by Tucker Neel
originally published in Artillery Magazine Jan/Feb 2010 Vol. 4 Issue 3
Your entire world changes once you’ve seen Tom of Finland’s work. His images reverberate in your mind when you see Navy recruitment ads, wrestlers, policemen and beefcakes in the gym. Born Touko Laaksonen in 1920, his meticulously rendered drawings of self-assured muscular men engaging in mutually orgasmic guilt-free sex play, have appeared in galleries, bathhouse hallways, on coffee tables and under mattresses. Knee-length engorged penises and rotund buttocks adorn every one of Tom’s men, complete with sultry expressions and five o-clock shadows.
Whether giving or receiving blowjobs, fisting or fucking, Tom’s sailors, cops, CEOs and cowboys, are all super-sex heroes. Their assertive masculinity challenges homophobic top/bottom dichotomies and explodes conventional notions of homosexual passivity. When Tom died in 1991, his immense archive was left to the Tom of Finland Foundation (ToFF), which occupies a Craftsman-style house in Echo Park (a neighborhood just east of downtown LA). The artist called it home the last years of his life.
The house is a museum of pleasure, containing an incomparable collection of erotic ephemera: books, photos, videos, magazines, and costumes, objects that too often are discarded and devalued because of their naughty uses. It’s a respected, well-curated, art gallery, displaying works by well-known and emerging artists. It also hosts year-round events, including AIDS benefits and amazing leather and stud-clad figure-drawing workshops. Primarily, the ToFF is a teaching tool, a piece of gay history that continually breaks apart stereotypes and promotes healthy, tolerant attitudes about human sexuality.
A house dedicated to Tom of Finland, and his sexy legacy, might intimidate some who fear its inhabitant’s libidinal proclivities, but the people who live and work here are some of the most knowledgeable and welcoming leather-clad folks you’d be lucky enough to meet. While touring the house with Durk Dehner, co-founder and president of the ToFF, and Sharp, ToFF’s vice president and curator, I felt right at home.
Durk and Sharp inform me that Tom of Finland XXL, Taschen’s recent seventeen-pound collection of his work, is rumored to have been bound by The Vatican’s bindery – the only one capable of seaming such a massive tome. We flip through it in the dining room and look at a few of Tom’s original framed sketches hanging on the wall. We discuss Tom’s recent inclusion in the Venice Biennale and a show at MoMA, and Durk points out the artist’s range of appeal: “Tom is really unusual, because at his peak he was being shown at well-known galleries and museums and was also being used as jerk-off material.”
We ascend the attic stairs leading to Tom’s tiny humid studio and bedroom, perfectly arranged, with his leather outfits on display, bed made, his collection of porn and source material in bookshelves and boxes. I pour over Tom’s cut-out photos of hunky men, many of them in uniforms, subtly altered, creating images of masculine authority reclaimed by the artist’s own queer desires. Sharp points out, “I think people have come to understand that Tom’s men were real people. Tom was chronicling them and inventing them at the same time. This was a real world that doesn’t exist anymore.”
Sharp turns on the AC and we chat in the office adjacent to Tom’s studio. Sharp is concerned that the ToFF’s membership is getting on in years and isn’t being replaced by a younger generation. I ask him what the house needs in these challenging times, “Cold, hard cash,” is the answer. The house needs money for storage and repairs. If things go well, the ToFF house will receive city, state, and national cultural status this year. It seems fitting that gay men the world over should open their wallets to help the house survive. We’ve already opened our jeans, countless times, to invite the pleasure Tom so selflessly created for us. The least we can do is enlist and preserve his legacy.