The real Tom of Finland: how a leather-loving artist gave men their muscle

Pekka Strang as Tom and Jessica Grabowsky as his sister in Tom of Finland

Stamp-collecting isn’t usually considered sexy. But in 2014, Finland’s postal service released a limited series that had philatelists hot under the collar. Two of the stamps showed a police officer with his naked, moustachioed lover sprawled between his legs. The third featured a pair of pert male buttocks.

Touko Laaksonen – the pioneer of gay erotica better known as Tom of Finland – would have loved seeing his pictures posted around the world, being a keen stamp-collector himself. Unusually for an erotic artist, Tom of Finland has been embraced by by the world of high art, particularly in America, where his famous fans included Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe.

But for decades the Finnish artist had to work in secret, smuggling his illustrations out of the country and publishing under a pseudonym. It’s only now, 26 years on from his death, that he has come to be celebrated in his homeland as a national treasure.

A new film about the artist has been a major hit in Finland, and arrives in UK cinemas on August 11. Its director, Dome Karukoski, the filmmaker behind Nordic blockbusters such as 2010’s Lapland Odyssey (which beat that year’s Harry Potter and Sex and the City movies at the Finnish box-office), spent five years researching the artist’s life, interviewing his friends and admirers.

“It’s a classic rags-to-riches story,” says Karukoski. “There are elements that are very universal. I never saw this as a ‘gay film.’” Anyone hoping for an explicit shock-fest may be disappointed; Karukoski’s thoughtful biopic is surprisingly restrained. “People were expecting a provocation – after all, it’s a Tom of Finland film! We actually had script versions where there was more nudity, but his core fans said, ‘The sex is there in the drawings, what we want is his story.’ It’s funny, because a lot of heterosexual critics have written that there should be more sex.”

Tom of Finland is revered in the gay leather community. His instantly recognisable black-and-white sketches of leather-clad “Tom’s Men” didn’t just captured that aesthetic – they helped to create it. For Karukoski, though, the adulation was an obstacle in learning about the real man. “I remember, I asked the fans what he was like in our opening meetings,” he tells me. “They said, ‘Well, he was a Nordic god!’ But how do you build a character from that?”

It was a single photograph of the artist as a young man, however, that captured the filmmaker’s imagination. “There was a shot of 10 soldiers, and nine of them were quite shy, as Finns are. But then there’s Tom, just holding a smoke and flirting with the camera. And he’s 20. I think that defines a lot of his character: he never carried any shame.”

Born in 1920, Laaksonen was conscripted during the Winter War of 1939-40, defending Finland’s borders against Stalin’s invading army. “It was the best and the worst time in his life,” says Karukoski.

In one scene of the film, we watch as he tenderly cradles the face of a Russian soldier he has just killed. “He would always say that was the most tragic part of his life, having to kill something so beautiful.” In the chaos of war, however, the closeted artist found a brief window of sexual freedom. “When people think death is imminent, the laws of sex are gone,” Karukoski continues. “Meeting people in the heavy moonlight, and perhaps not recognising them the next day… How liberated men in danger can be!”

These liaisons would leave a lasting impression on his art. “A fully dressed man is more erotic than a naked one,” Tom once said, and a man in uniform was, in his mind, the most erotic of all. For the rest of his life, he would sketch tightly-dressed military officers, as well as policemen, prison wardens and the muscly lumberjacks he remembered from his childhood in a rural logging district of southern Finland. At a time when the popular stereotype of a homosexual was weak, foppish and effeminate, Tom’s Men were strong, working-class and bulging with virile confidence.

“That’s why he was so subversive,” his friend, business partner and occasional model Durk Dehner has said. “He took heterosexual, super-male imagery, and gave it to the queer boys!”

Dehner was one of a generation of young American men who felt moved and emboldened by Tom, whose art had been published since the Fifties in leading US “beefcake” magazine Physique Pictorial, a “fitness” journal which later gave up its claims of educational value and moved into overt erotica. In the film, we watch as Doug (a fictionalised version of Dehner) nervously flirts with another young man at the gym by showing him a Tom of Finland pin-up.

An 1966 Tom of Finland drawing. Magazine – Bob Mizer Foundation, Inc.

Dehner became one of his keenest advocates in the US, regularly inviting the artist over for exhibitions where he was swamped by his fans. “He liberated a whole class of people without one word,” Dehner recalled in 2010. “These young guys were so thankful to him for giving him imagery that they could identify with and feel good about.”

That simple feel-good message is something Tom also sees in the pictures. “The men who are sexual objects in his drawings, they’re proud and happy when somebody looks at them. They’re proud to have a hard-on and a bulge. It’s making the inappropriate appropriate,” he says. “It’s saying there’s a world where you don’t feel ashamed.”

Laaksonen toiled away his a day-job in a Helsinki advertising agency until 1973, and for many years only made a modest income from his secret double-life. On one trip to Berlin, his entire portfolio was stolen from his hotel-room; the missing pictures later turned up in cheap, pirated American editions.

The artist taken at the time he was at McCann Erickson agency in the 1970s

It was Dehner who encouraged the artist to take more commercial control over his work. Together, they created a new company under his name, and in 1984 launched Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles, a charity supporting and promoting erotic artists. For the last decade of his life, the artist would spend half the year living in LA as leather-clad local hero Tom, and half the year back in Helsinki as quiet, unassuming Touko.

“He was a liberator,” Karukoski tells me. “He was one of the most influential artists of the Seventies and Eighties… But growing up, I thought he was American. It was only revealed that he was actually Finnish when he died [in 1991].

“I remember there was a lot of people around me that felt ashamed. They worried that in the rest of the world they would think that we are all leather gays! It was this weird, primitive fear, and I think that for a long time stopped Finland from accepting him as one of our biggest artists,” he continues.

It was Dehner who encouraged the artist to take more commercial control over his work. Together, they created a new company under his name, and in 1984 launched Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles, a charity supporting and promoting erotic artists. For the last decade of his life, the artist would spend half the year living in LA as leather-clad local hero Tom, and half the year back in Helsinki as quiet, unassuming Touko.

“He was a liberator,” Karukoski tells me. “He was one of the most influential artists of the Seventies and Eighties… But growing up, I thought he was American. It was only revealed that he was actually Finnish when he died [in 1991].

“I remember there was a lot of people around me that felt ashamed. They worried that in the rest of the world they would think that we are all leather gays! It was this weird, primitive fear, and I think that for a long time stopped Finland from accepting him as one of our biggest artists,” he continues.

“But now it’s changed totally. We are in a situation where the Finns are very proud of him. We hold him as a national artist – next to the Moomintrolls!” To underline this point, Karukoski pulls out his phone to show me a magazine cover of Tove Jansson’s cuddly animals flexing in fetish gear, beside the headline “Moomin of Finland”.

It’s funny, but the fact that the parody works at all is proof of how distinctive the “Tom” look is. “It leaves something in people’s eyes,” says Karukoski. “They see it once, and they can describe the essence of Tom of Finland – the pose and the attitude.” That pose can be seen everywhere, from Calvin Klein’s underwear adverts to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s music videos.

But Tom’s dense, fine pencil-work harder to imitate. “For years, Tom of Finland Foundation have been looking for someone to restore his works, but they haven’t found anyone who could imitate his hand, his line,” Karukoski continues. “He would spend a day drawing a man’s head, and then throw it away if it wasn’t perfect.”

Tom was serious about his work, but he had a wicked sense of humour. In drawing men in uniform happily playing hide-the-truncheon, he was both indulging his own fetishes and also making a satirical point. In one of his cartoon-strips, a policeman catches two men having sex in a park at night – and decides to join in.

Context is everything: homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971, and the consequences of being caught were severe. When Tom’s friends were being violently abused by police officers, what better revenge could there be than to draw the homophobes in a way they would hate? Decades before Banksy stencilled his kissing coppers, Tom of Finland made the same point with more courage. Today, his fans can buy a T-shirt from the Tom of Finland clothing line with the slogan “f— the police”, above a picture of a handsome biker doing exactly that.

LGBT rights in Finland have come a long way since Tom’s death. In March this year, the country followed its Nordic neighbours Denmark, Sweden and Norway in introducing same-sex marriage. But across the eastern border, things are different. “My films usually get distribution in Russia,” says Karukoski. “But I’m not sure a distributor would dare at the moment to distribute this there.”

When the Tom of Finland stamps were released, at least one Russian politician demanded that any envelopes carrying them should be sent back. It’s a reminder that, even in 2017, Tom’s Men still haven’t lost their ability to shock.

By Tristram Fane Saunders

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