Tomi Ungerer is an extraordinary man. Not least because he’s almost undoubtedly the only 83-year-old illustrator who tells you about men who can only orgasm when their nails are being pulled out by pliers in the first minutes of an interview.
It’s very easy to pick up on sensationalist details like this when discussing Tomi’s work and career, but they’re very much the tip of a vast iceberg. His wry smile as he sits sipping a glass of red wine (at 11am) in an east London hotel lobby proves, if proof were needed, how much he relishes provocation. He delights in being, in his words, “an agent provocateur.” But of course, his breed of provocation isn’t about shock value for shock value’s sake. An illustrator with a career as illustrious as Tomi’s can’t rely on infamy alone – he must not only have talent, but the sort of ideas that can only be born of the anger, political underpinnings and sense of societal injustice he has.
To give as brief a background as Tomi’s story will allow, he grew up in the Alsace region of France, which was under Nazi control. “At home we were French, in the streets I was Alsatian and in school I was German.” Tomi often speaks of this time in interviews with a brutal honesty – and a full awareness of his words’ potential to elicit discomfort. “The school system was brilliant, I learnt how to speak English fluently under the Nazis,” he says. Aside from making him completely trilingual, those war years also had a profound influence on Tomi’s work. “It’s rather Germanic and punchy, I might be Goebbels’ best pupil,” says, with that knowing smile – an ‘I know I’m being provocative’ look – making a reappearance. “It’s a fact – I was exposed to all this propaganda, I’m brainwashed. I know how someone looks when they step on a mine and what the bloody stump looks like.
“My work is rather Germanic and punchy. It’s a fact – I was exposed to all this propaganda, I’m brainwashed. I know how someone looks when they step on a mine and what the bloody stump looks like."
Tomi’s artistic career began in illustrating children’s books, working in New York. His debut, The Mellops go Flying, was published by Harper and Row in 1957, and throughout the same year he was working with publications including Esquire, Harper’s, and The New York Times.
During the 60s, that era of the “sexual liberation” we discuss as so quaint and utopian today, he began making erotic works. For all the tales of liberal ideas we’re told about, the reality of the time wasn’t one of nipples gently outlined in floaty fabrics, flowers in hair and acceptance. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Tomi’s work helped that revolution gain momentum, despite the fact they were banned and he was effectively blacklisted in the US and UK. His relationships with the US authorities were never easy thanks to his powerful satirical views, resulting in some moments that make for brilliant stories today; but surely terrifying realities at the time. “I was kidnapped by the FBI,” he nonchalantly tells me. “This goes way back to the McCarthy years. I was meant to be going to China as a reporter, and I was already at the airport even though I’d been told that if I went I wouldn’t be allowed back into America. They already knew I was playing poker once a week with the Cuban ambassador I suppose…But even a stamp collector wasn’t allowed Chinese stamps in their collection.”
He continues: “There was a guy to my left, one on my right and one behind me and they said ‘drop your suitcases and follow me sir’. So I dropped my suitcases and the guy behind me took one of them, one grabbed me by the arm, put me in the car which was already dark they and drove me somewhere, I don’t know where. They put me in a room that was completely white with a big lamp they undressed me and asked me questions, they even opened the soles of my shoes to look for messages.”
Despite these considerable challenges, Tomi continued to make his erotic works alongside his children’s books – it was the mixture of the two that seem to have been the nub of the issue. They were simply not published in English. People simply couldn’t accept that the same man who made beautiful illustrated books for children could also make works about sadomasichism.
“Nobody would touch me, so my books weren’t in public libraries any more. Oh, it was a compliment! Especially in America. I thought ‘oh great,’ I was so proud. Look, I’m bragging, I’m peacocking. But my work’s been translated in 44 languages.”
He has every right to peacock. Tomi’s beliefs about sexuality were startlingly progressive at the time. Today, when the word “feminism” is bandied about so much that it’s used as a cheap hook for marketing (often, ironically, marketing to women), it’s a fashionable term. When Tomi was espousing his beliefs about gender equality, the rights of prostitutes and the psychology behind some men’s desires to be dominated by a woman, the ideas were utterly radical. He found that the majority of those who did appreciate his work were in fact women. Likely they felt empowered – his work doesn’t blindly fetishise and objectify the female body, it gives it agency and power. And above all, it celebrates that thing that people even now are so shy about celebrating – the strangeness and complexity of sex.
“ I tried to get dominatrices to have their leather outfits and all this tax deductible. Why shouldn’t they have social security and things if they have a job?"
His most famous erotic work is 1969’s Fornicon, which he tells me is “still legally banned in England.” The illustrations he was making during those years were stark but utterly faithful portrayals of sadomasichistic sex, and he met many of the dominatrices working in Herbertstraße, a street in Hamburg famed for its prostitution. “I lived on and off in the street, where the prostitutes are in the women, and the houses are all run by women. I did a book on the dominas with the greatest respect, as they do the work where the psychiatrists stop. They are never touched by men – they only administer torture. I had the greatest compliment with this book when a woman told me it was the only book that had ever made her throw up.
“Being a domina is a vocation. I heard about a young customer who didn’t come very often, because he could only orgasm if [the dominatrix] pulled out one of his fingernails with a pair of pliers, and another who could only have orgasms with his tongue put on a wooden block with a hammer and nails.”
Tomi’s unflinching reactions and total respect for the women he sees as “therapists” formed works that were in equal parts erotic, disturbing and forward-thinking in their feminist undertones. “Translated in English, my book Schutzengel der Holle (made in 1986 in Hamburg) means The Guardian Angels of Hell,” he says.
“I’m very much for prostitution but the biggest abomination is the pimp exploiting them but if a woman wants to do her job she’s allowed to do it with the greatest respect. “[Prostitution and sexual peccadilloes] have always been there why not admit it and see the therapeutic value of those women. I went much further; I tried for them to have their leather outfits and all this tax deductible. Why shouldn’t they have social security if they have a job?
“I really contributed to the sexual revolution: when my book Erotoscope was published by Taschen I knew something had happened, as there were often more women at signing sessions than men. The trouble never came from the feminists because I believe in rights and equality, and that every human has its own rights.”
Aside from the controversy his erotic works courted. Tomi’s forthright responses to political events were equally important in cementing him as the thinking man’s enfant terrible of the illustration world. The works are born of both a passionate drive for fairness and a relentless ambition to show people another view of the world – even if it’s one they might not like. Making work from these politicised origins to defiantly tell a story or espouse a view seems to be something getting lost in the illustration of today. For people outside of that world, “illustration” is just as likely to mean a twee drawing of a bear on a tea towel as it is a delineation of societal issues.
“My disgust or my anger feeds my work. Anything that’s negative, I use as my fuel – inferiority complexes, anger….it all feeds in,” says Tomi. “But for me the most important work [comes from] frustration. Illustration is a vehicle, yes, and artists [today] aren’t as engaged. You have to decide which causes you get behind. I’ve always been working against racism, and I’m very active in that in the European Council.
“You cannot change the world but every day with a bit of a smile on your face you can change what’s around you. I’m a bit of a missionary, and I talk like one sometimes. Now I’m at an age where I can influence others. I’ve taken in so many influences and I’m here now with mine to influence to the next [generations of illustrators]. This is our function as artists – to pass on what we’ve done and learned as a legacy.”
“My disgust or my anger feeds my work. Anything that’s negative, I use as my fuel”
As our interview draws to a close, I start to wonder what’s given Tomi and his work such longevity. As he reaches for his smoking papers to roll a cigarette, I can only assume that in part he must be held together by a rather European prescription of nicotine and red wine. This is coupled with his upfront attitudes to sexuality, openness to ideas about the supernatural (poltergeists are another glorious tangent our conversation takes) and defiantly provocative streak – our interview is punctuated with a joyously narrated tale of a young girl (“an angel!”) who offered herself up as a “slave.” As such, perhaps what’s ensured his longevity is a certain brand of joie de vivre. But the phrase feels too safe. It’s more like joie de rebellion. Yes, he’s in his mid 80s – no, he won’t calm down or temper his forthright opinions.