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

Tom & Nipa

Touko Laaksonen meets Veli “Nipa” Mäkinen in 1953, who is to become his great love and life partner for 28 years. The Laaksonen family was fond of Nipa and never asked questions about the two mens’ relationship; Nipa was always referred to as Touko’s “room-mate”.

Nipa and Tom

The equal marriage law comes into effect on 1st March 2017 in Finland.