Drawings of Edinburgh’s Saunas – 16 page tabloid size zine on newsprint. Edition of 50

I began this project as a frivolous look at the design of the capital’s ‘sauna’ shop fronts but ended up documenting a part of Edinburgh life that may not exist for much longer.

I started drawing the facades of the saunas because they are a peculiar sight in Scotland’s elegant and genteel capital. I liked the way they try to be discreet but fail by looking tacky and conspicuous. Their services are never advertised explicitly but it’s obvious they offer far more than a steamy room. The saunas are a generally accepted feature of Edinburgh’s streets, not just by locals but also by the authorities in a open minded bid to improve sex worker safety.

While prostitution is legal in Scotland, running a brothel is not. But Edinburgh’s city council and police have long allowed brothels to operate under the pretence of saunas. By working on these drawings I’ve begun to discover just how complex an issue this is. Independent MSP Margo McDonald and sex workers’ rights charity Scot-Pep have argued that the saunas offer prostitutes relative safety compared to working on the streets or from private homes. Edinburgh’s policy has seen street prostitution fall while in Glasgow a zero tolerance stance has led to a rise. But it has emerged recently that many of the saunas’ business arrangements are less than transparent and as the brothels aren’t officially licensed they can not be properly regulated.

On 7 June 2013 Scotland’s newly merged police force Police Scotland sent 150 officers to raid a number of Edinburgh’s saunas signalling a dramatic shift in strategy. As Police Scotland set centralised policies, they abandon the softly-softly approach that allowed Lothian and Borders Police to offer some protection to Edinburgh’s prostitutes.

My drawings illustrate 13 of the saunas which are dotted around Scotland’s capital, nestled in between newsagents, pubs and restaurants. Many of them have outlasted neighbouring businesses to become established features of the city’s ever changing landscape. But their future is uncertain. One possibility is that the new police pressure will bring about the closure of the saunas. Alternatively it could force the local council to stop simply turning a blind eye to the way the saunas are run and address the licensing of brothels more openly. Unwittingly, these illustrations draw attention to a tangle of political, social and moral issues that are hiding in plain sight on Edinburgh’s streets.