How Tom of Finland’s Celebratory, Sexy Visions of Gay Love Have Empowered Others for over 60 Years

It was 1988, and an image of two muscular, happy men staring at each other lustily flashed onto the wall of a CalArts classroom in Los Angeles. It was a drawing by artist and former adman Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland. He’d been invited by his friend and fellow artist, Mike Kelley, to give a lecture at the university.

Students sat rapt as he explained his seductive drawings of gay men, which had become emblems of both erotic art and equal rights since he began showing them in the 1950s.

“This was very typical of how eroticism was expressed at that time,” Tom of Finland said, in a thick Finnish accent, as he clicked through a series of his early works from the 1950s and ’60s. One showed a man sausaged into a leather jacket, standing next to a sailor; they eyed each other at a bar, pants bulging. In the mid-20th century, sexually explicit imagery was mostly banned, “but some eye contact and hints of what might happen next [were allowed],” the artist explained. “You don’t necessarily need to show a sexual action to express the erotic.”

Tom of Finland did go on to make more explicit work. But whether or not his drawings depicted full-frontal nudity, they all represented a joyous celebration of homosexuality and a fight against discrimination. The gay community recognized this, and his work has became not only a sensation, but a “beacon of hope,” said the curator. “It says, ‘it’s okay to be whoever you are.’”

Tom of Finland’s daring practice—and its impact on the artists who’ve come after him—is the subject of a show opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) next week. “TOM House: The Work and Life of Tom of Finland” will assemble art from every stage of Laaksonen’s output—from childhood sketches to pieces he made in the last years of his life (he died in 1991). These will mingle with objects relocated from his former home in Los Angeles, which now operates as the Tom of Finland Foundation, and work by artists including Kelley, John WatersRaymond Pettibon, and others who were influenced by his vision.

All of this will be brought together within a small house-cum-artwork that sits outside of the museum: Kelley’s Mobile Homestead (2012), a recreation of the artist’s childhood home, which now operates as an unconventional art space (it’s built to travel with ease). Inside, MOCAD’s team and the Tom of Finland Foundation recreated the interior of Laaksonen’s own Los Angeles perch, which Kelley frequented as both a friend and a collector.