The Erotic Revolution

Walking into the afternoon session on iconic gay artist Tom of Finland, it is impossible to avoid the orange glare from smartphone screens as delegates all around me check Grindr. Such is the ubiquity of gay culture in 2015 – thanks, in so small part, to TOM (aka Touko Laaksonen), who quietly inspired a global movement from his house in a cold, lonely corner of Finland.

No shame, no guilt

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, Graphite on paper. © 1977 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, Graphite on paper, © 1977 Tom of Finland Foundation

Durk Dehner is the cofounder of Tom of Finland Foundation, and was also Touko’s partner in life, love and business – so he’s as close to an expert on the subject as you are going to find. What made Tom of Finland different from other homoerotic art, he says, was that each and every drawing was imbued with a sense of pride; “no shame, no guilt… naked, as nature created us.”

Touko’s salacious artwork, bursting with images of steamy hyper-masculinity, was inspired by a stint in the army (surprise, surprise) and his own proclivity towards voyeurism. And while its primary function was to get viewers hot under the collar, it also had a long-lasting, liberating effect.

Suddenly, the isolated gay boys living in rural Montana were seeing depictions of homosexuals as manly, confident and powerful, as opposed to the reviled sissies of mainstream media. All they had to do was buy Physique Pictorial, or any other gay rag masquerading as a fitness publication, to see themselves in a new light, which in turn influenced the way others perceived them.

Hearts and minds (and butts)

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), © 1987 Tom of Finland Foundation

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled, Graphite on paper, © 1987 Tom of Finland Foundation

Art and advertising carry an immense amount of power to influence. As an ad man (he worked for McCann for 17 years), Touko knew this. So when the AIDS crisis began in America in the 1980s, he felt a portion of responsibility; he had been advocating free love, after all. His response was to create images which, in true ‘no shame’ style, got the viewer horny while reminding them to use a condom.

What makes Tom of Finland truly remarkable is not just what it achieved within the gay community; it has also become a known property in pop culture. Nowadays, it’s a brand in its own right; the leatherman image provokes an instant sense of brand recognition.

Dehner runs the foundation as a business out of necessity, but while some have criticised that he is “over-commercialising” Tom’s work through merchandise and magazine spreads, he remains extremely careful when it comes to selecting partners. “I always make sure it’s a company with great creative people, and with gay people,” he says. The most important thing to him is to honour Touko’s memory while continuing to inspire change.

Muscle Mary, full of grace

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that civil rights issues like marriage equality wouldn’t be where they are today without the likes of Tom of Finland thrusting himself into popular culture. But, as with any social movement, a backlash is inevitable. This mainstreaming of gay culture has since led to yawn-worthy assimilation, where ‘straight-acting’ is seen as the ideal. That’s not to say Quentin Crisp is the only model of homosexual sensibility, but striving towards integration or even invisibility in a heteronormative world is essentially shirking the legacy of the queer activists who made modern gays’ safe lives possible.

The Tom of Finland iconography is also at least partially responsible for popularising the gym bunny lifestyle which originated in urban California and has since become the prerequisite for any self-respecting homosexual. What began as an expression of pride and healthy self-image has been warped into disdain among many gay men for anybody who isn’t a dysmorphic, muscle-bound, protein powder-obsessed Andrew Christian model.

But that’s a rant for another time. The important takeaway here is Tom’s undeniable legacy and influence; helping an entire generation of gay men accept themselves while challenging stereotypes. Not bad for an ad man with a penchant for gay porn.

ogilvydo-logo_newBy Philip Ellis


TOM OF FINLAND at Antebellum gallery

TOM OF FINLAND: Public and Private
runs till December 23rd at
1643 North Las Palmas Avenue, Hollywood

This exhibition was mounted as a result of the interest shown, and encouragement given, by students visiting TOM House. Their enthusiasm towards this work has made us at Tom of Finland Foundation (ToFF) realize that, as was the case years ago when Tom discovered his rough sketches were valued works unto themselves, these works, too, will now have more opportunities to be enjoyed and receive their own status.

In order for Tom to create his men and perfect his drawing skills, he first needed images of them. In the early years of post-war Europe, magazines were not readily available so Tom learned how to photograph models and develop and print what he shot. He added the pictures to his catalog of print material he used as reference for his drawings.

After a preliminary sketch, Tom would draw a finished work and when that was complete he would need to document it. He would photograph them and create contact sheets to mail to customers from which they could order prints; prints which Tom produced in his own darkroom.

Tom enlisted his friends, geared them up (often in his own leathers) and posed them to capture the exact way he wanted the body and gear to look in his realistic drawings. The better Tom’s drawings became, the better they communicated his message of  pride and freedom.

Tom’s “doodles” were created at the kitchen table in the late evening while he was reading the daily news, which was usually then transformed into TOM’s News. International politicians and civil activists soon became over endowed, booted, “TOM’s Men”: It was Tom’s way to relax.

Tom often combined his doodles and his own photographs with tear sheets and clippings on the pages of his reference binders, which still reside in his studio at ToFF’s headquarters in Echo Park, where the artist lived the last decade of his life.

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen)
May 8, 1920 – November 7, 1991

Thank you to Mike Goldie for these photographs.

View the World of Tom of Finland Gallery HERE


A Fine Finnish – “Tom of Finland” – St. Louis – June 25

Tom of Finland: Original Drawings

Every week Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday from Sat., June 25 until Sat., August 6

phd gallery
Price: $10 suggested donation opening night; free thereafter

By Paul Friswold

 When Touko Laaksonen was a young man, homosexuals had no public image because homosexuality was not discussed in the 1930s. That didn’t stop Tuoko from fantasizing about the loggers and farmers of his bucolic Finnish village — and it didn’t stop him from using these men as the inspiration for his drawings of burly men rough-housing, wrestling and engaging in more intimate physical acts. Touko eventually found work in advertising, but sent his illustrations to the major American physical fitness and muscle mags of the day, signing his work with the easier-to-pronounce “Tom.” The burgeoning gay community fell in love with Tom of Finland’s work not just because of his hyper-sexualized male nudes — although what’s not to love about that? — but because his subjects were always depicted as strong, happy and proud of their bodies and themselves. Gay pride was evident in Tom of Finland’s art long before it was a rallying call for the LGBT community. And in honor of PrideFest weekend, phd gallery hosts a unique exhibition, Tom of Finland: Original Drawings. As the title implies, these are not lithographs or reproductions, but genuine original graphite on paper illustrations from the hand of the master.


Gay pride was evident in Tom of Finland’s art long before it was a rallying call for the LGBT community.

Tom of Finland: Original Drawings opens with a free public reception from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, June 25, at phd gallery (2300 Cherokee Street; 314-664-6644 or A suggested $10 donation on opening night benefits the Tom of Finland Foundation, an organization which promotes, protects and preserves erotic art. The work remains up through Saturday, August 6, and the gallery is open Thursday through Sunday. Admission is free after opening night.