Photos: Bibs Moreno
I get off at the Pershing Square station and wander past fruit carts and felted portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The building I approach is half-covered in murals. A woman’s head pops out one of the unassuming windows and I open up my hands to the sky. She tosses a pair of keys from the second story window and come through the side entrance.
Two floors up, above a gated shop that blends in with the surrounding small businesses and wholesalers in the Toy District, is the studio space of none other than Gabriela Ruiz, otherwise known as her misnomer Leather Papi.
The space is partitioned off with sheets and wooden structures. Hers is on the leftmost corner, draped in bright yellow fabric. Inside, the floor is covered in misshapen fabric samples. On the walls are printed photographs of past photoshoots and collages of inspiration for future projects. A nude cherub statue sits in the corner, painted bright red. Her arms are full of varying gold chains, pieces for an upcoming performance of hers.
Her studio space makes it clear; Ruiz has a lot on her plate. From sculpture, to clothing design, to modeling and performance art, she’s a perfect example of the quintessential Los Angeles renaissance woman. Though most of her expendable energy is spent on creative projects, she hasn’t always been the artist she is today.
Growing up in the valley, she lived in a, sometimes overbearingly, traditional Catholic household.
“It was really difficult being myself, being the black sheep of the family,” Ruiz said. “My family is really Mexican and traditional, it was difficult because they didn’t really understand it.”
Her art is defined by many things, but homogeneous color schemes are one of the most evident across the board.
“I become super obsessed with color and I just want to keep pushing it,” Ruiz said. “Where I’m from, Van Nuys, it’s really colorful. It’s really Mexican-inspired and when I went back to Mexico you see everything is so colorful. Just accidentally, the colors collide and they look so beautiful and so vibrant.”
Her obsession with pigmentation is unmistakable in her pieces. Her exhibition “Haus” depicted monochrome rooms, each filled with furnishings created by Ruiz. She’s often found in full body paint, actualizing herself as a certain hue.
In some instances, the color that Ruiz focuses on will define a period in her life. In a recent exhibition at the University of Southern California, she metaphorically ended her “red period” in a performance piece titled “Red Is Dead.”
For a long time, Ruiz’s look was defined by her bright red hair. Some took her dye back to black as a shock, but for Ruiz the transition was more meaningful than a simple exterior change.
“My red hair kept bringing back memories I didn’t want to deal with, and I was going through a lot of stuff when I had red hair,” Ruiz said. “I feel like your hair carries a lot of energy and I felt like, with the hair color, I was carrying everything from the past year.”
She dyed her hair black on December 31 of 2017, to symbolize the end of her red period and to define her new beginning.
“My red period was so intense. I went through so much and I feel like I grew up from that red experience.”
During the performance, Ruiz attached a multi-foot braid to her black hair, with the other half attached to her co-performer. The two battled it out during the performance, her performer representing the alter ego and negative energy that had been dragging her down during the previous year. The piece was accompanied with music from a cellist, sound mixing, and intense 3D images of Ruiz fucking herself. At the end, she defeated, paralleling her perseverance through the personal struggle that had plagued her.
The performance itself, and that fact that it had come into fruition through the invitation of a reputable university, gave new light to Ruiz’s perception of being an artist.
“That kind of legitimized me. I can do performance art. I was given the chance by an institution to prove my myself,” Ruiz said. “I was really thankful for that.”
Besides her performance art, her current work is defined by the use of spray-painted insulating foam. Though her work may take on a distinct air now, she doesn’t confine herself to any specific mode or medium when it comes to art.
“I think you grow as a person and your art does the same,” Ruiz said. “I’ll probably grow out of this and start doing something else. I don’t’ know, maybe I’m not. There’s some stuff that gets stuck with you.”
As with any form of expression, there will always be continuity in an artist’s work. Part of this continuity comes from the life experiences of the creator. A definitive part of Ruiz’s perception of the world comes from her parents’ migration to the United States.
You leave everything behind. You sacrifice everything for your kids. Your mentality is, if my kids are born in America, they’re going to have a chance to survive.
“I’m 26. My mom, at my age, had already had six kids. She migrated here to the US and that’s intense. That’s scary,” Ruiz said. “I just think about moving from where you’re from to get a better life.”
Ruiz starts tearing up, speaking about the immense sacrifice her parents made to give her the opportunity to live the life she does now.
“You leave everything behind. You sacrifice everything for your kids. Your mentality is, if my kids are born in America, they’re going to have a chance to survive,” Ruiz said. “That’s a lot to put on someone. It’s really hard.”
She doesn’t just worry about her parents’ experiences, but those of other immigrants whose lives are now being affected by changes in recent political policies.
“They talk about how they want to take people away, the DREAMers. I don’t talk about this stuff openly, just with my family and my brothers,” Ruiz said. “My brothers were brought here when they were seven or nine.”
“I was recently talking to him and he told me that he’s seen way worse in Mexico than he’s ever seen here in the United States,” Ruiz said. “Literally those nine years of his life, he saw worse there than the past 25 years that he’s been here.”
“I think about everything my mom had to go through. I didn’t appreciate this. When you’re younger, because you’re a teen, you don’t understand this concept of your parents coming here and literally sacrificing their lives and everything just so you can have a fucking job that pays, and a license, and not being called an immigrant. It’s really difficult.”
She feels a huge responsibility, being the child of immigrant parents, to live up to the expectations put forth by her parents, but she’s trapped between parental perceptions and staying true to her own path.
“My dad, his whole life he’s been working with paint. He’s a painter, not a drawing painter but a house painter. He’s been working with chemicals for the past 35 years and I see how messed up he is in the head,” Ruiz said. “You sacrifice your life for your kids. That’s why he wants the better for me. He thinks the best thing for me is to be heterosexual and not be an artist and be a nurse, you know? I just change change that. I can’t.”
Part of her father’s perception of Ruiz lies in his strict Catholic upbringing, one he uses to base his perception of Ruiz off of.
“I’m queer. I perform naked. I play myself as a devil,” Ruiz said. “I’m the Antichrist. For him, I’m the Antichrist.”
Her experience with this intensely critical form of Catholicism has shaped her views on religion, and on individuality as a whole. Her belief in autonomy seeps into her perception of kink, another facet of Ruiz’s personality.
“We’re humans. Not everyone is programmed the same,” Ruiz said. “You’re curious, you want to try different things. You wouldn’t just be eating hamburgers your whole life, but there are some people that can do that. Not everyone’s the same. You can’t force everyone to be into what you’re into.”
Part of Ruiz’s curiosity into the unknown and untried got her in trouble during her childhood. Rather than blossoming into extremism during her adulthood, Ruiz has always tested boundaries. Her self-expression, coming in the form of mishmash outfits that were sometimes viewed as scandalous by her peers, has always been far from the norm.
“It didn’t really start until I was in high school that I was really able to have clothing as an outlet. I would wake up every morning and I would just make random stuff and put it on a t-shirt. I never wore the same thing,” Ruiz said. “I used to get in trouble a lot for wearing inappropriate stuff. One time I found a headband in my mom’s empty pill bottle. I put Smarties on it.”
The seemingly innocent act got her sent to the dean’s office for supposed promotion of drug use. Her mom defended her self expression, but it wasn’t the last time she was called out for her wardrobe.
“I would wear t-shirts that I thought were long enough to be dresses, but they were just regular shirts,” Ruiz said. “I would wear tights and get in trouble for just wearing tights and a shirt. Like, ‘You can see your underwear,” and I was just like, “What? No, I don’t think it’s bad.’”
At the time, she was listening to bands like Mika Miko and idolizing musicians like Bjork, who she looked up to as an example of pure self-expression.
When she started creating clothing, her first piece was a screen printed t-shirt with an image of a ball gag and the caption “Callate,” which means “Shut Up” in Spanish.
Her Instagram handle and brand name “Leather Papi,” was merely a phrase in passing between friends.
“I was wearing a leather harness and [my friend and I were] taking photos in an alley,” Ruiz said. “I’m like, ‘I’m a leather daddy,’ and she jokingly said, ‘No, you’re a leather papi.’”
She posted the phrase on Instagram, and it later snowballed into her well-known tagline and brand name.
As for being Leather.Papi on the internet, Ruiz said she’s trying more now to separate herself as an artist from the brand she’s created.
“Right now I’m focusing on my art but I definitely want to make more stuff for Leather Papi,” Ruiz said. “I want to start distancing myself from Leather Papi as a brand and Gabriela as an artist. Now there are some point where [people] are like, ‘Oh, this is Leather Papi,’ and I’m like, ‘No, that’s Leather Papi. That is alter ego me. This is me.’ That’s the persona, this is literally me. I’m giving you my heart when I make art. I don’t like that, because people are used to it. I can’t change it.”
Sometimes I get pigeonholed. That’s kind of how I feel. I don’t like it because it’s hard, I don’t want to be responsible for representing.
Although she faces challenges with being defined by her online persona, she’s taking more steps towards becoming recognizable as Gabriela Ruiz, the artist. It’s a huge step for her to even call herself an artist, as she struggled with what that phrase meant for such a long time.
“I wanted to do art but I didn’t understand how. It was really hard for me,” Ruiz said. “I got really frustrated with a lot of things. I wanted to do fashion design and then I wanted to do fine art, I was like ‘Oh, I either have to done one or the other,’ but I realized that the whole thing is just one.”
Part of her newfound ease in creation was her acquisition of studio space, as she had formerly done all her work at home. “I’ve been doing everything DIY basically. I was doing everything out of my house at one point. I was screen printing, washing my screens in the shower, staining my shower, just hanging the shirts to dry randomly everywhere. That was just kind of my method,” Ruiz said. “Now with the studio, it’s nice because I have a place where I can do all my stuff. I do everything here with the hoodies and stuff, everything, I install the grommets and everything myself.”
She continues to do work, and to persevere through the sometimes chaotic circumstances of being an artist in Los Angeles. Part of maintaining her autonomy as an artist is to not allow herself to be defined and categorized into any specific genre.
“Sometimes I get pigeonholed. That’s kind of how I feel. I don’t like it because it’s hard, I don’t want to be responsible for representing,” Ruiz said. “I’m just doing me, working on myself. Everyone has issues, and I have stuff that I’m going through. To put that on someone, I don’t even know how celebrities do it, when they say, ‘You can’t act this way anymore because you’re in this movie.’ Imagine being told [what you can and can’t do], that’s crazy.”
“Maybe one day I’ll sell my soul to the Illuminati. I’m hoping they’re like, you can sit next to…. They’ll probably put me next to Iggy Azalea or some shit,” Ruiz said. “I’m like, ‘Actually, no. Nevermind.’”
Even if her future as an artist never brings her to an Illuminati-level soul sacrifice, her outlook is positive.
“There are times when I still want to give up, but I don’t want to do anything else,” Ruiz said. “The advice I would tell someone is to just do what you love and don’t give up.”