Leather-clad, burly young men, in various stages of undress and often indulging in sexual shenanigans, are standard scenes in the artworks created by Finnish Touko Laaksonen, known as homoerotic artist Tom of Finland and professionally and personally as Tom. His Echo Park home, nestled within the suburbs of Los Angeles, has been preserved, down to the pillows, and is the home base for Tom of Finland Foundation and the revolving door of characters that make the pilgrimage to the famous—and infamous—compound.
“It’s an extraordinary place, equal parts frat pad, utopian collective, art historical archive, sepulcher, community center, and den of iniquity,” writes Mayer Rus, in his foreword to TOM House.
Tom’s artwork, which he called “dirty drawings,” is no longer relegated to back rooms in kinky New York City gay bars. At the Whitney Museum’s Biennial of 1991, his drawings held court alongside iconic works by Cindy Sherman and Roy Lichtenstein.
Today, Tom House is still home to many of the original residents, while also welcoming new arrivals, often at-risk youth and struggling artists, looking for sanctuary. The Foundation also uses the home as a backdrop for countless fundraisers, art exhibitions, and community meetings.
Rus writes: “At Tom House, everyone is welcome, everyone is accepted, and all things considered.”
While sex between men was partially decriminalised 50 years ago in the UK, in Finland it took until 1971. And it wasn’t until very recently that the Finns were relaxed enough about homosexuality to openly acknowledge one of their country’s most famous exports. In 2014, they put his unmistakably erotic artwork on a set of stamps; this year, a biopic became a mainstream hit at the nation’s multiplexes. Almost 100 years after his birth in the town of Kaarina, Tom of Finland had come home.
Tom’s birth name was Touko Laaksonen. By day, he was a senior art director at advertising agency McCann Erickson. In his spare time, however, he drew his sexual fantasies – bikers and lumberjacks, mounties and policemen going at it hammer and tongs in forests, prisons and parks, the smiles on their faces almost as big as their enormously tumescent penises. Initially published in American gay proto-porn magazines such as Physique Pictorial, they were disseminated worldwide in dime stores, sex shops or leather bars through an international underground of fans, despite laws against the distribution of such explicit material.
Tom’s pictures fuelled both the sexual fantasies and the aesthetic of many gay men. The fetish for police and military uniforms and the leather-clad look – often including a cap, chaps and biker jacket – worn by Freddie Mercury, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and, of course, Glenn Hughes, the the Village People, was directly inspired by his work. Initially drawing men in riding breeches and army officers in brown leather bomber jackets, he got into the biker look after seeing Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Thereafter, says Durk Dehner, a Canadian friend of Tom’s and now the custodian of his work, Tom’s and the nascent gay leather scene would inspire one another. Tom would draw his fantasies and send them to friends. They would get a tailor to replicate the sexiest garments in the pictures, photograph themselves in them, and send the pictures back to the artist. “Then he’d get more ideas – it was evolving,” says Dehner.