The celebrity photographer — also known for his reality TV appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race and The A-List: New York — has turned his lens on leathermen for a photo series celebrating the queer subculture.
For Ruiz, photography has always been a means of connecting with people and places — and his leathermen series is no different. He launched the project “to demystify a community that I’ve always been incredibly drawn to yet afraid of,” he says. This draw comes, in large part, from the leather community’s embrace of sex positivity.
“I’ve struggled for so long with varying degrees of shame about everything from being gay to my sexual proclivities to body perception,” Ruiz says. “It’s so empowering to see men who don’t feel defined by other people’s perception of them. I suspect that the sexual prowess and confidence that leathermen exude is what appeals to queer people outside of the leather community.”
Ruiz’s initiation into leatherdom began after lockdown, when he met a leatherman who showed him the ropes: both “the history and the sexual expression that is prevalent in the community.”
“I’m all about the experience so I let him guide me to places that were so intoxicating both physically and mentally,” he says. “That relationship was short-lived, but it piqued my interest and desire to explore the parts of myself that I’ve always been too afraid or ashamed to embrace.”
There are historical roots as well. Twentieth-century leather artist Tom of Finland has long been an influence on Ruiz, professionally and personally. “His work is very erotic and hyper-masculine, which is not only arousing to me but has acted as a point of reference for both my work and how I present myself,” says Ruiz, who shot a TOF fashion homage for Out way back in the ’90s. “His work has permeated mine in varying degrees over the years through wardrobe and the hyper-masculinity of many of my subjects.”
Ruiz makes sure to point out he’s not conflating TOF and the leather scene’s embrace of masculinity with toxic masculinity, saying an extremely butch individual can still be “kind, gentle, and empathetic.” So, why does the presence of leathermen and other kinksters at Pride still ruffle some gay feathers?
“People fear and judge what they do not understand,” Ruiz says. “Also, our culture has imposed so much shame about sex and sexual expression that displaying any sexuality at all has become an act of deviance.”
An NFT drop of 100 portraits of Mike Ruiz’s leathermen happens June 5. The photographs will be on display starting June 1 at Chicago’s Leather Archives Museum and June 18 at the Tom of Finland House in Los Angeles. Meet some of the subjects below.
“You can be one. Put on your tight, squeaky leathers and boots, which for me are now the ultimate spiritual armor. Then get out there and show yourself.” — Gerard
“My full leather uniform is what I feel good in and represents the old-guard tradition I was taught, and I am trying to pass it to younger kinksters.” — Scott