Tattooed Superstars of the Jim Rose Circus
By Tim Coleman with photos by eaderphotography.com
Jim Rose’s legendary masochism has made him a rich man. Since it began in the early ’90s, the sell-out shows of the Jim Rose Circus have been grossing out audiences with their contemporary twist on carnival freak shows that toured America up to the 1960s. Whether it’s chainsaw football, Mexican transvestite wrestling or watching Matt “The Tube” Crowley having the contents of his stomach pumped out into a glass and then drunk, a good show was always one where at least a few people passed out.
As well as grossing out audiences, Jim Rose has also made a huge contribution to the popularization of tattooing and piercing. Back in the ’90s, Rose was dubbed “the King of Body Modification” by no less than Newsweek magazine, and the Circus was considered shocking, not just for its death-defying stunts, but also because all members, except Jim, were heavily tattooed and pierced. Today, that shock value has long gone and so Rose has been forced to look for new ways to horrify and entertain his fans. Recently, that search led him to collaborate with Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Sinn Bohdi, two of America’s top professional wrestlers, a collaboration that isn’t without its dangers, as Jim, nursing a nasty head wound, explains from his home in Las Vegas, “I got hit over the head with a chair. It wasn’t meant to happen that way,” he says laughing. “Sinn got a bit carried away.”
Getting hurt in the Jim Rose Circus is an occupational hazard. Recently, one of its members nearly lost his penis. “It was attached to a shopping trolley,” explains Jim, “and the trolley got a bit out of control.”
Of course the real trick is not to get hurt at all, even though the stunts look excruciating to the audience. For a long time, these tricks had been a closely guarded secret in the performance world. But, in an act of complete defiance, Jim’s recently published book “Snake Oil” has blow the lid off these secrets and revealed how some of these amazing stunts are actually performed. “Have you had death threats from your fellow performers?” I asked him. “Well, I know some of them are a bit angry,” he stated, chuckling, “but I thought that some of the first generation of people inspired by my shows have been a bit mean. They weren’t very sharing with the information. I look on circus performance as art form, and I wanted to see the younger generation who were doing cool stuff have at least the basics behind them.”
Jim explains that another part of the motivation behind writing the book was to tell people how you can get dropped off in the middle of a strange country, not speak the language but still make a pile of money. “There are plenty of scams out there and I wanted to reveal some of the most famous.” So now anyone can start his own circus? “Sure, why not?” he replied. “It’s an art form. Let anyone participate.”
The Circus’ latest morph into the world of professional wrestling has been as successful as any of the previous incarnations, with the Jim Rose versus the Jake “The Snake” tour performing to sellout crowds all over the States. The press release describes it as “high-flying, bone-jarring excitement. Not since Christians were fed to the lions has a show been this funny.” And the heavily tattooed Sinn Bohdi is a perfect fit into the mix. Bohdi, who was trained by Roberts, is perfectly comfortable in the freak arena, having developed his skills in the Carnival Diablo, a Victorian horror freak show based in Canada. “Since the beginning of my career,” he states from his home in Tampa, Florida, “I’ve been doing wrestling and freak shows in parallel.”
The show begins with Rose and the Circus doing their usual terrifying stunts, with Rose driving nails up his nose and having his face ground into broken glass. But this soon gives way to the two wrestlers who spontaneously break in with their fights. “My job on the show is to basically evoke emotion,” explains Bohdi. “I take them on an emotional roller coaster. Do I need to get the audience booing, do I need to get them cheering, do I need to get them laughing, do I need to get them yelling?
Although “The Snake” is known throughout the States for his wrestling bouts with legends like Hulk Hogan in their sold out Madison Square Garden fights, he is perhaps better known internationally as the inspiration behind the Darren Aronofski movie “The Wrestler” starring Mickey Rourke, a performance that won Rourke an Academy Award nomination. Aronofsky got the idea for the film from watching the documentary about Robert’s life called “On The Matt.” Here, the highs and lows of Roberts’ life, especially his struggle with drugs, are placed under the magnifying lens of the filmmakers. Bohdi doesn’t think the documentary does Roberts justice. “They just shoot hundreds of hours of footage and then just spliced all the bits where Jake looked bad together.”
None of this controversy, however, seems to bother the crowds who flock to the Rose tour. And Jim Rose is frank in stating how he has long admired Roberts since he was a kid. He also, no doubt, thinks he has found a kindred spirit in Roberts and his struggle with addiction. Thirty years ago Rose was in the same boat when he was a full-time junkie. It was only through the help of his French wife, Bebe, who took him to her hometown in France and locked him a basement to cold turkey, that he finally managed to kick the habit. “It wasn’t much fun,” states Jim,“ I grew hair on my knuckles and howled at the moon.”
Rose thinks his attraction to the freaky side of life comes from his early childhood. “I was born premature and cross-eyed,” he states. “Mum mom took me out of the incubator and put me in a size seven shoe box. The cross-eyes were genetic. My grandmother had them. Of course, kids picked on me all the time. I felt ugly. I also had pockmarked skin, misaligned teeth and the posture of a jumbo shrimp.”
Sinn Bohdi was also a very creative child. “ I used to spend most of my time drawing super heroes,” he remembers. Later, he managed to earn enough money from drawing comic books professionally to put himself through wrestling school. Like Rose he felt like an outsider, but not because of any physical abnormalities, more because of a powerful need to be different. “I have great respect for the worker bees of this world,” he explains. “But it’s just not something I could ever do. Put me in a nine-to-five and I would go completely insane. I’d end up robbing a bank, wearing nothing but spandex and armed with a rubber chicken. I just couldn’t take it.”
It was this desire to be different that initially drew him to tattooing. “I have always be fascinated by tattoos,” he states. “I first started noticing them when I began to do martial arts and the instructors I looked up to had them.” He got his first one, like so many other guys, to impress a girl. “It was a silly little ghost devil, which I had covered up a long time ago. But I remember the experience of getting it like it was yesterday. I was a seventeen-year-old punk, and I got it from this huge, mean, hairy biker. He scared the shit out of me. After that, I got addicted.”
Today, in the Circus shows, Bohdi’s most striking tattoo, a pair of angel wings on his back, is being used for more than decoration: They have become a dartboard. Just watching darts thrown into his back makes the audience squirm with sympathetic pain. So does watching Sinn staple dollar notes to his forehead with a staple gun. And a huge groan of agony rises from the audience when they watch Rose swing a sledgehammer, splitting a cinder block placed on his crotch. But how does he endure these agonizing stunts? “I’m basically a professional pain tolerance expert,” he states, “which means I can take a hell of a lot of pain.” It’s this tolerance that also makes him a good wrestler. Although professional wrestling is more like adult pantomime, with fake violence between exaggerated characters of goodies and baddies battling it out in the ring, the stunts are extremely demanding and can be dangerous. “Getting hit over the head with a chair or thrown over the ropes onto hard concrete, may look staged, but people don’t realize it’s actually very painful. Physically, it’s very intense. Did you know that being hit by a 300-pound guy jumping off the ropes onto you is the same as being hit by a car a forty miles per hour? You try doing that night after night.”
Although Sinn jokes that one of his worst experiences was when he passed out trying to blow up a child’s balloon (he was suffering from dehydration), he has, in fact, been seriously injured on many occasions. “I tore my knee ligament clean off the bone,” he recalls. “I heard it snap, but I didn’t feel any pain, when I was still in the ring, because of the adrenalin. That kept me going for another eight minutes.” Normally an injury that serious is enough to keep someone out of action for a year, but Sinn’s obsession with getting back into the ring was so strong he rehabbed like crazy and was back in six months. “I made everyone close to me miserable. I was so hell bent on getting better, I just sort of lived in the gym.”
Sinn has seen an enormous change in the wrestling profession’s attitude towards tattooing. “The old-school wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and Jake Roberts are not tattooed,” he explains. “Back in the ’80s it was really frowned on. The big-time promoters like Vince McMahon hated tattooing. They used to call tattooed wrestlers “Jail Birds.” They wanted the image of wrestling to be really clean cut. That’s all changed. Today, I’d guess that around eighty percent of the new generation are tattooed.”
Although The Jim Rose Circus has done an enormous amount to help bring tattooing and body mods into the mainstream, Jim himself has few tattoos. And those he does have he doesn’t like to show or talk about. “They are not really where anyone can see them in any performance,” he explains. “And since everyone else in the Circus is heavily tattooed, I don’t see the need to show them off. They are for private consumption.” Nevertheless Rose is incredibly enthusiastic about the tattoo renaissance. “I love going to tattoo conventions, often as a host, and I love to look at where the art form is going. I find it much easier to appreciate that art on other people’s bodies than say my own. I think tattooing has become such an explosively creative field that it has actually sucked out a lot of the talent for painting. There are now less great painters around because of that. I mean, if Rembrandt were alive today, I’m sure he would be a tattooist!”
In contrast, Sinn likes to show off all of his tattoos. He likes all of them, too, but perhaps his favorite are the letters written across his neck: Happiness Is My Goal. I ask him whether or not he thinks he has achieved that. “Most of the time, yes. But you have to work at it. I just love wrestling. I love the performance and the energy of the audience. When I was younger, I got to be one of the Undertakers. We were dressed as black-coated druids, holding lit torches. We walked out into that arena in front of 30,000 people. I remember thinking, My God, this is the greatest feeling ever.”
Keep an eye open for the latest manifestation of the Jim Rose Circus. It’s always changing and surprising. And if you ever get the chance to see one of their shows, don’t miss it. You will not be disappointed.