Freshly moved by my company to Rochester, on one of my first nights I was able to take off, I wanted to be among gay people. I drove to town and examined the bars from the outside to see if I saw any indication of the customers. Well I made my bet on one of them. It seems to have only men and they seem like a friendly clowd. So I went in and asked for drink. As the bartender who was overweight and who was not wearing anything particualry indicative of what I was looking for went for my drink, I saw on the wall by the register a picture of the cartoon hunk in leather. I knew I was home. Not that I was into leather or cartoons but it was an indication of what the bar was about. Adam
Touko Laaksonen’s groundbreaking gay erotic art has made him a global icon. For more than 50 years until his death in 1991, the artist better known as ‘Tom of Finland’ drew gay men in a way that was radical: his muscular young hunks were happy, playful and unashamedly sexual, without being menacing.
His work, which he liked to call ‘dirty drawings’, first found an audience on the gay underground in the 1950s and 1960s, but since then has edged ever closer to mainstream acceptance. His hyper-masculine aesthetic has influenced Freddie Mercury, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Village People, fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, and photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber. It’s also become a globally recognised brand to the extent that you can now buy a Tom of Finland tea towel on Amazon. But nevertheless, his more explicit work retains an unwavering capacity to shock.
His posthumous success has undoubtedly been bolstered by the fact that in 1984, towards the end of his life, Laaksonen founded a non-profit foundation with his friend Durk Dehner to preserve and promote his catalogue of more than 3,500 illustrations. The Tom of Finland Foundation has championed Laaksonen’s work so effectively that it’s now displayed at leading galleries including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 2014, the Finnish postal service even celebrated his impact with a set of commemorative postage stamps. And this month, the UK’s first public exhibition dedicated solely to his work opened at London’s House of Illustration (though the gallery is currently closed due to the Coronavirus crisis). Curator Olivia Ahmad says the show, produced in collaboration with the Tom of Finland Foundation on the centenary of Laaksonen’s birth, is necessary because he’s “one of the most influential figurative artists of the late 20th Century”.
A ‘dangerous’ artist
At the same time, Tom of Finland is still more of a cult figure than a household name like Andy Warhol (who owned several of his pieces) because his art remains incredibly provocative, especially to the straight male gaze. Many of his illustrations show men with heavily muscled torsos and surreally large genitalia engaging gleefully in sex acts. Some early Tom of Finland illustrations depicting soldiers in Nazi uniforms are also inherently problematic. Art historian Dr James Hicks says Tom of Finland is sometimes overlooked in the mainstream art world because “his work is dangerous and is meant to be dangerous”.
Equally, Tom of Finland’s deification of a certain type of gay man – muscular and avowedly masculine – hasn’t necessarily endeared him to all corners of the LGBTQ community. His influential drawings of men in leather and biker outfits helped to inspire the popular Gay Clone look that Freddie Mercury and Frankie Goes to Hollywood adopted and brought into the mainstream, but also made his work appear exclusionary to other queer factions.
Even though I had to hide my own desires – or maybe because of it – I started drawing fantasies of free and happy gay men – Tom Laaksonen
In the 2011 book Tom of Finland: Life and Work of a Gay Hero, Dehner reflected that members of an activist group called Queer Nation “protested [Touko] not long after his death, calling him a ‘sell out’ – only drawing what they saw as ‘straights’.” And in 2020, Tom of Finland’s stylised hunks could look like the embodiment of the toxic ‘masc4masc’ culture that pervades gay dating apps, shaming queer men who present in a more femme way.
However, it’s important not to separate Tom of Finland’s drawings from the historical context in which he created them. “At the time when I became aware of my sexual orientation, before World War Two, all gay activity was forbidden by law in most countries,” Laaksonen writes in the preface to his 1988 book, Retrospective I. Laaksonen, born in 1920 and raised by schoolteacher parents in a small town in southwestern Finland, says the first gay men he encountered “felt ashamed and guilty, like [they were] belonging to a lower human category” as a result of the prejudice they faced. He also acknowledges that his creativity was a reaction to this shame, saying: “Even though I had to hide my own desires – or maybe because of it – I started drawing fantasies of free and happy gay men.”
Creating a new stereotype
What’s more, Laaksonen developed his distinctive aesthetic – a homoerotic fantasy world populated by gay men who epitomised physical fitness and male desirability – as a corrective response to the particular, reductive way in which gay men were portrayed at the time. Even if Laaksonen’s drawings now seem to perpetuate the stereotype of gay men as inherently sexual and supremely body-conscious, they were once groundbreaking for this very reason.
“Pop culture representations of gay and queer men in the first half of the 20th Century are dominated by the image of the ‘pansy’,” says Dr Justin Bengry, who runs the Queer History course at Goldsmiths, University of London. Bengry says that the ‘pansy’ homosexual was invariably portrayed as “effete” and “the butt of the joke”. Even when he was allowed to “get one over on everyone else”, he was inevitably held up as exemplifying a kind of “failed masculinity”. “Tom of Finland is clearly a reaction against that,” Bengry asserts. “He’s showing that homoerotic desire can be masculine, valid, fun and playful.”
His work captures a raw sexual energy that’s unashamed, punk, rebellious, fantastical, sleazy and most importantly very funny – Chris Weller
Tom of Finland’s gleeful and very gay brand of sexual freedom still resonates today – more than 60 years after his first drawing was published. “His work captures a raw sexual energy that’s unashamed, punk, rebellious, fantastical, sleazy and most importantly very funny,” says drag performer Chris Weller, aka Baby Lame. Weller says he “always feels slightly dirty” when he looks at Tom of Finland's drawings, but adds: “It’s a feeling I like!”
Hicks says Tom of Finland’s work doesn’t just feel dangerous because of its overt queerness, but also “because of the way he’s playing with subcultures like leather and BDSM and the way he’s playing with race”. Laaksonen first drew a man of colour in 1960, and as his career progressed, he included more interracial couples in his drawings – something which certainly made his art feel even more taboo at the time. While it might be argued that Tom of Finland reinforces the stereotype of the hypersexual black male, it’s also fair to say that his white males were heavily sexualised too.
However, if these elements of his work are inspiringly subversive, the way Tom of Finland plays with imagery from the Third Reich is undoubtedly much more morally murky – even though Laaksonen unequivocally dismissed suggestions he might be a Nazi sympathiser. Laaksonen, who had sexual encounters with German servicemen stationed in Helsinki during World War Two, claimed “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!”
The politics of beefcakes
But in another way, Tom of Finland’s unashamedly gay drawings were inherently political – namely, because they dared to present imagery that mainstream society wasn’t ready to accept. Laaksonen had been drawing for his own pleasure since the 30s, but in 1956 he submitted one of his efforts to the American beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial and had it published – that was when editor Bob Mizer gave him the pseudonym ‘Tom of Finland’.
Tom of Finland’s work in Physique Pictorial was so gay that it couldn’t be any gayer but just bodybuilding-y enough that it could be gotten away with – Dr James Hicks
Though publications like Physique Pictorial were ostensibly presented as bodybuilding manuals celebrating the male form, many were essentially purveyors of gay erotica hiding in plain sight. Unlike gay pornography, beefcake magazines could be sold on American newsstands and sent through the US mail. “I don't think Physique Pictorial had much of a straight male audience,” says Bengry. “I think that it trod a line carefully so that it could plausibly deny being a gay magazine if the issue came up, but realistically it was self-consciously and knowingly a gay magazine.”
Hicks agrees, saying Tom of Finland’s “work in Physique Pictorial was so gay that it couldn’t be any gayer” but also “just bodybuilding-y enough that it could be gotten away with.” These illustrations resonated with gay men around the world so strongly that Laaksonen developed a mail-order business as a kind of cottage industry for his artwork. During the 1960s, he worked at an advertising agency in Helsinki during the day, then created his beloved ‘dirty drawings’ at night. “He photographed and printed his drawings in a makeshift darkroom, then posted them to his customers across the world,” says Ahmad. “These photographs are so tiny – small enough to fit into an airmail envelope because letter-sized mail was unlikely to be opened by postal authorities” who might censor them.
And without having to maintain the pretence necessary for Physique Pictorial, Laaksonen could make his mail-order drawings explicitly sexual rather than merely highly suggestive. Ahmad says it’s hard not to be moved by these photographs today because it was so risky for them to be produced, distributed and even owned at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in many countries.
His muscular soldiers, lumberjacks and leathermen bikers were a direct contrast to the emasculating stereotypes that existed in his lifetime – Olivia Ahmad
Laaksonen was more artist than businessman, and for many years he was poorly paid for his illustrations by both the niche titles who published them and fans who commissioned bespoke pieces. By 1973, however, he was earning enough money to quit his day job at the advertising agency and devote himself fully to drawing. His popularity continued to grow during the last two decades of his life, and in 1979 he and Dehner formed the Tom of Finland Company to copyright earlier work which had been widely pirated. Nearly 30 years after his death in 1991 from an emphysema-induced stroke, it’s arguable that his influence is more widely felt than ever. Fans can even buy a Tom of Finland leather jockstrap, a development which would surely tickle the late illustrator. Both curator Ahmad and Hicks hail his work as “revolutionary”. “His muscular soldiers, lumberjacks and leathermen bikers were a direct contrast to the emasculating stereotypes that existed in his lifetime and that still exist in some ways today,” Ahmad says.
Weller says Tom of Finland’s work is now being reimagined by a new generation of queer performers who “play with the tropes he created and then really turn them on their head to create work that is political, challenging and often sexy”. Weller also says he sees a rarely discussed drag element to his aesthetic, citing his instantly recognisable “lewks [looks], attitudes and costumes”. Equally, Tom of Finland continues to inspire creatives and fashion designers. US underwear brand Rufskin launched a Tom of Finland range in 2015, while artist and Kanye West collaborator Cali DeWitt created a T-shirt for the Tom of Finland foundation last year.
A century after his birth, Tom of Finland’s original art also remains provocative and challenging to audiences still catching up with his unabashedly sexual, queer utopian vision. But as his reputation continues to swell it’s hard to deny that he achieved his primary aim: “I want to show that gays can feel happy together – that they have a right to be happy together.”
Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation at House of Illustrationis currently closed but will reopen as soon as it is safe to do so (www.houseofillustration.org.uk)