Chis­elled demigods, mus­cled he­roes: Tom of Fin­land’s iconic images

A real life, Nordic Don Draper cre­ated the butch biker gay archetype that’s now a cul­tural touch­stone, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM - Don­ald Clarke

Tom of Fin­land had more in com­mon with Walt Dis­ney than the Amer­i­can an­i­ma­tor would have cared to ad­mit. Both cre­ated sharp, well-de­fined images that came to de­fine a time and cul­ture. Dis­ney cre­ated Mickey Mouse. In his hugely in­flu­en­tial gay erot­ica, Tom of Fin­land gave us ex­trav­a­gantly mus­cled he­roes who – wear­ing leather on those parts not naked – re­flected and in­spired post-war gay sub­cul­tures. The words “Walt Dis­ney” and “Tom of Fin­land” also be­came brands.

There re­ally was a Tom of Fin­land. He wasn’t called Tom, but he was from that Nordic coun­try. Touko Valio Laak­so­nen was an ur­bane ad­ver­tis­ing man who op­er­ated anti-air­craft guns dur­ing the sec­ond World War. He may, though his name is ob­scure, be more con­spic­u­ously as­so­ci­ated with his home na­tion than any artist other than Si­belius. In 2014, the Fin­nish Postal Ser­vice is­sued stamps fea­tur­ing images from Tom’s work. Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Fin­land, a well-made biopic, has been a sig­nif­i­cant hit at the do­mes­tic box of­fice.

“It’s changed. When we started work­ing on the film in 2011 he was still ob­scure,” Karukoski tells me. “Con­ser­va­tives prob­a­bly still felt some shame about his ex­is­tence: ‘What are they think­ing about him abroad?’ The stamp was also a bit of a scan­dal. A lot of the con­ser­va­tives are against it. But at­ti­tudes did change. Now even the Con­ser­va­tives are say­ing: ‘Oh, you know I don’t like the art. But he’s Fin­nish. Go Fin­land’.”

Never un­der­es­ti­mate the power of pa­tri­o­tism. “Yes, it’s al­most a na­tion­al­is­tic thing. Ha ha.”

Laak­so­nen was born in 1920 as the son of school­teach­ers. Fol­low­ing his ser­vice dur­ing the war, he be­came a com­mer­cial artist at the Helsinki of­fices of McCann-Erick­son (the agency that buys out Don Draper’s firm at the end of Mad Men). He be­gan his erotic art for his own en­ter­tain­ment. Draw­ing from the biker cul­ture then be­ing dis­sem­i­nated through films such as The

Wild One, Laak­so­nen cre­ated an ide­alised uni­verse pop­u­lated by chis­elled demigods who lived for sen­sual plea­sure.

It was his US pub­lish­ers who com­bined his mono­syl­labic pseu­do­nym with the coun­try of his birth to cre­ate the durable brand. The un­mis­tak­ably Amer­i­can iconog­ra­phy is lent ex­oti­cism by as­so­ci­a­tion with a coun- try then seen (not en­tirely ac­cu­rately) as unimag­in­ably lib­eral.

“It wasn’t at all like that,” Karukoski says. “He didn’t use his name be­cause it was il­le­gal un­til 1971 to be ho­mo­sex­ual. Even his art was il­le­gal. You could be pros­e­cuted. It was con­sid­ered a sick­ness un­til 1981. Fin­land ac­tu­ally was be­hind places like Denmark and Swe­den in that.”


Tom of Fin­land’s work is now so (for once the word is ap­pro­pri­ate) iconic that it’s hard to tell to what ex­tent it rep­re­sents a type and to what ex­tent it cre­ated a type. The leather­man sub­cul­ture was there – fetishised in Ken­neth Anger’s Scorpio Ris­ing and else­where – but Laak­so­nen’s images gave it a clar­ity and a dis­ci­pline.

“Well it is the egg and chicken story,” Karukoski says. “You could say it was the big­gest in­flu­ence on the hy­per-mas­cu­line gay. There were other artists, but his draw­ings re­ally ex­plod- ed. They be­came a mar­que.”

And he was fight­ing against neg­a­tive stereo­types in the straight world. “He took that im­age from Mar­lon Brando in The

Wild One and cre­ated this char­ac­ter called Kake. In English he was called ‘Butch’. That was im­por­tant. He was on a mis­sion to change per­cep­tions. At that time doc­tors in Fin­land would say ‘gay men lack testos­terone and have a weak voice’. He was a great in­flu­ence in fight­ing against that.”

Laak­so­nen’s skills as an ad man were es­sen­tial in help­ing the art find an au­di­ence. “He was a sales­man,” Karukoski agrees. He be­gan with a more scat­tered, di­verse se­ries of draw­ings be­fore hon­ing in on a type that helped spawn a niche in­dus­try. The images were even­tu­ally pub­lished in up­mar­ket edi­tions on high-qual­ity paper with smartly de­signed cov­ers. The New York Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art has ac­quired art­work for its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. Yet the artist, who died in 1991 of em­phy­sema, never be­came rich. He worked steadily at his well-paid job un­til 1973. There­after, he lived on the draw­ings, but nobody would have mis­taken this fas­tid­i­ous re­served man for a Jeff Koons.

“No. Not re­ally,” Karukoski says. “I am pretty sure he would have been able to pro­vide for him­self by the late 1960s. But he worked a bit longer. He liked the ad agency. He liked be­ing in that bo­hemian en­vi­ron­ment. Also, he’d give his work away for free of­ten. Some­body would say: ‘Will you draw my boyfriend?’ And he’d just do it.”

The ten­sion be­tween the Amer­i­can and the Euro­pean seem to be at the heart of Tom of Fin­land’s ap­peal. The draw­ings emerged partly out of a longing for Cal­i­for­nian glamour in a gloomy post-war Fin­land.

It looks as if Laak­so­nen has now found a de­gree of im­mor­tal­ity. “I’d say he’d have a sly grin now about the sit­u­a­tion in Fin­land,” Karukoski says. “You see 15-year-old girls in Tom of Fin­land t-shirts. It’s a state­ment. But it’s also a good-look­ing shirt. He’d be happy about that.”

Laak­so­nen cre­ated an ide­alised uni­verse pop­u­lated by chis­elled demigods who lived for sen­sual plea­sure

Ur­bane ad­ver­tis­ing man

Touko Valio Laak­so­nen op­er­ated anti-air­craft guns dur­ing the sec­ond World War and be­gan his erotic art for his own en­ter­tain­ment. Pekka Strang as Touko Laak­so­nen in Tom of Fin­land

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