By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
"For various reasons, our veins are too burnt out for performance purposes. Rather than sit there stabbing and hacking for two hours, we needed somebody with fairly virginal veins. The performances would last about five minutes. Basically, we'd take the blood out, spatter it all over the girl's tits, then we'd do this sort of like blood-smeared, faux lesbian thing, and then we'd get offstage, and folks would be happy. It was good clean fun! Usually there were catcalls, but the blood made 'em quiet. People would faint. Or throw up."
Their last such show was six months ago at the Trocadero, she remembers.
"I didn't have big enough needles. The crowd needed more, and I was going to give it my all. This girl, Gravity, had a tampon in. I whispered in her ear, 'Do you mind if I whip out your tampon?' The crowd was screaming, 'More blood! More blood!' I felt they were dissatisfied, so I yanked her tampon out and threw it at the crowd, and then we got the applause we so richly deserved."
She throws her head back and laughs.
People worry about Danielle Willis. She confesses to being on a four-year hiatus from anything aside from blood performance, lying low, contributing to a few anthologies, trying to finish a novel. She's made an occasional TV appearance on Strange Universe, but there's been no more stripping, and very few public readings. Her income appears to derive from other sources.
"Let's just say that my ad in The Spectator sex newspaper went like this: 'Sexy young vampire seeks willing, generous victims.' And let's just end it right there," she chortles. "Vampire for hire."
Before she got involved in bloodplay, Willis recalls, she was approached by Charles Gatewood to pose for photos. At the time she refused, because she had no tattoos or piercings, the subjects he was then documenting. But in 1994, in her apartment in the Richmond, something else entirely was taking place -- three would-be vampires were horsing around with blood and syringes. Willis reached for the phone, dialed Gatewood's home in Bernal Heights, and when he answered, she said:
"Charles, you can take my picture now. I'm finally weird enough for you."
Charles Gatewood packed up his equipment and drove out to the Avenues. He had, perhaps more than any photographer, documented the stranger sides of human existence, and was eager to see what the blood deal was all about. Since the 1960s he had placed himself in the center of many unusual events, from New Orleans Mardi Gras and New York sex clubs to biker rallies, tattoo conventions, and circus sideshows.
Along with Bay Area piercing legend Fakir Musafar, he had been the subject of the feature documentary Dances Sacred and Profane; the Re/Search cult-favorite book Modern Primitives utilized his photos. But when he arrived at Willis' apartment, and saw the three vampires drawing each other's blood with enormous butterfly needles, designed for intravenous use, even he was disturbed.
"That was my first real encounter with real-life vampires doing real-life bloodplay," he says. "I was fascinated and frightened. I heard a little voice saying, 'This is scary, this is evil, this is bad, what are you doing, what are they doing?' It was probably a Southern Baptist Sunday school voice from my past. I also heard [tattoo artist] Spider Webb saying, 'The strongest work is always the work that grabs you right between the legs.'
"My best work always scares me. I knew I was onto something."
He shot some still photos, and two short videos. One, titled Bloodbath, featured Danielle, Violet, and Dharma naked, flicking blood out of the needles, licking and smearing it over each other's bodies. The other, True Blood, was of Dharma alone, facing the camera, slowly mutilating herself with scalpels, and wrapping barbed wire around her bloodied wrists.
The videos circulated through the underground, and amazingly, the performers were getting recognized on the street from their bloodplay. Friends put friends in touch with Gatewood, and soon he was attending all sorts of blood-related events, shooting roll after roll of goths, pagans, Satanists, masochists, and performance freaks.
As it turned out, most of them were from San Francisco.
Sitting in a cafe in the Lower Haight, Gatewood seems to be just another 54-year-old photographer, wearing khakis and a Polo shirt. But he is also a one-man PR machine, selling videos and his self-published books out of his home through his company, Flash Productions. Although his moody book about Wall Street won the Leica Medal of Excellence, he can never go back to the free-lance corporate world, where he once worked for Rolling Stone. As he says, once the toothpaste is out of the tube you can't put it back in. He subscribes to the late William Burroughs' notion of an artist as an antenna of receptivity:
"My work is not theory-driven. I know I'll get washed along to another interesting scene."
Fringes of society appeal to him not only because of a degree in anthropology, but perhaps also because, in a sense, he is what he photographs -- an outcast making up his own niche, who fled a miserable alcohol-torn family life in the Ozarks of Missouri for a new beginning somewhere else. Years of drinking and drugs kept the party going, especially when photographing scenes of 1970s decadence. Now, he says, he is sober, and these days he gets his rush from sticking a macro lens inches from a scalpel carving into someone's skin.