By Lino DiNallo
Finland is the place to frolic in the Scandinavian snow and slumber under the Northern Lights. But once you get to Helsinki things could heat up hotter than the backroom of a San Francisco leather bar in the 1970s – metaphorically speaking at least. That’s when you’ll have the opportunity to take a walking tour devoted to both notorious and celebrated homoerotic illustrator Touko Valio Laaksonen. You’d know him as Tom of Finland and this city was his home. Despite the gay and often overtly sexual tableaus of his later work he’s the country’s most famous artist. Talk about a claim to fame. Read on as we cast a cruisey eye on his legacy.
Tom had a typical, wholesome childhood
Touko was born in the town of Kaarina in 1920. His parents were both teachers, with their home connected to a school. It was an unremarkable upbringing, but it put his imagination to good use.
His surroundings were his muse
Touko’s early inspiration was the blue-collar men of his childhood, with their rugged, understated presence. To sate his emerging desires Touko drew these fellows through longing eyes, and his first collection was born. Unfortunately, the work was destroyed before anybody ever saw it thanks to World War Two. Touko was conscripted into the military, being gay was not okay, and he didn’t want to leave any receipts lying around.
The intense camaraderie of battle and the macho peacocking of the opposition troops inspired some of Touko’s most aggressive work. He hated the Nazi philosophy but thought their uniforms were sexy, and also had tons of sex with other soldiers. The Battle gets lonely.
Biker culture, the leather scene, and Tom of Finland converge
Touko returned to Helsinki after the war to study advertising, then began his career as an art director. While many veterans got married and had families in the suburbs, others refused to settle down with kids. They found camaraderie in each other, shared interests like motorcycles, and paved the way for modern biker culture. As writer Hunter S Thompson famously said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “Wow! What a ride!”
Many gay men like Touko, forming their own community after the war, found that outsider biker aesthetic irresistible and formed “motorcycle clubs without motorcycles”. Touko began to draw again and made such men his subject matter. It was all a rebuke to society’s view of gay men being sad, sensitive and/or swishy. Suffice to say not everyone related to Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares and the leather scene was born.
Touko was also a fan of American beefcake magazines. Given the times, explicit gay porn was illegal Stateside. These illustrated publications offered a workaround to the MSM crowd: clothing stayed on, proportions were exaggerated, and though no penis was visible the heaving bulges shoved a message in your face. Touko felt a synergy between his own art and his favourite pages of these spankrags. He submitted a few pieces to Physique Pictorial, under the Anglicized alias ‘Tom’ for discretion. The publisher loved Touko’s work so much that it was featured in the Spring 1957 issue, most notably as cover art. The editor dubbed his latest find “Tom of Finland”, which became Touko’s now iconic personal brand. What set Tom of Finland apart from his predecessors was the knowing glances and throbbing chemistry between subjects. These weren’t just acquaintances. They were barking up each other’s trees, thirst trapping from every angle.
Tom takes a lover
In the early 1950s, Touko met a man named Veli – the Finnish word for brother – on a street corner. They only hooked up for casual sex but would remain together for 27 years, until Veli passed away from cancer. They had an open relationship and kept no secrets, but like modern gay couples, there could be DRAMA. Veli actually fled for Paris after his diagnosis, dumping Touko for another man for good measure. Ultimately Veli did return to Helsinki where he could pass away with Touko by his side.
Tom strips down and beefs up his credentials
After a 1962 Supreme Court decision ruled male nudity wasn’t inherently obscene and the public could see penis, Touko really unleashed the trouser pythons on his artwork and his infamy only swelled. A decade later, in 1973, Touko would finally quit his full-time job at an ad agency. “Since then I’ve lived in my jeans and on my drawings,” he noted about the change.
By 1984 Touko’s work was so well known – and imitated – that the Tom of Finland Foundation was born. His goal was to protect the homoerotic art industry that he and friends like Robert Mapplethorpe had burgeoned. Some connoisseurs still find his work contentious – it is hardcore – but you can also buy Nana exquisite Tom of Finland tea towels from Finlayson, the Finnish fabric manufacturer. The Finnish post office even released a series of stamps featuring Tom’s brutes, and while the Russians were horrified the postage became the most popular presale set ever sold in the world.
Kake: The (ejaculating) comic book superhero
As Tom of Finland’s fame grew, he decided to create the ultimate icon of his work. A title character to be the Barbie of the burly. His name was Kake. He was a biker with dark hair and a sleazy mustache, and he came to define the 1970s ‘gay clone’, riding the world on his chopper with swagger.
Tom of Finland’s final years
In his last decade on Earth, Touko split his time evenly between Helsinki and Los Angeles. You can still visit his residence – TOM House – in Echo Park, which offers monthly life drawing classes today. He would die in 1991 from an emphysema-related stroke.
Touko didn’t just draw ‘dirty pictures’, though he called them that himself. His work gave his fans both boners and a backbone, proud of who they were and doing what they loved, even when society said otherwise.
Get up close and personal with Tom of Finland
While in Helsinki you must have the Tom of Finland experience. This walking tour covers the parks he cruised at, his musical talents (he played the piano) and a drink in Tom’s honour at a red-hot boutique hotel. If you’re feeling sexy you might even consider splurging on their Tom of Finland Package. It’s the perfect way to warm your nether regions after we frolic through Lapland in the frosty north.
Photo credits from top down: Header image from Shutterstock, Wikipedia Commons X 3, Amazon.com, Finlayson.com.