The Hypersexual and Controversial Art of a Gay Icon

Artist Silvia Prada’s drawings (left), and Tom of Finland’s reference material from his archive.

By day, Touko Valio Laaksonen was a corporate advertiser in Helsinki, Finland. By night, he was Tom of Finland, a revolutionary artist whose drawings of hypermasculine men brought gay pornographic images into the mainstream in the 1960s and ’70s. Almost 70 years after he started his career, the new book TOM, by artist Silvia Prada, re-illustrates his work and archive through her eyes.

Each page juxtaposes Finland’s scrapbooks with Prada’s delicate graphite sketches. Prada was the first woman to be given unlimited access to Finland’s archives through Tom of Finland Foundation, which has managed Finland’s archives and maintains a museum in Los Angeles since 1984.

Finland began his career in the 1950s by submitting illustrations to American magazines, at a time when male nudity was censored in the U.S. He sent drawings of well-endowed, muscular men — often in uniform — under the pseudonym “Tom.” One editor added “of Finland” to his byline, and the nom de plume was born.

Finland cultivated many photo scrapbooks (now part of his his archive) and re-created them as pencil drawings. His early work featured macho-bikers in leather jackets, which challenged public perceptions of gay men as weak at the time. The drawings continued to face adversity due to discriminatory U.S. state anti-sodomy laws prohibiting sex between men in the ’60s and ’70s. After male nudity was decriminalized in the latter decade, Finland gained popularity and quit his day job as an advertiser.

For some closeted men at the time, Finland’s artwork may have provided the only connection to their sexuality. The artist embraced this sentiment, saying in 1990, “My drawings are primarily meant for guys who may have experienced misunderstanding and oppression and feel that they have somehow failed in their lives. … I want to encourage this minority group, to tell them not to give up, to think positively about their act and whole being.”

Prada, on the other hand, is known for her pop-art sketches of celebrities. She says she became “obsessed” with Finland after reading about him in one of Andy Warhol’s editions of Interview magazine. Like Finland, she works a lot in pencil and draws photo-realistic images of icons, which is one reason why the Tom of Finland Foundation reached out to Prada to make the new book.

A spread from the book TOM.

In her drawings for TOM, Prada wanted to pay homage to the difficulties of being a gay man at the height of Finland’s fame in the mid-20th century, but also approach it with her own femininity. “All the gay culture we can never forget,” she says. “We need to be more aware of that time when the struggle of being a gay man was part of the art. I think the female perspective comes through in a way that’s more emotional and erotic than sexual. It’s also a little bit chic.”


See WWD’s photos from Silvia Prada’s Fêtes Tom of Finland-Inspired Book in New York – 15 November


Florian Hetz – “ECHO PARK” | 25th February | TOM House

Shot During the Artist’s Residency at Tom of Finland Foundation

my starting point for this work was a quote
by tom of finland from his first fine art book in 1988:

At the time when I became aware of my sexual direction, before World War II, all Gay activity was forbidden by law in most countries. The Gay men that I met felt ashamed and guilty, like belonging to lower human category because they had no right to enjoy their different sexuality. In my opinion it was very unfair, but even though I had to hide my own desires – or maybe because of it – I started drawing fantasies of free and happy Gay men.

in 2018, when a majority of americans still say
they feel uncomfortable with LGBTQ people,
and the rate of hate crimes against the queer community
is increasing globally,
i felt the strong need to portray gay sexuality and life in
its diversity in the USA.

tom house in echo park, where i have been staying for
three months, is the perfect backdrop for it.
tom of finland (born tokou laaksonen) lived here during the
last decade of his life and established
tom of finland foundation with durk dehner in 1984.
over the years the house and the foundation have been
the home to numerous gay artists and the
playground, shelter and safe space for many queer people.
it functions as a home, a sanctuary and a museum at the
same time.

i had the privilege to live here from
1st december to 28th february 2018.

this work is a little hommage to the utopia
of sexual freedom that tom created for all gay men.

join me at 3p for a small presentation of the work i did during my artist residency.