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Jaco interviews Mark I. Chester

By May 02, 2015

 

1.  For those who don’t already know, please tell us about yourself and your titles.

My name is Mark I. Chester. I am a San Francisco gay *radical sex* photographer. I use the term radical sex the way other people use the term leather. It is an inclusive term and could include leathersex, sadomasochism, BDSM, bondage, fetishism, puppy play, spiritual ritual play and just about anything else you could think of. Unlike S/M (sadomasochism), a word whose origin and history is one of medical dysfunction and psychopathology, radical sex has no baggage. And I think it is far more accurate and inclusive than the term leather. But because of its widespread acceptance, for practical reasons, I frequently use the term "leather.” I think it is important that we name ourselves and claim our own identity, rather than giving the medical industry the power to name us and shame us.

 

 

I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is generally a nice place to live, but in the late 1960s and early 70s, it was not a very friendly place towards gay people. I moved to San Francisco in 1977 to get away from the winters, to live in an environment that was more open and accepting towards gay people and to live somewhere that was sexually adventurous and accepting of kinky sexuality.

Since the late 1970s, I have documented my life in San Francisco's sexual underground, first in black and white photographs and since 2000 in color digital photographs. Taken together, the work is a dark explicit diary, not only documenting the men and women in my life, but also documenting and reflecting our lives, loves and losses during these very tumultuous times in our history.

I have no titles or awards and they are not something that I aspire to. I am just a sex radical who has the audacity to speak honestly and openly about his life and sexuality. That may not be as unusual now as it was in the late 1970s when it was quite brash and controversial. Since my very first exhibition of my photographs in my apartment in 1981, I have shown sexually explicit fine art photographs under my real name. Even today, many photographers doing this kind of work only do so under a pseudonym and their websites are devoid of any examples of their leather work because it might upset their normal clients. I have tried to live my life honestly, openly and without shame, whether it is about being gay, being a sexually active adult or being a sex radical. One of the realities is that over the years, I have paid a very heavy price for being so open and honest about my life and my sexuality in my art.

2.  I know that you are involved in a very special project documenting your artwork and the eather community right now. I'd like you to share with my readers what you are doing.

I received a small grant from a local non-profit fund that supports projects of interest to the eather community. The grant will support a major retrospective of my photographs at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco during the month of September 2015, timed in conjunction with the Folsom Street Fair.

But the most exciting part of this is that we have set aside money from the grant to use as seed money to digitally self-publish a monograph of my work to accompany the exhibition. The book and the exhibition will be called, City of Wounded Boys & Sexual Warriors: a dark explicit photographic diary from San Francisco's gay sexual underground, 1977-2015. The book launch with an accompanying slide show talk will be on Saturday, September 19th and there will be a reception for the show on Friday, September 25th, the Friday of Folsom weekend. So hopefully, leatherfolk coming to Folsom, will come out to meet me and see the show.

The book will be hard cover in a 8"x10" landscape format with over 100 pages and 70 photographs in both black and white and color. In addition, famed leather historian Dr. Gayle Rubin will be writing the afterword to the book. To maximize the printing quality, I've chosen a premium paper with a heavy luxurious feel. After a few test runs of the book, I can say that I am very pleased with the quality of the printing and very very excited about the book.

But publishing a book digital print on demand is expensive. The per book cost is $84. and the retail cost would have to be $149/book. I know that will make the book too expensive for many. So I am having a special pre-order sale on the book until the end of June. At a savings of 30 percent, the cost will be $104 for the book and all additional costs.

On my website http://markichester.com there is a buy-now link that will take you to a special Paypal page. You can pay with a credit card, or if you already have a Paypal account, you can log into Paypal. These pre-orders are very important because they will allow me to get a quantity discount and keep the price more reasonable for, at least, the first print run of the book.

I have also included some additional links on the same page for donations. Because the profit margin on the pre-ordered books will be minimal, support is still needed to do everything we'd like to do with the show and the book. For this to succeed, I need the help and support of leather folk to pass the word on this project to their friends, share it with their clubs and organizations and on social media.

3.  What or who got you started in the leather community and for how long?

When I got started, there was no leather community or certainly not one I could access at the age of 11 or so. I knew that I was different, although it would take many more years before I even began to understand what those thoughts and fantasies really meant, let alone seeking to make contact with others with similar interests.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s/60s I spent a lot of time in the Milwaukee Public Library and had a couple of experiences there that changed the direction of my life. At that time the Museum was housed in the same building as the Library. In perusing the exhibits of Wisconsin and other midwest Indian tribes, I came across a copy of a painting by George Catlin documenting a ritual passage of the Mandan Indians called the O-Kee-Pa Ceremony. Young Indian braves hung off the ground from skewers in their chests or shoulders and were spun around until they passed out and had visions of the Great White Spirit. I had never seen anything like it. I was mesmerized by it. I didn't really understand what I was looking at, but somehow I felt energized and excited after viewing this painting.

Around the same time I came across a book in the library from the late 1500s that was reprinted in the early 1900s called Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs. The book contained many plates showing the various methods that humans used to torture others based on issues of faith. And while I wasn’t turned on by the reality of the torture, I was turned on by the ideas related to it: suspension, upside down suspension, stretching and putting the body under various kinds of pressure, strains and stresses etc. Inspired by those images, I started playing with my body in various ways, including exploring a lot of self-bondage. In fact, the first time I climaxed I had tied myself up. In retrospect, I guess that was a pretty strong message from the universe about what turned me on. I find it interesting that my radical sex interests manifested themselves before I even realized that I was erotically turned on to men. But just as my being gay is not a choice, I also believe that I have no choice about my connection to radical sex. Both are very essential parts of who I am.

I came out in 1969 and in addition to gay dance bars, I also frequented the Wreck Room in Milwaukee and the Gold Coast in Chicago, bars both known for a more masculine clientele than the dance bars attracted. But it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco in 1977 and found the Society of Janus, a year or two later, that I began to see even a glimmer of a leather community. At that time it was small, pansexual and it included men and women of all genders and orientations. But, it was also very closeted and that included most everyone regardless of gender or orientation. Of course, that was a different time.

4.  Which club or bar are you affiliated with and tell us more about its history?

I am not affiliated with any club or bar. I’ve never been much of a joiner. But there have been a few very significant bars in my life. The very fact that there have been any significant bars in my life speaks to my age, because it was one of the few ways at the time to meet other gay men, let alone other gay men into radical sex, especially if you were not into bathrooms or the parks. The first bar was called The Back Door in Madison, Wisconsin. What made that bar special in 1969 was that it was owned and operated by a gay man in the community, rather than by underground crime interests. At that time, that was unheard of. Next there were two bars in Chicago that were special to me. In the early/mid 1970s, PJ’s was a long hair hippie/freak bar for gay men. I had never heard of such a bar, let alone ever seen one before that. The other bar was the Gold Coast, although only The Pit downstairs was for those dedicated to leather while the bar upstairs traded on that masculine ideal, but was open to everyone.

The third and final bar was in San Francisco and was called The Ambush. The Ambush was located in South of Market or what is now called SOMA. Not only was it owned and staffed by South of Market gay men, sex of any stripe was welcome including rough sex, radical sex, leather sex, sadomasochistic sex and leather/uniform fetishists.   These were all different sexual communities, although they definitely had overlapping interests and social structures. But it was more than that. The Ambush became a center for South of Market gay men into the arts including painters, photographers, musicians, playwrights and any other artistic endeavor you might imagine. Art busted out of The Ambush in shows on their walls. It was one of the few places that I could show radical sex photographs without worrying about censorship or negative attitudes. In the span of a few years, I had three different shows there, which were extremely important stepping-stones in my development as a gay artist and radical sex photographer.

5.  Tell us about your leather family.

Sadly, the great majority of my eather family is dead. But we never thought of ourselves as a leather family, even though in retrospect, that is what we were. I think that term has taken on a new and different meaning in our community these days. First, I never knew that there could be such a thing as a gay community, let alone a leather community or a leather family. When I moved to San Francisco, I eventually found a group of other leathermen and sex radicals who became in essence my leather family. We had sex with each other, although not exclusively. There was just a lot of cross-pollination between all of us. We hung out with each other in various combinations; went to flea markets, movies and opera together. We went to bars and sex clubs together. And we made art. There were bikers, men into leather, men into fisting and every other kink and fetish you can imagine. We gathered in particular as a group twice a year at the home of one of the men who lived in Pacific Heights, every Thanksgiving and Christmas. There were so many of us that once seated, you couldn’t really get up from the table. If you wanted out, you had to crawl under the table (a fun act in and of itself) to get out. ;) But all of that ended as one by one, the members of that group died from AIDS until there weren’t enough people left to call it a family anymore.

6.  Who are the most influential gay or leather folk in your life and why?

I have had a lot of influential people and people I think of as heroes in my life. There are way too many to list in this interview and unfortunately, a lot of them are now dead. But I’ll list a couple of them and explain what was so special about them.

Scott O’Hara – Scott was a well-known sex activist and porn star. He earned the title of 'biggest dick' in San Francisco and while it was a silly bar title, it was true. I have never met anyone more sex positive than Scott. He believed in gay men and had faith in gay sex as both healing and as political revolution. He put his money where he mouth was personally, sexually and politically. Later he started the magazine Steam, the literate gay man’s guide to sex and where it could be found. He supported both gay and sexual artists and anonymously donated the money so I could publish my first book of photographs, Diary of a Thought Criminal. Being HIV-positive, he advocated for the right of men living with HIV to have unapologetic sex at a time when there was a lot of stigma to being hiv positive and sexual. Tired of telling people his status, he tattooed himself with ‘HIV +’ in large lettering on his arm where it could not be ignored. It was an ironic political act as some politicians were then calling for HIV folk to be tattooed.

Robert Opel and Peter Hartman – Robert Opel ran the first San Francisco gay leather art gallery called Fey Way Gallery. The gallery also hosted film and performance events. Peter Hartman was the force behind 544 Natoma Performance Gallery. While 544 was not an exclusively gay or leather space, Hartman heavily supported gay and leather performance/theater artists, visual artists, filmmakers, musicians and poets. Hartman also provided the space for the SF Jacks to hold their very first meeting. Both of these men were gay sex radicals. They insisted on the importance of a gay artistic vision in which sexuality was a valued and essential element. Both of these spaces had a tremendous effect on me personally and really provided the inspiration for me to continue to grow as a gay radical sex artist.

 

7.   How do you think leather has changed during your lifetime?

Things are comparatively very public these days, with leather clubs and events all over the country (and world). You can now find classes and workshops regularly offered in many cities. There are books and porn and webcams. And there’s a whole world of information that is readily available at your fingertips through the internet. I’m sure it is difficult for younger leathermen and women to even imagine what it would be like to discover your kinkiness at a time when there was no information, no role models and no support. Books about human sexuality were limited in my library to those 16 and over. So I ended up reading books on the psychopathology of sexual dysfunction, because those books were not labeled adult. It is not surprising that I thought that my interest in radical sex meant that I was sick. The road to self-acceptance was a long and difficult journey.

When I came out into the scene 45 years ago, there were various cliques: SM guys, bondage guys, guys into rough sex, motorcycle/Leather fetishists and fisting guys. While there was some overlap, each group tended to distance themselves from the other groups; particularly fisting guys who were adamant that their sexual fetish had no connection to the other groups. But the basic boundaries of the leather subculture have broadened tremendously since then. The fisting community has been absorbed into the larger eather subculture. Spiritual leathersex has grown tremendously. And look at the explosion of interest in various sub-subcultures such as puppy play and those who see being a pup as their own personal sexual identity.

I remember seeing the very first issue of the groundbreaking Drummer Magazine in 1975 in The Pit, the leather cruise bar in the basement of the Gold Coast. It was stunning. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I nervously thumbed through the black and white magazine. I had never seen any erotica that spoke directly to me as a kinky gay man. In fact, in the past I had frequently *looked at* hetero SM porn because at the time, there was nothing else. Discovering that first issue of Drummer Magazine provided a unique kind of validation of who I was and what turned me on. It claimed in capital letters that I was not the only one; that I was a part of a larger community of men with similar interests. Standing there in The Pit, as a novice, just trying to figure out what all of this meant, it never occurred to me that one day my photographs and words would appear on the pages of Drummer Magazine and that other novices would look to my images and my words as guideposts on their own personal erotic journeys.

8.    Since you brought up Drummer Magazine, can you talk about your contribution to Drummer?

I think at that time I was a very unique personality within the leather community. Not only was I into the scene personally, but I also both wrote about it and photographed it. I spoke to the Drummer audience directly in the first person, as one leatherman to another, using my real name. Even John Preston originally used the nom de plume Jack Prescott when Mr. Benson was first published in Drummer. Rather than dishing out hot fantasy stories, drawings or photographs, I wrote about and photographed my sexual reality and my sexual explorations with a fair dose of both the rituals of the Sir/boy relationship, as I saw it, and spirituality thrown in. When I photographed men into leather, I photographed real men into leather. And there was one more important difference; I included hard dicks in my images of radical sex. There was no question that the men in my photographs were turned on. At that time, it was rare to see images of men engaged in leathersex who really looked aroused because most pictorials used models dressed in leather, rather than authentic leathermen engaged in leathersex.

I also pushed Drummer in terms of the kind of subjects that they covered. Before my work, images of bondage in Drummer were rare and first hand accounts of actual bondage scenes were even rarer. I wrote and photographed about the fetish of rubber and first-hand accounts of the Sir/boy relationship. I wrote and photographed the leather bondage suit that I created in 1981 and soon after someone took that article to NYC leathermaker David Menkes who started making leather bondage suits inspired by photographs of my design. I wrote and photographed a gay punk leatherboy with multiple piercings, ink and wild hair including a modified mohawk. I wrote about the erotic fetish for men who are physically different. In addition, I introduced the Drummer audience to photographers like George Dureau and Fakir Musafar and poets/writers like Felice Picano and Kirby Congdon.

But I also had on-going disagreements with Drummer from the very start. John Rowberry was the editor of Drummer at that time and he once told me that there was no difference between editing a ski magazine and editing a magazine for leathermen. While basic editing techniques might be applicable to both, Rowberry didn't really understand leathermen, leathersex and the leather scene. He had no vision and so he tended to deal with erotic subjects in an either silly or sensational manner. My first feature in Drummer was a portfolio of my photographs of men tied up, from my series Feeling Good on the Edge of Madness # 1. Rowberry titled it Rope Tricks. My first article to combine photographs and writing was titled Bondage Ritual and Rowberry retitled it Bondage Confessions. Plus, Drummer had a horrible habit of poorly cropping my images, often completely destroying their composition and intent. And for all the things I was able to get Drummer to do, there were places that Drummer simply refused to go. A proposed photographic portfolio of leathermen of color was rejected because the publisher, John Embry, insisted that it would objectify them. Embry’s answer was for Drummer to just ignore them, as if they didn’t exist. When I was doing sexual portraits for a portfolio in Drummer, one image of a beautiful black man in ripped leather with a large erection was rejected because he also had one small dangly earring and Embry considered that totally unacceptable in Drummer Magazine.

9.   Can you talk about some of the most memorable photographs that you have taken?

My work has always been different. Just the fact that I photograph real men, rather than buff models, helps set this work apart. In addition, from the very start, I have photographed a wide range of ages, body types and races. I think it makes the images far more accessible, because the viewer can think, that could be me rather than an unattainable physique god. Plus, it makes the work far more honest and after all these years, this work is still rather unique in the pantheon of leather iconography. But even in this context there have been some very special photos that stand out.

In late 1986, I photographed Wally Sherwood and Eddie Cunningham. Wally was a dwarf, but he was also a leather top and Eddie was his normal-sized leather slave. Wally was from New Orleans and was rather notorious. Even fine art photographer/painter George Dureau had photographed him. My photographs of Wally and Eddy being sexual are heart warming because of their relationship, but they are also equally heartbreaking and mysterious by turns. Just imagine how different your life would be if your hands couldn’t reach your dick.

In 1989, I photographed my-ex gay playwright Robert Chesley. Robert had been diagnosed with AIDS and parts of his body were covered in KS lesions. We wanted to do photographs that would be about life and living and not about death and dying. So we started with portraits, but when Robert removed his shirt, it literally took my breath away. While Robert’s face was fairly free from lesions, there were angry red lesions covering his torso and arms. I had a hard time composing myself, but we continued taking photographs. When I thought we were done, he winked at me and asked if I wanted to take more photographs. He returned with a spandex superman outfit. And as he started to dress in the spandex, one of Robert’s most special fetishes and fantasies, his dick started to get hard. The images speak to transformation, life and the rights of those with HIV to be sexual (remember this was 1989). This series contains everything from intensity, to sorrow, to erotic turn on, to sexual fantasies and finally the ironic image of a gay man with AIDS, combined with the image of Superman, who was known for his strength and unearthly abilities.

And then there was Steve. Steve was both a model for and an artist with a drawing group that I hosted called Gay Men’s Sketch. In 1996, he caught meningitis and nearly lost his life. Due to the meningitis, blood clots damaged arteries supplying blood to his hands and before the problem could be corrected, so much damage had occurred that the fingers on one hand needed to be amputated. When he called to tell me, I don’t know what possessed me, but I asked to photograph him before his fingers were amputated. I had been in a very strange space. After photographing for 16 straight years, I had not picked up a camera in over two years. But this was something that I just couldn’t turn away from. I can’t even explain how intense it was. Steve tried to hide his hand and I had to keep encouraging him to show it. And then I had him remove the outer bandage and finally the bandage covering his hand. It was so upsetting that I had to keep going out of the room to compose myself so I didn’t break down in tears. Steve was a beautiful man who was very proud of his physique and after so many years of the AIDS epidemic in which we watched beautiful men disintegrate right before our eyes, here was beauty and death epically combined in one living individual. I was shaken to my very core. The series of photographs of him are powerful and beautiful, but also eerie and heart breaking.

 

10.   Do you have problems with censorship and how has it affected you and your work?

Yes, I’ve had problems with censorship from the very start. I understand that my work is complicated because it crosses the boundaries between such normally exclusive genres as fine art portraiture, social documentary photography and sexually explicit work. Because of that people don’t know how to deal with it. In the very first open photography show I entered, I was told by one of the organizers that while I wasn’t going to win any awards, my work was all the judges could talk about behind the scenes. But gay run exhibitions weren’t any better. The first International Gay and Lesbian Photography Exhibition rejected one image of a young man tied up in rope with clothespins running up the underside of his hard dick. The lesbian curators wouldn’t stand for it. Mainstream fine art galleries, publications and organizations have found my work too sexual, while gay and kinky publications found my work too artistic to be considered sexy and erotic. In fact, some of the most negative people about my work have been gay men working as critics, reviewers and curators, who have told me that promoting my work would reflect negatively on them and their professional careers.

It is frustrating to have the curator of a show at a major museum internationally tell you how important and powerful your work is, but so powerful that he was afraid of the response that they were create, so he passed on using it. Or to have the gay art editor of a well-known newspaper in a major metropolitan city tell you that he didn’t want to even look at your work because he had seen your work in Drummer Magazine. Or to have a magazine on Art and AIDS reject your photographs of Robert Chesley with KS lesions because they were also sexual and the magazine couldn’t afford to offend their rich patrons or lose their non-profit status by showing sexual art work.

Over the years my photographs have been stolen, vandalized, taken off the walls, censored from exhibitions, pulled from publications, slammed by a court judge as garbage and literally taken to the dump and trashed. That last one is an incredible story. My photographs and Michael Rosen’s photographs had been shown at a leather event and Pat Califia (now Patrick Califia) put them in the hall, outside her apartment door so that she could return them to us. But before she could do that, her landlord found them and took them to the dump to be trashed. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars of sexual fine art photographs, matted and framed were destroyed just because of personal ignorance and fear. It is because of such censorship that I mostly show my work in my studio.

11.   What do you think the future of the leather community will be?

Each generation creates its own leather community. Just as coming out as gay men and lesbians transformed attitudes towards gay people, coming out as sex radicals will also transform attitudes towards leather folk. But we have a long long way to go before that happens. A lot of people are still in the leather closet and feel that being public about their sexual turn-ons is too risky; that their families will react negatively or it could cost them their jobs. And in many ways, they are right. But, those are the very reasons why gay people were in the closet. It took gay men and women of great courage to challenge those negative attitudes and live their lives honestly, openly and without shame. And the same will be true as more and more people come out of the leather closet.

But I also think the greater leather community is also experiencing growing pains as we become more mainstreamed and less outlaw, more public and less underground, and more inclusive in what we think of as leathersex or who has a plate at the leather table. But there is also a danger in leather becoming just another sexual variation and becoming commercialized and commoditized by both big business as well as our own community. And in contexts that include all genders and sexual orientations, I think gay leathermen, in general, are in danger of being physically and psychologically overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of kinky hetero folk. Our voices are often ignored and our needs are often marginalized.

12.  What is your favorite piece of leather?

I own a leather bondage suit that has, I think, quite an interesting history. I was watching John Waters' film, Female Troubles in the late 1970s in San Francisco. In the film, Edith Massey wears a skintight black outfit, almost like a catsuit, that is in panels held together by lacings. Edith was one big woman and her flesh literally oozed out of the suit between the lacings. It was a bizarre repulsive look but strangely fascinating. Sitting in that dark theater, I remember thinking how hot it would be to have a suit like that was made out of leather, but of course, without all the oozing flesh. <eg> I fantasized that like a corset, the suit could be tightened with a series of lacings until it was absolutely skin tight.

After the Folsom St. Fire, I took every penny that I had and I spent it on creating a custom-made leather bondage suit. It was a mad ritual act declaring myself; claiming myself in this world. It was my way of refusing to bow down or submit to those voices that destroyed my photographs and stole my personal belongings. A few years later, I published a story in Drummer magazine that highlighted the leather bondage suit.

The leather bondage suit is visually pretty remarkable. You see, even in 1981, no leather shop, not even Mr. S or Fetters carried anything like a leather bondage suit. The closest item was a leather strait jacket made by Fetters. Years later, David Menkes, a NYC leathermaker who makes custom leather gear, told me that he started making leather bondage suits when someone brought in that issue of Drummer, plunked it down and said, make me one of those! He used the photographs of my suit as inspiration for his design. And the rest is history as other leather shops followed his lead.

But the story doesn't stop there. Some years later a gay costume designer who worked for Wes Craven saw the leather bondage suit in an ad in Drummer magazine and called and asked if I would *rent* it for a new Wes Craven movie called, The People Under the Stairs. I told them it would be cheaper to make one and one that would be appropriate for filming - easy in and out. I never saw the film, but I understand it has a psychopathic killer who wears a leather bondage suit to do his evil deeds. (Who started this weird fantasy that psychopathic killers all have a leather bondage fetish?) The leathermaker got a credit in the film for his *creation* which was a copy of my suit. I did not get credit. I was just ripped off. When you put energy out into the world, you never know the strange and wonderful journey it will go on and whose life it will affect and change.


 

13.  You mentioned the Folsom St. Fire. What was the Folsom St. Fire?

In July of 1981, an arson fire quickly grew out of control and burned down two dead-end alleyways just off of Folsom Street starting with the building that had previously held the Red Star Saloon, an infamous South of Market gay bar and The Barracks, an even more infamous gay bathhouse. These little streets were home to a lot of gay men into SM, fisting and radical sex, many of whom had playrooms. In addition, Rex, the well-known gay leather artist and I both lived there and we exhibited our work in our studios. The fire became a legend when the Fire Chief told the local press that there were 'torture chambers in the area and they were likely to find bodies dead chained to beds.' Firefighters claimed that while fighting the fire that they 'smelled burning meat.' Luckily no one died in the fire, but what they did find in the last remaining building left standing in the fire zone was me. Or to be more exact, the fire had been stopped at the door to my bedroom/playroom/studio.

I believe that in order to make up for their sensational comments about bodies dead chained to beds, they brought the media in and photographs of my bedroom showed up on the back page of the Saturday morning newspaper and my playroom was identified as a 'torture chamber.' Boxes with hundreds of my photographs disappeared and most of my leather gear including a beautiful collection of hand-made long lash whips were stolen. Other photographs were destroyed along with many of my personal belongings. Even Senator Diane Feinstein, then Mayor Feinstein, was brought in to tour my bedroom.  The SF leather community was silent and other leathermen actually told me that I deserved what I got for daring to be who I was and do the kind of work that I was doing. I was stunned and devastated.

Years, later one of the so-called leaders of the leather community told me that he and his friends often discussed me and were concerned for how I was doing and yet neither he nor any of his friends ever reached out to me or did anything to directly help or support me. The only leatherman to provide direct support was Tony DeBlase, who was living in Chicago then and publishing a small magazine called DungeonMaster. Through DungeonMaster Tony raised a small amount of money from leathermen outside of San Francisco for the leathermen who had lost their spaces in the fire.

I felt like I was at a crossroads. I could either curl up in a ball or I could fight back. I chose to fight back. I sued the City of San Francisco, the Police Department, the Fire Department and all the local TV and newspaper media. It was at this time that I took whatever money I had to my name and had the leather bondage suit made for me. Eventually, without any community support, I settled out of court for next to nothing so I could get on with my life. This tragedy changed the direction of my life and without a doubt it changed me forever.


14.   Tell us about any special projects you do in your studio.

I have hosted a guerilla gallery in my studio since 1981 and I have exhibited my own work and the work of other sexual and underground artists. I am very proud of having shown the work of some well-known leather and sexual artists including: Michael Rosen, Charles Gatewood, Barbara Nitke, David Steinberg, Raelyn Gallina, Fakir Musafar, Scott O'Hara, Ulli Richter, Phyllis Christopher and many, many more. I live right on Folsom Street and in 1986, I was the first leather artist to show my work at the second Folsom Street Fair. The organizers made me cover anything explicit, but this was before Folsom became a leather fair. Because of the censorship, I have participated in the fair since then by opening my studio and hosting sexual art exhibitions. In 2000, I started taking digital pix of fairgoers in my studio in addition to the art shows.

I also host two drawing groups in my studio, a weekly classical nude modeling group called Gay Men's Sketch and Hot Draw!, a monthly erotic fetish leather bondage group.


15.  Where can we find out more about your work and how can we support it?

You can find out more about me on my website http://markichester.com. I also have a personal page and some group pages on Facebook.

How can someone support my work? Buy books, buy photographs and send cash! ;) You think I am kidding, but I am not. I live very close to the edge and the only thing that has kept me going in recent years has been the direct support that I have gotten from angels who believe in me and my work. So support from the leather community makes a real difference, keeping me in my studio and keeping me working.

I also do a slide show talk on my life and work, showing how my images reflect not only my personal changes, but also the tumultuous changes that have occurred in the gay male community since the 1980s. I have done this talk for gay and leather groups in New York, Toronto, North Carolina, Chicago, Vancouver, Baltimore, Atlanta, Columbus and Washington, DC. I am always looking for new opportunities to share my life and work with leather groups or at leather events so that this important piece of gay leather and sexual history is shared and not lost.

16.   In conclusion, anything you would like to add to this interview for the leather community of South Africa?

It is true that those of us in the US and Europe can be very self-involved. I think that we have a lot that we can learn from each other. We need to work together for our mutual support, especially considering new laws that are being passed in African countries other than South Africa that punish and jail gay men and women, just for being gay. Every leatherman or woman who comes out of the gay and/or leather closet helps create change. It is essential that we do it, not only for ourselves, but also for those who will come after us and walk in our footsteps.

I want to say a special thank you to Jaco Lourens, for inviting me to do this interview and for his friendship, interest and support. I very much appreciate his work on behalf of the leather community.