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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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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