Who was Tom of Finland?
Liz Highleyman | June 04, 2007
The erotic art of Touko Laaksonen – better known as Tom of Finland – shaped the erotic fantasies of countless gay men and helped redefine the popular image of male homosexuality.
Laaksonen was born May 8, 1920, in Kaarina, a rural village in southwest Finland. Both his parents were schoolteachers, and he developed an early appreciation for art and music. At age 19, Laaksonen moved to Helsinki to attend art school, but was soon drafted into the Finnish army during World War II.
After the war, Laaksonen completed his art degree and studied piano. By day, he worked as a commercial graphic artist, then played the piano at cafes and private parties at night. Feeling little affinity for the flamboyant and effeminate men who frequented Helsinki's homosexual venues, he traveled often and became familiar with the gay leather scenes in several European cities. In 1953, while cruising in a Helsinki park, he met his sole long-term romantic partner, a dancer named Veli.
Laaksonen submitted some of his sketches to the Los Angeles-based bodybuilding magazine Physique Pictorial; publisher Bob Mizer featured a drawing of a lumberjack on the cover of the spring 1957 issue, dubbing the artist "Tom of Finland." In 1973, Laaksonen had his first public exhibition in Hamburg, Germany, and he was able to quit his job at an advertising agency. In 1978, he visited Los Angeles for his first U.S. exhibition; after Veli's death from cancer in 1981, Laaksonen split his time between Los Angeles and Helsinki.
Laaksonen is credited with introducing the masculine homosexual into gay, and eventually mainstream, culture. His drawings of stereotypically macho men – bikers, cops, sailors – were almost photographic in their detail, but grew increasingly idealistic in their portrayal of perfect male specimens with protruding nipples and enormous penises. As censorship laws loosened, his drawings also became more sexually explicit, and he was among the first to portray manly men engaging in joyous, guilt-free sex. "I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex," he once declared.
But Laaksonen's work was not without controversy. Some critics accused him of harboring an affinity for Nazis, though he disavowed fascism and racism. His work was caught up in gay and lesbian community debates about pornography and sadomasochism, as well as the charge that his idealized images were impossible for real men to live up to.
As his work grew more popular, Laaksonen became an international celebrity. His images spawned an industry, and in 1979 he and manager Durk Dehner co-founded the Tom of Finland Company. In addition to several books of collected works, Laaksonen produced a multi-volume series of comics featuring Kake the leatherman; today, his work is included in the permanent collections of several museums.
Laaksonen continued to frequent the leather and dance club scenes well into his 60s. Diagnosed with emphysema in 1988, he was forced to cut back on his travel, but continued to draw. In 1991, his life and work were chronicled in the documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy. In November of the same year, he died of a stroke in Helsinki.
"I know my little 'dirty drawings' are never going to hang in the main salons of the Louvre," Laaksonen said shortly before his death. "But it would be nice 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."
For further information:
Hooven, F. Valentine. 1994. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times (St. Martin's Press).
Pohjola, Ilppo. 1992. Daddy and the Muscle Academy (documentary film).
Ramakers, Micha. 2000. Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality (St. Martin's Press).
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
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