Durk Dehner

Interview by
Jordan Tannahill
Photography by
Milan Zrnic

Canadian Durk Dehner is a leather and rubber fanatic from Echo Park, LA. If anybody’s entitled to represent the incredible legacy of X-rated artist Tom of Finland, it’s Durk. He happily served as Tom’s model, fuck buddy and best friend until Tom’s passing in 1991, and has run the Tom of Finland Foundation ever since. Occasionally mistaken as a member of Hell’s Angels, Durk has been arrested by the Uruguayan military police and contracted a serious case of crabs at age nine. Jordan Tannahill, a fellow Canadian and fetish freak, unearths these and other scandalous anecdotes from Durk, including the oath he made to himself on his 73rd birthday.

Jordan: Hi Durk, happy birthday.
Durk: It’s a little bit over, but I’ll still take the happy birthdays.
I’m just trying to find a pen here. I had one a moment ago. One second. Oh, it’s between my legs, sorry–
You certainly still have your Canadian accent. ‘Sorry! So sorry…’ (both laugh)
You grew up in Alberta, right? Do you think the rodeo culture, the Calgary Stampede and the cowboy uniforms, affected your sexuality?
When I was very young, my family sold the farm and moved to the city, but I was still sent to the country for the summers. As far as rodeos, I had my own cowboy hat, and I still have the belt buckle that my dad gave me. I even performed at the Stampede as a magician’s assistant. But I left Alberta when I was 18 and moved to Montreal, and then followed some friends to Europe. I traveled, hitchhiking. It was definitely a time of self-discovery.
You and I are both heavily involved in fetish subculture. I’m immersed in the latex scene in London, whereas you’ve been inducted into the Leather Hall of Fame. Leather obviously plays a large role in your personal iconography.
I’m very much into leather.
What sensations or associations does leather produce for you, what’s the enduring appeal?
To be honest, rubber came before leather.
Yes. I was like six, seven, and I’d go down in the basement. My father was a hunter, and a fisherman, and also a lineman, so he lived out in the elements. I’d lay out all of his rubber coats, hip and chest waders on the floor, and I’d take off all of my clothes, and roll around in it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I liked the smell. I liked the feeling of it. That was the beginning.
When did leather come into the picture?
Leather, actually, was more associated with manhood. The guys I wanted to become were bikers. They wore leather and engineer boots. They were my idols. And of course, I’d go down to the Harley shop every Saturday and I’d be the kid who’d beg the guys to let me polish their bikes so that maybe, just maybe, they’d give me a ride.
How old were you?
Like ten.
Did you ever get that ride?
Yes. Occasionally.

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I remember reading that around the age of nine you’d go to public washrooms and watch men cruising, and around eleven you had a formative sexual experience with a man of eighteen.
Eighteen, yes. It was perfect. He was who I wanted to become. And he knew that, intuitively, and made sure my experience was positive. But you know, it’s interesting – we can’t really talk about it. Of course, you and I are talking about it. We live in a society where we can’t really be honest, one that thinks kids cannot be the instigator, and being an adult now, it can be misconstrued that I’m promoting pedophilia rather than just sharing my personal experience.
How did you meet him?
He was one of those Harley guys at the shop on Saturdays. He happened to live in our neighborhood too, so there was a connection.
Do you think he would’ve identified as gay?
I don’t know. That’s an interesting thing because… I’m laughing… One time this kid was beating me up, and he spit in my mouth because he thought I wouldn’t like it. (both laugh)
Little did he know.
Little did he know! Anyways, I’ve definitely been part of leather culture, and I am part of leather culture, but rubber is something that takes me to a different place. It produces a kind of craving, and desire, and sometimes I don’t even feel human when I’m wearing it.
I agree. It’s almost another body.
Yes. I feel like a creature. It’s very primal.
That’s what I love about it. Also, when I’m wearing a latex dog mask, it’s a chance to be other-than-human.
To inhabit another body, another form.
It liberates you, doesn’t it?
It’s like a second skin. It’s deeply sensual. Bodily transformation has always been fascinating to me. I’ve always had this existential question, ‘Why this one body?’ I love this idea of inhabiting other bodies or beings.
How did you first come to rubber?
I’ve been involved in rubber for about four years now.
In London?
Yes, and Berlin. Both great fetish cities, of course. And throughout that time, I’ve be quite active in sex work related to fetish and role play. It started out as a necessity, I needed to pay bills, pay rent. That need returned during lockdown.
From what perspective were you doing it, as a top, or as a bottom?
Mostly as a top, mostly as a dom.
Because a lot of guys who are into latex, they love to be in bondage.
Yes. And mummification.
Yes, all of that.

One time this kid was beating me up, and he spit in my mouth because he thought I wouldn't like it.

What I often do on the job is be the dom who transforms people. I’ll be the one who puts them into fetish wear and then act as their master.
You have the psyche for it. You’re naturally that way to begin with, so it’s really just tapping into that part of your personality.
Absolutely. As a writer, I really enjoy the psychological and narrative aspect of role-play. I love creating and inhabiting a fictive world with someone.
It’s so needed. You get to see how important this is for their being.
They cannot feel fulfilled in life unless they find somebody to participate with them in this arena. And I say this as someone who’s in contact with a lot of other rubber guys online, and in Berlin. But you know, I cannot intellectualize it, I cannot justify it. It’s something that isn’t explainable. But I agree with you – it’s a second skin. Within us, we contain many aspects, many beings. Even as a kid, I was obsessed with it.
Where do you think fetishes take their root? In childhood? In trauma? In…
I think it’s in our DNA. I cannot speak for all homosexuals, but certainly within the expanded male community, I have found that fetishes happen naturally and without indoctrination. I think we’re very creative beings. And a lot of us live with ADHD and bipolar disorder. It’s part of the package of being creative. We just naturally explore, you know, areas that others don’t. Homosexuals are the story tellers.
We know you as the co-founder of the Tom of Finland foundation, but how did you meet Mr. Laaksonen?
That came much earlier. I was at The Spike in New York City, and I just glanced at a very poor reproduction of Tom’s drawing. It just had this attraction, it pulled me in. It wasn’t even like that particular drawing was up my alley, or whatever. It was of this leather guy and for sure that excited me and it had this energy that made me focus on it and made me want to have it. So, I took the poster. The next day I had this photoshoot at Target Studios, they were like Colt Studios and had a stable of men. The photoshoot was happening because I’d won this leather contest at The Eagle’s Nest where I had raised hell, and just tore the place apart, getting guys to lick my boots, and slapping their asses… (both laugh) It was the only contest I’d ever won. So, I went to the studio, and there happened to be an artist in-residence, Dom Orejudos, who went by the name Etienne, and I showed the poster to him, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Tom of Finland! Do you like it?’ And I told him that it really caught me off-guard, like it was magnetic. I’d never had that experience with art before. And he said, ‘I have his address if you want to write him.’ So I wrote Tom a letter, he wrote me back, and we became pen pals. Soon after, I moved to LA and coincidentally, Tom wrote me and said that he was coming to America for the first time, to Los Angeles. He stayed with me for five weeks. There’s a funny letter he wrote to a friend where he goes on about how I was a great guy, and a good host, but I took him too much to the bars and the baths, even when I was so tired, and that I was for sure going to burn out, and that I wouldn’t be able to go for the long-haul. Well, I proved him wrong. (both laugh)
You certainly have. And were you guys ever lovers?
Yes. You know, the thing about it was that back then people didn’t categorize. The first thing I became was his friend and I was a model. He wanted me to pose, and so he did photoshoots, and then worked from those photographs and drew things, different scenarios, and individual portraits, things like that. When he was here we had sex.
Was he a top or a bottom?
He was a top.
Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. What were your early discussions with Tom like?
Tom was a working artist and had sold most works, but he did save works from his childhood, and from when he was in his twenties. He had held onto a lot of preliminary drawings, hundreds, thousands, like two thousand. He desired to leave some kind of legacy, so he wouldn’t be forgotten. What I got to experience was going with him to public events, exhibitions, and there being a line of guys waiting patiently to shake his hand, and to tell him from deep in their hearts how much he’d done for them. His drawings were their saving grace. They grew up in places where fags were just hated, and he provided this positive attitude. Thousands of guys had grown up with Tom’s drawings, and were really affected by them. I said to myself, ‘I gotta do whatever he needs. I’m committed to making sure this man gets to mark everything off of his bucket list.’


What was the first thing he checked off?
Well, one thing he was really angry about were all the knock-off reproductions of his drawings in the States. All of it was mafia controlled and he wasn’t getting paid. I told him he needed to take control of his work. We thought we’d start with one little book. We were referred to a place here in the Valley and we sat across the desk from this man, a stout guy smoking a cigar and he said to Tom, ‘I want to shake your hand. Your drawings have put my kids through college.’ Tom got so red in the face that I could see the steam coming out of his ears. We left that office so upset and decided to start our own mail-order company. That was in 1980, and in 1984 we co-founded the Foundation.
What was the experience with that first book? Was it a success?
We were able to find a printer that specialized in adult material, in the Valley, but we couldn’t find anywhere in Southern California willing to bind it. One company said their employees refused to even touch it. They were Christian people. (laughs) We found another bindery in North Hollywood, a Jewish guy who only bound the Torah. He had no problem with the content, but said no because his only employee was his teenage daughter. I ended up having to hire two people to work for him. And we made it happen.
Oh, wow.
We did 40,000 copies.
What?! That’s a huge print run. What was it like getting that publication out in the world? Were there any obscenity trials related to the publication or dissemination of Tom’s work?
The Meese Report restricted the industry. Fisting wasn’t allowed in publication, nor was water sports, or S&M. There were thirteen states that everyone knew not to send materials because there would be postal inspectors who would be ordering these catalogues from adult companies, and when they crossed over state lines it then became a federal crime. Then the FBI would step in to make arrests, shut down businesses, and put people on trial.
Also, Canada hasn’t been nice to me. I always get pulled out of the regular security line, and I have to go sit in the back, where they make inquiries. I ask them, ‘Why? What is it? What do you have on me?’ And they say, ‘We can’t tell you.’
Do you have some suspicion?
The first time it happened they took my laptop and my phone, and left me sitting there. The phone they gave back to me, but they confiscated my laptop. Apparently, it contained material that showed people having sex with unhappy faces.
Oh, my God, you’re kidding. Is that a crime in Canada?
Yes. To bring it into the country. I got my laptop back, but six months later. It goes back to when we had the mail-order company. We were sending publications to Vancouver, to Little Sister’s Bookstore.
Little Sister’s, yes, of course.
Our publications would always get confiscated and destroyed by customs because they said the material was obscene. And Little Sister’s Bookstore finally had enough of it, and took customs to court. I heard that they’d won that case–
And that the laws have changed, but they haven’t.
In my own work, I think a lot about how pleasure has been policed throughout history because a pleasure-seeking individual, someone who is liberated, is difficult to control.
One of our current artist-in-residence, Paweł Żukowski, had his final presentation last Sunday, and it was remarkable… He has a piece with stenciled words that said, ‘Fisting is resistance.’ He’s absolutely right, because straight society doesn’t approve of fisting, they didn’t even know it existed. Only when AIDS hit did they end up finding out. Prior to that, it was just within inner circles of our culture, along with other exotic sexual practices. We’re explorers. We like to keep discovering pleasure. Something that so many people, so many artists for sure, really get about Tom’s work, is that he was presenting homosexuals in ways they’d never been seen before, he represents freedom, he gave them more choices, to be proud, to be well adjusted. I sort of feel like he was preparing my generation to grow up and become activists. Even though I didn’t discover Tom’s work until I was twenty-six, others who were the same age, and who had discovered his work when they were twelve, were going out into the streets to protest.
It’s extraordinary how much Tom’s artwork moved the narrative forward, and yet it still has the power to shock the establishment. I know that there’s a particular image of a police officer being fisted that MoMA found a bit unpalatable a few years back.
Yes, it’s a really amazing piece. There’s a cop in a deep kiss with a construction worker, and there’s another construction worker down on his knees fisting the cop while people watch in the background. It’s beautifully proportioned. Tom had mastered his technique, so it really was one of those special works.

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Do you mind telling that story?
In 2005, the Judith Rothschild Foundation had left instructions that some of her money was to be spent collecting works on paper from artists that hadn’t yet been given the recognition they deserved. The foundation’s trustee went around the United States collecting work, including six Tom of Finland drawings. The trustee offered all the collected works as a gift to MoMA, but the museum’s representative to the board came back and said, ‘You really need to take Tom’s drawing out of the offering, or it will jeopardize the whole gift.’
Which was like hundreds of pieces.
Fifteen hundred.
Fifteen hundred! This one drawing jeopardized the entire gift? There you go, the power of fisting.
And the trustee took it out. Now today, I don’t know. A lot has happened with Tom’s career since 2006, and there have been some progressive awakenings within the museum world.
You’ve so selflessly devoted yourself to preserving Tom’s work, but what’s great about this interview is the chance for us to celebrate you, and focus on what you’re passionate about at the moment.
I’ve always been a sensitive being. People tend to like me or they don’t. There’s no in-between. I’m a lot less sharp with my tongue now that I’m older. I got to see the last era of my life, which is commencing and it is being the Director of the Departure Lounge. It’s about assisting people so they can depart this life on their own terms. Not in a hospital or in a place where they can’t control their exit. I really think it’s important for people to pass in their own environment, and not in a hospice if they can avoid it.
I had no idea you’ve been doing this.
We all should be able to go in the way that we want to go. If you were going to plan your departure, how would you like that to be?
That’s a really interesting question for a lot of queer people because we have our biological family and we often have our chosen family. I’m lucky to be able to combine the two.
Everyone gets along?
Yes, I’m welcomed in my biological family. So, I’d ask everyone to Ottawa and I’d choose to pass outside. It’s a beautiful idea to be the Director of the Departure Lounge. To create that space.
There are so many possibilities. Some people like to have a raging party, where all their friends come and in the middle of it, they quietly retreat into the quietness of their bedroom while the party continues to go on. They take some medication and fall asleep.
I’d love to go to a rave actually. (laughs) A big rave with all my loved ones, even my parents, why not?
There are meds that take the pain away, but not the consciousness. We have all of this available to us. It’s because of religion that there are these taboos. I believe that when we die our bodies become stardust.
I have a similar belief, that when we die that the stuff that makes up our minds and bodies return to the earth. We’ve already been part of innumerable beings and inanimate objects and will continue to be recycled.
I once took psilocybin in the mountains in Alberta and my experience was that I was one with a creek, a waterfall. I saw the life force in it. Everything has life force.
I’ve had similar experiences on mushrooms. It has really taken away the fear of death for me.
If there is choice in the matter, I will choose to stay here and enjoy and celebrate my life, to appreciate and thrive on it.
Before we go, do you mind if I ask how you celebrated your birthday yesterday?
I celebrated it by making a pact with myself. When I was twenty, I was in Uruguay. I was in bed sleeping, and I either had a dream or I had a manifestation, but my father came to me, at the moment of his death. He was at the foot of my bed, and we were telepathically communicating with each other. He said, ‘I came to give you something, because I’m leaving.’ He waved his hand like a fan, and from the air popped all of these little Durk action figures. Each one of them wore a different outfit, and each outfit communicated a significant experience I was going to have later in my life. But they only went to the age of seventy-four. I’ve been a little bit concerned about that. Everything else has proven accurate. I made a pact with myself yesterday that I’m not going to expire at seventy-four. That I’m going to continue to live, and live vibrantly and full of vigor. I won’t stop creating a new future for myself.

Originally published in BUTT 31