Nine of the most iconic retro BDSM illustrators

A guide to some of the most brilliant and daring fetish artists to ever put pen to paper

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Gene Bilbrew

BDSM looks damn cool, no way around it. There’s something so aesthetically pleasing about the cat-tongued leather and spit-shiny latex, the bougie regalia of ponyplay or a good shibari session’s sax solo finesse. It’s no wonder pop culture and the fashion industry can’t keep their hands off. But our artistic obsession with kink goes back a lot further than Kylie Jenner’s problematic dominatrix dress-up or the current plague of collars afflicting everyone and their mother. From the inventor of Japanese rope bondage to a Salvador Dali-approved heretic to Tom of Finland, here are nine of the most iconic retro illustrators to ever put fetish to paper.

SEIU ITO

Worshipped by many as the daddy of modern kinbaku, or Japanese rope bondage, Seiu Ito would tie up his models (usually his wives and mistresses) and photograph them dangling as references for his paintings. Before this, kinbaku (also known as shibari) had been used solely by Edo-period police to restrain prisoners. Ito developed a lifelong fascination with torture art from a young age, going on to stage artsy photoshoots of snow torture in his garden and starting several theater groups that specialized in torture scenes. A prolific journalist, theater critic, and historian, he nevertheless was most famous for kink-ifying corporal punishment and being a “painter of perversion.” Although he lost his fortune thanks to censors in the 1930s and then most of his works in the Great Tokyo Air Raid in 1942, the surviving paintings are classic examples of Japanese ero-guro, or erotic grotesque, art.

HELGA BODE

The road to German illustrator Helga Bode is paved with dead ends and misinformation. In fact, we’re not even certain she was a she. For all we know, she could be a gender-swapped, Weimar era JT Leroy — the tragicomic female avatar of some pathological mansplainer with delusions of depravity. Even so, the backstory that gets dragged around most often is prime Cannes fodder (the kind that gets boos during a standing ovation): Her erotic drawings and watercolours of girls receiving spankings, canings, and enemas from a revolving cast of authority figures were reportedly autobiographical depictions of her childhood. She bequeathed them to her ex-therapist, who later sold them to be published in scientific texts.

CARLO

In 1920s France, spanking novels were all the rage. Paris was a burgeoning primordial soup for spankophiles, or flagellants en Francais, with the craze dying out only after the advent of World War II. These novels usually featured pre-teen and teenage girls being spanked by female authority figures and were lavishly illustrated by artists such as Carlo.

Like Helga Bode, Carlo has remained a mystery long after his death — but despite his dedicated pseudonymity he has become one of the most influential fetish artists ever. His proclivities extended way beyond mere butt stuff, with his drawings illustrating ponyplay, flogging, suspensions, branding, bondage, and Master/slave dynamics. He specialized in hourglass figures, tightly laced corsets, and excruciatingly steep stiletto heels, all rendered in a crisp, modern, and whimsical style reminiscent of fashion illustrations. This unique aesthetic would go on to heavily impact BDSM rockstar John Willie, who would himself go on to impact an entire generation of artists.

CLOVIS TROUILLE

Iconoclast, provocateur, enfant terrible — these words don’t even come close to encapsulating the deeply weird, no-fucks proto-punk painter who was Clovis Trouille. He daylighted as a stylist for department store mannequins. His stint in WWI screwed him up so badly he developed a deep contempt for the military and the Church, frequently making nuns, cardinals, and Jesus the pawns in his psychedelic orgies. Although he was Salvador Dali-approved, he scorned surrealism as selling out and grudgingly adopted the label only for exposure. Unlike most of the others on this list, he eschewed black and white in favor of a very garish colour palette, which he used to bring his branded buttocks, sex-crazed movie monsters, and hypocritical officials to life.

JOHN WILLIE

There are many rumoUrs swirling around British artist John Willie — that when you visited his home, the first thing you’d see was a nude photo of his fetish model wife and muse tied to a tree; that he popularized a bondage technique allegedly loathed by Houdini; that he frequently made up the raunchy letters sent to his softcore magazine Bizarre; that he died bitter, destitute, and utterly alone, having destroyed as many of his works as he could. But what else would you expect from the man who was called the Da Vinci of fetish?

A lot of his illustrations were fashion-forward diagrams of BDSM practices and accoutrements, or else panels from his kinky comic strip, The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline. But even more notable than his iconic drawings was his disruption of the gaze, centering women as audience members and normalizing queer, gender non-conforming, and transgender individuals long before the modern LGBT rights movement.

ERIC STANTON

“A woman has to be strong. The bigger the better,” was Eric Stanton’s motto. This wasn’t your mother’s femdom — his pulpy comics featured huge Amazons who grew female penises and luxuriated in male humiliation and parodied Wonder Woman with Blunder Broad, whose kryptonite was cunnilingus.  

“Being short and a little shy as a young man, I loved the idea of big, strong aggressive women who would use their strength to wrestle me down,” he wrote. A contemporary and friend of John Willie, he was known as the “Rembrandt of pop culture” and collaborated with other BDSM powerhouses like notorious fetish photographer Irving Klaw. He also may have helped invent Spider-Man.

GENE BILBREW

African-American illustrator Gene Bilbrew ruled the “soft-core hardboiled” pulp fiction community of 1950s Times Square. After failing to make it as a member of R&B one-hit-wonder Basin Street Boys, he made a name for himself as the creator of the first black superhero, the Bronze Bomber. Then he fell in with Eric Stanton, who introduced him to fetish illustrating. He never looked back, covering and inseminating a good deal of Satan Press’ BDSM novels and Exotique magazine with his kooky, claustrophobic portraits of cross-dressing, fem-dom, and “forced feminization.” Given the nature of his art, the circumstances of his death are a little too aptly noir — he reportedly OD’d on heroin in the back of a mob-owned bookstore in Times Square, although rumour has it his body was moved there.

TOM OF FINLAND

No list of vintage fetish artists is complete without Tom of Finland, arguably the "most influential creator of gay pornographic images" next to Robert Mapplethorpe. His "pneumatically muscled, meticulously rendered monster-donged icons of masculinity,” often depicted mid-fuck, mid-suck, or mid-preen, have found immortality in the mundane, covering everything from stamps to bedding to streetwear collabs. But long before he became a 21st century fashion icon, he was a bold provocateur who dared to spotlight the gay men finding empowerment in the biker and leather subcultures of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

GUIDO CREPAX

Guido Crepax decapitated the Church-imposed sexual taboos of ‘60s Italy with his insatiably kinky comic book heroine Valentina, “the incarnation of Louise Brooks, the masochistic dreamer, the all powerful photographer, the most beautiful androgyne with the most beautiful backside in the world.” Created at the dawn of the country’s sexual liberation movement, Valentina dated an art critic-turned-superhero with Medusa eyes and frequently indulged in hallucinatory-bisexual-sadomasochistic shenanigans.

She kept feminists in a constant debate over whether she was a sex-positive queen or just another victim of the male gaze, but was undoubtedly progressive for being one of the few comic book heroines to be shown aging. With his magnum opus Valentina in tow, Crepax earned a place at the fetish superstars’ table illustrating BDSM classic The Story of O and the works of De Sade and Sacher-Masoch. “So if I have drawn whips, chains, bonds of every kind, even if I have reproduced in my pictures the most audacious bold erotic perversions, I in fact hate violence and lack of respect towards oneself and to others, and all forms of excess,” he said.

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