- His drawings of masculine gay men having ‘happy sex’ changed the way we see ourselves and helped change the world.
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tom of Finland – the illustrator who defined an idealistic gay body for a generation of men.
Tom of Finland’s influence on gay male culture is as dominant as one of his muscular models.
However, he is not without controversy. Critics have attacked both his positive depictions of men in Nazi uniforms and the implication that the unrealistic bodies he portrays are something gay and bi men should strive for.
Despite this, he played a huge role in making gay and bi people proud of their identities. Moreover, he was an early champion of LGBT+ freedom himself.
Here’s our quick guide to Touko Valio Laaksonen – better known as Tom of Finland. But more importantly we are sharing just a few of his 3,500 illustrations to let his art speak for itself.
The young Tom of Finland
Laaksonen was born on 8 May 1920 in Kaarina, a town in southwestern Finland, near the city of Turku.
Aged 19, he moved to Helsinki, Finland’s capital, to study advertising. But in his spare time he loved drawing erotic images of male laborers, although he kept them secret.
Soon Finland entered World War II and Laaksonen became a conscript in the Finnish Army in February 1940. At that point, he destroyed his early illustrations. He served as an anti-aircraft officer, holding the rank of second lieutenant.
During the war, German Wehrmacht soldiers served in Finland.
Naturally, 20-something Tom had plenty of opportunities to see uniformed men up close. In the pitch black city, he started having the sex he’d dreamed of with these men in uniforms. They would later inspire his militaristic illustrations.
But while he was fascinated by their bodies, he didn’t agree with their politics. He later said:
‘In my drawings I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself. The whole Nazi philosophy, the racism and all that, is hateful to me, but of course I drew them anyway – they had the sexiest uniforms!’
After the war, he returned to his studies but kept drawing. Meanwhile he met his lover Veli in 1953. They spend the next 28 years together.
Tom’s career takes off
Laaksonen’s career truly started in the 1950s. He submitted drawings to the American magazine Physique Pictorial under the name ‘Tom’. Editor Bob Mizer published them in 1957 and created the name ‘Tom of Finland’.
Tom was inspired by Finnish lumberjacks who represented hyper masculinity. Likewise the rise of biker culture gave gay men a new masculine form with an element of rebellion and danger.
Back then, people typically tried to denigrate gay men as ‘effeminate’ or ‘sissy’. So Tom’s images gave me a powerful alternative to those stereotypes.
However, while he targeted his images at gay men, this had to be a hidden code. US censorship banned ‘overt homosexual acts’. So instead Tom’s work from this time is of muscular ‘beefcakes’ in athletic poses rather than overtly sexual.
As attitudes and law changed in the 1960s, Tom was able to be more explicit. The bulges in his men’s pants became as prominent as the bulges in their muscles.
‘Dirty drawings’ go mainstream
Tom called them his ‘dirty drawings’ and they were proving popular. But neither erotic art nor homosexual art paid very well at first.
So it wasn’t until 1973 that he gave up his job at leading international ad agency McCann-Erickson. From then he concentrated on publishing erotic comic books. He later joked: ‘Since then I’ve lived in jeans and lived on my drawings.’
His characters were now openly having sex. Moreover, he was attracting attention from the serious art world. In particular the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was an early supporter. Tom exhibited his work in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.
Sadly, his lover Veli died of throat cancer in 1981. And Laaksonen was diagnosed with emphysema in 1988.
The disease and medication caused his hands to tremble. As result, he switched from pencils to pastels as detailed work was no longer possible. He died in 1991 of an emphysema-induced stroke.
Meanwhile the AIDS crisis had hit hard in the US, killing many of the friends he had grown to love on his frequent, long visits to the States.
‘Hard-bodied sun-lovers in boots and leather’
However, Tom’s fame has continued in the almost three decades since his death.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art has several Tom of Finland pieces in its permanent collection. Meanwhile a 2017 film celebrated his life and work.
And when the Finland honored him with a set of stamps they became the best-sellers in the postal service’s history. Fans from 178 countries pre-ordered them.
But the greatest influence is in gay men’s perception of themselves.
His biographer, Valentine Hooven, said:
‘When Tom’s work was first published, homosexuals thought they had to be imitation women, and spent their lives hiding in the shadows.
‘Thirty-five years later, gays were much more likely to be hard-bodied sun-lovers in boots and leather, masculinity personified.
‘Tom’s influence in that direction was no accidental byproduct of his art. From the beginning, he consciously strove to instill in his work a positive, up-beat openness.
‘When asked if he was not a little embarrassed that all his art showed men having sex, he disagreed emphatically: “I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex!”’
Tom of Finland’s legacy
That doesn’t mean that his work never attracted controversy.
During the 1980s, it felt out of kilter with a generation of gay men who were suffering and dying from AIDS-related illness.
Some have argued that his depictions of black men enforce the stereotype of the hypersexual black male. However, his depictions of white men have the same characteristics.
In an age of body positivity, do his ‘supermen’ characters represent something positive or are they damaging and distasteful?
In the end, this will be in the eye of the beholder. Tom didn’t try to depict all society – just one aspect of it.
Moreover, some of his work shows he is mocking these ‘macho’ stereotypes. Tough men having sado-masochistic sex are portrayed as being tender, playful and smiling. Tom is, above all, sex positive and they are having the ‘happy sex’ he strived to show.
Tom was happy to admit to drawing while naked and masturbating. And ever since, his work has excited, inspired and turned on people around the world. By changing the way gay people saw themselves, he played a vital role in the birth of LGBT+ liberation.
Today the Tom of Finland Foundation he co-founded continues this work. It’s mission is to promote erotic art and, in doing so, encourage healthier, more tolerant attitudes about sexuality.
He was a master of pencil art whose work moved people sexually and even changed their lives. In that sense, few artists have achieved more.