Touko Laaksonen (Tom of Finland)

 

Tom of Finland is a gay icon. His drawings of well-built men in rugged attire and his depictions of man-to-man lust, shaped a strong image of gay identity. He drew males having sex without shame, proud and full of confidence. Tom of Finland is the artist’s name of Touko Laaksonen (1920—1991). He signed his erotic work “Tom” and when his drawings were first published in 1957, the now world-famous “Tom of Finland” was born. The name Touko Laaksonen was kept for family and colleagues; both friends and fans have always simply called him Tom.

Touko Laaksonen was born on 8th May in southwest Finland. Both his parents were teachers at a primary school, where the family also lived. The arts played a major role with the Laaksonens. Touko’s father had a dedicated interest in music and—directing a local choir—he introduced his five children to singing at an early age. Touko’s mother encouraged her children with their crafts and drawing. After graduating from high school in Turku in 1939, Touko started distance studies in advertising and marketing—the same year as the outbreak of World War II. In early 1940, he was enlisted into the Finnish army. By late the same year, he was commissioned second lieutenant and promoted to lieutenant in 1943. While stationed near Helsinki, Touko had the chance to frequently indulge in the classical music concerts the capital offered. The city’s blackouts at night proved fruitful for enjoying the company of the many other lonely men hungry for sex. An excellent pianist and experienced chorister, he organized a choir in his artillery unit, boosting their moral. The unit was transferred in 1944 and Touko was then engaged in the important and brutal battles which eventually stopped the advance of enemy forces.

Touko spent almost five years in military service—from basic training to decorated officer. Helsinki’s postwar gay culture appeared flamboyant to Touko and he tried to fit in, but he had come of age in uniform, having sex with others in uniform. He just felt more at home with the tougher types he had known. Touko had a fascination with uniforms from an early age, always remembering his school-bus drivers. During the war, when Finland was inundated with soldiers and sailors, boots and uniforms became fetishes for him. After the war ended, he completed his advertising course while studying music at the famed Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. He finished his studies in composition and piano at the Academy in 1949. As there wasn’t much work for a concert pianist, Touko took jobs as a rehearsal pianist and was part of an ensemble that played at restaurants and clubs for the next decade.

While defending his country at war, there was little opportunity for Touko to indulge his personal interest in drawing. During peacetime, once he had the privacy of his own room, he could live out all his fantasies on paper, while hooking up with men in the parks and public meeting places of Helsinki. Touko shared a sublet with his sister and her classmate, who then moved out. Touko met Veli “Nipa” Mäkinen (1932—1981) in the park, invited him home, and he never really left. Eventually the couple moved to their own apartment. The Laaksonen family was fond of Nipa and never asked questions about the two men’s relationship; Nipa was always referred to as Touko’s “room-mate”.

Touko worked in advertising by day. His favorite assignment was to draw people, but clients complained that the fathers in his perfect Finnish families were “too sexy”. He wasn’t fired, but moved into management and eventually became the main art director for the firm. Despite these successes and advancements, he was never completely fulfilled by this “straight” job.

Until the mid-1950s, Tom’s “dirty drawings”—as he modestly referred to them—had never been officially published. Tom had given some to friends, and photographed others, which were passed around in private circles. This changed in 1957, when Bob Mizer first used one on the cover of his magazine Physique Pictorial. Tom of Finland’s drawings added something new to this world of “muscle magazines”—desire. He set about going beyond beefcake to represent his men lusting for each other. It played out with naturalness, humor and joy. His men were at ease with their sexuality, their wants and their bodies. They were gay.

Tom made small photographic reproductions of his work to circulate and offered prints to be purchased either directly from him or his publishers. The prints were sold individually, as well as in sets, through mail-order. In 1973, Tom made the decisive move to devote himself full time to his art. He left the advertising agency, and his new-found dedication to his passion fueled his recognition abroad. In Finland, though, it was hard to imagine that a Finn had actually drawn something this bold!

The same year he left the agency, he also had the first exhibit of his original drawings. It was held in the backroom of a small “adult” bookshop in Hamburg. Tom finally visited the USA in 1978. Within that year, he had two solo exhibitions, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco—and a show in New York with artist Etienne, arranged by Canadian-born Durk Dehner (*1949). This trip to the States was worthwhile and his career took a significant leap forward. Tom needed someone to manage his business and Durk, who lived in Los Angeles and had hosted him on his first visit, turned out to be just this man: trustee, model, lover and business partner. Together they formed the Tom of Finland Company, followed in 1984 by the non-profit Tom of Finland Foundation, helmed by Durk to this day.

During the 1980s, Tom divided his time between Los Angeles and Helsinki, working on exhibitions in both Europe and America, publications, commissioned artworks and his own fantasies. In 1990, shortly before his death, his peers in Finland awarded him the highest prize for comics. The artist died of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) on 7th November 1991, at the age of 71.