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The Humongous Fungus Among Us Issue

Leather Granddaddies

His collection includes an original Diego Rivera, sculptures by Nancy Grossman, and, most notably, one of the world’s largest assortments of vintage ephemera and relics from New York City's gay leather scene.
August 19, 2014, 2:10pm

A sampling of leather accessories lies against the wall of Unique Gallerie. All photos by Pacifico Silano

Unique Gallerie & Collectibles sits on a quiet, tree-lined street in one of those North Brooklyn neighborhoods that has been transformed over the past decade from an ethnic enclave to a terminally hip brunch destination. Hector Matos, who founded Unique Gallerie in 2012, grew up in the area and watched the changes take place firsthand, along the way acquiring the antiques and artworks that fill the small shop. His collection, he told me, includes an original Diego Rivera, sculptures by Nancy Grossman, and, most notably, one of the world’s largest assortments of vintage ephemera and relics from the city’s gay leather scene.

Matos encountered his first pieces of homoerotic art in the early 80s while scouring New York City garage and estate sales, finding some of his most interesting items in basements and closets. His collection now boasts a number of impressive names—works by Tom of Finland, Arthur Tress, and Robert Mapplethorpe have all found a home here—but as his passion for the subject grew, he began to expand his horizons beyond fine art and became interested in magazines, clothing, leather toys, accessories, masks, personal photographs, and letters, which lend intensely sexual yet oddly touching narratives to the other items.

Matos was initially drawn to this substratum of the art world for purely aesthetic reasons, but in time his interests put him in touch with people who helped him understand the history of the scene as well. He credits Jack Stein, a social worker and fellow collector, with helping him uncover the secret meanings and significance of the various parts of his collection. Another key helper is Matos’s friend and assistant Nina Pearson, who has curated and meticulously catalogued every piece he owns.

Matos dreams of displaying his collection in New York galleries and museums and has recently taken a major step toward that goal, getting some of the works in the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. “It is my strong belief that this collection should be in some kind of public space or museum,” he explained to me. “I want this era of homoerotic subculture to be unveiled and not forgotten.”

An assemblage of various gay-pornography magazines from the 60s and 70s. They range from mostly soft-core publications like Blueboy to the more explicit (Drummer featured high-quality writing and art, but also lots and lots of dicks). While we were looking through these, the photographer, Pacifico Silano, noticed that there is a sort of innocence running through the imagery—maybe because these publications came out before the HIV epidemic devastated the community and banished the idea that sex could be a joyous act free of long-term consequences.

The letters and personal photos are one of the most exciting parts of Matos’s collection. Many correspondences started when men placed ads with a PO box address in the era’s many gay publications, but while the resulting letters are delightfully salacious, they can also be incredibly tender. Though sex was critical to the identities of these men, they also sought connections and community with those who shared their interests—which was not easy in such a closeted age.

Vintage pornography and a condom from the era, which we discovered in the pocket of a denim jacket during our visit.

An engraved crystal dildo and vintage container of poppers. One was likely ornamental, the other quite practical.

Within the clandestine gay leather scene of the 60s and 70s there existed a multitude of different sub-subcultures, including motorcycle clubs that identified themselves with strong graphics and privately published newsletters and magazines. This logo for the Nine Plus Club is stark and graphic—and if you can’t figure out why the group called itself that, ask your parents.

Obviously, leather was a major part of this scene, and as old receipts indicate, this lifestyle was a major investment. But while some leather accessories are both expensive and impractical—ever wear leather pants in the summer?—a pair of good boots can be both sexy and timeless.