Tom of Finland: The gay icon who changed pop culture forever

Tom of Finland’s homoerotic drawings transformed the image of gay men.

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1984, Graphite on paper, © 1984 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, 1984, Graphite on paper, © 1984 Tom of Finland Foundation

Bulging biceps, abs of steel, leather biker gear. The trailer for the Tom of Finland biopic is likely exactly as its namesake would want it.

After all, that is exactly what made the Finn a pioneering and ground-breaking homo-erotic fetish artist in the late 20th century. (Although he might have made things a little more explicit if he was still alive.)

If you don’t know who Tom of Finland is now is your chance to catch up before his biopic, by director Dome Karukoski, and a book of his correspondence, entitled Sealed with a Secret, are both released in the autumn of 2017. And there’s plenty of material to dip into. In the renaissance that Tom of Finland has enjoyed in recent years, a Taschen book (Tom of Finland: XXL) has documented his work, and his art has been shown by major galleries, including the Los Angeles MOCA.

So why is an erotic artist – whose depictions of hyper-masculine men, including bikers, sailors, soldiers, and cowboys in the throws of lust – accepted by parts of the art world and why has it achieved cult icon status?

Let’s start from the beginning. Born in Finland in 1920 as Touko Laaksonen, he was raised by schoolteachers who cultivated his love for music, art and literature. But it was the strong working class men around him – lumberjacks and builders – that really grabbed his attention. In 1939 he headed to art school, but it was in the chaos of the Second World War, during his time as an anti-aircraft officer, that he was able to live out his sexual fantasies with uniform-clad men. By the mid-1950s, he was encouraged by a friend to send off his drawings to American muscle magazine Physique Pictorial, one of many homoerotic magazines disguised as sports publications to trump anti-gay censorship laws. The editor added the name of his country to his signature and “Tom of Finland” was born.

By the 1970s, as homosexuality and censorship laws were relaxed, his highly sexual work became widely available in the mainstream and hit with liberal America. By that point, Tom had changed pop culture forever.

“Tom’s technique improved steadily throughout his life, plateauing in the early 1980s,” says Dian Hanson, Sexy Books editor at Taschen, who spent around eight years compiling images for the book Tom of Finland XXL. “His work also became steadily more explicit, as censorship eased, competition pushed the limits, and as he experienced more extreme sexual acts himself. He said that there was nothing he drew that he didn’t experience, in the end.”

“This mainstream crossover meant that gay male visibility began to be seen by a wider public as hyper-macho, leather and denim orientated, muscular, and so on,” explains Dawn Hoskin, a co-chair of the LGBTQ Working Group at the V&A museum.

“This was a far cry from the effeminate, “weak” homosexual stereotype that had pervaded popular culture in preceding decades when pejorative terms like ‘sissy’ and ‘pansy’ were born,” adds co-chair Zorian Clayton. “In a time when it was still illegal to be gay, Tom’s work exuded strength and pride.”

Susanna Luoto, the author of the upcoming Sealed With A Secret: Correspondence of Tom of Finland goes one step further.

To her, while Tom was simply drawing to fulfill his own need and lust, he was providing a service for gay men “far deeper than he could have ever imagined. These explicit and joyful depictions of gay sex have become a manifestation of equality. It’s not so much about art, but human rights,” she argues. “The drawings haven’t changed, the world has.”

And as LGBT communities gain more freedom in some parts of the world, she says Tom’s work – however explicit – must and will remain a part of that collective history. She adds: “It lives on only as long as it is actively supported and protected”.

By Kashmira Ganderindependent_masthead

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Olipas huippu ja yllättävät Kuplit!

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There are great responsibilities for us that are entrusted to carry forward the legacy of a great man. Solja Järvenpää has handled her important role with enormous spirit, enthusiasm and fortitude. In doing so, she has garnered the respect and appreciation of many for her insightful hand in directing the heritage of Touko Laaksonen, the artist Tom of Finland.

Tom of Finland is a national treasure. Solja, a sparkling jewel.

Be it always remembered that it was Solja that suggested to TOM’s Foundation – Tom of Finland Foundation – that we apply for a Finnish postage stamp. We all know what glory that has bestowed on the master artist and the brilliant light it shines both on Finland and the entire LGBT world community.

How Touko Laaksonen has been reveled as a man here in Tampere though the Sealed with a Secret exhibition is a seed sowed and nourished by Solja. It is not only a tribute to an artist and hero, but a testimonial of everyone who came together to work on it.

The exhibition, Dirty Frames, was only realized with the genius of Solja. Helsinki was treated to Tom and his fellow artists through their comics. The opening was filled with drinking, laughing, singing and, of course, Solja’s dazzling, infectious smile. The humor of Touko teamed with the joy of Solja gave visitors the most amazing and fun-filled show.

Thank you Solja, for your glittering eyes have shown us a whole new realm of possibilities and we are very proud to have you on TOM’s team!

Durk Dehner, president and cofounder
S. R. Sharp, vice president and curator
Susanna Luoto, representative and curator
Tom of Finland Foundation

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”The Deed of the Year Within Comics”, 28th March 2015, Tampere, Finland

I got a giant brush (Vuoden sarjakuvateko 2014) for courageous contribution to the Tom of Finland postage stamp and exhibitions. Thank you for the wonderful surprise and the beautiful words Durk, Sharp and Susanna. -SJ

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Letters written by Tom of Finland during the war

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The authors of the book, Letters from War,
at Vapriikki Museum Center auditorium on Friday 20th March.

The book includes a chapter about the letters written by Touko Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland, 1920-1991) during the Continuation War. The chapter is entitled, “With the Help of Music”, and depicts the role of music in Touko’s life as he taught singing and the playing of different instruments to his fellow soldiers, formed and led a chorus, entertained men by playing piano and most of all gave them strength, through the power of music, when they most needed it.

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Helsingin SanomatThe anthology also presents Tom of Finland’s letters from the army to home.

Susanna Luoto’s article in the book presents letters of Touko Laaksonen. Luoto is a journalist who curated the Post Museum’s Tom of Finland exhibit, Sealed with a Secret, and is preparing a book on his life.

According to her, the young Laaksonen is shown in the letters to be “anything else than his later trademark of a seductively self-conscious and robust men’s men.”

Rather the young Touko was a clean-cut, wholesome family boy dedicated to classical music, who was shocked by crassness of his fellow comrades-in-arms. His abilities as a draughtsman already emerged during the war.

Laaksonen started the military service in the infantry training center in spring 1940, soon after the conclusion of the Winter War. NCO was followed by the Helsinki Air Defence Regiment.

In October of 1943 Laaksonen was promoted to Lieutenant due to his achievements as head officer in the air battles over Helsinki. For the last months of the war Laaksonen was sent to Vyborg Bay.

During his nearly five-year service Laaksonen wrote plenty of letters to his sisters and parents.

In his first letter from the army to the folks back at home, he spoke of his sudden longing: “I wouldn’t have believed that just after a week and a half I would miss the piano so terribly.”

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