Tom of Finland: From Gay Icon to Mainstream Sensation

In the beginning, he drew them simply for his own pleasure. But in the nearly eight decades since Tom of Finland began creating them as a young man, his boldly erotic and hyper-masculine illustrations have grown evermore popular, and proven astoundingly enduring.

Long iconic and even formative for American gay society, Tom’s well-endowed and sexually charged imagery is now hitting the global mainstream, and it’s resonating with new and surprising audiences — like women, transgender men and even art connoisseurs in China — along the way, even as it finally turns the artist himself into a household name in his native Finland.

“Tom of Finland” press conference during 66th Berlinale International Film Festival on February 14, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Andreas Rentz / WireImage for Helsinki Filmi

In New York this Sunday (April 23), a new Finnish-made and eponymously-titled Tom of Finland biopic will make its much-anticipated debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie, directed by Dome Karukoski and starring Pekka Strang as Tom, traces the artist’s life from young adulthood as Touko Laaksonen to his underground success as an expat erotic artist in America. Squarely geared toward mainstream audiences, the film has already been a major hit in Finland since its release there in February.

“I’ve been working on embedding Tom into the Finnish culture for 25 years, since he passed away,” said Durk Dehner, president and co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation, and himself one of Tom’s most frequent models. “It was his last wish that I would do whatever I could to let him be known and appreciated in his own country, because he was already being appreciated elsewhere.”

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