Designer and Artist Leather Papi on Sex Positivity, Kink, and Upending Expectations

Gabriela Ruiz, also known as Leather Papi at the opening of her solo show 'Haus.' Photo by David Vassalli. Courtesy of Leather Papi

Gabriela Ruiz, also known as “Leather Papi” is a multi-disciplinary artist, designer and model based in LA. Her work is a mix of kink, queer and Mexican iconography. She screen prints, sews, and embellishes – sometimes while wearing green body paint – and recently had her first solo show at the Little Tokyo Art Complex. We sat down with Ruiz to hear about her unique aesthetic, and the inspirations that inform her work.

Gabriela Ruiz also know as Leather Papi. Photo Courtesy of Leather Papi
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When did you start Leather Papi and what inspired it?
I started Leather Papi in 2014, because I wanted to make things that I was into and that I knew other people were into. I was trying to figure out how to combine my background, as a queer Mexican, with my interests in sex positivity and kink. I started off by making two designs, and it grew after people asked what was happening next. Then I asked myself “What is happening next?” and I decided to dedicate [myself]to it and make it my brand and my full-time job.

“I would literally go to CalArts and pretend to be a student, just to obtain the access to resources and spaces.”

Did you study art and design?
I took a few courses in community college for fashion design and fine art, but I never completed anything. It was difficult for me as the first person in my family to have gone to college to really try to figure out what I wanted to do and to follow that path. I had friends going to CalArts Center who were paying so much money for school, so I tried to follow their lead but I couldn’t afford it. [Instead] I found ways to use their resources. I would literally go into their classes and pretend to be a student, just to obtain the access to resources and spaces. One friend really helped me when I started Leather Papi by teaching me how to screen print, so that was a big help.

That’s really punk-rock of you, and makes Leather Papi very personal. Is it important to you that your operation and brand is very DIY?
Yes, it is very important, because I want to feel like everything I make is part of me. I’m actually crafting it and not mass producing it. Every piece is one of a kind and different because I screen print everything by hand, it’s an intimate process. When I first started this I was exposing screens in a bathroom with a light bulb. I just had to come up with resources because I didn’t have the money to buy everything I needed. I saw other people producing and saw what they had available to them, and I had to figure out how to source those things for myself without spending all the money.

Leather Papi’s ‘Pay Up’ gloves. Photo by Bibs Moreno. Courtesy of Leather Papi
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Leather Papi’s ‘Pay Up’ gloves and pierced hoodie. Photo by Bibs Moreno. Courtesy of Leather Papi
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Leather Papi’s pierced hoodie. Photo by Bibs Moreno. Courtesy of Leather Papi
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I personally think your brand reflects the culture and spirit of LA, and maybe that’s a side of LA that a lot of people don’t know about because they just think of Hollywood and Melrose. How do you think your work has been shaped by being from LA?
LA is many types of things, but being Latino you get stereotyped into being one type of Latino, and there are so many more subcultures. There’s goth, there’s ravers, there’s punks and metalheads, the Lolitas and so many different things people identify as. I don’t want to be [boxed] into being one type of Mexican or Chicana, because we’re versatile, and that’s what I want to express. Growing up here, I was into so many different scenes. I went to punk shows, I went to raves, I went to house parties –  you don’t just do one thing. In LA you’re constantly exposed to many different scenes and the inspiration by people and things is constant.

“There are so many Latino subcultures. There’s goth, there’s ravers, there’s punks and metalheads, the Lolitas…”

What are your biggest influences for Leather Papi?
Porn [laughs]. Definitely kink and queer culture.

You recently came under some fire because of Instagram’s censorship policies and your account was deleted. Can you tell us more about that?
My friend Dicko Chan is doing a series called “Femme Erotica,” and he took such a beautiful photo of me. So I posted it and people started reporting it. I’m not trying to offend anyone, I’m using this platform as an artist, as a form of expression. Everyone has the right to express themselves freely and positively. Not everyone is going to like what i do, but there’s no need to put negativity onto others.

What was the idea behind your solo show?
The building that my studio is in (Little Tokyo Art Complex) highlights a different member every month, and I was chosen for the month of July. I don’t have access to a gallery, or money to spend on a space so it was such an incredible opportunity to be given this space to use. I figured if I was going to get this opportunity I might as well go big. I make installations and sculptures, and very few people know this. This was my opportunity to showcase a different side of my talent.

The concept was a house filled with sculptures for different rooms. I think a house is very intimate, and I wanted it to be almost a housewarming, but for my art and the different layers of me. Each room was monochromatic because I really love working with color. I curated and built everything in the house by myself or with the help of my friends and family. I want to show people that you don’t need a degree to be an artist. It’s just finding your own resources and expressing yourself.

It looked like the show was a huge success and people really loved interacting with it. Some artists came and collaborated with you in the installation. Can you tell us about that?
The turnout was really good, I didn’t expect so many people to come. The week the installation was up a lot of people contacted me to come and see it. A bunch of different fashion brands came and shot in the space, including Gypsy Sport. It felt really amazing to see other artists appreciating what I made and finding their own ways to interact with it.

Instillations from Leather Papi’s opening solo show ‘Haus.’ Photos by Gia Azevedo. Courtesy ofLeather Papi
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What are you goals and plans for Leather Papi for the next few years?
I want to take it further design-wise, making full-on garments and exploring new designs and craftsmanship. I want to see it blow the fuck up, to be honest. I just need capital to make that happen. Jeffrey Campbell recently gave me a shout out on their Instagram and it was so validating to see that brands can recognize my brand and the artistry behind it. I would really love to collaborate more with other designers and brands in the near future who appreciate my aesthetic.

Leather Papi will be throwing a fundraiser on August 11th to raise money to come to NYC’s DragCon. Learn more about the event here, and follow her on Instagram at @shopleatherpapi and @leather.papi

Leather Papi at the opening of her solo show ‘Haus.’ Photo by David Vassalli. Courtesy of the Leather Papi
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