Preserving Tom of Finland

Photo by Marytn Thompson for TOM HOUSE: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles

Photo by Marytn Thompson for TOM HOUSE: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles

The home was a gathering point for artists and influential members of the gay community. To this day, the amount of erotic art housed within its walls is truly staggering.

The house at 1421 Laveta Terrace peeks out furtively from behind a tall hedge. There’s no sign or marker that might indicate to passersby that this was once the residence of legendary homoerotic artist Tom of Finland. Open up the gate, though, and that becomes clear soon enough. A life-size cutout of a beefy, leather-clad cop stands watch over the front porch. Next to the door is a portrait of the artist himself.

Since 1979, the owner of the home has been Durk Dehner, who recently submitted an application to the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission asking it to name the home a historic cultural monument in light of its connection with the artist and important role in the LGBT movement. The commission is considering the nomination now and will soon tour the home.

Born Touko Laaksonen, Tom of Finland was, in fact, from Finland and lived there for most of his life. He picked up his famous pseudonym in the 1950s, when he began submitting illustrations for Physique Pictorial, a fitness magazine appealing to gay men in a time when strict censorship laws prevented the sale of outright pornography. Over time, as these laws were phased out, Laaksonen’s work became more sexually explicit, and demand for his work created a thriving market for pirated copies and reproductions. Today, his signature renderings of leather-clad bikers and police officers appear on everything from dinner plates to bed sheets, and have given the artist a strong cult following.

Dehner began corresponding with Laaksonen in the mid-1970s. In 1978, Dehner invited Laaksonen to the United States, helping him to get his work displayed in art galleries around LA and San Francisco. Two years later, they became business partners, founding the Tom of Finland Company which still handles the publishing and licensing of the artist’s work. Following the death of his longtime partner in 1981, the house at Laveta Terrace became a home away from home for Laaksonen, as he began spending an increasing amount of time in Los Angeles.

Today, the small room he occupied in the attic of the home remains much the way he left it when he departed for Finland for the last time in 1989. A collection of leather jackets are hung neatly in the corner, along with a few sport coats, vests, and a uniform from Laaksonen’s days as a lieutenant in the Finnish army.


Photo by Marytn Thompson for TOM HOUSE: Tom of Finland in Los Angeles

“This is sort of a cheesy thing,” says SR Sharp, vice president of the Tom of Finland Foundation, as he removes a checkered blazer from its hanger. “Tom bought this jacket for his first trip to America.” He opens up the blazer to reveal the label. “You can see he bought it in the senior section of Stockmann’s.” Today, the Finnish department store carries merchandise branded with Tom of Finland artwork.

By most accounts, Laaksonen’s time in Los Angeles was a hugely important for him. As he began interacting regularly with other artists and influential members of the gay community, the house became a gathering point that over the years has attracted notable personalities, including Robert Maplethorpe and John Waters.

The strong gay culture Los Angeles also provided a contrast to what Sharp refers to as the “benign persecution” that Laaksonen often experienced in Finland.

“In LA, Tom could be Tom of Finland 100 percent of the time,” he said.

Laaksonen died in 1991, but the house continues to serve as a cultural center and informal museum. Tours can be scheduled in advance, and artist residences, awards, and events (including an annual Art & Culture Festival being held this year October 1 and 2) are coordinated by the Tom of Finland Foundation.

Separate from the corporation, the foundation was founded in 1984 with the goal of preserving and archiving Laaksonen’s work. The focus quickly shifted to erotic art in general—largely because of the AIDS epidemic, which was then ravaging the gay community. “It got to be every day you’d get a call,” Sharp says. “Hey, did you hear about so and so?”

HIV-infected artists began reaching out to Dehner and Laaksonen about preserving their work. At the same time, some victims of the disease were leaving behind vast collections of erotic art that most often ended up in a garbage heap. Occasionally, the foundation would get a call first.

“People would call after their partner died, or their friend died, and ask, ‘do you want this stuff?” Sharp said.

That’s actually how he himself became involved with the foundation. After the death of a friend, he found himself in the position of divvying up his belongings. Though he was able to find a home for most items, he was at a loss over what to do with several works of sexually explicit art until someone recommended he contact the foundation. He soon became one of a network of volunteers helping to collect and archive what is now the world’s largest repository of erotic art.

“Sometimes people would call and say, ‘The parents are going to be here in an hour. Can you be here before then?’” Sharp said. “It was the ‘80s. No one wanted to think about the difference between art and pornography … a lot of what we did was protecting the sensibilities of parents.”

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