The real Tom of Finland: how a leather-loving artist gave men their muscle

Pekka Strang as Tom and Jessica Grabowsky as his sister in Tom of Finland

Stamp-collecting isn’t usually considered sexy. But in 2014, Finland’s postal service released a limited series that had philatelists hot under the collar. Two of the stamps showed a police officer with his naked, moustachioed lover sprawled between his legs. The third featured a pair of pert male buttocks.

Touko Laaksonen – the pioneer of gay erotica better known as Tom of Finland – would have loved seeing his pictures posted around the world, being a keen stamp-collector himself. Unusually for an erotic artist, Tom of Finland has been embraced by by the world of high art, particularly in America, where his famous fans included Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe.

But for decades the Finnish artist had to work in secret, smuggling his illustrations out of the country and publishing under a pseudonym. It’s only now, 26 years on from his death, that he has come to be celebrated in his homeland as a national treasure.

A new film about the artist has been a major hit in Finland, and arrives in UK cinemas on August 11. Its director, Dome Karukoski, the filmmaker behind Nordic blockbusters such as 2010’s Lapland Odyssey (which beat that year’s Harry Potter and Sex and the City movies at the Finnish box-office), spent five years researching the artist’s life, interviewing his friends and admirers.

“It’s a classic rags-to-riches story,” says Karukoski. “There are elements that are very universal. I never saw this as a ‘gay film.’” Anyone hoping for an explicit shock-fest may be disappointed; Karukoski’s thoughtful biopic is surprisingly restrained. “People were expecting a provocation – after all, it’s a Tom of Finland film! We actually had script versions where there was more nudity, but his core fans said, ‘The sex is there in the drawings, what we want is his story.’ It’s funny, because a lot of heterosexual critics have written that there should be more sex.”

Tom of Finland is revered in the gay leather community. His instantly recognisable black-and-white sketches of leather-clad “Tom’s Men” didn’t just captured that aesthetic – they helped to create it. For Karukoski, though, the adulation was an obstacle in learning about the real man. “I remember, I asked the fans what he was like in our opening meetings,” he tells me. “They said, ‘Well, he was a Nordic god!’ But how do you build a character from that?”

It was a single photograph of the artist as a young man, however, that captured the filmmaker’s imagination. “There was a shot of 10 soldiers, and nine of them were quite shy, as Finns are. But then there’s Tom, just holding a smoke and flirting with the camera. And he’s 20. I think that defines a lot of his character: he never carried any shame.”

Born in 1920, Laaksonen was conscripted during the Winter War of 1939-40, defending Finland’s borders against Stalin’s invading army. “It was the best and the worst time in his life,” says Karukoski.

In one scene of the film, we watch as he tenderly cradles the face of a Russian soldier he has just killed. “He would always say that was the most tragic part of his life, having to kill something so beautiful.” In the chaos of war, however, the closeted artist found a brief window of sexual freedom. “When people think death is imminent, the laws of sex are gone,” Karukoski continues. “Meeting people in the heavy moonlight, and perhaps not recognising them the next day… How liberated men in danger can be!”

These liaisons would leave a lasting impression on his art. “A fully dressed man is more erotic than a naked one,” Tom once said, and a man in uniform was, in his mind, the most erotic of all. For the rest of his life, he would sketch tightly-dressed military officers, as well as policemen, prison wardens and the muscly lumberjacks he remembered from his childhood in a rural logging district of southern Finland. At a time when the popular stereotype of a homosexual was weak, foppish and effeminate, Tom’s Men were strong, working-class and bulging with virile confidence.

“That’s why he was so subversive,” his friend, business partner and occasional model Durk Dehner has said. “He took heterosexual, super-male imagery, and gave it to the queer boys!”

Dehner was one of a generation of young American men who felt moved and emboldened by Tom, whose art had been published since the Fifties in leading US “beefcake” magazine Physique Pictorial, a “fitness” journal which later gave up its claims of educational value and moved into overt erotica. In the film, we watch as Doug (a fictionalised version of Dehner) nervously flirts with another young man at the gym by showing him a Tom of Finland pin-up.

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