This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Touko Valio Laaksonen, also known as Tom of Finland (TOF).
If you are gay and you have not been hiding under a rock for the past 20 years, it is hard to imagine you are unfamiliar with his work: pencil illustrations featuring hyper-masculinized men in various stages of partial and complete undress, with exaggerated muscles, nipples and sex organs. Those are the trademarks of Finland’s work.
Some people view the artist’s drawings as nothing more than pornographic illustrations. It is true, his creations generally depict men having extra-lustful sex with other men — sometimes multiple men — engaging in oral, anal and kink sex and experiencing geyser-like orgasms.
But his work is more than just that. Not only are they highly stylized, but if you look closer you will see the expressions on his subjects’ faces: they are not just enjoying their bodies and the sex, they are having fun. They are having fun being who they are and enjoying the camaraderie of the experience shared with other men. Considering the period in which his work of this type was initially created, such images represented a hugely positive step for a largely closeted global population of gay men.
Consider this quote from the artist in reference to his work: “The illustrations are hot, and they depict hot sexual activity. But the subjects, look at their faces. They almost always end up in smiles and laughter enjoying their good times together. I work very hard to make sure the men I draw are proud men, having happy sex.”
Many cultural historians in the LGBTQ community point directly at Tom of Finland for single-handedly having the largest impact on gay male culture in the U.S. in the final decades of the 20th century, and now the 21st century. Prior to the 1970s, gay male culture was often depicted as feminine. Gay people were sometimes even described as the “third sex.”
Finland’s illustrations kick that theory completely to the curb: His subjects are a myriad of blue-collar and middle class he-men, who include military officers, soldiers, cowboys, construction workers, bankers, bikers, policemen, farmhands, rodeo riders and more.
But what about the story behind the artist? What kind of man would create the work he did, initially during an era of such great oppression, and what were his experiences?
Touko Valio Laaksonen, as indicated by the 100-year celebration of his birth this year, was born in 1920. It comes as no surprise that he served in the Finnish military during World War II. What does come as a surprise, and is often lost in the passing of time, is that his native Finland allied their country with Germany during parts of that war.
The country repeatedly asserted they came together with the Nazis against Russia only in an effort to reclaim land taken from them by the former USSR. While they later switched allegiances to work with Russia and other Allied Forces against Germany, much of Laaksonen’s earlier work is influenced by his own youthful sexual experiences with German soldiers, young men he befriended who were far away from home, and very horny.
While the Nazi connection certainly gives pause and reason to ponder, there is no evidence whatsoever that Laaksonen ever maintained any feelings of white supremacy or racism toward non-Caucasians.
He openly spoke of his admiration for the beauty to be found in all men, and included men of color in his erotic illustrations.
However, the very nature of his illustrations has remained a source of contention, largely because his work has been viewed by some as promotion of an ideal that, for most people, will never be attainable.
Laaksonen was aware of this perception, and was quick to point out that he, as the artist, bore no resemblance to the fantastical male figures he created. But he took his response a step further to emphasize that the drawings were intentionally exaggerated, not to promote an ideal, but as pure fantasy erotic entertainment.
From John Waters, a dedicated fan of Tom of Finland and the celebrated gay filmmaker of such legendary films as “Hairspray,” “Cry Baby,” “Serial Mom,” “Polyester,” “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Troubles,” come these words in regards to the work and career of the erotic artist: “When I was a young man in the late ’50s, Tom of Finland invented an impossible-to-live-up-to gay male look that defied stereotypical queerness before I ever realized there was such a thing. I wanted to meet the men depicted in his drawings but struggled at the time, because the only people I saw in Baltimore that looked that butch were lesbians. He’s still a god to me, a great artist, one of the founders of filth, a spiritual leader from the gutter. If you ever want sex today, just pray to him and it will happen.”
Tom of Finland’s career as an artist spanned across six decades (1940s-1990s). His work initially appeared in the U.S. in the spring of 1957 when it was chosen by the publisher of Physique Pictorial to appear on the cover of the beefcake magazine, which featured scantily clad and nearly nude muscled men posing in exercise positions.
While his work became wildly popular with gay men, it was not a successful moneymaker, which required the artist to continue his full-time job at an advertising agency until 1973. Exhibits of his work would follow as the decade progressed, in Germany, and later in the United States, in such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City.
By the 1980s, Tom was spending half the year in Los Angeles and the other half in Helsinki. He continued the back and forth traveling, making many friends in the U.S. and creating much of his best work here, until he was diagnosed with emphysema in 1988. Much to his disappointment, he was forced to end his travels, although he continued to work practically up until the day of his death in Finland on Nov. 7, 1991.
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More on Tom of Finland
If Tom of Finland’s story and artwork intrigue you, the most obvious place to go for more information is the artist’s website, tomoffinland.org. There is also a related site full of TOF merchandise at tomoffinlandstore.com.
If movies are your thing, the 2017 film “Tom of Finland” is currently available for streaming, free with membership, from HULU. The 1991 documentary “Daddy and the Muscle Camp,” which includes extensive interviews and appearances by Tom, is available to watch completely free from the library and university streaming service KANOPY, an option for users of ROKU.
Books on the works of Tom of Finland are numerous and available through the artist’s website, as well as multiple independent online booksellers and eBay.
Tom of Finland was a prolific artist, and there are many fine original pieces for purchase listed through online auction houses around the globe. Prices for various originals range from $2,000 to $10,000 and above. Limited edition prints are far less expensive, though it is not uncommon to see them between $200 and $700.
Lastly, continuing through June 19 is the exhibit “Tom of Finland: The Darkroom” at the Fotografiska gallery in Estonia. Since it is unlikely you will be able to make the trip in person, try a virtual visit to the gallery, which includes a tour of the artwork and various interviews at youtu.be/rSJfOwV0UHI.