We may not live in the Golden Age of male erotica (if there ever was one), but peddling naughty pics has never been easier. Indeed, every man can be his own pornographer now, Snapchatting pics of his six-pack abs to prospective hook-ups, or sharing risque selfies on Instagram. While porn consumption has changed dramatically thanks to the internet, one name remains a touchstone for vintage, outsized fantasies of the gay male body: Tom of Finland.
Born Touko Laaksonen in 1920, Tom of Finland’s work consists almost exclusively of pencil-on-paper images of hypersexualized male archetypes: shirtless men with pierced nipples, cowboys in tight jeans, a motorcycle cop having a friendly chat with a biker, two studs in rebel caps cruising each other, boys comparing biceps in a forest, even Santa Claus sporting a bulge in his pants. The drawings run the gamut from sweet (one man cradling another to his chest) to extreme (a guy getting fucked in a jail cell under a wanted poster while a third guy sucks his nipple).
Once the epitome of outsider art, Tom of Finland is now an unlikely cause celebre in the arts establishment. Thanks to the lobbying of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom got gallery representation in the early 1980s, and various drawings have since been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Louvre, SFMOMA, and others. The Tom of Finland Foundation throws an annual festival in Los Angeles every October — and oh yeah, the Finnish postal service issued Tom of Finland stamps last year, at least one of which had a butt on it. (This state-sanctioned commemoration is especially significant in light of the fact that Touko Laaksonen fought for Finland against the Soviets during the Second World War. While he does not seem to have espoused the tenets of Nazism, that still aligns him with the Axis Powers.)
Perhaps more importantly, Tom of Finland’s work is taught in figurative drawing classes in art schools — a sure sign of his quasi-canonization. Having passed through an era period where he was regarded as a pornographer to one where he was pigeonholed as a niche commercial illustrator, he’s now acknowledged as one of the five most influential artists of the last century — at least according to the words of philanthropist and arts trustee Harvey S. Shipley Miller.
This is personally satisfying to Durk Dehner, who first saw Tom’s work in New York at age 26, in an ad for a motorcycle run. He became a frequent Tom of Finland model who eventually made a pact with the artist to do whatever he could to get the work out there, and has served as president of the Tom of Finland Foundation since 1984.
And the work did get out, partly because the medium of exaggerated, black-and-white drawings suits erotica well — certainly better than the stagey photography in gay porn mags of the ’60s and ’70s. Tom of Finland’s drawings are “instantly recognizable and exhibit meticulous craftsmanship,” says Todd Standish, a San Francisco graphic designer recently commissioned to create a T-shirt for a show honoring gay porn idol Peter Berlin.
“He had this ability to embed in his drawings messages that were powerful and positive and sex-positive, and about affirming that [gay men] were whole and complete,” Dehner said.
Imbued with just enough fantasy, there is a fearless, pro-sex message in Tom of Finland’s art that remains refreshing and unencumbered by charges of exploitation — a far cry from today’s factory-style porn industry. While Savonarolas such as gadfly activist Larry Kramer would just as soon stamp out promiscuous sex until all STIs went extinct, generations of gay men, post- and pre-AIDS alike, grew up hungry for affirmation.
If, as Marxist social critic Walter Benjamin observed, art in the age of mechanical reproduction has lost some of its magisterial aura, then that goes double for a genre that has gone from kneejerk suppression to cultural ubiquity: the dick pic. Adolescent boys with burgeoning gay desires used to have to fend for themselves in a world that deemed them “intrinsically disordered.” (In the words of the Catholic Church, anyway.)
But Tom of Finland’s work is different from, say, 19th Century Boyfriend, the Tumblr full of portraits of handsome Russian noblemen and daguerreotypes of burly Tammany Hall politicians, and it’s different than those arresting, sepia-toned pictures of unnamed men in fancy dress smiling ambiguously together. Tom of Finland’s aesthetic is bracingly, unmistakably gay.
Dehner recalls Tom’s own reflections on his work before his death in 1991. “He said, ‘I didn’t sit around and consciously think about it, but in retrospect I clearly had an intention all along that I wanted to impress upon my fellow brothers that we’re whole and complete.’ There was nothing wrong with homosexuals. They were part of nature, and society and religion had got it all messed up.”
Desire — or, more specifically, the production of desire — can be a tricky thing, a chicken-and-egg game with heavy ramifications. (Does watching bareback porn cause people to be sexually irresponsible? Is play-acting a rape fantasy between two consensual partners a healthy outlet for pent-up energy? Do images of near-impossible male physiques contribute to hook-up apps’ “no fats, no fems” body fascism?) But since the sex drive is probably here to stay, and there’s still no shortage of cultural forces filling people with guilt and shame because of who or what they’re attracted to, it’s safe to say that Tom of Finland deserves the acclaim.
Nonetheless, Tom’s work was made in the crucible of censorship. Because photographing male nudes was at best highly suspect, sending film out to be developed was out of the question, so Tom built a darkroom. Promoting his work was an even bigger challenge.
“He would have to make all these little prints, and make a composite page that fit in a four-by-five contact sheet, because that’s all that wouldn’t be opened by the mail,” Dehner said. “He’d send it to people in other countries, they would order it, and he’d make a print. At the same time he had a full time job. He was a busy guy.”
In contrast to the more litigious custodians of any given creator’s work, the foundation doesn’t guard Tom of Finland’s legacy with particular jealousy. It treats Tom’s oeuvre as open-source code, not as a trademarked brand.
“Regardless of museums putting a value on his work, the best thing is for people to be inspired by it,” Dehner said. “He really perfected it.”
Dehner connects Tom’s work not only to the Nordic love of nudity, saunas, and the great outdoors, but with a deeper sense of the artist-as-shaman.
Artists “lay down in visual forms what is to come, or manifest imagery that’s like a mandala,” Dehner said. “By looking at it, it empowers us. It gives us a vision of ourselves. I’m not talking just about gays, but about art in general, although gays as a community have been a tribal people in many ways.”
The tribe that has most embraced Tom of Finland is, unsurprisingly, the leather community. Graylin Thornton, a board member of the San Francisco Leathermen’s Discussion Group, organized a Tom of Finland art auction on Sept. 23 that drew more attendees than almost any other function in the group’s history — in spite of being a departure from its usual programming, which tends toward bondage demos and lectures on S.F. queer history. A number of other erotic artists and cartoonists participated, as did Durk Dehner.
“Tom of Finland is iconic,” Thornton said. “A lot of gay men need a masculine image and a sexual image to look up to. They’re looking for something they can identify with, and Tom’s images are just that.”
Although many of the pieces had never been previously exhibited, if there were worries that the audience — at least some of whom knew Tom of Finland personally — had seen it all before, Thornton quickly dispelled them.
“I’m hoping that there will be pieces that will be shocking to our members,” he said. “There are a couple that made me take a second look, and there’s one that may upset the Christians.”