I first laid eyes on Tom of Finland in 1980 at Stuffed Olives, a basement gay bar of some disrepute in downtown Manchester. Not the man himself, unfortunately, he was just a distant, mythical name. I’m referring to his art, and more specifically to the defining characteristics of that art: the men.
Tom’s men are a wake up call for the uninitiated. They are men to the power of ten. Not your average Joe, or boy next door, Tom’s man is a prime example of hyper masculinity pumped up to homoerotic largesse. The geometric jawlines, tumescent erections and otherworldly physiques are both lifelike and unreal. They ignite arousal in the most primal way, but the subject matter remains tantalisingly out of touch. They are Gods.
He is the artist behind some of the most iconic gay imagery ever produced, creating thousands of drawings, from the 1940s onwards, that robbed straight culture of its most masculine archetypes and recast them as leather-clad lotharios. These are gay men, but not gay men as imagined by the unsympathetic. The way they look, their manner, the unapologetic virility, kick-started a homosexual revolution that cannot be reversed.
Tom showed us that being attracted to the same sex was something to be encouraged and celebrated, gay longing, as personified by weakness and the imaginary limp wrist, was a thing consigned to the past. This unassuming Finnish man, acting on pure instinct and a healthy regard for his subject, created a club for heroes with its very own uniform. Although fictional, his furtive, well-hung studs, brimming with sexual energy, were far more than mere sketches. They were the blueprint for a parallel universe, a place where anything—and anyone—is possible. Tom was advocating a kind of gay liberation decades before that came to fruition. His bold, pleasure seeking characters defied convention and simply dared tao be. Those that dismissed his macho-chromatic work as cartoon porn are woefully short sighted. Tom’s men were the future.
There are generations of people for whom Tom represents an indelible part of their upbringing. Artists, photographers, performers—the unapologetically horny—have all fallen under his spell in some shape or form. Whether by default or design, Tom’s men, or what they represent, have united taste and sexuality in the most fluid way imaginable.
Paul Rutherford, one time member of pop provocateurs Frankie Goes To Hollywood, credits the imagery of Tom of Finland as a formative influence on the band’s visual identity and pro-gay stance. “I had this older friend, Yvonne Gilbert, who exposed Tom to us, and the imagery is something we really stole from. Of course, I wanted men like that, but for me it was more thrilling to see the drawings. It was art more than it was porn, stuck in this mad little place.
“I fancied the cartoons before I fancied the men,” he laughs. “Tom’s men were always good looking. They didn’t smell of sweat and poppers, they’re a fantasy you want to come to life. In fact, I was rather disappointed when I got to a gay club! Back then we created our own world. We weren’t scared of wearing leather in the middle of the day, or jockstraps to clubs. I think it was Tom of Finland who urged everyone on to do that.”
Roy Brown is a Tom of Finland drawing come to life. As a singer, model and muse to photographers such as Juergen Teller and Pierre et Gilles, his sculpted look and generously proportioned nipples are the stuff of subculture legend. If he had been born in another era, things might have been different, but the silhouette brought about by Tom’s lines determined his self image. “Tom was the awakening of me. I’d always been athletic, but as soon as I saw those images I started to work out really seriously. It gave me something to aspire to. I’ve always had large nipples. I used to hide them when I was younger because I was very uncomfortable, but Tom’s images said something to me and gave me a reason to celebrate them. Tom was almost like a fashion designer if you think about it. All those uniforms moulded onto the human form. Everything looked so lush and sensual—the jodhpurs the boots, the meticulous attention to detail. It was through those pictures that I got into the whole leather and rubber scene.”