Positioned on a hilly residential street in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from Dodger Stadium, sits “TOM House”, a two-story shrine to hyper masculine, NSFW art. A casual visitor may be forgiven for missing it; a stately California Craftsman home on palm tree-lined Laveta Terrace, built in 1911 when the newly subdivided land was still known as Sunset Boulevard Heights. Curl behind a verdant wall of hedges and open the black wooden gate into the private-public museum for the Tom of Finland Foundation, an arts organization dedicated to protecting, preserving, and documenting the works of Tom of Finland, perhaps pop culture’s most influential creator of explicit gay images. The foundation bills itself as the world’s largest repository of erotic art, with more than 100,000 images, materials - 3,500 of which belong to the iconic artist himself.
Meet the artist
Born Touko Laaksonen in 1920 and raised by schoolteachers in a rural town in southwestern Finland, Tom of Finland, as he’d later be christened, started sketching hyper sexualized figures at an early age. After a stint in the Finnish army, Laaksonen moved to Helsinki to work as an illustrator at renowned advertising agency McCann Erickson. In 1956, at the urging of a friend, Laaksonen submitted his illustrations to American magazine Physique Pictorial, an infamous fitness magazine depicting muscular men in athletic poses. This “beefcake” magazine, as it was called, would publish his first drawing in 1957 under the pseudonym Tom of Finland.
After his his first major exhibition in Hamburg, Germany in 1976, LA scenester, Durk Dehner invited Tom to stay at his home in Echo Park and helped him showcase his artwork in galleries around Los Angeles and San Francisco. This property, which would come to be affectionately known as TOM House, became a regular gathering point for queer artists and celebrities, including Robert Mapplethorpe and John Waters.
In 1984, the focus of the newly formed Tom of Finland Foundation quickly shifted to not only securing Tom’s legacy, but safeguarding queer erotic art in general, largely due to many HIV-infected artists who wanted to posthumously preserve their own work. Tom’s studio was by then nestled in the attic, where he would create the notable portraits that would influence the likes of artist Mike Kelley as well as fashion designers Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler and Queen’s Freddie Mercury. He would create work there until 1989. After being diagnosed with emphysema, Tom departed for Finland, where he died in November 1991.
Visit TOM House
The house continues to serve as a haven for queer positivity. The City of Los Angeles identified TOM House as a potential historic resource in its 2014 SurveyLA LGBT Historic Context Statement, and in November 2016, City Council designated it Historic-Cultural Monument #1135, granting it landmark status and solidifying its place in LGBTQ+ history.
Tours of the house are available to see art from the archives, rotated for viewing throughout the home. On any given day, one will see works from John Waters, Arthur Tress, Hector Silva, Etienne and George Quaintance and more. Mapplethorpe’s famous portrait of Tom hangs in the oak staircase. Tom’s attic studio remains intact, with brushes, drawing implements, and his final piece depicting a soldier on his window-facing desk. His leather jackets hang in a corner, and an original copy of the 1957 Physique Pictorial issue, with Tom’s iconic cover drawing sits on a shelf. The backyard is a maze of murals and installation pieces.
The TOM House Artist-in-Residence program is open to artists from around the world. A tea salon is held every Wednesday, and life drawing sessions are available on a monthly basis. During the annual Tom of Finland Arts and Cultural Festival, in October, art works are offered for sale, there are readings, speaker panels, DJs, and an award presentation for notable figures and allies. Various fundraising events, membership dues, donations, and the work of volunteers allow the foundation to continue its programming and preservation efforts. For more information, see the Tom of Finland Foundation website.