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Photos by Martyn Thompson, courtesy Tom of Finland Foundation

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Preserving Tom of Finland

The Echo Park home was a gathering point for artists and influential members of the gay community.

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.

"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."

It’s safe to say the sensibilities of such parents would be pretty well assaulted by a trip to the Tom House as it exists today. The interior of the home is an ecstatic and uncontained celebration of male anatomy. Depictions of penises are literally everywhere in the Tom House. They appear in paintings and photographs and coffee table books. They are sketched on walls and sculpted and embroidered into pillows. In the upstairs bathroom, a porcelain penis fountain drips water at haphazard intervals.

But, of course, anatomy isn’t all you’ll see at the Tom House. The art that adorns the walls, and even the ceiling in at least one instance, embraces every aspect of male sexuality. It is often explicit or irreverent, but rarely modest or abashed. In a parlor to the left of the front entrance, Sharp points out a painting by early homoerotic artist George Quaintance. In it, a nude matador steps out of a bath as his compatriots look on respectfully.

"See, Tom never liked this kind of stuff, because it’s beefcake," Sharp says. "There’s no desire here."

He says part of the significance of Tom of Finland’s work is its celebration of homosexuality as something normal—and healthy. Running counter to societal stereotypes at the time, the gay men in Tom of Finland drawings are, almost without exception, impossibly muscular and virile. That became especially significant in the ‘80s when, as Sharp puts it, "the image of a gay man in America became an AIDS patient dying in the arms of his mother."

Laaksonen resisted this trend, continuing to promote healthy, safe sex with his illustrations—though he also began accepting commissions for portraits of victims of the virus. And, with Dehner, he helped to save countless other works that embraced male homosexuality at a time when the federal government’s only response to the AIDS epidemic was to stress the need for sexual abstinence.

Thus, though the Tom House is only now seeking historic monument status, it has been in the preservation business a long time. The amount of erotic art housed within its walls is truly staggering. Bookshelves overflow with binders full of prints, proofs, and sketches. On the third level, adjacent to Laaksonen’s room, is an office devoted to the digital archiving of thousands of works the foundation has acquired over the years: paintings, photos, illustrations, and now even digitally rendered erotic art.

In the backyard, Sharp admits that part of the reason the foundation is seeking monument status is financial. Under the Mills Act, historic homes receive a generous tax break, and that’s something the foundation could use to help keep the lights on. Archiving the amount of material they’ve now gathered does not come cheap. And, of course, the house itself is getting up there in years.

Behind Sharp, a crew of workers is sizing up a sagging wall and trying not to look too closely at the large mural behind them depicting a naked man having sex with the planet Earth. The terraced garden behind the home needs frequent attention, as gravity is beginning to pull the entire property downhill.

To win monument status, houses must satisfy at least one of four criteria designed to establish historical significance. Cultural Heritage Commissioner Jeremy Irvine says it’s always more difficult for the commission to evaluate monument applications based on cultural factors, rather than architectural features.

In some ways, this is surprising: Isn’t a place where important events occurred or a notable figure lived more obviously historically significant than, say, a well preserved but fairly typical example of Spanish Revival architecture?

Not necessarily. Irvine notes that there’s a lot of gray area in between what most people would agree is significant and what a similar number of people would say is not. He cites a recently declared monument in Atwater Village as an example. A former wallpaper factory and showroom, the Albert Van Luit Complex turned out to have been one of the few places in Los Angeles where openly gay men could find work during the mid-twentieth century. "That really put us over the edge on approving it," Irvine says. Still, he says that, "many people see this huge warehouse and say, ‘why are you preserving that?’"

Fortunately for the Tom House, it more or less looks the part. A grand Craftsman built in 1911, it was one of the earliest houses constructed in the tract of newly subdivided land then known as "Sunset Boulevard Heights." It has hardwood floors throughout, beamed ceilings, and a stately living room fireplace. Its first owner was a guy named R.W. Kemp. It’s exactly what you might expect from a historic home.

But that’s not the basis of the application submitted by Dehner. Though the architectural features are nice, the application maintains that the home is historic because Tom of Finland lived there, and because it’s been a gathering place for the gay community and an archive of erotic art. That’s what makes the home’s application so intriguing.

Because, if the Historic Cultural Commission should decide to add the Tom House to its list of Historic-Cultural Monuments, it will be an acknowledgement of the artwork of Tom of Finland, and the many artists whose work has been preserved by the foundation over the years.

Just as the distinction between art and pornography changes over time, the gray area between what is historic and what is not can shift fairly quickly. Optimistic about the potential of the house to succeed in its monument application, Sharp says, "I think the acknowledgement couldn’t come at a better time." And, indeed, it’s hard to imagine it coming at all in prior decades. Derided as smut less than 30 years ago, the work of Tom of Finland has since been displayed at LACMA—next to a Matisse, no less.

So, is the sometime home of a gay leather fetishist and self-described "drawer of dirty pictures" historically significant? In today’s Los Angeles, we’re inclined to say the answer might just be yes.


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