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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

  Tom of Finland

Tom of Finland 1920to –1991

Finnish erotic artist, and one of the all-time influential creators of gay pornography. He was born Touko Laaksonen to two schoolteachers in a small Finnish town. From a young age, he developed a fascination with local working class men and their leather gear, long before the existence of any gay leather scene. He moved to Helsinki at age 19, studying advertising while privately illustrating his sexual fantasies, based off of magazine photos and an active imagination. In 1940, after World War II had begun and the Soviet Union had invaded Finland, he was drafted into the army. It was during this time that he had his first sexual experiences, under the cover of citywide blackouts, and added military uniforms to his list of fetishes. After the war, he returned to advertising, and in 1953 he met Veli, his partner for the next 28 years. By this point, Laaksonen had been sharing his private drawings with close friends, and in 1956 he was encouraged to submit a few to Bob Mizer. Mizer was a pioneer in the “beefcake” industry, publishers of tame homoerotic imagery under the guise of health and fitness. He loved Laaksonen’s work, and published his illustration of seminude lumberjacks on the cover of Physique Pictorial, crediting the artist as “Tom of Finland.” Tom, as he was then known, continued to work prolifically, creating pencil drawings of excessively muscled men in leather or uniform, sometimes giving just a suggestive look, and sometimes engaging in explicit BDSM sex. His work is characterized not only by its photorealism and common themes of exaggerated masculinity, sadomasochism, and fetishism, but also by the obvious joy and lack of shame of the men being depicted. His work was shared widely throughout the underground gay subculture, and as pornography regulations relaxed in the United States and elsewhere, he had more and more opportunity for freelance and commissions. By the 1970s, he was exhibiting in galleries, befriending other artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, and was finally able to quit his advertising job. Tom’s imagery continues to have an enormous influence in shaping gay culture. In 2014, the Finnish postal service introduced Tom of Finland stamps, which quickly became their best-selling stamps of all time.

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