Tom of Finland: Embracing Eroticism and Queer Desire

Joanna Kaszubowska 17 June 2022 min Read

Meet Tom of Finland, the artist that inspired the looks of Freddie Mercury, Rob Halford and the Village People. He was friends with Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andy Warhol visited his first exhibition in a boot shop in 1978. His art revolves around strong gay masculinity, with men often clad in leather or uniforms having joyful sex.

From Working Men to Men in Uniforms

Touko Valio Laaksonen was born in 1920 in Kaarina, near Turku in Finland. At the age of 19, he started his studies in advertising while drawing erotic images in his spare time. He destroyed all of them when the Finnish army conscripted him in 1940. Initially inspired by male laborers, his time in the army moved his artistic interest toward uniformed men.

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!

Touko Valio Laaksonen (Tom of Finland).

Tom of Finland, Untitled, from Sex on a Train, 1974,
Tom of Finland, Untitled, from Sex on a Train, 1974. Tom of Finland Foundation.

Hypermasculine Gay Men

In 1956, Touko submitted a drawing to the American Physique Pictorial magazine. It was published in 1957 under the pseudonym Tom of Finland as his name was too complicated. He hijacked the hypermasculine macho iconography that was so heterosexual in its nature and repurposed it for gay culture. Subversive as it was, it worked like a charm. The rising biker culture also inspired him. Its association with danger and rebelliousness while at the same time using careful stylization provided the other extreme to the effeminate perception of gay men.

Tom of Finland, Untitled (From the “Cyclist and the Thief” series), 1960, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection, ©1960 Tom of Finland Foundation
Tom of Finland, Untitled (From the Cyclist and the Thief series), 1960. Tom of Finland Foundation.

Lust for Life

Touko’s men are confident and happy, lustful, and hungry for life. All with abs of steel, leather gear, and bulging crotches. Throughout most of Tom’s life, homosexuality was illegal in Finland and it was only in 1971 that the situation changed. His art subverts stereotypes, but also laughs in the face of authority, with many of his figures in uniform. By 1973 he was able to quit his day job in advertising and devote his time solely to his erotic drawings. In 1976, Tom had his first art exhibition in Hamburg, but unfortunately, thieves took all the drawings. After that, he did not exhibit until 1978, when he had a show in Los Angeles. It was also his first trip to America.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, © Tom of Finland Foundation
Tom of Finland, Untitled. Tom of Finland Foundation.

Proud Men Having Happy Sex

His career took off, managed by Durk Dehner, who in 1984 established the Tom of Finland Foundation, to collect, preserve, and exhibit homoerotic artwork. Tom visited the United States more often, to the point when he would spend six months out of the year there.

The 1980s were a difficult time for Tom, as Veli, his lover for 28 years, died of throat cancer in 1981. The AIDS epidemic also raged across the US, taking many of his friends. And in 1988 doctors diagnosed him with emphysema, which gradually forced him to limit his travels. Still, his work was filled with positive, upbeat openness. When questioned about his work showing only men having sex he responded:

I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex!

Touko Valio Laaksonen (Tom of Finland). Tom of Finland Foundation’s website.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, © Tom of Finland Foundation
Tom of Finland, Untitled. Tom of Finland Foundation.

Way to Go!

Tom of Finland died in 1991. Before his obituary appeared in Helsinki Times, he had been unknown to most Finns. This has now changed, and you can find his works on T-shirts, bags, and other items (you can buy yourself a little something here). He also gained the museum world’s acclaim with his works now included in the collections of such institutions as MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and MOCA in Los Angeles, among others.

Tom of Finland, Untitled, © Tom of Finland Foundation
Tom of Finland, Untitled. Tom of Finland Foundation.

Bums on Stamps

In 2014 the Finnish postal service, Itella Posti, made history by publishing a set of stamps with Tom of Finland’s art. They are considered the world’s first stamps depicting homoerotic art. And think of what a joy it must be to send someone a postcard with a stamp with a bum on it!

Tom of Finland, stampsheet published by Itella Posti, 2014
Tom of Finland, stamp sheet published by Itella Posti, 2014. Tom of Finland Foundation.

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