In 1933 a man was born who would grow not only into a much respected leatherman but a true Amsterdam legend. He introduced Amsterdam not only to custom made leather jeans but also male erotic art, tattoos and piercings.
Rob Meijer was born in Amsterdam but started his own leather journey only in his 40s. As many men in those days, he got decently married only to leave his wife for a man after 8 months. They would be together for 14 years. But while the leatherscene slowly emerged from it’s closet, Rob designed dresses for the XL-female. Making clothes had always been of interest to him. In military service, where he obtained the rank of sergeant, he mended boots and shoes. Later on he got into the clothing business, but the fabric called ‘leather’ wasn’t on his mind yet.
At the beginning of the 70s, Rob met a sculpture artist named Nigel Kent whom he fell in love with. This relationship would change his life forever while by request of his boyfriend to be at home more often, Rob decided to design leather jeans in the evening hours. His work became so popular that he soon resigned from his former job and opened a little leather & leather attributes store on the Rozengracht. When he and Nigel split up, Rob moved his shop to the ground floor and basement of Weteringschans 273. Yet, while his love for Nigel ended, his love for art didn’t.
Apart from his leather gear shop, he started an art gallery called “Rob Gallery” which featured male erotic art, a novelty on the European art gallery scene. The idea for the gallery came after Rob had a portrait made of himself and wanted to celebrate it with a party. He wrote Tom of Finland about how much he would love to have his work in his shop to which the artist replied by sending about ten drawings. The first exhibition was held in 1978 and showed more Tom of Finland work as well as work by some other artists as Rob found it very important to present and promote more than one artist with the exhibitions.
Tom of Finland might be credited as gay male artthese days, Rob chose not to advertise with that term back then. The homosexual aspect of the male erotic art exposed only lay in the eye of the beholder, according to Rob himself. In response to questions raised by the press he also questioned the terms ‘pornography’ and ‘high art’:”One could say I bring ‘high art’ but one could also say that it is ‘high pornography’. Pornography is a horrible word, because what’s pornography actually? When for example Picasso paints something erotic it isn’t porn anymore but art. That’s madness!”[1. ‘Rob Meijer (1933-1990), een opmerkelijke man’, Hans Hafkamp in Gaynews, 1995.] Later in life he is to be said that any work exposed in his gallery transgressed pornography. Eroticism and erotic tension were what he was looking for.
Rob Meijer did not only feature art on the walls of his shop, he also imported the art called ‘tattoo’. With this, he is said to have set a trend in the city. And with tattoos came piercings, another form of art which Rob greatly loved.
As we all know, Leather and BDSM are not necessarily linked. In Rob’s life they clearly were, yet he saw leather firstly as a fetish which could add to bdsm-play and wasn’t very fond of rough violent hard S&M acts. Rob Meijer was a man who valued the subtlety and mental aspects of bdsm play. And he enjoyed it a great deal, especially when he could be the boss. In the end, he saw his role as bdsm master/top/Dom – or whatever you want to call it – as an attitude in life and a challenge to make no mistakes.
His interest in bdsm and his taste for theatre and art led him to the Satan’s Church where he functioned as a high priest. This role did not reflect his beliefs though, as he would always state that he only loved the theatrical aspects of the Church’s ceremonies because they were sensational and made him horny too.
Rob was often featured in press articles on bdsm during the 80s, often he is referred to as ‘the high priest of sadomasochism’. With his openness about his lifestyle and his message that bdsm was not just about violent rough action but much more about the mental aspect, and his statements about the value of warmth and tenderness in S&M-relationships he greatly contributed to the social acceptation of and a greater tolerance towards sadomasochism. His openness and message even got him the emancipation prize of the radio show M/V magazine in 1981. The motivation of the jury led to a little controversy as it stated that Rob was ‘an example for straight men’ or as journalist Bernadette de Wit argumented:”First of all for his open attitudewhich has given leather- and S&M-culture much pride and self confidence. The second reason is even more important. To me Rob is an example of positive masculinity. He is very tough, very masculine but human and warm at the same time. I wish all heterosexual men saw Rob as an example of how to be a man without looking down upon women or denying femininity.”[2. ‘Rob Meijer (1993-1990), een opmerkelijke man, Hans Hafkamp in Gaynews, 1995.] The winner was happily surprised and accepted his prize in all modesty.
Yet, while the man who produced male erotic art catalogues and who put willing slave boys on display in a cage in his shop had been fierce and of strong physique, the man who got so much appraisal on the radio was of ill health. Infected with HIV his physique decayed, but his mentality stayed strong until the very end. In fact in 1988 Rob bought a new building on the Weteringschans and showed an optimistic spirit valuing the little things in life and his love for his boyfriend Dai Evans.
Dai talked about his relationship with Rob to Gay & Night Magazine in 1989:“There are two or three phases. The first phase, years ago, when I met Rob was very special. Due to a course for my job at Shell I was staying in Scheveningen for 6 weeks. I came to the shop in Amsterdam because I wanted a cockstrap withthose little pins on the inside. He didn’t have them in stock and told me to come back the following week. We met in a bar and slowly a relationship developed. In the beginning it was all very sexual. The night after an evening of hard sex, before we knew we would become lovers, we were laying aside and he asked me:”What do you want, sex or love?” And I answered:”I think I want a little bit of both.” That’s about were it begun.
I got transferred and ended up in Amsterdam the one week and the other in London or New York. We travelled a lot and living together with Rob didn’t come up in our conversations. My boss in New York suspected I had a boyfriend in Amsterdam and each time when I had to travel to London my trip could be combined with a visit to Amsterdam.
We then started a gallery in New York and I was slowly introduced into the company which wasn’t always very easy for me. (…) A new life slowly opened for me. Every weekend the gallery was open, I met gay men and Rob came to visit. We developed a different kind or relationship because how hard I worked it was always Rob they wanted to see. I found that often difficult. (…) The third phase began at the end of my time in New York. We talked about how we had beentogether for six, seven years even though we didn’t live together and Rob said:”Listen, we have to decide: do we want to stay friends or do we want to continue as lovers? If we’re going to continue as lovers we’ll have to decide where we’re going to live.” We seriously considered Rob’s moving to New York, but soon enough we came to the conclusion that Rob’s reputation was founded in Amsterdam. At the same time I knew that there wasn’t a future anymore for me at Shell. (…)
The first two years, living with Rob was rather hard. Before I had been living in the shadow of Rob, now I also had to live in the same house. That shadow was much darker. But one works on it and gets over it. We are now two people who stand so close to each other as two people ever can.”[3. ‘De Hogepriester van het Sadomasochisme’, Hans Hafkamp in Gay & Night, 1989.]
The buying of the new building at the Weteringschans might have shown Rob Meijer’s optimistic spirit, in reality nor Rob nor Dai wished to talk about their diagnosis. To the outside they kept their heads high, it simply couldn’t be talked about. Needless to say, this caused some distress to the RoB crew – which then consisted of about 7 people (4 men and 3 women).
The question of what to do with the business after Rob and Dai had gone couldn’t be posed. As an out and proud man, Rob didn’t want to discuss the topic. The atmosphere at RoB decayed and the team was under a lot of stess due to the growing illness of its owners who often spent time in hospitals. Rob had serious trouble with his sight, Dai had trouble with remembering things which caused him not to be able to do the bookkeeping anymore.
Dai’s health was worse than Rob’s. While Rob was released from hospital at the end of 1989, Dai’s health was further decaying. Eventually Dai died early in January 1990, shortly after Rob had stopped by to say goodbye to his lover who due to his illness even had trouble recognizing him. After Dai’s death, Rob’s spirit revived shortly. The constant care and worry about his lover had caused a lot of stress, but now that Dai was gone he took on his business again. This went well for a few months when Rob’s energy seemed endless, making plans for this and that, coming up with new ideas…untill he was taken into hospital again. Only eleven weeks after his lover, Rob died on the 7th of April.
Picture credits:Permission to use the picture of RoB and Dai was obtained from the Tom of Finland Foundation.