To make the leap from illustrative gay porn to more mainstream culture is one that’s rarely ever crossed. Work by Tom of Finland, aka Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other respected institutes, but it was only towards the end of his life that he began to be acknowledged in wider art circles.
One artist that could be set to follow in his footsteps is Japan’s Jiraiya.
Like Laaksonen, Jiraiya works under a pseudonym. Tom of Finland came to life in the post-war era of the 50s; Laaksonen had to work in the upmost secrecy. Jiraiya, via a translator, tells Gay Star News that he chooses to work under a pseudonym because being openly gay in Japan can still have consequences.
‘It depends a little on the region and one’s professional industry but it is still a little difficult to be fully out in Japan.’
By day, he works as a graphic designer, but with an increasing amount of his revenue coming from his own illustrations and art.
Now in his mid-40s, Jiraiya grew up, and still lives, in the city of Sapporo, in Hokkaido, Japan. He’s been drawing for as long as he can remember, and began illustrating on his computer in 1995 (‘a transitional year for me’). He began drawing gay porn in 1998, and quickly began to pick up commissions.
In an interview with fellow artist Terrell Davis earlier this year, he said that his home city had cast an influence over his aesthetic.
‘In Sapporo, there’s an entertainment district (daikoraku) called Susukino. You can count on three fingers how many such districts there still are in Japan.
‘I was born and raised there, and as a toddler, for example, my next door neighbor was a transvestite man who’d dress as a woman, and there were gay porn magazines lined up in plain view at the local bookstore. It was a relatively out and gay area. That may very well have influenced me.’
Jiraiya’s illustrations tend to feature big, burly and over-muscled men. They range from depicting hardcore man-on-man action (which we can’t show here) to more cutesy offerings; big blokes going about their daily routines. Much of it, including that featuring one of his recurring characters, Caveman Guu, is definitely NSFW.
He’s been with his partner for the past 15 years, but says the men in his drawings are not inspired by anyone in particular.
‘I do see people in real life and think, “Oh their eyes are beautiful,” or “the form of their arms from their shoulders is really great,” but there is not one figure I think manifests my ideal completely, so I have never used any one single human model.
‘Almost all of my illustrations are done on commission, but the figures I depict are always based on an image of my ideal masculine image.’
Recognition of his work has grown steadily in his home country in the past 15 years, where it has been featured in many magazines. It’s only in the last 18 months that his reputation has gone global, which is partly down to a working relationship he struck up with fashion brand and publisher Massive.
Massive, founded in 2013 by Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins, picked up on his work, and that of other gay manga artists, and packed it together in 2014’s book, Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It.
They began producing beach towels and sweatshirts featuring ‘Jiraiya’s ‘Best Couple’; two imposing gachimuchi (muscle-chubby) hunks. They’ve gone on to produce a wider range of clothing featuring a number of illustrations, on sale online and at selected retailers worldwide. It’s been snapped up by both men and women, which would suggest Jiraiya’s appeal goes beyond gay fans of manga.
To help promote the work, Jiraiya travelled to the US earlier this year to take part in signing events. Perhaps aptly, one of these took place at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles.
Jiraiya is happy to meet fans, but always politely declines the invitation to pose for photos. Instead, he is only shown from behind.
There has been much discussion in recent months about racism on the gay scene – particularly on hook-up apps. Jiraiya says that an unexpected consequence of his growing fame outside of Japan is the number of Asian men who say they his work have helped to boost their own self-confidence in their appearance.
‘It was very exciting,’ he says of his trips abroad to meet fans. ‘I was really happy to discover that non-Asians liked the kind of people I was drawing, and I heard from a lot of people of Asian extraction that seeing my depictions of “good-looking Asians” has instilled in them self-confidence, which also makes me very happy.’
With more art from Jiraiya and new merchandise from Massive due to debut over the coming months, the shy artist from Sapporo looks likely to pick up further fans in 2016.
All images courtesy Massive/Jiraiya