When Itella Posti, Finland’s national postal service, announced the release of seven new stamp sets early last week, there were the typical things one would expect to find on a stamp – summer cottages, bridges, garden scenes. Mixed in with the bunch, however, was quite possibly the gayest postage ever created (philatelist nerd friends, feel free to correct us): a 3-stamp sheet featuring original illustrations from Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland. The peel-away stamps feature typical images from Tom’s oeuvre: a bulking naked man straddled at the neck by a smoking officer in leather gloves and knee-high riding boots, set beside a butt that would make Kim K blush. Designed by graphic artist Timo Berry in cooperation with the Tom of Finland Foundation‘s Finnish representative Susanna Luoto, the sheet will be released on September 8th in conjunction with the exhibition Sealed With A Secret – Correspondence of Tom of Finland at the newly-relocated Finnish Postal Museum in Tampere. 032c sat down with Berry and Luoto for a bit of stamp-talk.
032c: Have you seen the petition demanding the stamps be printed in traditional lickable format?
TIMO BERRY: Yes I have, and I think it’s hilarious. The petition is tongue-in-cheek and was started by a guy who calls himself Touko Suomalainen (literally “Tom of Finland” in Finnish).
SUSANNA LUOTO: A gay friend of mine (and an advertising genius) suggested the lickable version instantly when I told him that I was applying a stamp for Tom in December 2012. I myself would have never even thought about it. I doubt the old-fashioned lickable version will be printed though. Today’s stamps are mostly stickers. But I do like the idea. No, I embrace the idea. It doesn’t even need to be implemented.
How did this cooperation come about?
SL: Durk Dehner, president of the Tom of Finland Foundation, visited Helsinki in late 2012 and had a meeting at the Regional Arts Council with an utmost smart young woman named Solja Järvenpää, who negotiates different projects in order to promote comic arts in general. It was Solja who originally suggested a possibility of a Tom stamp.
TB: Itella has quite a variety of designers working for them, and they hand pick the ones they think would be best for each commission. I was more than proud to be chosen for this issue. The Tom commission was one of my over 30 stamps I’ve designed, but this has been my favorite stamp of them all. I worked with Susanna to get the right tone of voice and a representative set of Tom’s work into the stamps. The artwork was all also approved by the Foundation. Susanna did the texts on the background and was the subject matter expert all along.
The US Postal Service will be releasing a Harvey Milk stamp next month as well, which has encountered the expected protests from right wing religious groups. Did you encounter any bureaucratic or political difficulties in getting this produced?
TB: Itella is owned by the government, but the stamp issuing procedure is not controlled by it. So the discussions have been within the committee and Itella themselves. The whole publishing process is very secretive until the stamps have been designed and the press releases are out, so no politician or outside bureaucrat can even have a chance of intervening. Of course since the news was released, there’s now also an online petition protesting the stamp as well.
SL: I believe the pivotal thing here was that they acknowledged Tom of Finland as an artist and left out the content matter of his art (of which the sexual orientation always seems to be the problem). I don’t usually praise Finland, but I must say I feel pretty privileged to live in a country where a state-owned institution promotes a man of merit regardless of his orientation.
I know all the commentary, particularly those anonymous online smear campaigns, haven’t been easy for Itella Post to digest, but I believe they were prepared for them. On the other hand, I’m not sure whether they were prepared for this enormous international attention the stamp has evoked.
The stamp’s release also coincides with an exhibition of Tom of Finland’s letters.
SL: Not many people know that Tom was also an ardent letter writer who kept in contact with his relatives and friends by post. I’m the curator of the exhibition, which is constructed around the correspondence Tom had with his sisters from 1940 until his death 1991. It reveals a completely unknown Tom, digging decade by decade into the man behind Tom of Finland. It presents Tom as a young man, soldier, musician, art director, brother, friend, artist, old man suffering from emphysema – and as a marvelous writer. His early paintings, his portraits drawn by his sisters, photos from different phases of his life, as well as his outfits from the high army boots to police uniform are also on display.
Is Tom of Finland regarded differently in Finland than he is in the US and the rest of the world?
SL: Yes, absolutely. He isn’t just any Tom, he’s Tom of Finland. So among a certain layer of people in Finland there’s a shame and fear evoked just by his name being synonymous with Finland, as if he were a representative of all Finnish men. On top of this, Tom’s art and his wide international recognition is still somehow ignored in his home country. Abroad, this is of course not the case, and in the global gay community Tom and his men have served as indispensable role models.
TB: I have been happily surprised I’ve got absolutely no personal negative comments for designing the issue – on the contrary. I have gotten messages of support even from people I would never have expected them from. And the media has taken a liberal point-of-view. It’s beautiful how times change.
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