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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Dome of Finland

Dome Karukoski in 2009. Photo: Helsinki-filmi, Jan Granström Read more:  Follow us: @praguepost on Twitter | praguepost on Facebook

Dome Karukoski in 2009. Photo: Helsinki-filmi, Jan Granström

One of top Nordic filmmakers, Dome Karukoski, talks neo-Nazis and iconic gay artist

In the early 1980s, the young Dome Karukoski, born with the first names Thomas August George as the son of an American poet and a Finnish journalist, arrived from Cyprus in rural Finland without speaking the language. Because of his name and his perceived status as a foreigner, he was bullied by his schoolmates into his teenage years and is very open about this experience when discussing the comparable character of Ramadhani in Heart of a Lion.

In Heart of a Lion, the protagonist is a member of a neo-Nazi gang, or “club,” and seems to reconsider his fixation on ethnic purity when he comes to accept Ramadhani, whose father is black. But a combination of two scenes in the middle of the film demonstrates how Karukoski organizes his material to create a sense of complexity that, he admits, also aims to produce a bigger emotional experience because it “[puts] the audience in a head lock.”

The loner will take center stage again in his next film, The Grump (Mielensäpahoittaja), which premieres in the autumn. It is based on the eponymous book by Tuomas Kyrön, whose title character is an 80-year-old man who constantly complains that the world around him keeps changing. This comedy is tied to Heart of a Lion, however, in its presentation of a character angry with a world that doesn’t stay the same, and it also anticipates the criticism his subsequent big-budget film, Tom of Finlanda biopic about the late gay artist Touko Laaksonen who is one of the country’s most famous names abroad, is sure to provoke at home among some of Finland’s more conservative inhabitants.

Finland is the only Nordic country where same-sex marriage is yet to be approved, but since the last attempt in parliament in February 2013 failed by a single vote, Karukoski is confident the next time will be very different. “Finland is conservative, and it is slower to change. It is a bit secluded, so that is the reason why it just takes time. We’re always five years late.”

With a budget of between 5 million and 6 million euros and locations stretching from Finland to the West Coast of the United States, with stops in Texas, Chicago, as well as a few destinations across Europe, Tom of Finland will be Karukoski’s biggest film to date, and it will also mark his first foray into English-language filmmaking. Following his inclusion among esteemed up-and-coming company in Variety’s annual selection of “10 Directors to Watch” in 2013, he received countless scripts but ultimately decided to go ahead with his own work, working with Kyrön on the screenplay for The Grump, while his fellow Heart of a Lion scribe and longtime producer Aleksi Bardy will work on the screenplay for Tom of Finland, which should start shooting in 2015.

The Grump and Tom of Finland seem to be a straightforward comedy and drama, respectively, but Karukoski’s oeuvre has proved the director’s agility with the two approaches as he has mixed elements of both to great effect. He is Finnish, after all, and black humor is in his veins. He freely admits the Finns are a melancholic people, and Lapland Odysseyfor example, opens with a stylish flourish as five men, over the course of a century, hang themselves from the same tree in rural northern Finland.

“There is this genre of films that have a tragic subject matter and also a tragic way of handling it. I hate those films; there is nothing interesting in that. … I don’t want to make those films, and I don’t want to watch them. … [They don’t] reveal another side.”




Palm Springs Film Festival | 3rd-13th January


The 25th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival
Palm Springs, California


Director Dome Karukoski attends Variety’s Creative Impact Awards and 10 Directors to Watch brunch presented by Mercedes-Benz at at Parker Palm Springs.


Dome presents the U. S. premier of his film, Heart of a Lion.
Final screening, 10th January.

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Dome meets with Valentine Hooven, author of Tom of Finland – Life and Work of a Gay Hero.

ToFF_Signature - Trademark

Dome’s next project is the Helsinki-filmi feature-length portrait of Tom of Finland’s influential life and career.