Castle of Kink
It has been said by a lot of people, myself included, that San Francisco is a city slowly losing its edge. The first dot com boom mortally wounded our night life while simultaneously covering the city with loft-style apartments. Back then most of the artists, ravers and metal bands packed up and moved to Oakland in search of cheaper rent and a little more grit. San Francisco was left with a bunch of bourgeois restaurants and the unfortunate reputation as the city where young people go to retire.
But lately there have been a few glimmers of hope. The corner of 11th and Folsom is once again crowded, if not teaming with life. I saw a mob of hipsters gathered outside an otherwise unremarkable looking Chinese restaurant on Mission St., which can only mean something weird and interesting was happening inside. More good bands are stopping here on tour instead of passing us up on the way to LA. Most people are still in bed by midnight, but nonetheless, I've recently been considering the possibility that San Francisco still has some tricks up its sleeve.
Turns out the City by the Bay not only has some tricks, it's got a fucking show-stopper. And from what I saw last Friday night, it's definitely not hidden up anybody's sleeve.
From the outside, it looks like a cross between a castle and a giant brick fortress, which makes sense given that it actually is an old fortress.
Built in the first part of the 20th century, the Armory building on 14th & Mission has gone through a lot of phases. It was home to countless prizefights in the 50s and 60s. George Lucas used it as a sound stage for the second Star Wars movie. The front steps of the building have been an established skate spot since the late 80s. And of course, it was even used by the military, which built it in the first years of WWI. But no one has really done the building justice until the current tenants moved in.
For most of the last 40 years the building sat vacant. Then, in early 2007, the online porn conglomerate Kink.com bought the building and began a long, meticulous overhaul of the former military site, turning it from derelict building into the Universal Studios of BDSM. This past Friday, I got a private tour of the sprawling compound. We started with an impressive echo test in the cavernous drill court and ended with front row seats for a live taping of a lesbian sex wrestling match. In between I saw some of the most impressive, strange and titillating things San Francisco has to offer. It was awesome.
After a surprisingly intense security check I was met at the front desk by Ilana Rothman, a striking redhead who runs Kink.com's PR department and has been with the company almost since the beginning. She took me to the drill court, a massive open space at the center of the Armory. I got caught up in the sheer size of the space and starting grilling her with questions about what it had been used for and how many people could fit in it. She suggested that we walk and talk. "There's a lot more to see," she said.
I quickly shut up as Ilana led me down onto the first sub floor. We popped into a film set that was designed to look like an old, decrepit dungeon. A thick-chested girl in high heels and a garter belt was standing off to the side drinking a bottle of water. In her other hand was a leather riding crop, which she placed onto a cart next to a cattle prod, some rusty chains and an enormous bottle of personal lubricant. In the center of the room,
underneath a blistering array of stage lights was a wooden chair with several sets of handcuffs attached to it and a hole cut in the seat. A production assistant was wiping something wet and greasy off the floor.
"Are we interrupting you guys?" we asked.
"No," said riding crop girl, "we just finished."
Ilana led me down a wide, long hallway, lined with heavy sound-proof doors. Outside each door sat a tangled pile of electronic equipment that controlled the studio lighting on the respective sets inside. Every third or fourth door, Ilana would stoop and deftly throw about a dozen switches and then lead me into the corresponding set. There were several more dungeons, each creepier than the last. There was a military bunker and something I would describe as a haunted locker room. There was a padded cell with sweat stains and claw marks on the walls. Several of the sets looked like they could just have easily been used for heavy metal videos. Every single one of them had multiple tie-downs for attaching body restraints on the walls, floor and ceiling. And every single one of them looked old and putrefied.
I assumed that, because we were in the basement of a hundred year old abandoned military building, all of these rooms had been found this way. In fact, when Kink moved in, all of the rooms were relatively clean. The walls were painted primer white and, aside from the shabby industrial lighting, the rooms weren't that scary at all. Kink employs a crack team of production designers, made up of skilled artists and movie aces from Industrial Light and Magic. Along with the lighting team and the engineering team, they went to work on each room, painstakingly detailing the fake decay – right down to the scum dripping out of an unused air vent. When I looked close, I realized it was painted on.
Again I started to pester Ilana with questions. She gamely answered them, but suggested we move on to the next sub-level. Apparently she wanted to show me something really cool. She killed the lights on the set (called simply "the gimp room") and led me down to the next sub-floor. On the way to the stairs we passed another scantily clad girl, this one carrying a very real looking bull whip and cracking it in the air above our heads as we walked by.
We came out in a long dark space with the sound of running water in the distance. This was the former artillery range and the water was Mission Creek, which literally runs through the building. We crossed the artillery range and she pointed out the walls pockmarked with bullet holes. The huge room sits mostly unused –another giant, intriguing, creepy space in a building full of them.
Speaking of which, the artillery room gave way to an even bigger space, this one lined with shelves at least 20 feet tall. Stacked floor to ceiling was a dizzying array of props, sex machines and gothic looking torture devices, all custom designed by the Kink production team. I saw a human rat wheel, a man-sized aquarium and something called the "doggy-style cage." The room was like a cross between the Amsterdam Sex Museum, the Renaissance Torture Museum and an episode of Myth Busters. While I ogled the strange machines and tried to figured out who would use them and for what, Ilana called security down to open another series of doors. She called me over, saying the next stop on the tour is always a real crowd pleaser.
She flipped on the lights and revealed what has to be the most extensive collection of sexual torture devices in all of North America. One wall was lined with hundreds upon hundreds of handmade leather whips and straps. One wall was taken up by cases with cryptic labels that said things like "digital sex power box" and "shocking shoes." Another was covered in shelves full of rough-hewn medieval boxes. I thought that was a rather tame addition to a room that also contained an electrified dildo bat, but Ilana explained that they were actually "head boxes." They are locked onto the head of willing submissives, thereby depriving them of most of their senses – presumably right before they get the business end of the electrified dildo bat.
Ilana checked the time and informed me that I had to head upstairs. The live taping of Ultimate Surrender – the real reason I was there – would be starting shortly. She locked the whip room and led me toward the stairs. On the way we passed a room that looked simply like a nice, loft-style apartment. There was a comfy looking bed, some nice art and a few potted plants. It looked like the set of a daytime soap. I was confused. What kind of bondage porn could you possibly shoot there?
"BDSM happens in the bedroom too," Ilana said. "It's not just in dungeons. You might only have a piece of rope – it's all in how you use it."
Back at the front desk, she handed me off to the director of the Ultimate Surrender site. With beer in hand I was lead to front row of the padded combat space. For those unfamiliar with the site (or those who are at work and unable to look it up), Ultimate Surrender is one of the 15 or so websites flying under the Kink.com banner. The premise is pretty simple: two girls in string bikinis face off in a semi-conventional wrestling match. In addition to controlling their opponent and applying submission holds, the girls also try to sexually dominate one and other, receiving style points for things like face licking and breast smothering.
I was lucky enough to see a tag team match, which became even better when one of the girls canceled due to injury, leaving the audience to watch a very sexy two-on-one wrestling competition. After some provocative stretching, the bell rang and the girls went at it. Even though the director had said this was an actual competition and that the outcome was not pre-determined, I was surprised to see the use of actual grappling techniques. The girl who was short a teammate was certainly holding her own, repeatedly flinging both of her opponents to the mat. Still, before the first round was over, they had all managed to lose their tops and bottoms.
Photo courtesy of Kink.com
At the beginning of the second round the girls came back out onto the mat, completely naked except for colored arm bands – which they no doubt wore for the audience's benefit. For their part, the audience was surprisingly into it – and not just in a pervy, Market Street strip club kind of way. Besides me, there was a good mix of art school punks, lesbian couples, hip hop dudes and people who looked like they were either going to or coming from a Nine Inch Nails concert. There were even two pregnant ladies in the crowd. All of them cheered when one of the girls pulled a slick move or managed to cop a few style points. The lone opponent of the tag team duo in particular got a lot of props.
Still, in the end she was overwhelmed. After three rounds, the ref looked at the scoreboard and declared the tag team victorious. We took a break to freshen our drinks while the wrestlers went to the green room. When they came back, the two winners had giant purple dildos dangling obscenely from between their legs. As per the rules of Ultimate Surrender, they were now entitled to make sweet, sweet love to their vanquished opponent. Which they did. Right at my feet.
Like I said, it was awesome.