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 1970. 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 & broad grins grabbing each other’s bubble butts & straining packages while winking at the observer. I was startled & aroused. Tom of Finland’s pornographic drawings of booted, big butted beefcakes banging booty, rendered in charcoals, pencil, & ink, had my full attention & 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. Tom 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 & pleasured thing decades before Calvin Klein.
Tom’s lasting achievement was in portraying gay men as masculine, happy & proud at a time when they were supposed to be effeminate, high-strung, & 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 & massive pecs having spontaneous, shameless sex, bent over a motorcycle or while standing-up in a dark alley. He gave gay men self-esteem & permission to feel like a real man.
Tom had a profound influence on gay culture because during an era that portrayed gay guys as sissies, he portrayed homos as confident & 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, you couldn’t be truly butch unless you were gay.
Tom’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 & in the features. More than half a century later & 24 years after his passing in 1991, popular culture has turned around & now men who look like Tom’s dirty drawings appear on the cover of mainstream magazines. I was reading one with 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) & 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 & 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. Last year, Finland released first-class postage stamps with Tom oOf Finland images. Not bad for a pornographer.
And this year, Tom will also be front & center at the first Drag convention ever at RuPaul’s DragCon in a new panel moderated by S.R. Sharp, the vice president of the Tom of Finland Foundation, called Men & Fringe: Leather. Drag. Lifestyle. Sex. Art Also coming later this year, the movie TOM.