there dangers in practicing kinbaku or being part of the community?

“I’d say, 90 per cent of the injuries that I have seen in my professional career are psychological injuries. The big demon of nerve damage in the hands is of course real and it’s to a degree dangerous to practice tying. The ‘community’ offers the chance to progress and provide the knowledge about how to avoid injuries and it also has the power to deal with them as they happen. On the other hand, it is of course dangerous to rely on that community. […] Locally, there are communities, healthy ones, and sometimes they span over continents, but that’s rare.”

Have you noticed any patterns or changes in the kinds of people who want to learn about kinbaku over the years?

“When I started, most of rope education was about patterns and how those can be used in a BDSM context. That has changed drastically and thankfully diversified. […] People want philosophy, psychology, movement practices, visual art, engineering, etc. It is still changing and that’s good.”

What's your advice for people hesitant to practice kinbaku?

“Make friends, tie with friends, detach ropes from that one romantic relationship because if that breaks up, the rope often also vanishes from your life. And I would further advise you to be active against the things that you don’t want in your community—do not pretend that tying is apolitical. If you don’t state your views, there will be a power vacuum and that is going to get filled by those whose politics are all too often questionable at best.”

Though currently in the process of writing a second book about the practice, Barkas’ main priorities lie in helping marginalised groups specifically through local work to make a difference. Kinbaku is nothing short of art to those that practice it, and with the small community of budding riggers and bondage enthusiasts growing by the day, it only seems to be roping more of us in.

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