From the mid 1970s until the late 1990s, the Times Square area hosted three completely illegal, outrageous and brazen gay whore houses:  The Gaiety, Show Palace and Eros.  Show Palace and Eros survived until the late 90s, The Gaiety hung on–thanks to the patronage of many influential and prominent Manhattanites–through March of 2005.  But even with the patronage of icons of the New York performing arts world and several entertainment industry moguls, the Internet ultimately proved to be too fierce of a competitor and Denise the very professional and always courteous Greek lady who owned this establishment shuttered the doors, collected her Drachmas and retired to Lesbos (not actually Lesbos, but you get the idea) after 30 years of peddling boys to men.

The cover story that allowed the authorities to turn a blind eye to these whorehouses was simple.  They were not whorehouses; they were burlesque houses where boys would strip, dance and display their merchandise.  No liquor was served and the”theaters” fell under the protection of Off-Broadway regulations.

The shows ranged from Broadway quality choreography to raunchy simulations of sexual prowess.  But during “intermission” and between shows, the performers would retire to the lounge to mingle with audience members. Depending on the price, services were rendered in hallways, backstage, in local hotel rooms or at the residence of the more well-heeled patrons.

Each house also catered to very specific tastes and wallets.  The Eros and the Show Palace were on low rent Eighth Avenue in the shadow of the main bus terminal.  The Gaiety was only just around the corner from it’s sleazier cousins , but the Gaiety was on Broadway. For better or worse, The Gaiety was part of the Great White Way.

At one point the Gaiety even achieved a bizarre degree of chic and became a regular haunt for Madonna–who eventually did much of the photography for her notorious SEX book (1992) at the Gaiety with many of the more popular Gaiety dancers.

Gaiety dancers were mostly very beautiful white boys, ranging from serious Midwestern white bread types to South American hunks with a very large contingent of French Canadian studs (the Brazil of the North.)  These boys were right off the pages of fashion and muscle magazines.

Show Palace dancers were almost exclusively African-American tripods.  Many were downright ugly but all of them had the most freakishly enormous penises imaginable.  Thursday afternoons were a special treat.  The dancers would compete to see who could jerk off on the audience first.  The music would blare and the dancers would call on willing audience members to provide a helpful hand, finger or tongue.  It was gross, disgusting, vile and stinky.  A great time was always had by all.

Eros dancers were stereotypical El Barrio types.  Unlike the Gaiety dancer who’s primary prop was an erection, Eros dancers would perform theme shows incorporating props such as chains, ponchos, “Indian garb”, chaps and whips. Some of them would even have little sets depicting some kind of scene like bullfights and prisons.

But I digress.  This story is supposed to be about art and muses. My apologies.

Within this 20th Century Toulouse Lautrec gay world I met a prostitute who would become one of my favorite artists and good friends.  Actually, it’s unfair to call Jose-Luis Cortes a prostitute.  He is a successful painter with a very dark muse.  Jose-Luis’s work hangs in New York’s El Museo del Barrio, a prominent art museum in Puerto Rico and is shown in galleries in Manhattan, Tokyo and Vienna.

Jose-Luis paints within the framework of an odd lifestyle pattern.  He performs intense gay S&M scenes for public audiences (Eros, gay clubs, private parties, etc.) that incorporate his art.  At the end of each show he sells himself as a gay sex slave and disappears with his purchaser/master for at least three days and sometimes up to two weeks. Crack and coke play a large part in these experiences. He then emerges from these episodes and paints without interruption for several weeks. We (his friends) never expect him to return assuming this will be the time he will permanently disappear only to wash ashore dead on the banks  of the East River.  We make him promise to never do this again; he promises he won’t. The false promises and pretense are, I suppose, part of the scene and the muse.

At one point he was invited to stage a series of such S&M sex shows in a Viennese art gallery. He remained in Austria for three months, sold a ton of paintings, and became the most famous Puerto Rican in Austria…probably the only Puerto Rican in Austria.  Certainly, he is the most famous and successful graduate of Eros.

Jose-Luis is also HIV+ and has been waiting to die for over twenty years.  This has very much driven his habits and his art.  He goes on and off meds, on and off crack and cocaine and as of today, he is alive and well and still contributing his unique perspective to the world of art.  I’m not saying I approve of any of this, I’m just saying it is.

He works in a disturbingly fragile medium, painting on newsprint–primarily The New York Times. He very much enjoys the idea that his paintings will mostly age and crumble leaving little record of  his life. He paints his life and has captured glimpses of the lost and almost forgotten sex trade of Times Square, dark nights at an S&M sex club called The Lure, and the rough world of crack and prostitution.