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


Tom of Finland: Freedom Through Fetish

The iconic homoerotic artist was inspiration for “TOM,” a limited-edition book of drawings by New York-based artist Silvia Prada.

“TOM” by Silvia Prada in collaboration with the Tom of Finland Foundation

NEW YORK — Cropped black-and-white photographs of musclebound men fill the yellowing pages of a time-worn scrapbook. A body builder, showcasing his chiseled physique in little more than a strategically placed gathering of cloth, is pasted alongside another bare-chested model in partially unzipped black leather pants and boots.

Touko Laaksonen, widely known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, used these real-life examples of the male form — many of which he photographed himself — as inspiration for his oeuvre of hyper-masculine homoerotic drawings. Largely marginalized during his lifetime, the Finnish-born Laaksonen is now widely regarded as a trailblazer of modern gay culture.

“His art represents a lot of freedom,” explains New York-based artist Silvia Prada. “It represents a moment where men had to actually wear a moustache and beard because [otherwise] they would get killed. This isn’t just erotic art, but it represents a huge utopic fantasy — a fantasy for gay men to become accepted.”

For the Spanish-born Prada, Tom of Finland’s sexually charged illustrations of the virile and strapping male form have long served as an unlikely muse. Prada, who identifies as lesbian, was raised in her family-owned hair salon surrounded by images of male beauty. “I grew up as a kind of gay boy,” she says. “The first kiss I gave was a male mannequin. I’m a difficult combination of things.”

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