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.

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World of leather: how Tom of Finland created a legendary gay aesthetic

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled (Detail), 1976, Graphite on paper, © 1976 Tom of Finland Foundation

While sex between men was partially decriminalised 50 years ago in the UK, in Finland it took until 1971. And it wasn’t until very recently that the Finns were relaxed enough about homosexuality to openly acknowledge one of their country’s most famous exports. In 2014, they put his unmistakably erotic artwork on a set of stamps; this year, a biopic became a mainstream hit at the nation’s multiplexes. Almost 100 years after his birth in the town of Kaarina, Tom of Finland had come home.

Tom’s birth name was Touko Laaksonen. By day, he was a senior art director at advertising agency McCann Erickson. In his spare time, however, he drew his sexual fantasies – bikers and lumberjacks, mounties and policemen going at it hammer and tongs in forests, prisons and parks, the smiles on their faces almost as big as their enormously tumescent penises. Initially published in American gay proto-porn magazines such as Physique Pictorial, they were disseminated worldwide in dime stores, sex shops or leather bars through an international underground of fans, despite laws against the distribution of such explicit material.

Tom’s pictures fuelled both the sexual fantasies and the aesthetic of many gay men. The fetish for police and military uniforms and the leather-clad look – often including a cap, chaps and biker jacket – worn by Freddie MercuryFrankie Goes to Hollywood and, of course, Glenn Hughes, the the Village People, was directly inspired by his work. Initially drawing men in riding breeches and army officers in brown leather bomber jackets, he got into the biker look after seeing Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Thereafter, says Durk Dehner, a Canadian friend of Tom’s and now the custodian of his work, Tom’s and the nascent gay leather scene would inspire one another. Tom would draw his fantasies and send them to friends. They would get a tailor to replicate the sexiest garments in the pictures, photograph themselves in them, and send the pictures back to the artist. “Then he’d get more ideas – it was evolving,” says Dehner.

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1963, Graphite on paper, © 1963 Tom of Finland Foundation

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Tom & Veli

Tom met a young man on a street corner and they had casual sex. Tom opened up and told the man that he was looking for something more. They met again and spent the night together. Then the next, and the next. His name was Veli which means “brother” in Finnish. Veli “Nipa” Mäkinen. Gradually they built a relationship and eventually Veli moved in with Tom and his sister Kaija. The men worked on all the things it takes for a couple to stay together. They had a chosen an open relationship – but they remained the most important in each other’s lives. They made decisions together – big and small – and never kept anything from each other.

Veli and Tom, two years after first meeting.

In 1980, after the two had been together for 27 years, Tom took Veli to America where he got to meet Durk Dehner. Durk recalls, “Veli was at first reserved, but he relaxed and gave his blessing to the relationship I was developing with Tom. He knew Tom had been burned before, but he felt I could be trusted and he was leaving his lover in good hands.”

Back in Finland, Veli told Tom that he had incurable cancer. Their last days were not peaceful. Veli left Tom and went to Paris into the arms of another. His cancer progressed and he came back to Helsinki – and Tom – to die.

Though they fought and parted more than once, theirs was a union that went much deeper than the merely physical, beyond even the emotional. There were many such occasions when Tom’s and Veli’s minds seemed to be attuned far more deeply than their years of cohabitation would appear to explain. The bond between them extended beyond life. A couple of days after Veli’s death, as Tom sat at his drawing table, a large seabird flew against the window in front of him, battered itself with repeated attempts to enter until blood speckled its beak; the bird struggled so violently Tom thought the glass would break. When at last it flew away, Tom was sure he had just received a final visit from his lover’s spirit.

But, in the ten years since Veli died, he has never really left me. Every now and then, I hear him go galumphing through the house the way he used to, or I will feel someone standing close behind me and know it is him. Usually, i find his presence very comforting, but once in a while, when I am trying to draw, he will suddenly whistle or blow in my ear, infuriating me the same damned way he loved to do when he was alive.

From  Tom of Finland – Life and Work of a Gay Hero

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