The Dirty Show Turns 18

Detroit’s annual Dirty Show comes of legal age.

Jerry Vile is a guy with an odd kind of mental index.

“You can tell people that aren’t really into bondage, where they just think they can wrap a rope around their girlfriend and take the picture, but it’s not going to work,” he says. 

If anyone knows what works and what falls flat in the presentation of erotic art, it’s Vile (née Peterson), the founder of The Dirty Show. 

What began as an annual party and “money loser” for the first five years has grown into a Detroit institution. The annual international erotic art exhibition has scaled up through locations that have included the Orbit Magazine office (the now-defunct publication where Vile once was head editor), the Leland Hotel, and, a massive space at the Russell Industrial Center, which has hosted the event for the last four years. Throughout his 18 years of screening Dirty Show submissions, Vile has finely honed standards for what constitutes great erotic art. For example:

“There will be a great public nudity shot,” Vile says, “and then somebody will notice his trench coat is next to him, three steps down. It’s a visual disturbance that keeps it from being a great photograph — there’s the clothes, and all of a sudden this image has a different narrative.” 

Public nudity shots are just one of Vile’s mental indices; other mainstays of The Dirty Show include pinups, bondage, fine-art nude landscapes, and the controversial area of what Vile terms “ruin porn-porn” — that is, erotic photographs staged amid Detroit’s iconic urban decay.

Vile’s speech is punctuated by words of his own creation, like “ruin porn-porn” and “kinkdom,” to describe the different subsets of Detroit’s thriving alt-sexuality scene. The Dirty Show plays host to them all, filling a unique niche in the region and drawing roughly 2,000 visitors each night of the event’s run. 

“Attendance at the first show was probably 200 people,” Vile says, “and then that would double, and that would double — so by 2003, when we were at the first Museum of New Art, which was in the Book Building on Washington Boulevard, we were doing 2,000 people total for that show. Now we do more than that in one night. But at that time, it was the biggest art show in Detroit.” 

At 18 years old, the Dirty Show still maintains its cultural cache, with big-name headliners in past years including John Waters and Colin Christian. Vile has mentioned pinup heavyweight Olivia in connection with the 2017 festivities, and burlesque dancer and pinup artist Holly Hock is already listed as a performer. 

“Pinups are one of the hardest things to get in The Dirty Show,” Vile says, “because you are competing with the likes of Olivia and Sorayama. We know who all the good pinup people are, back to the calendar days.” 

Vile certainly knows what he doesn’t like, but he treats the particulars of what constitutes quality erotic with more ambiguity.

“When we started, it was so hard to find erotic art,” he says. “There was maybe two or three people in Detroit that did erotic art. So we asked all of our artist friends to do something erotic, and to this day, that is still what I like. I like seeing an artist tackle that as a theme, as an opportunity.” 

After 18 years and still going strong, one has to assume Vile has an eye for what works. Here’s hoping Dirty Show 2017 celebrates its coming of age with all the dirtiness we’ve come to expect.

Russell Industrial Center; Feb. 10-11 and 17-18; $30;