Durk Dehner, founder of Tom of Finland Foundation, was a close friend, beloved, co-worker, manager and sparring member of Tom (born Touko Laaksonen). He has made his life’s work to maintain and protect the art of Tom of Finland. In this upstairs bedroom, Tom slept and drew.
Tom’s life in Los Angeles in the 1980s was a time of freedom, celebration and inspiration. There he met a man who became the protector of his beloved and all his life’s work. There he was no longer the director of advertising agency, Touko Laaksonen, he was Tom of Finland.
A lean man stands in the picture, smiling in his shiny leather pants. There is a keychain hanging in his hand, which tickles your imagination.
The life of young Durk Dehner in the art circles changed when he bumped into this drawing by Tom of Finland at a motorcycle club bar in Manhattan in 1976. Dehner was so attracted to the poster that he stole it from the wall, found out the artist’s name and address and wrote it. A letter from Finland soon arrived in the mailbox. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Durk Dehner and Tom.
Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991) lived in Helsinki with his unmarried partner Veli Mäkinen at the time. A few years earlier, he had left his job as an artistic director at McCann Advertising Agency to focus on drawing. However, in Finland’s atmosphere at the time, success in homoerotic art was impossible, not to mention that it was possible to live a life of its own kind.
The criminalization of homosexual acts was abolished in Finnish law in 1971 and the classification of the disease in 1981.
Tom first came to Los Angeles in 1978, when Eons Gallery wanted to produce the Tom of Finland calendar and hold an exhibition of its drawings.
Dehner recalls that Tom was equally smiley when he was met by a young man at LAX Airport who had worked as a model in several magazines. According to Dehner, Tom had long dreamed of television and magazines in Los Angeles full of palm trees and tanned, muscular and incredibly handsome men.
The show was soon followed by the second, third and fourth. In 1980, Dehner invited Tom to Los Angeles.
“We had bought the house as a commune together with my ex-partner and our new partners last year. I invited Tom to live there.”
Dehner says that Tom wasn’t sure about the change until after visiting the house with Veli Mäkinen. He had become fooled by people in art circles and was afraid of disappointment.
“Veli suffered from throat cancer and knew he would die soon. He asked me to look after Tom after he died. Veli died in 1981, ”Dehner recalls.
The political climate in California was light years away from Finland. Gay communities and the art world lived with a wealth of free time. People dressed as they wanted and expressed their sexual orientation openly. The nightclub world was booming, the street scene was full of sex, alcohol and drugs. Artists like Andy Warhol led the art world, where everything exceptional was admired. Tom’s strong erotic works flowed easily there. He arrived in the country at just the right time.
Here he was no longer “Touko Laaksonen”, he was the artist Tom of Finland.
Tom soon found his place on the top floor of Dehner’s hundred-year-old house. From the window was a lush view of the hills, and his last sketch, colored pencils, paintbrushes, charcoal and pencils still lay on the table by the window.
“He was a master at drawing with different techniques. When he became ill with pulmonary dilatation and had to end up using drugs that caused his hands to shake, he exchanged pens and pens for pastels and charcoal. They were more gracious tools for the disease,” Dehner says.
Dehner admired the intelligent and calm Tom, which in turn worshiped handsome and energetic Dehner. The intense cohabitation and affection grew into a relationship that over time turned into friendship and partnership.
“Tom was careful about his routines. He woke up after eight, dressed and descended down the garden stairs. There he sat in his shirt and cotton pants, smoking a Marlboro and drinking coffee in the morning sun. Then he moved to his studio, where he often drew until evening. Only lunch interrupted the drawing.”
In the evenings, when Dehner returned from his job at the Advocate advertising department, he prepared food and the men in the house came together.
“In the evenings, Tom became sociable and sat chatting until late at night, smoking and sipping gin & tonics or whiskey.”
Dehner soon became Tom’s manager and copyright protector in a market where his works had been exploited for years. The royalties had not been paid, and the unauthorized copying and sale of the works was rampant. The men registered the trademark and established a mail order company.
“We started selling, archiving and collecting Tom’s art. We organized exhibitions and fan meetings. I gave Tom the opportunity to focus on artistic work. We founded Tom of Finland Foundation in 1984.”
Durk Dehner has chaired, maintained and built the Foundation to this day. Dehner’s partner, S.R. Sharp, is vice president of the Foundation and has expanded its activities to include the protection and archiving of all kinds of erotic art.
From time to time, Tom grabbed his camera and visited the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) headquarters across the hill. Police in their uniforms posed for this avid photographer who used the pictures to work on his drawings.
Tom of Finland was a self-taught, and professional photographer. In Finland, he had also learned to develop his own pictures because he could not outsource them due to the sensitive nature of the subjects.
“Tom used to create dramatic effects of light and shadow in the images, and he played with realism and illusions. At times, he experimented with magnifying and making experimental prints using an image emulsion for example, on roller blinds,” Dehner describes.
“He wanted to develop himself and photographed leather in different lighting. With the help of the pictures, he learned how to draw leather with an increasingly realistic look. ”
The interest in leather and uniforms had already begun before the Second World War. Laaksonen served as a lieutenant in the Continuation War. In Los Angeles, a whole new market opened up for him. Among other things, gay motorcycle clubs admired his drawings and used them in posters.
In America, Tom lived his most productive time and encountered admiration that surprised him completely. In Finland, he had to keep his business secret and most people didn’t even know who Tom of Finland really was.
In Los Angeles, Tom’s social life became lively. He was invited to give speeches, was able to walk down the street with a man in his hand and dress in leather.
In his sixties, he was given a new, youthful enthusiasm for his life.
“On weekends, we dressed in our leather jackets and boots and went to parties. I never felt strange to walk with him, even though I was 31 and 60 at the time. Tom was a cosmopolitan who found the company comfortable. He told me that one of the reasons he felt so full of vitality was that he was able to live with young people,” Dehner recalls.
The same energy is still buzzing in the House. In addition to changing residency artists, the house is staffed by volunteers of all ages, from different backgrounds, and salaried workers. One of them is Alex Iarocci, Dehner’s personal assistant, who ran into Tom of Finland when he found the artist’s comic book in a bookstore in Santa Monica. The pictures in the book have lasted a long time in the mind of transgender Alex.
“I’ve been out of the closet and came back several times during my life. I received criticism from many angles, including transgender circles. Tom’s works gave me hope and strength to be myself, man. Their message encourages you to be shameless and happy with your own sexuality.”
“His erotica in art was only suggestive, Tom wanted to go further, to push the boundaries,” Dehner explains.
Tom also drew works that had been stripped of the most graphic eroticism, but the stage did not last long.
“It must be remembered that he has said that if he does not get an erection while drawing, the work cannot be very good.”
Tom first realized how his works had changed the way gays viewed themselves in society. It inspired and encouraged the artist. But the era also had its shadows.
“Tom felt he was responsible for the spread of the AIDS epidemic. His entire career was based on his portrayal of how great free sex was between men. He was in great pain as the people around him withered and died. He received numerous orders from around the world where his relatives who died of AIDS wanted to be immortalized by Tom,” says Dehner.
“In a spiritual battle against the epidemic, he drew men who looked happy; they were exaggeratedly masculine, strong and perfect, as opposed to the fallen and slender shadows of dying men.”
At the same time, Tom launched a determined campaign for safe sex and drew various condom ads.
In the final stages of his disease, Tom moved back to Helsinki. One evening, Dehner received a call from Finland.
“You’ll never guess what you just watched on TV!”
It was the only time that the artist’s work was promoted in Finland during his lifetime, after being awarded the Puupäähattu Award by the Finnish Comics Society in 1990. Ilppo Pohjola’s documentary on Tom of Finland also won a Jussi Award.
“At the same time, the discussion was a kind of farewell. We both knew that time was running out. It felt important that he could experience all he had so deeply loved before his death. ”
Lung enlargement eventually took Tom’s power, and he died in November 1991.
PHOTOS BY NANCY PASTOR
Tom of Finland Foundation was established in Los Angeles in 1984 by Durk Dehner and Tom of Finland.
The Foundation presents, maintains and protects Tom of Finland’s collection and protects and archives international erotic art, organizes erotic art competitions and maintains an artist residency.
The Foundation aims to promote equality and a more understanding attitude towards different sexualities.
The City of Los Angeles has acknowledged Tom of Finland House as a Historic-Cultural Monument as the studio and residence of Tom of Finland.
The house hosts guided tours, cultural events and exhibitions.
VINTAGE PHOTOS FROM TOM OF FINLAND FOUNDATION ARCHIVE
2020 will be the 100th year birth of Tom of Finland. In honor of the anniversary year, several exhibitions and events are organized around the world. For example, Tom of Finland – The Darkroom exhibition will be on display at the Fotografiska International Museums: Tallinn in February, Stockholm in June and New York in May, and the House of Illustration in London in March.