Torture Town

Cleveland's fetish scene is thriving, and Lakewood's at the heart of it.

Johnny's Bistro San Roche 1400 West Sixth Street Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11:30 p.m.


In some circles, there's a fine line between pleasure and pain. Take a recent night at Tyr, the new goth and industrial club in Lakewood. In one corner, Mistress Madison, a local dominatrix, whips a man's naked back before pouring hot wax on him. In another, a woman with platinum blond hair and a leopard-print top is tied onto a platform and spun upside down. In the recesses of the club, a medieval torture rack, a "foot worship throne," and other apparatuses stand ready for use. Women dressed in black tow their boyfriends on chains attached to leather collars.

This is "Torture" night, where fetishists, voyeurs, and exhibitionists indulge in spanking and light domination rituals. The rules here are simple: no penetration, masturbation, or oral sex, no nonconsensual groping, cameras, or drugs, and no bloodsport (cutting one's skin). Everything else goes.

There's a rumor circulating that rock musician Marilyn Manson, a Canton native who's made fetishwear popular, will show up with a few of his bandmates, as they're visiting a nearby city on tour. They don't make it, but it doesn't really matter, because it's the event itself -- the first and only one so far at this club -- that's the draw for the vinyl- and leather-clad assemblage.

Just over 100 people are in attendance, including Randy, a web designer from Akron, wearing a sheer top over a G-string bikini and sporting a red sticker on his arm that reads "pervert." Here, he's one of a group of like-minded individuals. "I enjoy S&M and like to play and watch others play," he says. "I have many friends and acquaintances who regularly attend these events, and I have a unique bond with many of them."

It's no surprise that Randy drove all the way to Lakewood on this foggy winter evening. Many who share his idea of fun gravitate there for the circuit of clubs and stores catering to their tastes. Two Madison Avenue shops -- Chain Link Addiction and the Mission -- are the places to go for anyone into the fetish, goth, or industrial scenes. Both carry news of upcoming events and stock the leather miniskirts, spiked collars, and handcuffs usually required for admission. A city of multiple identities, Lakewood has shown a notable tolerance for different lifestyles and interests, but for some in this West Side community, the fetish scene is taking things a little too far.

The "Torture" event, held in January, went on without apparent problems, but weeks later, Lakewood City Council Vice President Nancy Roth told The Plain Dealer that she had fielded complaints from concerned citizens. After the story ran, some people glommed on to the idea of club patrons being tortured. One woman called in to WMMS to report that there was a bed of nails at the club (there wasn't), and by the end of the day, Fox 8 was sending reporters to Tyr and placing calls to TV Productions, the event's promoter, to see what the controversy was about. Channel 8 depicted Tyr (pronounced "teer") as a "bondage bar" and even filmed footage from the inside of Chain Link Addiction, making it look as if Tyr was selling fetishwear.

Roth is troubled by the club's location on a quiet block of Madison Avenue. "Well, you know it's adult entertainment, bottom line, and it shouldn't be in a residential neighborhood," she says. "When people take their sexual personal activities out of the bedroom and put them in public, that makes it adult. My concern is with the kinds of entertainment and making sure that children are not present and drinks are not being served to people who are underage."

"I didn't realize that doing something like ['Torture'] was going to upset everyone," Tyr owner Steve Komlody says late one night from his office at the club, where the walls, adorned with posters of Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie, shake with the sounds of industrial music. "I just saw it as a chance to keep things from getting boring. I didn't have to throw anybody out. The average age was 25 to 45. We actually didn't have any underagers at all -- and an 18-year-old isn't a child, anyway. They're of legal age."

As a result of the hubbub over "Torture," Komlody postponed a similar event he had scheduled for March 10. With the club's permanent liquor license still pending, he says he's not willing to take a chance on anything that might endanger the club.

Larry Szyms, who works as a DJ at Tyr and was manning the turntables the night of "Torture," says that the club is susceptible to scrutiny because it opened less than a year ago.

"The problem with Tyr is that they're so new," he says one afternoon from Manja, a bar on Madison Avenue a few blocks west of Tyr. "They need to get their stuff straight to keep that place open."

It may already be too late. At a recent hearing before the state liquor license board, Lakewood Law Director Kevin Spellacy presented the city's objection to the transfer of the liquor license. It had little to do with "Torture."

"Our actual objection to the transfer is based on a lot of other things," he says. "The addresses where they said they reside on the application are no longer accurate. And between the time they started running this place and the time of the hearing, we've had a number of calls regarding various things -- from fights to people who had warrants in there to loud music. We also did suggest that the type of establishment they want to run isn't cohesive with the neighborhood. Not to sound prude, but it doesn't jibe with that type of behavior. It might be all right next to a truck stop."

Lakewood Chief of Police Dan Clark says Tyr is not the only club in Lakewood that police have kept an eye on. They have had "a number of problems" with the Chamber and the Phantasy, two industrial-and goth-oriented clubs on Detroit Avenue. But "Torture," he says, is not suited to Lakewood.

"It's the kind of event that I guess doesn't measure up to what the community standards are," he says. "We got lots of feedback from people in the community, once they became aware of the fact that this business establishment was sponsoring a night that would feature torture devices and things of that nature." As for problems that night, there weren't any. "We did not make any arrests that evening, and there were no fights. As far as that one evening goes, all was quiet."

Komlody says there used to be more problems when the nondescript brick building that houses Tyr was a sports bar. Tall and stocky, with a shaved head and tattoos on both forearms, Komlody works during the day as a substitute music teacher in Canton. He describes himself as "very religious" and says he isn't even that interested in the fetish scene. His main focus, he says, is booking local goth and industrial bands and DJs.

"We don't do anything wrong here at all," says Komlody, who was recently married in a ceremony conducted at Tyr. "We're completely legal. Basically, what I'm trying to accomplish with the club is giving the scene a nice place to come to. It's clean, it's air-conditioned, it's heated, and the bathrooms are pretty much immaculate. I have a string of DJs who are first-rate. It has a nice dance floor, and there's no cheesy lights. I want it to be as classy as a gothic industrial bar can be."

Known as the "city of homes," Lakewood, with its quiet, tree-lined streets, has attracted a population that's predominantly white and middle-class. Its good schools, safe neighborhoods, and beautiful parks regularly get high marks in state and national surveys.

"Our median population, believe it or not, is very young in Lakewood, because we have a lot of apartment buildings and condos that are very attractive to students and young families," says Mary Brereton, executive assistant to the mayor for community relations. "My husband and I have found that it's a really great place to raise our kids. It has both an urban feel and a suburban feel."

Brereton thinks "Torture" night was blown out of proportion. Judging from the relatively small attendance, she says, "It got more attention from the media than from a paying customer."

Lakewood is by no means the only site for fetish events. TV Productions, a Lakewood-based company that promotes the biggest fetish balls in town, often hosts events at Metropolis, a club on the West Bank of the Flats.

The fetish, goth, and industrial scenes in Cleveland are separate, but converge for fetish balls, where the music and fashion are combined into one event. The terms goth and industrial refer to particular types of music, while fetish is a broader category that suggests deviant sexual behavior and includes cross-dressers, voyeurs, and others simply into the look (piercings and leather). The scene in Cleveland has been strong since the late '80s and has grown remarkably in the last couple of years: It's comparable to just about any fetish scene in the country.

"I've gone to a lot of other balls in other countries and other states," says Jim Lanza, who runs Hellbomb, a local merchandise company that sells clothing over the Internet and to fetish chain stores such as Hot Topic. Prior to starting Hellbomb, Lanza ran Nine Inch Nails' merchandising company for three years and toured with Marilyn Manson to film a concert documentary. "Some cities pale in comparison, but in places like Chicago and New York, the balls are totally over the top. It seems like there's no rules. Cleveland being a conservative city, there's definitely rules. But there's definitely a big scene here, considering the size of the city. It's grown like crazy."

Clubs such as the Phantasy and the Chamber have helped bring a fetish crowd to Lakewood by booking goth and industrial acts. In the '80s, Trent Reznor played at the Phantasy regularly, first with his band the Exotic Birds and then with Nine Inch Nails -- and it was then that Lakewood's reputation as a haven for alternative types was established.

"Lakewood was always a combination of skaters and goth/industrial types," says Howard Greynolds, who lived in Cleveland in the late '80s and grew up on the West Side. He now works as a publicist for Chicago-based Thrill Jockey Records. "I always felt that West Side kids walked around with this attitude, 'I wish I lived in New York, but I don't have the balls to move there.' All those things lend themselves to [the creation of the fetish scene]. You find all these kids who are really concerned with keeping up with fashion to make up for the fact that they live in Cleveland or something."

Szyms, who spins at the Chamber on Wednesdays for '80s night and plays in the local industrial band Chew's Eye Shop, recalls visiting Lakewood as a teenager and considering it a fetish-friendly environment then. "Since I can remember, it was centered here," he says of the fetish scene. "Ever since Chris' Warped Records opened and the Phantasy started doing shows. When I was in high school in Middleburg Heights, I always thought that this is where it was. That's what attracted me to move here. I love it here, because it's a little neighborhood run like a big city."

When Chris Andrews first opened Warped Records in 1983, there was nothing like it on the stretch of Madison Avenue between Elbur and Waterbury streets later dubbed "Madison Village." Four years after opening that store, which he recently sold, he opened Chain Link Addiction with co-owner Tommy Viets. Initially a punk clothing store stocking Doc Martens, leather jackets, black jeans, and punk hair dyes, Chain Link started to cater more to the fetish crowd when Viets took it over in 1993 and hosted in-store appearances by Marilyn Manson.

Andrews, who now owns a vintage shop called Sea Monkeys, maintains that Madison Village isn't trying to cater only to the fetish scene. "This isn't some kind of big fetish area. It's definitely alternative-type businesses that are countercultural and on the edge, however you want to look at it. At the same time, we're trying to develop more, so it's not just that. We don't want to be pigeonholed as some kind of kids' hangout."

Brereton, of the mayor's office, agrees that it's a mistake to associate Lakewood with the fetish industry.

"We also have a lot of bowling alleys, but that's not saying we have more than any other city," says Brereton. "What we have in Lakewood that we share in common with Cleveland Heights and the Coventry area is a lot of storefronts, so we might be more attractive to the small business owner. We also have a lot of bicycle shops."

When Tommy Viets started throwing fetish balls nearly a decade ago, it was initially to generate sales at Chain Link Addiction. In the early days, the events were much more risqué, and it wasn't unusual for attendees to indulge in sexual activities in the "groping booth," an octagonal box that's no longer part of the fetish festivities. In an article about TV Productions written for the January issue of Penthouse, local freelance writer Michael Seese quotes one patron who went to an early fetish ball at the west Cleveland club Euphoria and saw "three guys sitting on a couch and three girls kneeling before them, giving them blowjobs."

"That's a stretch -- it was never full-blown like that," maintains Gemma Viets, who married Tommy two years ago and has been helping him organize the events. "Every now and then, people would get a little carried away. But now, we're more familiar with the laws. At that time, we were just learning as we went along."

The Viets, who were married in a "glam-rock wedding" two years ago at Aqua (the Flats club now called Mega), live in a small, two-story cottage in Lakewood that hardly mirrors the outrageous events they put on. Only the blood-red paint on the living-room walls suggests that they're not typical homemakers. But they don't flaunt their fetishes and won't even divulge their particular turn-ons.

"I think that some people think we're a wild and crazy couple and have all the equipment set up in the front window of our living room, but every day we're normal people," says Tommy, who's wearing shorts because his leg is still sensitive from the tattoo he recently added. "At night, we're vampires, and we come out and it's cool. That's very typical of a lot of the people who come and support us."

Working out of their home, the Viets are in the midst of planning their next big event: the sixth Organ Grinder's Ball, which will take place March 31 at Metropolis. As entertainment, a group of performance artists will hang from the ceiling by hooks pierced through their skin. David Vidra, owner of the West Side store Body Works, will put a spear through his cheek in a reenactment of a Native American ritual that he says will provide him with "the experience of leaving my body."

Tattoo/body modification artists The Enigma and Katzen will put in appearances as well. The Enigma has covered his body with tattoos so that it looks like a puzzle and has implanted small horns into his skull. Katzen has tattooed herself like a tiger and has implanted whiskers on her face. "It's not a freak show," Vidra says. "It's their life."

Rounding out the night's entertainment will be a staging of the play RestNowTainted, which, according to press materials, will "depict the torturous dreams of a small child" and "portray these childhood horrors through fire play, branding of the skin, and flesh-hook suspensions."

The Viets expect more than 1,000 people to attend this year's Organ Grinder's Ball, up from six years ago, when the first one drew about 300.

Flush with the success of these events, Tommy and Gemma copyrighted the names "Organ Grinder's Ball," "Big Bad Fetish Ball," "Dungeons & Divas," and "Fetish Playland" to prevent other local promoters from using them. But lately, the Mission has been offering some competition in the form of fetish-themed fashion shows called "The Bloodsucker's Ball" and "My Bloody Valentine."

"I think we complement each other," says Mission owner Marty Lansky. "A lot of people think we have a rivalry going, and maybe in some respects we do, but that's one of the reasons that the scene in this city has been growing."

Over the last decade, Cleveland's fetish balls have lured people from throughout the Midwest and Canada. "Early on, it was curiosity that drove people to the events," says DJ Szyms. "Now people feel comfortable at our parties. You can wear clothing you wouldn't wear outside and do things you wouldn't normally do. It's a way to fulfill your fantasies, because you can go balls-out and everything."

For a cross-dresser who calls himself Danielle, fetish balls offer a chance to reinvent himself as a woman. "Obviously, I can express myself as a sexy girl at a fetish party, where I could never do that during normal, everyday life. I love dressing up and being as beautiful and sexy as possible."

Randy, the web designer from Akron, says he's a "switch": "I enjoy being dominant and submissive -- and sometimes wearing female lingerie makes me feel submissive. I revel in the contrast of my masculine anatomy in very feminine attire."

The fetish balls appeal to both straights and gays, says Gemma Viets. They attract a "wide demographic" that includes people of all ages, backgrounds, and professions.

"The thing that's kind of nice about our event is that we don't judge people," she says. "You could be 500 pounds and have tattoos and be wearing a skirt -- and a guy -- and we're not going to ridicule you. We allow you to look how you want to look -- within the confines of our dress code. When you walk into Organ Grinder's or Fetish Playland, 9 times out of 10, you're just like 'Wow. Places like this don't exist.' It's a whole other world."

Sitting in a booth at My Friends Deli & Restaurant, a diner on Detroit and West 117th near Lakewood, Mistress Madison and her partner, Master Kaine, don't look threatening. Madison is bundled in a thick, black fur jacket that hides a black T-shirt that reads "I do bad things," and Kaine, Madison's bodyguard and mentor for the last two years, is wearing a tight-fitting shirt that can barely contain his thick arms. The two run a dungeon that they'll only say is located on "the West Side of Cleveland." There, they engage their clientele in a form of "worship."

"To some people, it is a religion," says Madison, accepting more coffee from the waitress with a polite "Thank you, hon." "They look at a dominatrix or a master as goddesses and gods -- someone that they can worship. Someone who's real and out there, and we do give that to them."

Clients must sign a release form before engaging in a session of domination; they're also given "safe words" that can bring a session to a close if the pain of CBT (cock and ball torture), nipple torture, foot worship, and floggings becomes too much. Madison and Kaine have their limits, though -- they don't do scat (defecation and urination), scarification, or "anything nauseating." They also don't allow drugs of any kind into their dungeon.

"We're in the threshold business," Kaine explains. "We're about taking people to levels of ecstasy and pleasure that they've never experienced before. People get tired of the common norm. It's the psychodrama, the anticipation, and the taboo that's appealing.

"We may have a client who will raise three kids and have a successful business and stay married, but one hour a week, he needs someone else in control. He needs an escape, because he's not going to see his girlfriend or wife in high boots with a whip."

Madison is a regular attraction at TV Productions events, and Kaine accompanies her to all of them to ensure that she is not disturbed while conducting a session. "There's always some idiot interrupting, and that's the biggest no-no," she says. "You never interrupt a master or dominatrix. It's just like an actor. You don't interrupt the moment."

Madison and Kaine treat the domination business as an art form that requires diligent training. They have little use for novices who "got their training in S&M from Anne Rice novels."

"There's maybe three real doms in this city," Kaine says. "The rest are escorts and white trash. They will do lap dances, they'll even dress up in a clown suit to make a buck. When you see Madison's website (, you won't find mud wrestling, midgets, and vampire costumes. Like with everything else, when the scene becomes popular, there's less etiquette involved, and everyone in the world thinks they're a player in the game."

Just after Valentine's Day, several shops in Madison Village held an art walk dubbed "Love Hurts" in honor of "Fetish February." At Gotta Have It, a vintage store run by Tina Romanak and her sister Jackie, there was a large box with the words "Peep Show" written out in front. Inside the hole in the box was a stubby cactus with a sign next to it that read "cacti erecti."

"That's the [porn star] John Holmes cactus," jokes Tina, who was dressed in a black dominatrix outfit with a feather duster for a whip. In keeping with the fetish theme, the sisters hung black heart amulets in the shop and mounted a framed painting that Tina made -- a shapeless glob of paint around the words "Love is hahaha." Hand-made voodoo dolls were also on hand. "People who are into fetishes like this stuff, too," says Tina. "We're going back to the roots of the fetish, which can be magical, empowering, and protective."

Next door at Mindwave, a goth and industrial record store, the artwork was more serious. Photographs by local artist Michael Timothy Sawyer depicted women in various stages of domination and submission. There was a close-up of a woman's mouth about to caress another woman's breast; another showed a naked woman with a chain wrapped around her neck and stretched to the ground, past her shaved pubic area; a third depicted a naked woman in thigh-high boots, standing atop an assortment of industrial pipes in an alleyway.

The photographer himself was on hand at In a Bind, a bookstore on Madison that was also showing his work. This collection ranged from posed shots of naked women bound by thick ropes to candid images taken at local fetish balls.

Sawyer maintains that his art is erotic, but not pornographic. "When you look at these photos, they're strong character studies," he says, beckoning to Holly, one of the models. "They're not meant to be offensive, but to someone who's not used to seeing them, they can be challenging."

Holly, who has long red hair, a pale complexion, and pierced eyebrows, says she's been attending fetish parties for three years. "It's all becoming very trendy," she says. And the fact that the scene is concentrated in Lakewood means "people are more likely to get into it, because it's right here in their face."

"I feel that this is the right place for [my art]," says Sawyer. "I like it being here. Lakewood has diversity, and it's eclectic."

In fact, no other city in the Cleveland area has such a concentration of shops that appeal to fetishists. But shop owners have to work at not alienating other customers.

In a Bind owner Toni Gentille has found it difficult to appeal to everyone without being offensive.

"Lakewood has so many different kinds of people, and there's lots of young people," says Gentille, who sells magazines on bondage and domination in addition to an array of books. "It's half-really conservative and half-punk rock kids. When I opened my store, I was concerned about having a place where everybody could come. It's so hard to balance that between this kind of stuff and parents who come in looking for books for their kids for school. It's a really fine line."

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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