“My whole life long I have done nothing but interpret my dreams of ultimate masculinity, and draw them.”
TRQ: Touko Laaksonen, Born May 8, 1920
Painter and designer Touko Laaksonen, widely known as Tom of Finland for his fetishistic representations of gay sexuality, was born in Kaarina, outside the city of Turku in Finland. Away from the woodsmen and farmers of his small town, he was encouraged by his schoolteacher parents to pursue interests in art, literature and music. He was playing the piano and creating comic strips by the time he was 5.
At the age of 19, Laaksonen began taking courses in marketing and advertising, but soon went into the military where he served as lieutenant during World War Two. During the war, Laaksonen began having sex with the uniformed men he found attractive. In 1944, he was awarded the 4th class Order of the Cross of Liberty medal.
After the war, Laaksonen studied music at Sibelius Academy, while at night he would strip naked and draw the men he could no longer find out on the streets. He did freelance advertising and fashion design work, decorated window displays, and played the piano at Helsinki’s post-war bohemian parties and cafes. He also began producing homoerotic drawings that celebrated gay sex in an positive way.
Later asked about his drawings of men having sex, Laaksonen insisted that “I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex!”
Laaksonen travelled frequently, cruising the gay scene in cities around the world. Then, in 1953 he met Veli, his life partner of nearly thirty years.
In 1956, Laaksonen sent his homoerotic drawings to Physique Pictorial, using the name “Tom” for the first time. Laaksonen had assumed that his name would be difficult for Americans to pronounce. Accepted enthusiastically by the editor, the drawing of a lumberjack by Tom of Finland made the magazine’s Spring 1957 cover, and became a sensation.
Demand for Tom of Finland’s drawings skyrocketed, and Laaksonen spent most of his free time developing a style of drawing recognizable for its fantastical, yet nearly photorealistic, attention to detail. Because erotic art of any type did not pay well, it would be nearly twenty years before Laaksonen would make enough money to quit his day job in advertising.
In 1976 Laaksonen had his first art exhibition, which took place in Hamburg, Germany, but nearly all his work was stolen. Two years later he had another exhibit in Los Angeles, which would be followed by sows in San Francisco and New York. These frequent visits to America helped Laaksonen achieve a level of celebrity status, and became friends with other gay artists like Robert Mapplethorpe.
In 1981 Veli died of throat cancer, just as the AIDS epidemic would start to decimate gay culture and social life the world over. In 1984, Laaksonen founded the Tom of Finland Foundation for supporting queer art. Having lost many of his friends during this time, Laaksonen himself was diagnosed with emphysema in 1988, which would ultimately prevent him from continuing with his signature style. He did switch to working with pastels, as he had done as a child, until he died of a emphysema-induced stroke on November 7, 1991.
Cultural historian Joseph W. Slade, describes Tom of Finland as “the most influential creator of gay pornographic images,” whose body of work included over 3,500 illustrations.
In 2017, the first Tom of Finland biopic was released. In 2020, the London House of Illustration celebrated his 100th birthday with “Tom of Finland: Love and Liberation,” which emphasized the role of fashion in his work.
Slade, Joseph W.: Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide, Volume 2. Pp. 545–546. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. ISBN 0-313-27568-8
Tom of Finland published in 1992. ISBN 3-8228-9342-0Hooven is the author of the full-length biography, Tom of Finland Life and Work of a Gay Hero, published by Bruno Gmnder Verlag GmbH in 2012. ISBN 978-3-86787-166-2