The Phallus Palace
“It’s my morning ritual,” says the collector. “I get a cup of coffee and open up eBay and Etsy. I’ve bought two or three penises before most people's alarm clocks have gone off.”
The collector, who wishes not to reveal his name, lives in an $850-a-month rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side—the same place he’s resided since 1977. The spacious, railroad-style abode has seen its fair share of collections come and go over the past twenty-four years. First, he collected various versions of the five of spades, from playing card decks. Then, it was misters—anything to do with the word “mister,” be it Coffee, Clean or T. There was also the series of devils and a collection of Nancy comic strip paraphernalia—that androgynous, hollow-eyed, Brillo-haired girl made famous by Ernie Bushmiller. But in the end, one collection stood high above the rest: penises.
There are well over a thousand pieces of penis-related art in his home, and yes, the collection is growing on a daily basis.
Upon entering the apartment, the first penis you will most likely notice is a winged phallus hanging from the entrance to the living room. After that, your eyes may settle upon the upward curve of a bronze coat hanger, the drawing of a little boy peeing into Humpty Dumpty’s mouth, or the statue of David above a toilet. The collector’s apartment is a cacophony of cocks. A deluge of dicks. A plethora of penii.
Standing 6’2” with snow-white hair, the collector, age 58, admits that even he has to be careful not to hit his head on some of the low-hanging fruit when moving about his apartment.
“You should see the faces on the delivery guys when they come up. I open the door to get my food, and they get a glimpse inside. Dicks everywhere! You can see their eyes widen, and then they always take this tiny step backwards. I live for the day when a hapless religious proselytizer makes the mistake of knocking on my door.”
Alas, the rest of us will most likely not have a chance to see the apartment. The collector chose to remain anonymous for this article not because he is embarrassed of the sexual content of his collection (“I have no shame, and I love the shock effect,” he says), but because he would like to avoid having random people tracking him down for a viewing.
“I like that it’s a private collection. It’s just for the people I choose,” he says. “I can't help it. I'm an elitist.”
Back in 1977, the collector was a sex, drugs and rock 'n roll party animal who hung out at music and dance club icons like Danceteria, The Mudd Club and CBGBs. These days, he’s more of a homebody with 25 years of sobriety and an extensive collection of independent films.
Although he makes a good living, most of his money goes to his collection. As such, he sometimes has trouble making ends meet. He supplements his day job as a concierge in the Garment Center, which he’s held for more than two decades, by working "mad hours of overtime" running a freight elevator.
"All of my money used to go to booze and drugs,” he says. “Now I spend all my money on phallic artworks. The difference between the two addictions is that I don't wake up with a hangover and all the penises are still there in the morning."
The first piece of phallic art he acquired was “a little Indonesian guy with a big penis with a red head on it.” He bought it in a store on East Sixth Street in Manhattan, which, like so much of the East Village, is no longer there. When the store owner wrote out a receipt for him, she wrote the name of the piece in a scribble he couldn’t quite make out.
“I asked her what she wrote, thinking it was the name of some kind of Indonesian god. She said ‘Oh, I just wrote ‘Penis Man.’ And that’s how I got the name of my collection: The Penis Men.”
Beginning with this seemingly innocuous purchase, his home soon began to fill with penises. As a collector by nature, he simply couldn’t help himself.
“I live in fear of accidentally getting two of something, because then it's a collection," he says. "That’s how it starts!”
But this is not just any willy-nilly collection of penis men. Each room is carefully curated around a theme. The living room is done in earth tones, decorated with mostly tribal-style art. (The original Indonesian “god” enjoys a prominent place here.) The bedroom is kitschier, outfitted in primary colors with well-endowed dolls like the anatomically correct “Billy,” as well as jingling scrotum Christmas ornaments. The bathroom is decorated in black, white and neutral tones, with some of the more explicit and X-rated pieces lining those walls. For instance, even the handle to his bathroom vanity is a long, white penis.
“That’s the fun part, choosing what goes where,” he says. “It’s like a 3-D collage! I literally live in an art installation!”
With the exception of a mother penis possessing a set of B-cups and three babies, there are no vaginas or other lady-parts mixed up in the collection. “If I collected vaginas, I’d collect vaginas,” he explains. “But I collect penises. And I deliberately avoid pieces that feature both sexes. Vaginas would just diffuse the impact. These are male rooms. This is the phallus palace.”
“I have nothing against women,” he adds. “They're my second-favorite sex.”
In addition to prints of works by Basquiat and Duchamp, there are paintings from many unsung artists lining the walls. Usually the artwork is from artists he discovers on eBay—with special attention paid to those devoted to the penis.
"I get them framed across the street, at a store owned by these cute young Muslim guys. At first, I was afraid of offending them. I asked if they would mind framing pornography and unrolled a drawing of two impossibly over-endowed black guys having sex in a public bathroom. He looked at the drawing and said, 'That's not pornography!' Then, without missing a beat, he pointed at a portrait of George W. Bush and said: 'THAT'S pornography!' Now, I just waltz in announcing 'More homo porn!'”
Despite what that choice phrasing may imply, he stresses that it is not an exclusively “gay” collection.
"A lot of the pieces here are clearly homosexual, but a good many of them, some of the most beautiful of my penises, were sculpted by women. It's funny, but in American society at large, gay men are almost as phallophobic—is that a word?—as the heterosexual ones. Go to any of those 'rainbow' gift shops and you won't see any penises, just waxed pectorals.”
He points to a life-sized, 200-pound bronze statue of an African-American boy sporting a baseball cap and holding what should, traditionally, be a fishing pole protruding from between his legs.
“That's the piece that really ties the room together,” he says, going on to relive the day he found it.
"You see, wherever I go, I'll just walk into an antique or thrift store and ask, 'Do you have anything with a penis?' So, I'm in Florida, and I go into this little shop, and there's this big, scary, redneck-looking guy sitting behind the counter in front of a wall of guns. My first thought was, 'Don't ask him!' But, against my better judgment, I just spit out the question.”
“He looked at me, his eyebrow arching. 'Ah pay-nhus?' and he lifts a sheet off of this thing sitting on a chair! I was stunned. It was just wrong on every level! It was one of those god-awful, ridiculously expensive bronzes! It was racist! It was child pornography! I had to have it!”
It was a full year before he was able to get the statue home, however. He finally rented a car in order to drive it back to New York. Now, what he calls a “staggeringly offensive piece of art” sits in a place of honor on the living room couch, holding a framed needlework that reads: Baby, I’ve got a boner for you.
"Believe it or not, there are two of these!" he says. "The other one has a hole drilled in the end of his penis so you could make a fountain out of it! It's in the collection of The World Erotic Art Museum in South Beach. I have a postcard of that one."
He doesn’t have a favorite penis; his collection is really about “the diversity of them.” While much of the work has a comedic bent to it, such as the surreal “Coyote sending his penis out into the world,” other works are truly elegant. A few of the pieces on display are his own, such as a metallic statue of a man flying on his own gargantuan member. He has also done a series of Photoshoped landscapes which feature surreal variations on a photo of his own erect penis.
A few years ago, he went back to school at night, finishing his B.A. with a concentration in psychology and also earning a certificate in Creative Arts Therapy. He put both of these skill-sets to use as a volunteer at a substance abuse rehabilitation clinic in the Bronx.
"My art has always been self-therapy. And to see drug addicts letting their unconscious flow out of their hands was so moving,” he says.
He keeps busy with many diverse personal art projects, such as a yearly calendar he used to put together for friends, done in the exquisite corpse style, with each collaborator picking up the drawing where the previous one left off. There was only one requirement for participation: you couldn't be a professional artist. He never sells his work.
“Duchamp never sold any Readymades,” he says. “For me, it's more about the act of creating, and less about the thing created.”
One of the most striking parts of the collection is a series of black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings depicting beautiful Japanese men in the throes of lovemaking. They are at once delicate, wistful and mystical. The artist who created them, Sadao Hasegawa, committed suicide, and his art is very hard to come by. His conservative Japanese family was embarrassed by its graphic homoerotic content.
Hasegawa's art also speaks to the yearnings of the collector. “If I could just have Samurai of my own like that to love,” he sighs.
Love has been elusive lately, now that he is old enough to want to settle down. He recently ended a four-year relationship with a man thirty years his junior.
“I never expected it to even happen, much less last that long!” he said speaking of his recent romance. “I was so nervous the first time—this wrinkling old man getting in bed with this smooth, beautiful youth. But when we were finished, he turned to me and said: ‘I feel like I've just been made love to by a Spartan warrior!' Do you know how it feels to have someone 30 years your junior call you a Spartan? I had to scrape my ego off the ceiling! I guess I've still got it.”
Back then, he did have it. In the bedroom is a black-and-white photo: a portrait of the penis collector as a young man. With a mountain of curls, he sports Jim Morrison-esque leather pants, a dog chain around his neck and a white shirt, seductively open all the way to his navel. He holds a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. He is leaning against the very same wall the picture hangs on.
And then, as life is wont to do, it changed. Four years ago, during a routine colonoscopy, his doctor noticed something strange. Upon testing, it turned out to be anal cancer.
Up until that diagnosis, he had never heard of anal cancer. “Colon cancer, sure, but not anal…The doctor just happened to flip the ’scope around. They don’t usually do that. He caught the disease early; otherwise, I would probably be up there with Farrah Fawcett. He saved my life.”
He went through the requisite radiation and chemotherapy, which he describes as “Awful. Like sitting in a French fryer.” But it worked: his cancer is in remission.
“Through it all, his delight in life, his collection, his friends and the wild world of New York City culture kept him going,” says the collector’s good friend, the writer Deirdre Sinnott. “He showed me how to live through my own rough days. And, of course, there were the penises. Always the penises.”
“I've had to switch my online dating profile from 'versatile' to 'top,’” the collector jokingly laments. “But I'm cancer-free and here to tell about it!”
In terms of trying to understand why he does what he does, perhaps most telling is his answer to a query about his previous collection: Why, before the penises, did he collect the five of spades?
“So people would ask me why! That’s why. No one would ask if I collected aces. But who collects the five of spades?" he asks with a self-satisfied grin. "It gets 'em every time!”
Above him, a print of Duchamp's mustachioed Mona Lisa seems to be repressing the very same grin.
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Kyria Abrahams is a photographer living in Astoria, Queens, and the author of "I'm Perfect, You're Doomed—Tales From A Jehovah's Witness Upbringing (Touchstone, 2009)."