Thursday, January 26, 2006

With Whips, Hardware He Makes “Art That Can Hurt You”

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Mark O’Keefe has been a prominent figure in the San Diego Leather-S/M community for over a decade — he was Mr. San Diego Leather in 1997 and helped organize many of the annual Leatherfests when they were still held here — but in the last couple of years he’s developed an unusual sideline. He’s taken up abstract painting with an unusual tool: whips. Billed on his Web site,, as “art that can hurt you” — a slogan he and his friend Michael McKeon worked out — his paintings are made with whips as his brushes. O’Keefe’s works are strong, slashing abstracts, many of them surprisingly small (his canvases are usually one foot square, though he’s worked on larger ones) and often decorated with bits of metal from hardware stores.

O’Keefe showed some of his “art that can hurt you” at the San Diego League of Gentlemen’s January 6 meeting, which featured various merchants in the Leather community exhibiting their wares. Zenger’s interviewed him at his University Heights apartment five days later.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you telling a little about yourself, your background, and how you got into all of this: being Gay, being part of the Leather community, and being an artist?

Mark O’Keefe: I grew up in Pennsylvania. I was born on June 16, 1964. I came from a very poor family — two brothers and a mother — and had a pretty normal wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid’s life.

When I was 7 I had an uncle who went to Texas and brought me back a black-and-white wooden-handled whip. I learned to play with it, to crack it and hit targets with it. I didn’t think much of that; I just played with it for a while, like every seven-year-old, and then threw it to the side. A few years later, I had a dog that found the whip and chewed it all up. So it was kind of ruined at that point. Years later, when I was doing a scene with someone, all of that information came back, and it was like an epiphany.” I had completely forgotten about that until I had this realization during a scene and thought, “Oh, O.K., this is where all that started.”

When I was about 18 or 19, I had a boyfriend that I used to tie up. That was when I started getting into the scene. I mean, I’d had fantasies much younger than that, probably at 12, 13, 14. But it started to come out more when I turned 18. That’s when I look at the start of it because I physically did something to someone else at that point. So I’ve been in the scene for 23 years at this point. That’s a long time.
In 1986, when I was 21, I moved to San Diego and started with the Leather scene here, because there wasn’t much in Pennsylvania. I used to go to the old Pecs a long time ago, with Dennis Long. In 1988 I got clean and sober, and in 1989 I got involved in the Knights on Iron. I don’t know if you remember them. They were the clean and sober Gay motorcycle club here in town.

We had a fundraiser, a Leather boat cruise that went around the bay, and I was put in charge of doing all the coordinating for that. It came out in the black, and after that I started getting involved with Leatherfest. A friend of mine, Bob Goldfarb, asked me to help him out with it, so I did. The next year he put me in charge. I was the co-director for Leatherfest III, IV, V, VI, VII. For Leatherfest VIII I did registration, so I was still on the staff. In 1997, I took a break to run for Mr. San Diego Leather, which I won, and then I co-directed again for Leatherfest X.

Zenger’s: How would you explain the appeal of S/M to you to someone who isn’t part of the scene?

O’Keefe: I would say that it’s part of my core being, as opposed to something I learned along the way. There’s always been an S/M side for me. It’s a part of my makeup, just like being Gay is part of my makeup, whereas being clean and sober is something I learned to do. Some of what I do in the Leather community is also learned. learned to do different things in the Leather community. Other things, like knife play and canes, I’ve learned along the way. But whipping is a pretty core thing for me.

I started using whips full-time in 1990. I had a friend in San Francisco say to me, “Well, what do you want to learn about?” I said, “How about whips?” He said, ”O.K.,” and I picked it up really naturally, probably because of using them when I was a kid. So I started buying more whips and experimenting more, setting up more scenes, and learning a lot about them. I’ve had a lot of experience since then, almost 16 years of continuous whipping.

So almost two years ago, after I moved back to San Diego from spending two years in Oregon, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to whip a piece of canvas?” A friend of mine, Michael McKeon, who’s also an artist, gave me a great deal of encouragement to try this. He said, “You can use my backyard to paint,” because I really couldn’t do it in my apartment. I thought, “Well, the paint’s going to kind of go all over” — which it does.

I started out with canvas two years ago. I can tell by the progress of what I’ve done that things have changed along the way. It’s not just whipping canvas and coming up with pretty colors anymore. There’s sometimes a concept or a feeling behind it.

Originally some of the paintings were really flat, but when I started pulling from my darker side, my S/M side, that changed. I did some where the themes behind them were corsets, and I had one that was done with the intention of piercing, kind of with the hanky-code colors. Also, sometimes what kind of hardware I put on them will change the whole concept.

Zenger’s: Had you been involved in art before that? Have you done more conventional kinds of paintings?

O’Keefe: I had not painted before. I had drawn a little bit and used charcoals when I was a kid. I was kind of an artist at heart as a kid, but I had not really done painting or anything like that. Also, at one point in my life I studied special-effects makeup artistry. So there’s always been art in my life, whether it’s appreciating it or doing it myself. I’ve also been working on an art history degree for a couple of years now.

Zenger’s: When people look at your work, do they absorb it as just another abstract painter, or can they guess without your prompting how these paintings are done?

O’Keefe: It depends. People who are into the scene and know me know how it’s been done. Most people are quite surprised when I tell them that it is done with a whip, so I don’t think people outside of the Leather community quite “get it.” They do just think they’re abstracts, but once I tell them they’re done with a whip, they’re amazed, going. “How can you do this with a whip?”

Most of them are abstract because I’m limited with what I can do with the whips. I can’t make circles and things like that. Everything has to be straight lines. It all depends on color and placement. [He points to a painting on his wall that’s a stylized representation of a tree.] That 30” x 30” canvas took around 20 hours to do, because there was no color on that canvas before I started. \Every color that you see on there is color that I put into it.

Zenger’s: How do you maintain control? That’s the part I think would amaze most people: how can you control the whips well enough to get the colors where you want them?

O’Keefe: I like to joke and say that I can hit the side of a barn, but actually I have really, really good aim, which is one of the things that I’ve always worked on. Not only is hitting a canvas that’s only 12” x 12” or smaller and making things come where you want them to go hard to do in itself, but when you’re playing with a person, you only have a limited amount of space too. So doing that for so many years, I had a really good aim, and that was able to give me enough control to put it on the canvas.

I mean, sometimes the 12” x 12” canvases are big compared to some of the spaces I do on a person. But on most people, their back is going to be pretty much that same size space. On trying to get the color where I want it to go, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Because there are really no mistakes in art, it could be intentionally placed there — which most of the time my paintings are — but once in a while I’ll have something that will fly off into a wrong section, and there’s not much I can do about that.

Zenger’s: And probably some of your partners would say, “Better it fly off into a wrong section on canvas than on me.”

O’Keefe: Right, right. It’s been kind of a learning process. I know how it affects the body, but canvas doesn’t talk back to me. Actually, because I’m able to see what it’s done after I’ve put the color on it, in a sense it does talk to me, just like a person.

Zenger’s: How do you get the paint on the whips in the first place?

O’Keefe: It depends on the color. If I have to mix the color, I’ll do that on a paper plate and then run the whip through it. I’ll use a plastic knife to make sure it all gets on the end, on the cracker part of the whip. If I want it to spray, I just whip at that point. But most of the time I don’t like the spray, so I’ll just knock off the first two strokes and throw them to the side. That way I get a clean strike with the next three or four, and then I have to reload. A lot of it is like pointillism. I like to call it “whipillism.”

Zenger’s: Do you know if there’s anybody else doing paintings with whips?

O’Keefe: Not that I’m aware of. I’m just trying to put my name out there a little bit, and maybe someone will like what they see. I’m having fun doing it, so that’s the point to it. I really enjoy doing it. But I haven’t heard of anyone else doing it at all.

Zenger’s: What inspired you to come up with the slogan “art that can hurt you”?

O’Keefe: Some of the metal that I put on the pieces is hardware that I get at hardware stores. One day I was playing with the concept of using barbed wire, and saying that would be “art that can hurt you.” My friend Michael, who actually designed my Web site, said, “That’s great.” I said, “O.K., well then let’s use that.”

To contact Mark O’Keefe about his “art that can hurt you,” e-mail him at or visit his Web site,