Today is the 103rd birthday of the man who produced art under the name Tom of Finland: Touko Valio Laaksonen. His work not only helped isolated gay men after the Second World War realize they had a place, but it also created visibility. His images, some of which are much tamer and less revealing than their heteronormative counterparts, were censored, banned, confiscated, and even burned. There was a time when it was more acceptable to show an actual photograph depicting a heterosexual woman being restrained against her will than a drawing of two men expressing attraction to each other. Sadly, as recent as 2019, the official Tom of Finland Instagram account was disabled for a violation of community guidelines. Maybe if the drawings of men were holding a box of diet tea? If you do not like or understand his art, it is probably because it is not for you, it is a good lesson in understanding differences. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Touko Valio Laaksonen
AKA: Tom of Finland
DATE OF BIRTH: 8-May-1920
PLACE OF BIRTH: Kaarina, Finland
DATE OF DEATH 7-Nov-1991
PLACE OF DEATH: Helsinki, Finland
CAUSE OF DEATH: Emphysema
BOYFRIEND: Veli (met 1953, d. 1981 throat cancer)
Puupäähattu Prize (The Finnish Comics Society, 1990)
BEST KNOWN AS: Touko Valio Laaksonen, best known by his pseudonym Tom of Finland, was a Finnish artist known for his stylized highly masculinized homoerotic art, and for his influence on late-20th century gay culture.
Laaksonen was born on 8 May 1920 and raised by a middle-class family in Kaarina, a town in southwestern Finland, near the city of Turku. Both of his parents Suoma and Edwin Laaksonen were schoolteachers at the grammar school that served Kaarina. The family lived in the school building’s attached living quarters.
He went to school in Turku and in 1939, at the age of 19, he moved to Helsinki to study advertising. In his spare time he also started drawing erotic images for his own pleasure, based on images of male laborers he had seen from an early age. At first he kept these drawings hidden, but then destroyed them “at least by the time I went to serve the army.” The country became embroiled in the Winter War with the USSR, and then became formally involved in World War II, and he was conscripted in February 1940 into the Finnish Army. He served as an anti-aircraft officer, holding the rank of second lieutenant. He later attributed his fetishistic interest in uniformed men to encounters with men in army uniform, especially soldiers of the German Wehrmacht serving in Finland at that time. “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, in 1945, he returned to studies.
Laaksonen’s artwork of this period compared to later works is considered more romantic and softer with “gentle-featured shapes and forms.” The men featured were middle class, as opposed to the sailors, bikers, lumberjacks, construction workers, and other members of stereotypically hypermasculine working class groups that feature in his later work. Another key difference is the lack of dramatic compositions, self-assertive poses, muscular bodies and “detached exotic settings” that his later work embodied. In 1956 Laaksonen submitted drawings to the influential American magazine Physique Pictorial, which premiered the images in the 1957 Spring issue under the pseudonym Tom, as it resembled his given name Touko. In the Winter issue later that year, editor Bob Mizer coined the credit Tom of Finland. One of his pieces was featured on the Spring 1957 cover, depicting two log drivers at work with a third man watching them. Pulled from the Finnish mythology of lumberjacks representing strong masculinity, Laaksonen emphasized and privileged “homoerotic potentiality […] relocating it in a gay context”, a strategy repeated throughout his career.
The post-World War II era saw the rise of the biker culture as rejecting “the reorganization and normalization of life after the war, with its conformist, settled lifestyle.” Biker subculture was both marginal and oppositional and provided postwar gay men with a stylized masculinity that included rebelliousness and danger. This was in contrast to the then-prevailing stereotypes of gay man as an effeminate sissy, as seen in vaudeville and films going back to the first years of the industry. Laaksonen was influenced by images of bikers as well as artwork of George Quaintance and Etienne, among others, that he cited as his precursors, “disseminated to gay readership through homoerotic physique magazines” starting in 1950. Laaksonen’s drawings of bikers and leathermen capitalized on the leather and denim outfits which differentiated those men from mainstream culture and suggested they were untamed, physical, and self-empowered. This in contrast with the mainstream, medical and psychological sad and sensitive young gay man who is passive. Laaksonen’s drawings of this time “can be seen as consolidating an array of factors, styles and discourses already existing in the 1950s gay subcultures,” this may have led to them being widely distributed and popularized within those cultures. Starting his professional career in 1958 as a creative executive in renown marketing agency, McCann Helsinki, further encouraged his creativity.
Laaksonen’s style and content in the late 1950s and early 1960s was partly influenced by the U.S. censorship codes that restricted depiction of “overt homosexual acts”. His work was published in the beefcake genre that began in the 1930s and predominantly featured photographs of attractive, muscular young men in athletic poses often shown demonstrating exercises. Their primary market was gay men, but because of the conservative and homophobic social culture of the era, gay pornography was illegal and the publications were typically presented as dedicated to physical fitness and health. They were often the only connection that closeted men had to their sexuality. By this time, however, Laaksonen was rendering private commissions, so more explicit work was produced but remained unpublished. Aside from his work at the advertising agency, Laaksonen operated a small mail-order business, distributing reproductions of his artwork around the world by post, though he did not generate much income this way.
In the 1962 case of MANual Enterprises v. Day the United States Supreme Court ruled that nude male photographs were not inherently obscene. Softcore gay pornography magazines and films featuring fully nude models, some of them tumescent, quickly appeared and the pretense of being about exercise and fitness was dropped as controls on pornography were reduced. By the end of the 1960s the market for beefcake magazines collapsed. Laaksonen was able to publish his more overtly homoerotic work and it changed the context with “new possibilities and conventions for displaying frontal male nudity in magazines and movies.” Laaksonen reacted by publishing more explicit drawings and stylized his figures’ fantastical aspects with exaggerated physical aspects, particularly their genitals and muscles. In the late 1960s he developed Kake, a character appearing in an ongoing series of comics, which debuted in 1968.
With the decriminalization of male nudity, gay pornography became more mainstream in gay cultures, and Laaksonen’s work along with it. By 1973, he was publishing erotic comic books and making inroads to the mainstream art world with exhibitions. In 1973 he gave up his full-time job at the Helsinki office of McCann Helsinki. “Since then I’ve lived in jeans and lived on my drawings,” is how he described the lifestyle transition which occurred during this period.
By the mid-1970s he was also emphasizing a photorealistic style, making aspects of the drawings appear more photographic. Many of his drawings are based on photographs, but none are exact reproductions of them. The photographic inspiration is used, on the one hand, to create lifelike, almost moving images, with convincing and active postures and gestures while Laaksonen exaggerates physical features and presents his ideal of masculine beauty and sexual allure, combining realism with fantasy. Daddy and the Muscle Academy – The Art, Life, and Times of Tom of Finland examples of photographs and the drawings based upon them are shown side by side. Although he considered the photographs to be merely reference tools for his drawings, contemporary art students have seen them as complete works of art that stand on their own.
In 1979, Laaksonen, with businessman and friend Durk Dehner, co-founded the Tom of Finland Company to preserve the copyright on his art, which had been widely pirated. In 1984 the Tom of Finland Foundation was established to collect, preserve, and exhibit homoerotic artwork. Although Laaksonen was quite successful at this point, with his biography on the best-seller list, and Benedikt Taschen, the world’s largest art book publisher reprinting and expanding a monograph of his works, he was most proud of the Foundation. The scope of the organization expanded to erotic works of all types, sponsored contests, exhibits, and started the groundwork for a museum of erotic art.
Laaksonen was diagnosed with emphysema in 1988. Eventually the disease and medication caused his hands to tremble, leading him to switch mediums from pencil to pastels. He died in 1991 of an emphysema-induced stroke.