Walking into the afternoon session on iconic gay artist Tom of Finland, it is impossible to avoid the orange glare from smartphone screens as delegates all around me check Grindr. Such is the ubiquity of gay culture in 2015 – thanks, in so small part, to TOM (aka Touko Laaksonen), who quietly inspired a global movement from his house in a cold, lonely corner of Finland.
No shame, no guilt
Durk Dehner is the cofounder of Tom of Finland Foundation, and was also Touko’s partner in life, love and business – so he’s as close to an expert on the subject as you are going to find. What made Tom of Finland different from other homoerotic art, he says, was that each and every drawing was imbued with a sense of pride; “no shame, no guilt… naked, as nature created us.”
Touko’s salacious artwork, bursting with images of steamy hyper-masculinity, was inspired by a stint in the army (surprise, surprise) and his own proclivity towards voyeurism. And while its primary function was to get viewers hot under the collar, it also had a long-lasting, liberating effect.
Suddenly, the isolated gay boys living in rural Montana were seeing depictions of homosexuals as manly, confident and powerful, as opposed to the reviled sissies of mainstream media. All they had to do was buy Physique Pictorial, or any other gay rag masquerading as a fitness publication, to see themselves in a new light, which in turn influenced the way others perceived them.
Hearts and minds (and butts)
Art and advertising carry an immense amount of power to influence. As an ad man (he worked for McCann for 17 years), Touko knew this. So when the AIDS crisis began in America in the 1980s, he felt a portion of responsibility; he had been advocating free love, after all. His response was to create images which, in true ‘no shame’ style, got the viewer horny while reminding them to use a condom.
What makes Tom of Finland truly remarkable is not just what it achieved within the gay community; it has also become a known property in pop culture. Nowadays, it’s a brand in its own right; the leatherman image provokes an instant sense of brand recognition.
Dehner runs the foundation as a business out of necessity, but while some have criticised that he is “over-commercialising” Tom’s work through merchandise and magazine spreads, he remains extremely careful when it comes to selecting partners. “I always make sure it’s a company with great creative people, and with gay people,” he says. The most important thing to him is to honour Touko’s memory while continuing to inspire change.
Muscle Mary, full of grace
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that civil rights issues like marriage equality wouldn’t be where they are today without the likes of Tom of Finland thrusting himself into popular culture. But, as with any social movement, a backlash is inevitable. This mainstreaming of gay culture has since led to yawn-worthy assimilation, where ‘straight-acting’ is seen as the ideal. That’s not to say Quentin Crisp is the only model of homosexual sensibility, but striving towards integration or even invisibility in a heteronormative world is essentially shirking the legacy of the queer activists who made modern gays’ safe lives possible.
The Tom of Finland iconography is also at least partially responsible for popularising the gym bunny lifestyle which originated in urban California and has since become the prerequisite for any self-respecting homosexual. What began as an expression of pride and healthy self-image has been warped into disdain among many gay men for anybody who isn’t a dysmorphic, muscle-bound, protein powder-obsessed Andrew Christian model.
But that’s a rant for another time. The important takeaway here is Tom’s undeniable legacy and influence; helping an entire generation of gay men accept themselves while challenging stereotypes. Not bad for an ad man with a penchant for gay porn.
By Philip Ellis