“Now is the time to recognize that we are special and unique and live it,” Dirk Dehner tells me of the philosophy behind the work of trailblazing gay artist Touko Laaksonen, better known to the world as Tom of Finland.
We sit on a bed in the finished attic of what was once the home of the man who transformed the way gay men were allowed to see themselves. Laaksonen died on November 7, 1991 at age 71. For the last 10 years of his life, the artist lived here six months of the year. Now it’s the home of the Tom of Finland Foundation. Dehner is the president and co-founder.
To our left is the same desk where Tom did his work, next to a military uniform, knee-high leather boots and shelf upon shelf of archival material, including binders of original prints spanning decades.
The attic’s low ceiling and small windows create a boarding-school quality that’s appropriate for the homoerotic art covering most of the walls in the halls and rooms below. Tom of Finland’s muscled leather men, construction workers, police and military officers created “a new vocabulary of what we could be,” Dehner says. The fact that a lot of their sexualized play took place outside, in broad daylight, added to their revolutionary nature.
From the outside, with its high fence, lush garden and wooden columns, the home almost blends with the quiet residential street in LA’s Echo Park neighbourhood. Almost. Out front is parked a black muscle car with one of Tom’s iconic mustached hunks painted on it, with a square jaw and patented smirk. A similar larger-than-life cutout of a Tom of Finland leather dude stands guard by the front veranda.
Since the debut of his drawing of a smiling, pumped lumberjack on the cover of a 1957 Physique Pictorial magazine, Tom’s message has been “gays don’t have to put up with this shit. He created this world that was so attractive that we’d want to be a part of it,” Dehner says. “He gave us guys we’d never seen before.
“We dug it so much we were creating it on the outside, and then he’d chronicle it,” Dehner explains, showing me some of Tom’s collages. There are hundreds of them, images taken from magazines, of men in uniforms glued in 8.5X11 montages that provided inspiration for his work. Fans loved his drawings so much they’d put together outfits inspired by Tom’s imagination and send photos of themselves modelling their uniforms, which provided Tom with further fodder. “It was circular,” Dehner says, “affecting culture from the inside out.” Tom had an impact on gay culture, fashion (including Jean Paul Gaultier) and yes, Freddie Mercury.
Dehner can relate. Originally from Alberta, he’s one of Tom’s former models; he met the artist after sending him a fan letter. “A year later I came to LA and stayed with him and realized he needed help running his business. He was getting ripped off by the porn industry.”
Now, Dehner is devoted to maintaining Tom’s legacy and that of other erotic artists. The foundation provides a home for Tom’s sketches, uniforms and prints, as well as archival material from the likes of erotic artist George Quaintance.
Those interested in a tour should call a couple of days in advance (213-250-1685) for an appointment.
Tom's official online gallery
A selection of Tom's work across his career
A short biography
By Tom's official biographer, Valentine Hooven III
Homotopia: Tom of Finland
A 13-minute YouTube video interview/documentary
Daddy and the Muscle Academy: A Documentary of the
Art, Life, and Times of Tom of Finland
Produced by the Tom of Finland Foundation
(1993) VHS, DVD, BlueRay
TFF info & review
Order from Amazon