Touko Laaksonen (8.5.1920- 7.11.1991), the artist behind Tom of Finland, is one of the most notable internationally acclaimed Finnish artists. Say what you will about his art, it leaves no one untouched and in a way you either love it or hate it. For me it’s just well made underground art, that’s slowly making its way into the public’s consciousness. With the release of stamps earlier this year, and now a whole collection by Finlayson – Tom of Finland is well on its way of making its grand entrance on the world stage.
1. Touko Laaksonen was raised by two schoolteachers in the small town of Kaarina, outside of Turku. He started to draw at an early age and his drawings were based on images of masculine laborers he had seen early in life. He ultimately destroyed the majority of his early work before anyone could see it.
2. Laaksonen served as a anti aircraft officer in the second world war. He was especially fascinated by the German soldiers. “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!”
3. In 1956 Laaksonen submitted drawings to the influential American magazine Physique Pictorial which featured the images in the Spring 1957 issue under the pseudonym Tom, as it resembled his given name Touko; he was also featured as the cover artist with an illustration of two log drivers at work. The editor of the magazine credited them to Tom of Finland.
4. Laaksonen was influenced by images of bikers as well as artwork of George Quaintance and Etienne, but developed his own style of photorealistic drawing.
5. Laaksonen drew for so called ‘Beefcake’ magazines whose primary market was gay men, but because of the conservative and homophobic social culture of the era gay pornography was illegal and the publications were typically presented as dedicated to physical fitness and health. They were often the only connection that closeted men had to their sexuality.
6. Laaksonen is best known for works depicting homomasculine archetypes such as lumberjacks, motorcycle policemen, sailors, bikers, and leathermen. His most prominent comic series is the “Kake” comics, which included these archetypal characters in abundance.
7. In 1973 he gave up his full-time job at the Helsinki office of McCann-Erickson, an international advertising firm. “Since then I’ve lived in jeans and lived on my drawings,” is how he described the lifestyle transition which occurred during this period. He held his first exhibition in the Revolt Press Bookstore in Hamburg the same year. In 1978 he traveled to the US for the first time and he would settle there in the 80s.
8. By the mid-1970 Mr Laaksonen was also emphasizing a photorealism style making aspects of the drawings appear more photographic. Many of his drawings are based on photographs, but none are exact reproductions of them. Tom took many of the photographs in his archives himself. The greatest number of those is of his favorite posing buddies, Eero, Aarno and Veli. He occasionally hired professional models but, usually dissatisfied with the results, preferred to work with amateurs and friends to don his uniforms and leather gear and hold a pose for him.
9. In April 2014 the Finnish post company Itella Posti announced they would publish a set of first class stamps in Finland including two drawings by Tom of Finland, selected to the sheet by the stamps designer graphic artist Timo Berry, and Susanna Luoto, who represents the foundation named after Tom of Finland (Tom of Finland Foundation) operating in Los Angeles. The stamps were a huge success and there were even campaigns where people sent letters adorned with the stamps to countries with restricting gay policies.
10. The Finnish fabric manufacturer Finlayson recently launched a set of Tom of Finland themed products aimed at bringing the iconic artwork into the homes of the mainstream public.
Bonus: There’s a movie in the making about Mr Laaksonen and his art by Special Film Company. Let’s see how it turns out. Here’s an early teaser: