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But as an artist, he was known as Tom of Finland.
He died in 1991.
During his life, he sketched homoerotic images of young men with bulging muscles, mostly dressed in tight leather, or not dressed at all.
His style was always provocative. And like his friend Robert Mapplethorpe, Laaksonen’s work had a huge influence on gay culture.
He depicted men dressed as soldiers, bikers, lumberjacks, construction workers. Tom of Finland’s style influenced artists like the Village People and Freddie Mercury of Queen.
“I don’t think anyone since the Greco-Roman times really adulated and adored the male form like Tom did. He gave us godlike creatures but they had a strong humanity to them. They were fantasy but they were also our friends,” said S. R. Sharp, VP | Curator of Tom of Finland Foundation.
Sharp says that Laaksonen’s work played a crucial role in changing the way gay men in the mid-20th century saw themselves.
“We were very limited in our imagery before Tom of Finland. We were depicted as sissies or poofs or pansies, fairies, often feminized and made lesser than. Tom sort of turned it around and made us more than.”
The images the Foundation chose for the stamps don’t represent the most graphic of Tom of Finland’s work. But one of the three designs shows a man’s naked backside with a face peering between the legs.
There are a number of countries around the world where a stamp with a man’s buttocks on it would not be well-received – like Saudi Arabia or Nigeria where homosexuality is illegal. And it’s not unprecedented for a country to bar mail because of an offensive stamp, according to the American Philatelic Society’s Ken Martin.
“The most famous, I think was what was probably the first nude on a postage stamp, Spain in 1930 issued a series with a painting by Goya of a nude which attracted a lot of attention, “Martin says. “As best as I can determine, it appears the United States postal service rejected and returned mail bearing those stamps in the 1930s.”
The Tom of Finland stamps are not the first to celebrate gay culture. In 2010, Austria issued a stamp celebrating the 15th anniversary of Vienna’s Rainbow Parade. And next month the US Postal Service will issue a stamp with the image of American gay rights advocate Harvey Milk.
Tom of Finland stamps will be released in September in conjunction with a retrospective exhibit of his life and work.