When the Finnish post office announced it would release a set of stamps commemorating a famous artist, the images set pulses racing for more than just hard core philatelists.
“Tens of thousands of Tom of Finland stamp sheets were pre-ordered before issuing, from our web shop” explains Markku Penttinen, Development Director at the Finnish postal service. “The top five countries where most of the orders came were Finland, England, Sweden, USA and France” he adds. Eager collectors in more than 170 other countries also pre-ordered the stamps.
The designs come in three eye-catching (not to mention eyebrow-raising) designs, classic Tom of Finland poses featuring strong masculine men with bulging features, and leather accessories: the uniformed man, casually smoking a cigarette, with a naked man at his feet; the view of a man’s naked buttocks from behind as another man gazes at his genitals. These are the images that caught the imagination of gay America in the 1950s when they were first published in Physique Pictorial, and whose appeal endures to this day.
“Tom of Finland’s art is high artistic quality, strong personal touch, joy and brave, a visual feast of male beauty make his work topical again and again” says Katriina Rosavaara, Vice Chair of SETA, a Finnish gay rights organisation. Touko Laaksonen, who died in 1991, has explained that he wanted to create an imagine of gay masculinity that ran counter to the prevailing sentiment, that homosexual men were foppish, weak or girly. So he drew powerful characters like policemen and soldiers, or lumberjacks from his homeland. The men were partially or wholly undressed with prominent sexual characteristics. They were an instant hit with readers in America.
Out of thousands of Tom of Finland drawings, the Finnish post office’s stamp design process narrowed down the field. Putting naked bodies on stamps was not new in Finland, but it hadn’t been done in a long time. “In 1949 we issued sauna-themed stamps with naked women’s bodies” says Markku Penttinen. “We also knew that this issue will raise some discussion among customers, and it did. There are customers who do not like this kind of art” he admits.
“Over half of the Finnish people support marriage equality” says SETA’s Rosavaara. “It is difficult to say why the issue makes politicians so uncertain, especially, since Finland is known as a model for equality. I hope the marriage law will be mended as soon as possible”.
“The popularity of the stamps tells something about the change that has happened in the Finnish society” says Rosavaara. “In the last few years, his works have more and more been presented also in Finland and thus become more widely known. The current legislative issues, that interest the LGBTI community, have gotten a lot of attention, and we have been widely able to discuss the biggest problems and bring up our own views”.
The Finnish post office only issued a limited number of 200,000 sheets of Tom of Finland stamps and once they’re sold no re-prints are planned.