Updated: Feb 26
Tom of Finland was born Touko Valio Laaksonen on 8 May 1920. From the 1950s to 1980s, Laaksonen produced erotic fantasy drawings of muscular lumberjacks, bulging sailors, strapping cops and leather-clad bikers. His work had a marked influence on late-20th century gay culture, inspiring the look of New York band the Village People and Queen's Freddie Mercury.
After spending the day as a senior art director at advertising agency McCann Erickson in his native Finland, Laaksonen would head home and draw his sexual fantasies. In 1957, his work was published in American magazine Physique Pictorial, sold worldwide in sex shops and bars, despite laws against the distribution of explicit material. For the 1957 Spring issue, Laaksonen was given the pseudonym Tom. By the time the winter issue was ready, editor Bob Mizer had dubbed him Tom of Finland. The Spring 1957 cover featured Tom's drawing of two log drivers at work, this was an invitation to turn the page and find out what these bastions of Finnish culture got up to next. Tom drew policemen, bikers, military types and other macho authority figures enjoying group sex. “In his drawings he’s basically ridiculing the authorities,” says Dome Karukoski, director of the Tom of Finland film. “The cops are beating [homosexuals] in the park and then he’s inviting them for sex.”
This was subversive stuff. Both male and female homosexuality became legal in Finland in 1971, with "promotion" of it decriminalized and the age of consent equalized in 1999. Homosexuality was declassified as an illness in 1981.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, US censorship codes restricted the depiction of "overt homosexual acts". Healthy young men working out together in gyms and saluting the flag was fine and dandy. Being gay was acknowledged so long as didn't involve any actual sex.
How times change. In 2003, the Tom of Finland Foundation licensed an anatomically correct action figure, albeit with two pairs of spare feet, and three extra detachable penises. Named '001 Rebel', this hyper-masculine love doll's package came with two condoms, one large enough to slip over doll's oversized member and a tongue-in-cheek warning about 'choking hazards'. The doll is dressed in biker boots, white tee and leather trousers - all removable.
Finland's best-known artist also inspired a set of postage stamps, which after their 2014 launch became the most popular stamp set in the history of the Finnish Postal Service. Tom was further honoured in 2017, when an icon of a moustachioed man in a leather biker's cap bearing the legend 'TOM' was one of 56 official State-endorsed emojis celebrating the best of Finnish culture.
Modern-day Finland loves Tom and his defiant, liberated depictions of gay men. According to Itella, the Finnish postal service, Tom of Finland's "emphatically masculine homoerotic drawings have attained iconic status in their genre and had an influence on, for instance, pop culture and fashion. In his works, Tom of Finland utilized the self-irony and humor typical of subcultures."
Tom of Finland's men display their primary and secondary sexual characteristics with a baboon subtlety and better-looking bodies. Hold that timid frotting and effeminate nudge-nudge innuendo of classical art. Tom of Finland's macho men know what they want - they want one another, and they're wondering if you want to join them.
And there's sensitivity in his drawings and illustrations. The subjects are beguiling, bright-eyed men possessed of a direct sensitivity. They're looking for love. Because gay sex is love. It's not reverential art, seeking approval from the prudes, straights and fearful. This is show without telling. No taffeta and silk innuendo, classical motifs and strategically-placed plant pots. The men's confidence and ease within their own skins blurs the line between porn and art. This is us, they say. Take it or leave it.
Tom of Finland: Born Touko Valio Laaksonen, 8 May 1920, Kaarina, Finland; Died 7 November 1991, Helsinki, Finland.
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