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Shelley RuggThorpLongBeachusedtobeaprettystrictsortof town: if you wanted to see some boobs, you either hit the nudie bars by the 405 or you enrolled at Cal State Long Beach and started working on a minor in fine arts. Either way, it came with substantial human cost. But then downtown art space Koo's—dedicated as always to bringing art in all its many and sometimes frightening forms to the common person—got into the situation, working to legalize the time-honored life-drawing class—drawing a naked person to explore the contours of the human form; DaVinci did it all the time—and taking the possibility of seeing boobs beyond the purview of professors and flesh peddlers.
Now, after nine months of spirited bureaucracy, Koo's is finally enjoying a specially rewritten ordinance permitting art spaces—and not just universities and other non-sexy art venues—to host life-drawing classes. It makes Koo's the premier downtown destination for live nude girls—and live nude dudes, live nude senior citizens, live nude humanity in all its harsh and wrinkly splendor. "Just be your naked self," says Koo's founder Dennis Lluy. He was a little afraid to look behind the thick red curtain keeping the naked people hidden from the street, but he was still cheerful; art had won again, and skin was back in.
See, back in the days when Ocean Boulevard was just cathouses and tattoo parlors, enterprising scum got around restrictive nudity ordinances by organizing purportedly artistic "photo sessions." Scoff? Sure, but in Idaho just last week, this very scheme made international headlines: once he'd made the formal switch from tit barn to classroom, Erotic City strip-club owner Chris Teague was able to go from partial nudity in the name of boners to total nudity in the name of art—and charge $15 per session. "We have a lot of people drawing some very good pictures," he told the BBC. He even tacks the best ones up for everyone to see—just like an art teacher! Ingenuity like that is what screwed honest artists like those at Koo's—brought in a bad element and all, sailors with easels, the whole deal. This time is different.
Superbowl Sunday wasn't the first life-drawing exercise in the Koo's space, but it was definitely the most relaxed. Back during the no-nudes days (when the East Village was scarier and 540 Broadway was called Safe House), a group of artists staged a guerrilla naked performance piece: hustling a model off the street and sketching her in seconds as she dropped her robe, then burning the sketches just to shove home the point. Then there was non-partial nudity: "Pictures of parts taped over parts," explains Shelley RuggThorp, the Long Beach artist who spearheaded the life-drawing drive at Koo's.
But now it's the real thing: this session ($10 for three hours—way better than the Boise Special) put about a half-dozen similarly dressed older men—arty-looking older, not creepy-looking older—hunched into their art horses, sweeping charcoal and pastels around the silhouette of Donna Atwood. No one talked. It was very serious. "It's a subtle thing, really," says RuggThorp. No sailors with easels showed up at all—but maybe that's just 'cause the Seventh Fleet left town right around the time the clampdown happened. Sailors always know when to leave.?
LIFE DRAWING WORKSHOPS AT KOO'S, 540 E. BROADWAY, LONG BEACH; WWW.KOOS.ORG. EVERY SUN., 1-4 P.M. $10.