This is a rather old piece of text, I wrote it in 2006… but might still have some good info for anyone ever interested in some experiences of a fire-spitter…
This is about fire-spitting, also referred to as fire-breathing. But I prefer fire-spitting, since you don’t really breathe flames, but spit their fuel ;).
Decided to make this post after a little incident on one of my message boards. Story is someone once saw my pic while fire-spitting on that board and decided to try it himself. And said he couldnt find any info on the net. So he just tried. Well… I send him a very very long scolding including a very very long list of risks and precautions.Next, I realized the info I gave might be of use for other people.. so here we go.
So, this is about PRECAUTIONS. And what you’re actually doing when you spit fire. And the unpleasant (after-)effects. And the risks you take.
You won’t learn how to spit fire. That can only be done in person, and showing, and practicing to get control over the flame. And frikkin HELL, dont try to figure it out by yourself.
This is about minimizing risks. And know what your doing. And be aware of what you are doing.
1.1.1 The short & quick list of precautions
(the rest of this post will elaborate on the why, when & how, cause I guess some advice sounds logical, but some .. a bit… out of the blue & weird)
1. Use the right fuel, and the right torches .
2. Protect your skin by using vaseline
3. Eat well beforehand, and drink fatty milk (or salad oil when you’re a vegan)
4. Brush your teeth
5. Test the wind and be aware of buildings causing wind changing directions
6a. Wear non-inflammable, non-meltable clothing, cotton or leather is good, or do it bare-chested, (skin-tight) nylon = wrong.
6b. Tie your hair low in the neck when long hair. Scarf protecting hair is not a bad idea, scarf around neck also good idea. Watch it with those beards or hair-sprayed mohawks.
7. Bring a rag or other cloth to clean yourself, try to ensure washing facilities for right afterwards, bring clean clothes
8. Listen to your body, if it tells you it’s enough, it is enough
9. Dont be afraid of the flame, but be aware of the risks .
10. Control. Know what you’re doing. Practice. Dont do it under influence
1.2 The extensive version
Fire-spitting is taking risks. Always. Ever. Even the most experienced fire-spitter can have an accident. And accidents can mean being transported to a specialized hospital for burn-wounds by a helicopter. This did happen to someone I know, who was a very experienced fire-spitter (the “fuel” soaked his beard). Your lungs can collapse. There’s the risk of infections. And so on. A less horrorfying story is another friend of mine, who used to have a huge mohawk. Suddenly he had a shaved head. Wind turned and flame came back…..
But the accidents you read about in the media are also exaggerated. Most of those horror-stories do not involve fire-spitters that know what they are doing, but stupid drunk idiots on festivals using alcohol or car-petrol. That’s asking for it. Idiots. Plus they give fire-spitting a bad name, and that kinda stories made friends from me worried about my little hobby.
What I say here, is mostly based on my own experience, and what I saw happening. I used to travel through Europe, earning money on the way by spitting fire, and combining this with belly dance, and, if I had a partner, with acrobatics. Made quite a bit of money that way, but by now (and here comes one of the risks) prolly spend it all on dentist bills ;).
I also used to teach it to quite a few people, mostly women btw, since during the “women reclaiming the streets” demos we noticed somehow a women-only demo met a lot of aggression, both verbally, but also physically. Having a few human flame-throwers around helped ;).
Just to show where I’m coming from and my credentials so to say ;). I was addicted to fire-spitting. Which is also a risk but not devastating :). It’s not that I am a great or professional fire-spitter, I considered myself a good amateur, who has to make up lack of lung volume by little extra tricks. But I did it a lot for quite some time.
The things I say here will be illustrated by small horror-stories about what happened to friends of mine, or the unpleasant effects I experienced myself. Just to say I am not kidding about the precautions being utterly and totally important.
The common idea is with fire-spitting the main risk is getting burned. Sure, there is a risk, but more common are the other effects of the fuel you use. I will focus on that.
1.2.1 What you are actually doing when fire-spitting (i.e… the risks)
The “fuel” you use
I heard about and tried to spit fire with powdery stuff like milk powder. It’s hard though, I didnt like the stickyness in my mouth, which also made the next flame close to impossible to make, and the flames are different.
I prefer using lamp-oil or petroleum. Whatever you use, always be aware that this stuff is utter and total poison. It has short- and long-term effects which are to say the least unpleasant. Never ever ever use a more volatile substance. Horror-story again: old mate of mine from nigeria couldnt read the labels, and accidently bought terpentine. He burned his mouth from the inside….
First of all, something about lampoil or petroleum.
Lampoil loves grease. It’s a grease-loving, water-hating substance. This has negative effects (i.e. it eats the topmost protective layer on your skin), but can also be used (drink fatty milk to prevent the “petroleum burps”). A long term effect of the stuff loving grease is that it ruins your teeth.. It is an irritant.
It’s a volatile substance. Not as volatile as car-pertrol or alcohol, but still volatile. This means it already starts evaporating inside your mouth, and you will breath in the vapour. With your lungs going happy-happy joy-joy, NOT.
Short-term effect I know of is someone’s lung collapsing (I was there when it happened), long-term effects can be infections in your lung, Not pneunomia, but a real little infestion, a sore. And you will notice (always) a bit of coughing up weird-tasting slime the next day.
The longer you keep it in your mouth, the more vapor will arise. Unfortunately, especially for some tricks (for example making “staccato” little flames or while getting into position during acrobatics) it is necessary to keep it in your mouth for a bit.
It’s one of the more “heavy” oil derivates. This is good for fire spitting, since it makes nice droplets which can be set on fire. It also means it can be set on fire somewhere unwanted… It is subject to gravity, even burning. And it wont evaporate as easily as car-petrol. Good thing about that is that it isnt, well, explosive, bad thing is you will be soaked in it after fire spitting. Not so that if someone puts a lighter to you, you will go up in flames. But. You will smell. Bad. And it will take at least 2 turns of the laundry machine to get your cloths clean.
As said before. The stuff is poison. Think about it. Would you voluntarily, when not fire-spitting, put petroleum in your mouth? And accidently swallow bits? And breath in the evaporation? Get soaked in it? Smear it on your skin?
Petroleum or Lamp-oil are also mixtures. They are not 100% the same derivate. Lamp-oil is more consistent in its composition. To me, it tastes “smoother” (dont have any other way to describe it), and is also, well, thicker, to disperse. Petroleum can vary immensely from where you buy it, and especially from country to country. I always practice a bit to get the feeling for dispersing it before I start performing. Never use the coloured lamp-oil. To me, it tastes “sharp”, and my lungs start hurting sooner. Mixing it with a very small amount of orange juice is no problem, and can result in better flames (found that out accidently because there was a bit of orange juice left in the bottle which I used to carry the petroleum).
Though there are tricks that dont involve torches, usually you use some kinda torch to spit the fuel over to create the flame. Some people make their torches almost on the spot (a stick with some rags tied around it), some people use clubs used to juggle with fire, and anything in between. The advantage of using improvised torches is that, when you perform somewhere where it isnt allowed (I was asked to get a frikkin circus permit once…) and the police confiscates your stuff, it’s not a big loss.
The official juggling torches are safe by definition, they are made for playing with fire.
Self-made torches however, can be a risk. The rags tied around a stick for example. The knot can burn away, resulting in a burning rag falling on your hand. Usually shaked lose quickly, but still. The tied-rag torches are definitively inappropriate if you combine fire-spitting with throwing the torches or swinging them. The extra oxygen will surely burn the knots, and it’s no fun for your acrobatic-partner to get a burning rag in his face. Or when you throw the club in the air, the burning rag falling on your face. Looks bad while performing too.
I made my own torches, but not the throw-away ones. I didnt like the juggling torches for swinging and fire-dance, too light. So I made m out of metal (bike parts and some weird metal pieces I found in a Tsjech second hand shop), welded the stuff, and screwed tight to it cotton wraps also used for fire-juggling clubs, and winding metal thread around the result to prevent loose ends.
Using metal however, can result in a very very very cold grip on your torch in mid-winter as I experienced ;). And gloves are not an option (slipping).
When making the torch, if you are determined to make your own torch, dont use any stuff that is set on fire easily. Wood can be used, since it actually does not start burning that fast, but it does get scorched and is usually a one-time thing. Someone told me he used lots of glue to assemble his torch. Though I didnt hear his torch burning in the wrong spots, I would stay on the safe side, and attach parts and/or the cotton by well.. physical means (i.e. welding, or screws).
Also make sure, especially when planning more than just holding the torch and spit over it, that you have a good grip. No fun for your audience if you lose control over a torch and it ends up in the crowd.
Playing with fire and your surroundings
When fire-spitting, you are playing with fire. You are making flames. And not always those flames can be controlled 100%. So you risk burns.
Usually, this does not mean being hospitalized with third degree skin burns. But I almost always get rid of the small hairs on my face, shorten my eye-lashes, and get rid of the tops of my hair if I dont protect it.
This can happen when “the flame comes back“. Usually this is the case when the wind turns, and blows into your face. Watch out for high buildings or other situations which can cause strange and sudden changes in wind directions.
Another risk is the flame travelling back to your mouth. See pic in pic section. You can see the stream of petroleum coming for my mouth. 99% of the time, the flame develops away from me. Occasionally, however, the flame jumps over the drops back to my mouth. Resulting in slightly burned lips. In a reflex, you usually close your mouth when this happens, so I never experienced myself, or heard about it, your mouth getting burned from the inside because of this.
Some tricks involve extra risk. Staccato flames (i.e. a series of very fast short flames, preferable over 2 or more torches) means leaving petroleum in your mouth, and hence, when the flames travels back, extra risk.
Spitting the flame up is another example. The cloud of flame is right above you (and develops beautifully upwards) Though it looks like a flame, the burning petroleum is subject to gravity and can come down. Little burning drops may fall down on your face, or your whole body if you are lying down.
Or, combined with acrobatics, and being swung a bit, the resulting wave-of-flames being a risk for both you and your partner because of well.. lagging behind you (and you getting swung back into it 😉 ). And I also have a little trick not involving a torch but a cigarette (should see the audience when I ask for a light 😉 ), which gives an explosion very close to my face. Sure way to get rid of those eye-lashes.
All I can say about these tricks are: NOT FOR BEGINNERS. DONT TRY THIS AT HOME. Any extra trick and fire-spitting anyway is, if you’re not 100% sure, are inexperienced yet, or you dont trust the surroundings or the wind, dont do it. Maximize control, minimize risk.
1.2.2 Minimizing the risks & other unpleasant effects
Short-term effects and minimizing them
First of all, as said before, it’s not so much the risk on burns that is most common. There is risk however, as said before, I will go into that later.
What always happens, is that the stuff eats the top-layer of grease on your skin, leaving it very very very dry to an almost painful degree. Itching. Red. And because of the nature of spitting fire, there will always be quite a bit of petroleum running from your mouth down. To prevent it going down to your chest, I always use a (cotton) scarf to soak the stuff before it runs there. And to give my skin some extra protection, I put on a thick layer of vaseline. A very very very thick layer. The longer I plan to spit fire, the thicker the layer. Even then, it might not be enough and your skin gets irritated.
If possible (not always when performing on the streets), immediately wash, heck, scrub yourself and change clothes. Soaked clothing will irritate underlying skin too. Bringing an old cloth to wipe yourself inbetween shows (and extra vaseline), and bringing a clean t-shirt for immediately afterwards is not a bad idea either.
The infamous petroleum burps. No matter how experienced, you will always swallow a bit of the stuff, since it also spreads in your mucus. And in the beginning, when not so experienced, a lot ;). And the stuff comes back, including the taste, in burps till like 24 hours later. The taste isnt so bad when spitting (or you ignore it) but afterwards, blegh. What helps is, a. make sure you have eaten well, and have a nice layer of preferable greasy food in your stomach, b. drink a liter or so of fatty milk, or, if you’re a vegan, I know people who use salad oil instead. The petroleum attaches itself to the fat, and wont be burped up again. What the longer-term consequences are when the fat is decomposed in your intestines, I dont know, and actually, dont want to know ;).
Petroleum vapor and your lungs. Luckily, I only know of one case of lungs collapsing, but felt slightly guilty since I was the one teaching the person to spit fire. You will get warning signs though. After a certain time of spitting fire, your lungs will start to protest. LISTEN TO THEM. I can’t emphasize this enough. Your body will know. Listen to your body! If your body says it’s enough, it’s enough. Stop. Immediately when it starts aching. Stop. And I keep emphasizing this, since I know way to well how addictive fire-spitting is, and how you can get carried away, fascinated by the flames, and on a slight adrenaline rush. I have made the mistake of going over the limits myself, not with the devastating effects, but I sure paid the next days.
There’s always the risk of burning. Always. Some tricks involve extra risk.
First of all. Control. Can’t emphasize this enough. Control the flame. I cant give any advice on this, practicing is the only way to get more control. Also has the quite nice side-effect of making beautiful flames, and spend your fuel for the flame and not on the audience. Quite a few times I saw obviously not-so experienced fire-spitters, and I always feel a sorta.. well.. shame.. if I see a bad fire-spitting performance where the audience gets soaked in petroleum (and to my even bigger frustration, actually seemed to like it?? since still lots of applause).
Control also has to do with your surroundings. Wind.
First thing I do when I get to a spot is test the direction of the wind by wetting a finger and noticing where it cools off first. And of course, spitting with the direction of the wind, and for sure not against it. Has the additional effects of larger flames ;). However, winds can change direction, sometimes quite suddenly, and you get the flame back in your face.
One of the reasons winds can change suddenly has to do with the structure of the surrounding buildings. Not much you can do about that, except be aware of it. A spot I spit fire regularily was on a roof, with a little building for the elavator near it. The wind sure was unpredictable because of that. Only experience sorta makes you recognize these kinda spots. Though in general you can say large open spaces = predictable wind, lotsa high buildings near = unpredictable. Also, strong wind is more risk when it turns (of course), but has the advantage of larger flames. Though it can be too strong. Once tried to spit fire in a storm on a ship, and my flame was simply blown out before it could develop.
Control. Again. The most stupidiest thing in my personal opinion is spitting fire while being under influence. Just as stupid as drunk drivers. Sure you can get away with it. But to prevent negative consequences, you’d better be on your toes. Lucky me, I always kept having the slight adrenaline rushes, even after doing it for 10.000 time, and adrenaline sure keeps you on your toes. Also, the adrenaline makes it possible to ignore the unpleasant by-effects such as taste, the smell and such until afterwards ;). I never had the tendency to place fire-spitting on the same level as say.. .doing the dishes.
The opposite of thinking too lightly about it (either by being drunk, or well.. having done it too much) also can mean losing control. I never experienced it myself, but I did see performers, even on stage, that obviously were afraid of the flame they produced, pulling involuntarily back from it. These kind of reflexes also incorporate a risk of losing control, and it can be a downward spiral that way.. But I guess people being afraid of the flame never spit fire for a longer period of time.
Spitting fire inside. I am a street-performer at heart, but was sometimes asked to give a show at some kinda event or party. First thing I did, before I said yes, was to inspect the place, see how the stage looked, how lights and electricity was placed, and ask about planned decorations. There is a certain fun in popping balloons with your flame, but short-circuiting a venue or camouflage nets coming down on the audience is not. Well, I guess common sense is all here :). I preferred high-ceiling places, so I didnt have to spit the flame over the heads of the audience, but low-ceiling places were possible. Or I would just ask for room (or people would give it after the first flames 😉 ).
Clothing and Hair. Well, of course, you dont want the flame to come back to you. It can happen though. Mostly, no more happens than losing a few hairs. But, your clothing will be soaked, so will be any facial or other exposed hair, making it more likely to burn or melt. It wont happen easily, but to be sure, best clothing is stuff like leather, or cotton (like a t-shirt). Lots of men prefer to spit fire bare-chested, but if you’re female, you might feel otherwise. Skin-tight nylon is something I would never wear during fire-spitting, no matter how nice it might look.
Scarf around neck was already mentioned to prevent the fuel running down your chest.
Hair: you will lose some hairs. Not burning, but melting a bit, just like accidents with a lighter. Lose hair is a nogo, especially outside and windy. I usually tie my hair down low in the neck, and the scarf around it. Some people also put a cotton scarf on their hair, to prevent the small hairs sticking out melting away. Facial hair: until I heard about the accident mentioned above, I always thought facial hair was no risk, no more than soaked clothing. Both arent set on fire easily. But I guess it can happen.. it was his beard being soaked that caused the accident.
Long-term effects and minimizing m
Many of the precautions already named, will also prevent longer term effects.
But there are long-term effects, especially if you do it extensively for a prolonged period of time, as I did. These effects are mostly associated with the fuel you use.
Some long term effects are already mentioned. Lung infections, or other negative effects on your lungs.
I knew about most short- and long-term risks. I got taught by an experienced fire-spitter myself (who was having a lung infection at that time). So I always took precautions, and was very aware of what I was doing and the risks I was taking.
But no one ever mentioned the effects on my teeth…. I used to have very healthy teeth. Used to. Now my grin looks like the cheshire cat grin of my avatar. This really has to do with the petroleum, because, a. the rotting dimished immensily after I quit spitting fire for a bit, b. later on, I met other long-term fire-spitters complaining about the same thing. What causes it is that petroleum likes to adsorp into the dirt on your teeth, and does it damage incorportated there. This includes your gums retreating from your teeth slowly in the course of time, exposing the less protected areas of your teeth, and the direct effects on the ivory. Well.. so the solution is simple. Brush your teeth before each performance ;).
Other stuff & tips
There are other risk, not related to bodily harm. The first one is well.. related to performing on the streets. I usually dont prepare, just go. But many many many cities have some kinda regulation about street performing. And though they might be relatively tolerant towards not-so-intruding performances such as the living statues, when you are very.. well.. present.. by performing music or fire-spitting, you might find a police officer asking nasty questions. Or fining you, or confiscating your stuff. I dont give a shit about the regulations, and sure wont go and apply for a frikkin circus permit, but dont like to lose my stuff either. So, I usually inform myself on the local situation (asking other street performers for example). A large city mid-summer, with lots of tourists, and no streetperformers on the main square might indicate something…. Oh, and I actually had someone call the fire brigade once when I was practicing.
Another, rather pleasant risk, is the one that you might get addicted to fire-spitting. Not bodily, and literally to the fuel. But omy. Though I quit because of the long-term effects, the typical smell of burning petroleum still sets of that urge to grab my torches. I guess it has to do with the slight adrenaline rush that I always had, even after doing it for a very long time. That adrenaline can be quite addictive ;). And the fascination I had with producing flames, and being able to make an element, considered dangerous, to do as I want. And yah, I gotta admit, I got a kick out of performing and the ooohs and aaahs too ;).
Which brings me to audiences. I love interacting with my audience. One of the reasons I liked performing on the streets.
But, first of all. You need to gather that audience. Fire-spitting has its advantages, since it’s visible from relatively far away. A short round about at a square trailing a crowd behind you which you promised a show also helps. Few introductory flames, and start show. To my luck, I am a small skinny woman, while spitting fire is usually associated with big tough guys. So, the fact that this woman, which looks so fragile, is doing the dangerous stuff already attracks a crowd (and gets a bigger financial reward 😉 ). I prefer gathering my own crowd instead of starting a show for an already assembled one, for example sitting at a cafe. You get the people really interested in the show that way.
Shows on the streets are by necessity short. You cant expect an audience actually passing by to hang around for 45 minutes. So, usually, my shows were 10-15 minutes, and with a fast pace to keep the audience attracted. Planning the show ahead is thereby essential, and practicing it to make sure it goes smoothly.
Interaction. This is such an important difference between performing on stage, or on the streets. Of course, you can just do your show in a distant matter and hope the audience likes it. But.. having a few tricks to involve your audience more actively helps. I consider humor and having fun with my audience very importnat. And having a big mouth and being extrovert helps too. One of the things I liked to do, is to pick a big tough guy (preferable with big tough friends) for my temporary assistent. Holding torches and such. And of course dismissing him in a friendly humorous, but dominant bitchy way, because he was obviously doing a bad job. Or, if my instincts tell me he’s capable, get him to lift me and of course thank him and include him in the applause afterwards. Or daring my audience to give me a light for the cigarette trick (amazing how many people pull back 😉 ). That kinda stuff. But everyone each own, my bitchy-dominant-stamping-feet-performers-attitude is something that fits my personality and, because of my posture, guarantees a few laughs too;).
And more money afterwards. Cause let’s be honest. The money IS nice. It sure paid for the fuel. And it is very well paid in terms of money/hour :). But well. The thing is.. the crowd tends to disperse after you do your last trick and bow. If you’re alone, and no mates already gathering the money, you must act quick in both collecting the money and gathering your stuff. Dont be afraid to (verbally and of course in that friendly-humorous way) ask the crowd to contribute. Best is to approach people personnaly, but well, in case of emergency a hat on the ground or so will do.
Cleaning up after yourself and that other people thing Well.. out of experience I noticed a few things being important. One of the stupidiest things I ever did was not cleaning away the bottles I used to carry the petroleum. Glass re-closable beer bottles were standing still around while I was gathering my stuff, and some idiot thought it was beer. Ok, maybe not my mistake, but since it is not my goal in life to poison people, I take care of that kinda stuff first.
Some stuff is already mentioned. I dont like to treat my audience on unwanted gifts such as streams of petroleum going under the flame instead of in, burning clubs or other not so friendly side-effects. Same thing about working with a partner. Working with a partner gives more opportunities (acrobatics, or for collecting the money), but also means more preparation.
One of the things I really dont give a shit about is the usually quite extensive smear of petroleum on the pavement. Though I’ve had some pissed-off police officers pointing me to it, heck, the stuff evaporates after a few minutes, so. But it will be visible, just so you know. Oh, and grass doesnt like it. My practice spot in our garden had some very miserably looking plants.
If you made it till here..good for you 🙂 quite some reading, though I dont know if I ever will put people on my preferred list so anyone can actually read it ;).