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How Artist Tom of Finland Became a Club Culture Hero

DJ Hell opens up about the long-lasting legacy of a legendary artist.

by Josh Baines
Dec 21 2016, 1:45pm

You'll know Touko Valio Laaksone's work, even if you're not familiar with his birth name. As Tom of Finland, he produced over 3000 erotic, subversive and deeply seductive images, becoming one of the most heralded and celebrated artists of the 20th century.

Tom's world is an overtly homosocial and homosexual one, a world dominated by denim-clad authority figures who rule with a rod of iron and a massive cock. His work is simultaneously playful, celebratory, camp, excessive, and charming, so overtly sexual that it almost ceases to exist in any kind of sexual sphere. It is fantasy for the sake of fantasy, much in the same way that the nervous and neurotic drawings of Robert Crumb and his trademark amazonian dominatrices signify a desire to internalize sexuality rather than bring it into the living, breathingl world.

DJ Hell, the International Deejay Gigolos owner, and all-round European dance music head-honcho, has had an interest in ToF's work for years now, and recently decided to team up with the powers that be over at the Tom of Finland Foundation in order to conduct a kind of posthumous collaboration. The result is the video for "I Want U", which you can watch below. We decided to drop Hell a line to investigate just what it is about Tom's timeless drawings that have inspired both him and the dance community at large for nearly three decades now.

THUMP: What was your introduction to Tom of Finland's work? Can you remember the first image you saw?
DJ Hell: I have been admiring Tom of Finland´s work from a pretty early age on. The visible sexiness and strength of his muscular men, the delicacy of his pencil strokes—his work just amazed me. I don´t quite remember the first image I saw nor where.

What keeps you interested in it?
As said before, I had encountered his work when I was a youngster, growing up. What keeps me interested is that his work seems to timeless. The quality, the sceneries, the abstracted setting—everything seems as if it has been drawn recently. After all, the characters shown in Tom´s world still exist nowadays.

Would you say that ToF has had an influence on your music at all?
In my work as a DJ, music, art and fashion have always been influencing each other, being intertwined and unseparable from each other. So yes, in some way, Tom of Finland and his meaning for the entire gay scene has been essential for the development of the DJ culture as well. Given the fact, that the house scene got started by some, mostly gay DJs, any strong artistic presence has played their part in the creation of the big picture.

What role do you feel Tom's work plays in gay life in 2016?
Tom of Finland is still a big hero within the gay culture. With his L.A. based Foundation, run by his former partner Durk Dehner, and its exciting activities such as parties, live drawings, competitions etc, it´s still very contemporary and plays an active role in the gay movement.

Why did you want to work with the estate on this video?
With my latest single "I Want U", I wanted to pay tribute to the gay movement and its close connection to the DJ culture—although I am straight myself. So in order to make use of the images by Tom of Finland, we had to get official authorization to scan, use and in the end, animate Tom´s drawings. That´s why I ended up flying over to L.A., meeting with the CEOs of the Foundation, and signing a contract.

What role would you say desire and lust, play on the dancefloor?
A perfect party is when everyone enjoyed him/herself, lets loose and gives into the music played. This doesn´t necessarily imply any sexual action, though. Afterall, it really depends on the kind of party, the location and the people present. Being in business for more than 30 years and having worked on an international basis, I have seen all kind of parties: good ones, bad ones, sexy ones, boring ones.

On a serious note—do you think that contemporary dance music (and the coverage of dance music) overlooks its homosexual past, present, and future?
I'm not sure. Probably, some of the younger audience might not be aware of the fact how everything started and how the house & DJ culture has derived from the gay culture.

Finally, this single is taken from your new artist album ZUKUNFTSMUSIK, which drops in 2017. At this stage, can you tell us any more about the release?
My album is due to be released mid-April 2017. Be sure to expect something completely different than what you have heard from me before, but still something that ties into my general philosophy: Go where no man has gone before.

DJ Hell's latest single "I Want U" is out now.

Josh is on Twitter

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