Orpheus in Leather: Amsterdam’s Fetish Club Scene
It’s still daylight outside - an uncharacteristically warm, sunny Amsterdam spring day, as a matter of fact. But here in this little chamber with black walls and a drain in the middle of the concrete floor, it’s dark. Michael Roks, the amiable fellow by my side, calls it "the bathroom," but I’m confused. A pervasive odor of urine clings to the air yet the only urinals I note are cartoonish versions painted on the walls. Then Michael points to the square tub built into the corner. "Men, they sit in there," he explains in his thick, charming Dutch accent, "and then - you see up there?"
I crane my neck, peering at the small grate set into the ceiling above the tub. "Uh-huh..." I’m beginning to get it.
"The men up there in the room, they piss down on the man below, in the tub."
"OH! Oh, wow," I stammer. I’m more than a little shocked and slightly intrigued. Am I actually even titillated, I wonder? I’m in Dirty Dicks, one of Amsterdam’s most infamous gay leather/fetish bars, to learn about the scene. If I didn’t feel like a stranger in a strange land, I wouldn’t be doing my job.
Roks, who manages both this bar and the Eagle next door, finishes showing me around. The decor is post-apocalyptic but everything is so clean it gleams. There are two floors with dark rooms and cabins, plus slings and a St. Andrew’s cross. Reputedly, there’s something called "a fist and fuck launcher - for four guys in a row," but I don’t think I see it. Or maybe I do and don’t recognize it. I’m sure it all gets a good workout during Dirty Dicks’ special events, which include monthly golden shower, fisting and naked dark-cruising parties. Dirty Dicks is what Michael terms "sleazier" than the Eagle.
When I ask him what he means by "sleazier," he says, "Well, for example, you see guys fucking at the bar."
Amsterdam, I am fast learning, more than lives up to its reputation as the place where vice is nice.
To be fair, the Netherlands’ capital is much more than sex shows, fetish bars and cafes filled with pot smoke haze. It boasts the culture of Paris and the beauty (and canals) of Venice, along with superb restaurants, stellar shopping and a rich, fascinating history. And yet, there’s all that decadence begging to be explored. Amsterdam has long been known as a bastion of freewheeling liberalism, a city where personal freedom is paramount and the good times never end. And for more than half a century, it has also been home to one of the most vibrant leather scenes on the planet.
A Legacy of Leather
According to Pieter Claeys, Mr. Leather Europe 2009 and a leather historian who runs the site www.leatherhistory.eu, the European leather culture first found footing during the mid 20th century in the cities of Berlin, London and Amsterdam. "In Amsterdam, it really started in 1956, when Sako Jan Tiemersma and Anton Johan Kennedy opened the Hotel Tiemersma, which was aimed at sailors and gay friends of theirs," Claeys explains. The pension was located on Warmoesstraat, the oldest street in the city and still ground zero for Amsterdam’s leather and fetish nightlife. It quickly began attracting leather-clad, ber-macho men looking for the same.
"What I’ve read is that visitors brought the leather style," continues Claeys. "You had the biker culture in California, and you had gay men into S&M. And that kind of got fused, this whole idea of masculinity and men into S&M. That’s where leather culture originated from. They adopted the biker style. You know, the first dark room in Europe was the cellar of the Tiemersma, because it was dark, it was humid and you had urinals there. The hotel rooms didn’t have bathrooms. Everyone had to go downstairs to take a leak, and that’s where they met each other."
In 1965, Tiemersma and Kennedy opened the Argos a few blocks away. It was the first leather bar on the continent, an outgrowth of the little tavern they operated at the hotel out of their kitchen. Eventually Argos would come under new ownership; in 1976 it moved to Warmoesstraat. Although Hotel Tiemersma had been shuttered a few years earlier, the street was fast becoming the center of leather life. In 1974, Dirty Dicks opened there and the Eagle followed suit in 1979.
Today, in addition to Argos, Dirty Dicks and the Eagle, the Warmoesstraat offers two leather/fetish gear shops: RoB Amsterdam, founded by the late Rob Meijer, a renowned figure who also ran a controversial gallery dedicated to male erotic art, and Mr. B. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Mr. B is a massive, multilevel emporium with congenial salespeople who offer shoppers apple juice to sip on while browsing and occasionally hang submissive men upside down by their feet to the delight of passersby. There are also tamer establishments located on the street, such as the Warehouse, a dance club with a cruising area that opened last summer, and Getto, a beloved bar/restaurant that hosts musical performances, variety shows and tarot card readings.
Other leather/fetish-oriented bars sprinkled throughout central Amsterdam include the Cuckoo’s Nest, now 30 years old and with a mammoth cruising labyrinth in the basement said to be one of Europe’s largest; the Web, in operation since 1986, with 10 individual cabins and a location not far from the Nest; and Spijker, a small bar opened in 1978 that’s far less leather focused these days, but still sports an upstairs cruise area. Spijker is just a few blocks from Thermos, the city’s oldest gay sauna. And then there’s the new kid on the block, Club Church.
A Church for Sinners
When it opened in 2008, Church was unique: a cruise club that offered different fetish-themed parties. "We’d organized sex parties in the Eagle and elsewhere for years, so we had a lot of experience," notes Richard Keldoulis, Church’s owner. "And we wanted to start organizing other parties as well, like underwear parties and sportswear parties, so we started looking for our own venue. It kind of all fell into our hands. Depending on the night, it’s really anything goes. It’s funny because there was a woman in Church a couple of months ago; she was saying ’Oh yeah, it’s so free, people walking around without their shirts on!’ I mean, come on - so many people walk around naked!"
Every Tuesday at Church is k!nk night, with fist and fuck, fetish and S&M, and golden shower evenings rotating weekly. Experienced men to beginners are welcome, and the dress code is kinky, fetish, naked or jockstrap. There are several levels of play areas, a good-sized dance floor, private cabins, slings and showers galore. According to Keldoulis, who also co-owns NZ, a sleek new sauna that launched last December not far from Central Station, Church is going gangbusters, with upward of 1,000 people through the door every week and each year building on the success of the last.
Yet there have been whispers that until recently the Amsterdam leather scene was in a bit of a decline. The reasons for the slump appear to have been myriad. In 2010, Paul Wierks, who owned both Dirty Dicks and the Eagle, died while vacationing in Florida. The next day, a major fire swept through the latter bar, forcing its closure. That same year, Sjoerd Kooistra, proprietor of several bars on the more mainstream Reguliersdwarsstraat, committed suicide, shuttering those establishments. "The general attitude from City Hall in Amsterdam for the last decade has been to discourage new erotic or fetish spaces," says Keldoulis. "That’s what we experienced with Church. They were not happy to have a new dark room, and we got all these letters trying to shut us down."
It all sounds like it might be a long way from the Amsterdam leather scene’s halcyon days back in the 1970s, when new bars were opening left and right, the Motor Sportclub Amsterdam (MSA) was established to give the city’s leathermen a better chance to meet, and everyone caroused at colossal warehouse parties thrown by the infamous LL-bar. But Keldoulis believes: "The tide is turning. The city council really helped us with the long process obtaining all the necessary licenses for the new sauna. I think the general negative view from council about sex-on-premises venues is changing. And with the new blood in the scene, like Michael from Eagle, there’s a new sense of cooperation, something that has long been missing."
The Scene’s Savior
Roks is indisputably one of the scene’s primary movers and shakers. Last year, he founded both Amsterdam Bear Pride and Amsterdam Fetish Pride, which by all accounts were smash successes. Roks’ cooperation with other leather/fetish organizations, businesses and events extends past his own Fetish and Bear Prides.
For Leather Pride, an older festival that has run every October or November since 1996, he works with BLUF (Breeches and Leather Uniform Fanclub) Amsterdam. They offer upward of nine workshops in bondage, whipping, electro, puppy play and more at Dirty Dicks and the Eagle. The workshops are typically scheduled during the day for up to 25 people and always sell out. Both Mister Rubber Nederland and Mister B occasionally hold events in the bars as well.
"Of course, other bars like the Web, Church, Cuckoo’s Nest and Argos are competitors, but I have a good contact with them, and it is important to let them join in Fetish Pride and Bear Pride. In the early days, people in the leather scene didn’t work together. Now the managers work together to attract people, and it’s much better. It’s easier."
I’m sitting in the Eagle, the sun long gone from the sky, getting the lowdown from Roks on his enlightened business philosophy. I’m also sneaking peeks around me. Tonight’s theme is "Young Eagle," a party with no dress code that’s meant to encourage newbies who otherwise might be too intimidated to give the fetish scene a try.
There are only a few guys here, and they aren’t sporting any leather apparel, but it’s early yet. Because the Eagle has a club license, it can stay open until 4 a.m. during the week and until 5 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. That usually means things don’t get cooking until one or so. As I peer around me I notice I’m attracting a few quizzical glances. Both the Eagle and Dirty Dicks are strictly men-only establishments and Michael has told me, half-seriously, that I’m only the third woman to pass through the door.
I’m flattered. In fact, I’m so flattered - and charmed by Michael, and anxious to see a leatherman - that I really want to stick around. But tonight is Blue at Church, a kinder, gentler party that women are invited to attend, and I promised Richard I’d swing by. Who knows ... maybe I’ll make my way back to the Eagle later. It’s 12:30 a.m. on a Friday in Amsterdam, a city where anything is possible, and the night is just beginning.