Blog: Drawing the Erotic Imagination

This article contains adult content. 

Today marks International Sex Workers Rights Day. Most fans of Tomi’s know that his oeuvre is as diverse as they come, ranging from classic children’s books like The Three Robbers, to controversial adult work including political satire and erotica. But you might not have known that in the 1980s Tomi spent time living in a woman-run Hamburg bordello, sketching the women, observing their work lives and customers, and interviewing them. Diogenes Verlag published his reportage in Schutzengel der Hölle, (Guardian Angels of Hell), in 1986. Tomi looks back fondly on his time living with these women, some of whom became his lifelong friends. For International Sex Workers Rights Day, he shared some memories of his time writing this book, and his thoughts on sexual liberation.


 Schutzengel der Hölle opens with a dedication to Domenica, the maitre d’ of the brothel that Tomi lived in on Hamburg’s Herbertstraβe. She was the woman who invited Tomi to stay at the bordello to observe, draw and write about the women’s work, the life of the dominas and their customers. Tomi was invited into the matriarchy; there were no men controlling the commerce here. This street of bordellos in Hamburg’s Herbertstraβe was run by women, who decided their own conditions and specialities. “The street was absolutely run by women”, says Tomi. “See, I think really the horrible thing is pimps and men exploiting women. In that street, no pimps were allowed and every bordello was run by women. Wonderful women. In every bordello you had women who worked regularly and then you had the dominas. And every house would have a domina or two, and a torture chamber”. 

Schutzengel der Hölle, Tomi Ungerer

From Schutzengel der Hölle, © Tomi Ungerer/ Diogenes Verlag

The Stiefelfrauen of Herbertstraβe were a particular speciality of sex workers. Tomi’s drawings observe their thigh high leather boots,(which take twenty minutes to get into), corsets and complicated implements. He writes of the bordellos’ torture chambers, “furnished with great care”, with all means of S & M equipment. When we spoke, Tomi talked about the luxurious expense of some of this special equipment, “It’s right for the dominas to be able to make the leather costumes tax deductible. I mean those women are working, and part of their work is very expensive boots and leather outfits. Those things should be tax deductible!”

Every bordello on Herbertstraβe had a few women who worked “normal”, and a couple of dominatrixes. Tomi told me, “I think dominas should be more called psychologists or therapists, because they’re never touched by the customer. The dominas do all the applied torture.  They usually take over where the psychiatrist gives up.” One of Tomi’s friends from the bordello became a psychologist after she retired from sex work, and he believes that the dominas were providing a psychological service to men who had no other outlet, “No psychiatrist can settle a guy’s problem by pulling out his fingernail”.

Schutzengel der Hölle, Tomi Ungerer

From Schutzengel der Hölle © Tomi Ungerer/ Diogenes Verlag

Despite the intense nature of the professional goings on of the street, the bordello was a neighbourly world. The dominas soon accepted Tomi and his work, and the area of Herbertstraβe became a village to him, populated by aunties, sisters and cousins. Tomi told me about a time when one of the bordello’s sex workers received a visit from her brother and his children, who had no qualms about  visiting their sister and aunt in her place of work. “That is a sexual freedom”, he explained, to take the taboo out of sex work enough to invite family members into your work place.

Aside from Tomi’s preface, Schutzengel der Hölle is made up of interviews with the women of the bordello, and other sex workers from the surrounding area. Tomi met everyone through Domenica -the women of the area trusted her and visitors began to arrive to the bordello in order to speak to Tomi and tell him stories. The format of the book puts the women’s stories and anecdotes centre stage, and Tomi was allowed an access that no other visitor would have had.

The greatest compliment

In the preface of Schutzengel der Hölle, Tomi anticipates a negative reaction from the same people who criticised his sexual satire and erotica in earlier years:

“’People will cry, ‘typical Ungerer, with his exaggerations and imagination…trying to shock people again with his disgusting view of things’”.  His pre-emptive defence is to assure us that, although satire is derived from exaggeration, here he is not trying to satirise. “Now I’m more concerned with reality, which as we all know is stranger than fiction.”

Schutzengel der Hölle, Tomi Ungerer

Schutzengel der Hölle, © Tomi Ungerer/ Diogenes Verlag Zurich

So what was the reaction to the book actually like? “The head of the German Sexual Institute said it was one of the most detailed and best researched books that ever came out on the subject. And why? Because I lived there, I was not like a reporter…And the greatest compliment was the woman who wrote me and said, it was the first time in her life that a book made her vomit”.

Stranger than fiction

The style of the drawings in this book is certainly more naturalistic than satirical, with the delicate lines and observational style that Tomi developed in his time in Canada. There are soft and shaded pencil drawings of the equipment strewn around the bordello. Drawings of Tomi’s room, where he slept on a black vinyl bed, covered with crisp white bedlinen for his stay. And there are lots of portraits of the women themselves. Tomi’s portraits of the sex workers portray both the intricacies of their work, lacing up their boots, readying themselves for a shift; and the intimacy of the small moments of down time within this community of women.

Schutzengel der Hölle, Tomi Ungerer

From Schutzengel der Hölle, © Tomi Ungerer/ Diogenes Verlag

His work pays respect to the effort put in by the women to inhabit this particular aesthetic of sex and erotica, and the work they do to fulfil the fantasies of the men who visit them. When I spoke to Tomi, he told me that, although sex is an animal instinct, “where we’re superior as human beings is eroticism, that’s our luxury. And I always said that eroticism is based on fantasies and phantasms. And I think women have absolutely the same rights as men to have their fantasies and phantasms and all that.”

Sex and the imagination

Tomi’s career has seen him take on many causes, and one of them was always sexual freedom. During his years living in New York, creating iconic advertising campaigns and bestselling children’s books, he discovered the imaginative possibilities of erotica. It was a whole new creative avenue for an artist, but one not without its risks. At his recent talk at Kilkenny Animated, Tomi said that drawing allowed him “to find a living space for my imagination”.  And it seemed that, even in the age of revolution, drawings were the only place in whichhe could have total freedom. The puritan institution of children’s literature was outraged to discover that aside from his children’s books, Tomi’s output included subersive adult artwork.  in the  This challenging work caused a stir in the 1960s, particularly his collection of satiricaldrawings, Fornicon.

Fornicon by Tomi Ungerer

Fornicon, © Tomi Ungerer

Fornicon is a collection of satirical drawings that show sexual acts being carried out by machinery. The collection contains some of Tomi’s most accomplished line drawing, but for a lot of people they were too much. In an archival interview from the time of Fornicon, Tomi expresses his bewilderment that people could protest the drawings on the grounds of them being erotica. “They are completely unerotic. In Fornicon I used the sexual element to illustrate this tragedy. The tragedy of discommunication, the people have come to have no communication, it’s all machine-like.”


Tomi’s most loyal publishers in the intervening years have since been in Europe, and he has spoken of the difference in outlooks between the USA and Europe, the latter being more liberal. In an interview for Dazed some years ago, he viewed  France and Germany as much more progressive than the USA, “I meet people there who say ‘Oh my god! When I was 13, I saved my money to buy your erotic book on frogs!’ I must say, on the continent there is much greater freedom.”

Das Kamasutra der Frösche, Tomi Ungerer

Das Kamasutra der Frösche, © Tomi Ungerer/ Diogenes Verlag

This difference in attitude to sex between Europe and elsewhere came into focus in the UK in the 1980s, when a crowd of radical feminists defaced Tomi’s exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, after it had had a successful and undisturbed showing the Louvre in Paris.  When I asked Tomi what grounds they gave for their protest, he says he never met them. “They came later on, with sprays and foul language.”

“I can understand, look, the women have to fight the war. And there’s many ways of fighting wars…But I think when they picked on me, they picked on the wrong person. Ever since I was young I had considered the women’s position.”

Nowadays, Tomi’s erotica has begun to be viewed differently, even in the UK and USA. In 2001, he published a collected volume of erotic drawings called Erotoscope, and found that finally, opinions were starting to shift. Much of the crowds at his book signings were made up of young women who were not in any way embarrassed to be buying a volume of vintage erotica!  “Several times when I came to sign books there were more women than men, that’s how I knew that the battle was won.

-Words by Sophie Meehan. With thanks to Diogenes Verlag, Zurich. 



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