May 8, 1920– The first time I saw a Tom Of Finland drawing was in a downtown Spokane used-book store near the bus station in the 1970s. The image, buried at the back of a men’s physique magazine (this is pre-Men’s Health, but the same idea) was a small ad for additional “special” publications. It jumped out at me like a great big erection. It depicted a pair of muscular butch men with big chins and broad grins grabbing each other’s bubble butts and straining packages while winking at the observer. I was startled and aroused. Tom Of Finland’s pornographic drawings of booted, big butted beefcakes banging booty, rendered in charcoals, pencil, and ink, had my full attention and reminded me that I would need to get to a gym.
He was born as Touko Laaksonen in Kaarina, Finland. His work is quite literally the masturbatory fantasies of a lonely young gay Finnish boy. He began drawing in his bedroom in the 1940s. A self-taught draughtsman, his earliest homoerotic drawings were inspired by his service in the Finnish armed forces. Laaksonen worked as an illustrator in the Finnish advertising business until the early 1970s. He soon became a full time gay pornographer, selling the idea of the male body as a pleased, pleasuring and pleasured thing decades before Calvin Klein’s ads.
Laaksonen’s lasting achievement was in portraying gay men as masculine, happy and proud at a time when they were supposed to be effeminate, high-strung, and shameful. This is certainly the reason why so many gay men have been Tom Of Finland fans. Today’s Internet gay porn is in debt to Tom Of Finland, with the endless loops of butch leather clad dudes with huge dicks and massive pecs having spontaneous, shameless sex, bent over a motorcycle or while standing-up in a dark alley. He gave gay men self-esteem and permission to feel like real men.
Laaksonen had a profound influence on gay culture because during an era that portrayed gay guys as sissies, he portrayed homos as confident and aggressive. Every drawing features a lumberjack, cop, construction worker, cowboy, biker, sailor or soldier. Not a florist, choreographer or dress designer in the bunch. He suggested something more than the masculinity of gay men, turning it around on the straight world; Tom insisted that you couldn’t be truly butch unless you were gay.
Laaksonen’s big break came in the 1950s from Physique Pictorial, a sort of legal gay American magazine dressed up as a straight bodybuilding periodical. The magazine often featured Tom’s manly men on the cover and in the features. More than half a century later and 25 years after his passing, popular culture has turned around and now straight men who look like Tom’s dirty drawings appear on the cover of mainstream magazines. I was reading one with the porn sounding title Maxim while waiting to get my haircut at my local barbershop 7 Bucks A Whack (the perfect Tom Of Finland business name) and the thing was full of advice on how straight men can turn themselves into something out of Tom Of Finland.
“I know my little ‘dirty drawings’ are never going to hang in the main salons of the Louvre, but it would be nice if – I would like to say ‘when,’ but I better say ‘if’ – our world learns to accept all the different ways of loving. Then maybe I could have a place in one of the smaller side rooms.”
Still the big question begs: is it art or is it porn? David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol were collectors of Tom’s work. He continues to have gallery shows. His work is in the permanent collections of many world museums, including MoMA. We can all see that the macho men of Tom Of Finland are well hung… they’re hung in museums.
This may seem surprising given that homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971, and same-sex partnerships were sanctioned only in 2002. Even today, Finland isn’t noted for tolerance, just last July, a Gay Pride march in Helsinki became the target of a gas bomb attack. Yet, in spring 2014, Itella Posti published a set of first class stamps in Finland including two drawings by Tom Of Finland, by the stamps designer graphic artists who represented the Tom Of Finland Foundation hedquartered in LA. The set consisting of a sheet three self-adhesive stamps and are accompanied by a booklet The Secret Correspondence Of Tom Of Finland published by the Finnish Postal Museum. The stamp set became a hit with its popularity surprising the Finish Postal System which received hundreds of thousands of orders from 200 countries around the globe. I happily own a set, waiting to be framed by The Husband. I also have a 6 volume boxed set of Tom Of Finland’s works.
Opening today and playing through the summer, The Pleasure Of Play at the Kunsthalle Helsinki is the most comprehensive Tom Of Finland exhibition ever, spanning six decades and including more than 180 drawings, 1930s childhood paper dolls, the full set of 1940s gouaches along with triptychs, individual drawings, storyboards and over 300 reference pages.
A new book, Tom House (Rizzoli), gives a look at Tom’s historic LA home, which was not only where the artist lived and worked over the last decade of his life, but also the center of a gay biker counterculture, in some ways, a setting where the artist’s work came to life.
“My drawings are primarily meant for guys who may have experienced misunderstanding and oppression and feel that they have somehow failed in their lives. I want to encourage them. I want to encourage this minority group, to tell them not to give up, to think positively about their act and whole being.”
Director Dome Karukoski’s film Tom Of Finland is currently shooting in Finland and Sweden from a screenplay by Aleksi Bardy. I am surprised that James Franco didn’t get there first.
Not a bad legacy for a pornographer.
In 1991, Laaksonen was featured in the film documentary Daddy And The Muscle Academy: The Art, Life, And Times Of Tom Of Finland. Later that same year, he died in Helsinki, taken by Emphysema. He was 71 years old.