“Sex for me is to allow somebody deep into my body. Shibari is to allow them deep inside my mind.”

Shibari is a form of Japanese rope bondage with ancient roots.

In this article we witness a Shibari session in an abandoned Ibizan nightclub.

Shibari; an Inside Look at Japanese Rope Bondage in Ibiza
Shibari; an Inside Look at Japanese Rope Bondage in Ibiza
  • Text: Nick Gibbs
  • Photos: Joan F Ribas

There are writing assignments, and then there are writing assignments. It will not surprise you that the opportunity to cover a Japanese Rope Bondage Session in an abandoned Nightclub in Ibiza does not come up particularly often. OK, it does not come up ever. Except in 2020, which seems fitting.

The challenge in this assignment will be that of avoiding the cliche. To write a piece without bringing the subject down to seedy Pornhub meets ‘Carry On Knotting’ double entendre. Let´s see how I get on …

The meeting point is Ibiza´s long abandoned nightclub, the Festival Club. Now a jungle of broken concrete and sprawling vegetation, it has become a mecca for a misspent youth doing their misspent time out of parental eyes.

It is also the canvass for Ibiza´s graffiti exponents, using every inch of masonry in their ever urgent recovering of last week´s work.

Amidst this urban-rural mess we have our photographer, the locally eminent Joan F. Ribas, setting up his fancy gear, two ´stagehands´ for privacy let´s call them Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and the two participants, Madeleine and Lila Tavata.

Participants is clearly not a correct term and so this is my first question. What is their preferred noun? This creates much more debate than you might expect for Japanese Rope bondage regulars, but we settle on Shibari Model and Shibari Artist/Master. I am not keen on either term as for writing purposes they feel as clumsy as they do pretentious, but I´m not the boss here so we´ll go with that for now.

That covers the main protagonists. Beyond that most readers are going to need some explanation of Shibari beyond its literal definition of Japanese rope bondage.

So, whilst the Tweedles are busy drilling suspension holes in suspect looking ceilings, and Joan is busy with his cameras twiddling knobs and testing light, Lila and I sit aside to talk about what Shibari is and where it all began.

A Little History

It transpires that the roots of Shibari are found in the Japanese dungeons of centuries long past. Police dungeons to be precise, and the torture of prisoners according to their detention status. Japanese culture has a way of throwing curveballs to us Westerners, and the consideration of a prisoner’s shame reflected by their method of restraint is up there with one of the strangest to cross my path.  Apparently, Police would think nothing of binding those in custody in the most painful ways, but in deference to prisoner´s innocent until proven guilty status they would avoid the use of knots. So, if you saw a prisoner being paraded through the streets in abject pain you would consider them to be shamed if they were tied with knots, but not shamed if they were tied with unknotted rope. It was this unknotted rope technique that developed into Shibari. We can only wonder of the identity of the first prisoner who, on release, popped back the next day to ask the desk sergeant to do it again.

By some standards you might say Lila is an unlikely Shibari master. Age 30 with two young children, she is softly spoken and cuts a slight frame. However, it is well known that those seeking the submissive role in exploring their fantasies are often the most powerful in society. If we can see a fat tory MP delighting in the heels of his mistress perhaps it is only logical that Lila would be the perfect dominatrix?

Lila´s first experience of Shibari was in France five years ago. She told me of what sounds a wonderfully liberated club, somewhere you would go any time night or day and “someone was always do something to someone”.

The watching became participating, first as the subject but soon realising her taste was more in the giving than receiving. In describing her role in these early sessions Lila describes the Shibari master role as a “Rigger”. I much prefer this descriptive noun and we agree its use thereafter. 

A Sexual Thing?

Most of us have an idea of what bondage is. Whether that knowledge is limited to whoops of delight as Ann Summers handcuffs are whipped out on a hen night, or through watching hard core videos at the more extremist end of the bondage spectrum, or perhaps of participating ourselves. However, the bondage most of us know would be considered first and foremost sexual, about some level of ultimately physical sexual gratification and fulfilment. Though it clearly has its particular technical approach, is this what Shibari is? Is it ultimately just about sex?

Lila is immediate and direct in saying it is not a sexual thing, “It is about stimulation, subjugation and it is a very much about the mind, about control and exploring exhibitionism”. I understand everything she is saying, but at the same time everything she is saying could also be said to describe sex. What is the difference? By this time Madeleine had joined us, resplendent in her first modelling outfit comprising a bodice and some boots, some very, very, special boots, let’s just say if you are going to ask the price you can’t afford them.

Aware of our discussion Madeleine intercedes with a line that is as brilliant a soundbite as it is useful in resolving the question of ´what is Shibari´. “Sex for me is to allow somebody deep into my body. Shibari is to allow them deep inside my mind.” 

With such a physical medium it could be argued that all the discussion in the world will not prove as fruitful in developing an understanding as will observing it in practice. With that thought in mind, and with the busying away photographer Joan now apparently content with his equipment, it is time to begin.

A Rubble Strewn Shoot

Madeleine´s preparation in the week leading up to the session is to take magnesium, important to offset any cramping. Other than that, her prep is focussed on her clearly very careful and considered selection of clothing, which is with photographic impact foremost in her mind.   

There are two shoots planned, the first in a rubble strewn corridor of arches adjacent to the main thoroughfare of the popular walking route that the festival Club has become.

The first ropes were unfurled, and the first bindings applied.

Before we continue into the sessions and the photographic galleries, sitting here now at my desk it feels right that we should remind ourselves of that particular essence of Shibari that no knots are used in the bondage. Put yourself in the mindset of any situation where you are using any twine to secure anything. String on a parcel, rigging on a yacht, laces on a shoe, a gimp in a basement, all of these things have one commonality, one essential element to fulfil the purpose of a secure fixing, the need for a knot. I cannot think of any one thing that would, in twine terms, be considered secure without a knot, i.e. the application of sufficient tension between open strands to prevent their coming apart without forced release.

Why is this important? Well in terms of how the absence of a knot makes your loins go all of a tingle I guess we’d need to ask our unashamed but mightily turned on Japanese police prisoner way back when.  But this technical process of bondage without knots has a huge effect on the process in terms of time, anticipation, sensuality and style. Whatever your sexual bag, chances are it is better the longer it lasts. Put this in the context of tying somebody up in ropes. If it was just about fulfilling that objective, Lila could have done the job in 2 minutes flat, a rodeo pig-trusser-upper less still. But that isn’t the way we approach sensual matters is it? From a first time getting jiggy lasting the entire Marvin Gaye album after your best night out on the town, as opposed to a drunken 5 minute fidget behind the bins at chucking out time, from a partner’s romantic Valentine’s spa night with rose petals and essential oils as opposed to having a bucket of water chucked over you, it is not in the act itself that you feel what you feel, it is in the manner of the act, in its undertaking, that sensuality is found.

In bondage terms a single rope tied around Madeleine’s torso would have achieved exactly the same physical outcome of restriction as the many intertwining, looping, carefully planned and considered ropes as Lila applies. But we’re in Marvin territory baby, Mercy, Mercy Me.       

Lila continues with her binding. There was no expectation of privacy by Model or Rigger in advance of the session, and on this balmy October night with more people than usual in Ibiza looking for something to fill the Covid void of closures and restrictions, it seemed a stroll through the graffiti was the choice of many as we have a steady stream of unwitting voyeurs. I do not think Madeleine would understand self-conscious embarrassment as a concept in life generally, and the mere factor of being trussed up whilst scantily clad in full view of we appointed watchers plus these uninvited guests was not an issue she seemed to be dealing with, it just wasn’t an issue at all. If anything, it was the passing people that doubted whether they should set their eyes upon the scene before them, we received many nervous smiles and something that did quite surprise me, not a single camera was raised to ensure Ibiza’s social media community were immediately made aware of the goings on at Festival Club.

Not a single camera aside from Joan’s of course, and at that juncture it seems a good time to view Joan’s album of the first shoot. A word to the wise, to fully appreciate the photo galleries viewing on desktop is advised, and a click on the image will put the gallery into lightbox mode. 

A Lesson In Suspension

Refreshments taken and we moved over to the site for the second session. This was to be a much more ambitious stage with suspension points in the aforementioned dodgy looking ceiling, and so requiring trust in the Tweedle brothers’ efforts prior to passing the bondage baton over to Lila. They demonstrated the quality of their workmanship with some good old Tarzan swings, their own significantly weightier torsos garnering sufficient confidence to get underway.

In addition to being of greater ambition, the second site was even more public, located directly at the entrance of the Festival Club. As preparations were made, I was the only person not doing some busying thing, and so became the unofficial group spokesperson for the steady stream of people asking what we were doing. I discovered two things. Firstly, that I enjoyed saying “it is a Japanese Rope Bondage session”, and secondly that people have no clue how to respond to being told there is a Japanese Rope Bondage session.   

Again, the bystanders did not matter to either Madeleine or Lila, I have an idea Madeleine would be quite happy in this role on the main stage at Glastonbury, and for Lila it felt as if she did not really acknowledge people as being there. Her focus was entirely on Madeleine and her ropes.

An added level of surreal was applied when the Festival club’s popularity found an Italian Reggaeton artist setting up shop just a few metres away to video a song. It was a pretty professional setup with drones, smoke machines, lights and of course the lip-syncing music. I found it an impossible to ignore distraction, but Rigger and Model were by now in their own world as the ropes increased in complexity and limbs were pulled into implausible dexterity.

In the first shoot I had noticed a glint of naughty in Lila. This mischievous delight in the effect of her rigging on her subject had gone from its earlier glint to now glaringly obvious. I wonder if Lila might be descended from the folklore fameliars, Ibiza’s own sprites who take delight in their tricks and mayhem. With few wells left on which to swing perhaps a bamboo cane rig is a good alternative. Take a look at this stunning image by Joan and I think you’ll get an idea of what I mean.

Shibari; an Inside Look at Japanese Rope Bondage in Ibiza

As our session progressed so did my own frustration at the Reggaeton crew. Not annoyance, they had just as much right to be there, just frustrating that it was at the same time on the same day. But then everything changed.

Madeleine was already suspended, but with Lila supporting her as she weaved her work. But suddenly our rigger snaps back away from our model and the atmosphere changed totally. In this moment Madeleine is now totally suspended mid-air.  She is both completely free, moving as dictated by the most elemental forces of gravity and motion, but at the same time totally restricted. Her body is moving, but she cannot move at all. At all. The effect is stunning, sufficiently so to drown out the noise of Reggaeton in a cacophony of silence.

Joan has put together an excellent album of some striking images, whether you could get a sense of this feeling, this atmospheric change from any photo or video come to that, I’m not sure. It felt like a privilege of being there in person.

A Limited Insight

What to make of it? What we had seen was an insight to something that seems very personal, but in a totally contradictory public setting. By definition you cannot invite people to witness something personal and retain that intimacy. For what limited insight I can offer it felt that Shibari needed that intimacy. It felt like it was something that needed to be undertaken without reference or thought to observers, or photographers, or interviewers, or budding Italian Reggaeton stars. But when I refer to limited insight, I mean exactly that, very limited.

Imagine a context where you had observed somebody eating steak but had never tasted one yourself. Imagine having listened to somebody describing sex but you had never experienced it yourself.  Would seeing it or having it explained really allow you to understand what it was, how it felt, what it meant? I don’t think so. Our time at the Festival Club had been interesting and informative, it had been aesthetically pleasing to my eager eyes, and though I totally accept Rigger and Model’s assertion that it is not about sex, that doesn’t stop it being very sexy, that decision is in the eye of the beholder.

But ultimately there can be only one way to truly understand Shibari; that is to try it.

 


Acknowledgements

Our thanks to Lila, Madeleine, Joan, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, all the passers by, and the Italian Reggaeton Crew – who were kind enough to divert their floodlights to our area to help us clear up and pack away.

Contacts below for Lila, who is happy to have a discussion of your interest in Shibari, and Joan for your photographic assignments, and also to follow on Facebook, especially if svelte ‘n’ sexy is your thing.

My final word. Joan took some fantastic and striking images, but I have to say this is my favourite of them all. To me at least, this candid shot shows their connection. This is Madeleine and Lila, Model and Rigger.

Shibari; an Inside Look at Japanese Rope Bondage in Ibiza


Contacts

Lila Tavata

Instagram @lilatavata

Email youplaboum@mailoo.org

Joan F. Ribas

Website joanfribas.com

Email joan@joanfribas.com