Forty Years Of Love, Devotion & “Dirty Drawings”

Durk Dehner Remembers Tom of Finland

When Durk Dehner first stumbled across a small artwork by Tom of Finland in the late 1970’s, he couldn’t have known just how profoundly it was about to change his life. As a 26-year old man, he saw an empowering depiction of proud homosexuality which spoke to him directly in a deeply affecting way.

He quickly realized that he was not alone in this sentiment. Hundreds of young gay men found in the Finnish artist a certain father figure. His art was a beacon helping them to build positive relationships with their own bodies and sexualities, holding their hands through the most complex of formative experiences and allowing them to feel seen in a way they’ve never been seen before.

Dehner felt a calling. A passionate need to champion and support the work of Tom of Finland, ensuring that his message could reach and inspire millions, just as it had inspired him. He took on the role of manager, business partner, collaborator and lover, sometimes even appearing as a subject in the artist’s drawings.

But it would be too simple to just call him a muse or an admirer. The story of Durk Dehner and Tom of Finland is that of mutual devotion. Of two lives symbiotically intertwined together, joint by the pursuit of the same goal. There couldn’t be one without the other and - as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Tom of Finland Foundation - the power of this shared legacy is more evident than ever.

THE SKATEROOM connected with Dehner in the now historical Tom’s House to relive his first encounter with the artist, discuss the everlasting impact of his work and explore the connections he would’ve shared with skate culture, had the timeline been right.

How did you and Tom meet?

I discovered Tom of Finland when I was 26 years old. I’d never seen his work before because I grew up in Canada and we didn’t have access to it there. When I saw it for the first time, it affected me. It had an emotional impact and I didn’t really understand why. The artwork was a small poster advertising a motorcycle run. You were supposed to tear off the phone number at the bottom and call it to find out the location. All of the numbers had already been torn off, so I thought there would be no harm in taking the poster itself.

The next day, I happened to have a photoshoot with a male photography studio and there was an erotic artist there - Etienne. I showed him the poster and asked if he knew the author. He said, “Oh, yeah. That’s Tom of Finland. He’s very famous.” He asked if I liked his work, and I said, “I do, but there is something different about it. It’s more than liking. It affects me.” So, I wrote Tom a fan letter and he wrote me back.

What was that first encounter like?

Tom was going to come to LA to do his first American tour. I had just moved to Los Angeles so I asked, “Won’t you please let me be your host?” He accepted. What I got to experience was incredible. Whenever a public appearance by Tom was announced, at an exhibition or a bookstore, there would be dozens and dozens of young guys from all sorts of places - little towns, big cities - waiting in line just to shake his hand. They all had the same story. They wanted to thank him for giving them a really positive, healthy, happy and well-adjusted imagery that they could grow up and identify with. Tom’s art gave them a sense that it’s okay to be gay. It’s okay to be happy and proud of it.

When I saw that, I thought, “I have to do something for this guy. He’s given so much to us, it’s time that he got something in return.” I made it my business to find out what he needed and wanted in his life. He wanted to have exhibitions, so I found galleries that would show his work. We started a business together - we created a publishing firm and a mail order company. We got non-profit status and built an archive and museum for hundreds of other artists. I was his manager, his go-to man, his lover, his muse… I took on any role that was available and did it with eager enthusiasm, because I adored who he was and what he stood for. We had a working and personal relationship from 1977 until 1991 when he passed away. Since 1991, I carried forth his company and his foundation, and continued putting his work out into the world so that new people could discover it.

Let’s travel back in time for a second. How did Tom’s journey as an artist begin?

Some people are born and they are awake. They see their life as part of something much greater. Tom was born Toko Laaksonen in Finland and worked as a lieutenant in the army during World War II. He would say, “The war years were the best years of my life. I had so much sex with my fellow soldiers.”

Trying to find his footing as a homosexual in civilian life after the war was horrible for him. He found it so depressing. There was so much shame around it. And so he made it his life goal to see if he could affect that. To change the way gay men felt about themselves, and to see whether he could make straight people realize that gay people deserve to love each other just like anyone else loves.

How was Tom’s work received in his country of origin?

Towards the end of his life, Tom made it very clear that he wanted to be known in his homeland of Finland. The reason why he didn’t do it earlier was because he had a younger sibling who begged him not to come out and ruin the family name. She felt very negatively about his art and didn’t get it at all. He finally decided to override her and said, “Listen, I’m going to do this. It’s my life, I’ve only got a few years left and I want this to happen in Finland.” And it was like kismet. As soon as he made that choice, we had a Finnish publishing house contact us that they wanted to do a biography book on him. We also had a young documentarian who wanted to do a film on Tom - it was called Daddy and the Muscle Academy and was released in 1991 on television and then in movie houses.

After Tom died in 1991, I carried forth his vision to keep his work in the popular culture and to make sure that he was embedded deeply into Finland, so that they were proud of him as being one of theirs. Thirty years later, just last year, we had an exhibition at the National Gallery in Helsinki. It was the largest one-man show that had ever been mounted on the artist, with 179,000 people in attendance. The complexion of the audience was right across the board - young families, retired people… They were all very inquisitive and wanted to understand the whole complexity of what this artist was doing. If they couldn’t handle the sexual explicitness, they could handle it on a humanitarian and equalitarian level. There are so many ways in which you could present Tom - he would have artworks under the bed for people to get sexually aroused, and art books on coffee tables for people to be inspired.

Tom of Finland Skate art Edition "Durk" by THE SKATEROOM

You mentioned being drawn to his work in a way that didn’t make sense initially. Did that impact become clearer with time?

As soon as I wrote to him and he wrote me back, I already started to understand. When I hosted him here in LA for the first time, I started meeting other homosexual men that had similar experiences to me. They spotted his work, they knew that the work was meant for them and that they internalized it and used it as a building tool in developing who they were today. He was a father to them. The problem in this society was that heterosexual fathers often didn’t know how to be a father to their gay son. They didn’t really understand what homosexuality was and how it manifested. Many had very disconnected relationships with their fathers as a result. Relationships that were filled with shame on both ends.

There are not a lot of heroes in gay culture, but Tom of Finland is definitely one of them. When, in his 60s, he arrived in a cosmopolitan city like Los Angeles, and saw men holding hands and being open about who they were, he would shake a yes to himself and say, “you know - some of what I did must have had an impact.

Can you still feel the work resonating as strongly after all those years?

Each generation approaches his work in its own unique way. It’s very easy for this generation to find sex on the internet, but it’s not so easy for them to be sexual in their nature. They’re sort of shy, because they’ve been so cloistered within the digital realm. They use the cues that Tom put down in visual form to assist them. He also always had a very strong liking within the lesbian world. They didn’t let the fact that he was doing male-to-male interfere with the message of pride and love.

Tom has also become a hero for another group of people - artists. Artists are always having to deal with certain standards and expectations. If they want to be represented by galleries, they have to toe the line and stay within certain parameters. Otherwise museum institutions won’t show their work if they deem it too controversial. THE SKATEROOM is a great renegade. It’s a perfect example of stirring up and not willing to accept the norm.

Would Tom of Finland have been a skater?

He never drove a car. I was his chauffeur. He got to sit in the back of a big 1960’s convertible with big red fins on the end, so it was rather a visual experience. He never got a license so he learned to live life without driving. Where I’m going with this is that - yes, he would’ve been a skater, for sure.

Skateboards were the beginning of a very urban experience of not having to depend on a bus or car. You could be free from that and have your own means. The thing that I found fascinating about skateboarding is that, no matter how old you are, you’re always a skater. It’s in your blood. It’s in a way that you present yourself. It’s also great to see women, who have been historically excluded, pushing their way into the culture and saying, “I’m here too and I dig this.

One of the skate art editions included in our collection features an untitled painting of you. Could you tell us more about it?

You are free to call it “The Durk”. I’m 74 now and that was when I was 28. Tom took a photograph of me and then ****brought it home to Finland. There are several reasons why this piece is very special and unique. Mainly, he did not tend to work in photorealism, and this work was super photorealistic at the time. He gave it to me as a birthday gift in 1980. Then, he did different repetitions of me from other photoshoots and made that the backdrop. It was a complete surprise to me. I didn’t expect it and was blown away. To this day, the thing that really makes it stand out for me personally, is that I feel like he captured my soul.

In what way?

He was able to take the spirit that he experienced coming from me, and captured it within the actual work. I think Tom of Finland is an exceptional artist on many levels, but on this level, he truly is remarkable. He had the ability to communicate a clear message in an artwork, either through body language or facial expression.

All these young, developing, homosexual boys would discover his work back in the 50’s, at the neighborhood drug store. He would have worked on the covers of physique magazines. They were very non-explicit, but what they contained is the energy that a gay boy would spot and know that it was for him. And that’s exactly what Tom’s agenda was. He wanted it to be geared to them, so that they would find it, read it and embody it. So that they could grow up and be healthy and well-adjusted.

Tom often referred to his artworks as “dirty drawings”, but of course their impact was much more profound than this name would suggest.

He would always bring his artworks down to a sexual level and, in the beginning, I didn’t quite understand why he was doing this, because we were trying to elevate his image. He would say, “I can tell a piece of art will be really good if I have an erection while doing it.” I thought, “Why are you saying this Tom?” But then I discovered that it has to do with heightened sensitivity. When you’re sexually aroused, all of your senses are really fine tuned. You are very perceptive of the subtleties. And that’s where he was going. He was really feeling the sensitivity of the vision.

Your personal journey with Tom is very fascinating. To go from being a fan of his work, to becoming his collaborator and source of inspiration. How did your own story in the art world begin?

I grew up in Canada, rather rural. I started to take pictures of myself as a young teenager. I had just learned to photograph and how to develop my own film and so I was doing a little exploration in that department. But really it all started when I was 26. I went to New York and it seemed like doors were being opened for me within the gay subculture. Photographers like Bruce Weber would say to others, “You should photograph this guy.” I was a hottie, I can see it now. But back then I was just myself.

I learned how to work with the camera and to communicate. I really encourage artists to visually document their lives, in all different art forms. It’s so interesting to get an artist’s interpretation of who they are at a specific station in life. It’s very inspiring. I had one portrait done a couple of years ago, then I had a photograph done a year ago. I’m going to frame it and hang it. It talks to you and says, “Remember this time. Remember what was going on in your life.” I’m 74 now and every day that I get to spend here is gratis. It’s an additional gift because I’ve already lived a full life. But I’m not finished. There’s a lot I still want to achieve before I depart.

It would be very easy to just call you Tom of Finland’s muse. But actually your own life is so rich and so meaningful in relation to his.

I wrote a short bullet-point biography for myself at one point. One of the entries said, “At the age of 26, he became the tool for the gift that was Tom of Finland.” That’s what I’ve felt. A tool to be used in order to take the gift and proliferate it. To make it visible so that ongoing generations can take advantage of it. It was all predestined. I was Canadian and I was kicked out of the US three times because they didn’t want me. And yet, inside my heart, I knew that I needed to be in America and that I had something big that I was going to do there. I knew it instinctively so, everytime I’d get kicked out, I’d just find my way back.

I lost pretty much most of my friends and all of my partners in the AIDS epidemic. I had to start new so it was good that Tom came into my life because he gave me purpose. A person to care for and love.

The Tom of Finland Foundation is headquartered in Tom’s former LA home. What is the significance of this location?

My ex-lover, his lover and I had agreed that renting was not a cool thing because we never got any return on the money. We saved up and found this old, run-down house in Echo Park. Nobody seemed to want it so we bought it collectively and lived here like a commune. It was a brotherhood. That was in 1979 and I already had a building relationship with Tom. When he arrived, in 1980, we took him up to the top floor of the house and we showed him a room. It was isolated away from the busyness of the house and we said, “This is your room. You can come and go, be here, not be here… We’re not going to rent it out or let other people stay here. It’s yours.

That was when we were creating all these new business ventures for him and he was spending more time in America than he was back in Finland. He discovered that I would give him the isolation that he needed, as well as the comradery that he thrived on. He got to build really cool dynamic friendships with people that he’d only corresponded with in previous years. Our company was working out of the house, then we started the foundation and it still has its headquarters here. Tom was also having salon nights for the community to come over and hang out. It was, and is, a hub.

How are you fostering this creative hub today?

We do tours, we do events - we just did an event for reverend Steven Johnson Leyba who has been an artist in residence here. He’s an outsider, a renegade, a priest in the Satanic church and a radical. He loves to shake things up and get people to examine themselves. He did a presentation of the work that he’s done in the last month. It was written word and a performance piece - a very well known porn actress urinated on him while he was reciting his poetry. He is definitely a fringe artist as far as exploration goes. We do 12 artists a year here.

That’s a lot of artists!

Yes. It doesn’t give much room for downtime. It’s probably the force that’s keeping me alive.

The force and clearly an everlasting devotion to Tom. It’s incredible to hear how intertwined your lives have been.

You can’t separate them. When you’re devoted to someone and you have the passion, your life becomes them and their life becomes you. And then it’s just the life.