A group of well-muscled men in tight pants and leather boots openly grope one another. A leather-clad dude, ass snugly straddling his motorcycle, checks out a beefy stud heading into a bar. A pair of cowboys look over a strapping, shirtless cowpoke leaning on a fence.
Tom of Finland's images exist in a world of their own making, one populated by impossibly strapping men always eager to indulge their many devilish same-sex desires. And today, more than half a century since Touko Laaksonen was given his now world-renowned nickname and introduced the world to "Tom's Men," his erotic artwork continues to titillate.
What first began as a series of drawings Laaksonen drew to arouse himself has become a universal symbol of gay male culture. You can find his work on shopping bags, duvet covers, coffee, condoms, and leather gear, and in art museums, galleries, and no doubt in many a private collection. But what accounts for this continued cultural cachet? And what does Tom of Finland's impact say about contemporary gay male culture?
The first question is easier to answer. To Finnish director Dome Karukoski, who just helmed a biopic of the artist that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this Sunday, part of what makes Tom feel relevant today is his interplay between pride and shame. In his own lifetime, Karukoski has seen how his home country has grappled with Tom of Finland's legacy. Where at first there was shame in having a Finnish man become internationally synonymous with leather and kink—"do Americans and Australians now think we're all leather gays dressed in uniform?" he asked me in jest—there's since been a renewed celebration of the artist in his home country and perhaps a sense of pride. Back in 2014, Tom, who spent most of his life keeping his identity secret in Finland for fear of persecution and discrimination, was feted with a series of official Finnish stamps.
In 2017, when gay erotica is readily available online, the transgressive appeal of Tom of Finland's art can be hard to discern. In the 1940s and 50s, when he'd just started drawing his bulging throngs of well-endowed men, Laaksonen was pushing against the implicit assumption that masculinity was antithetical to homosexuality. "I started drawing fantasies of free and happy gay men," he wrote in the first published collection of his work, 1988's Retrospective. "Soon I began to exaggerate their maleness on purpose to point out that all gays don't necessarily need to be just 'those damn queers,' that they could be as handsome, strong, and masculine as any other men." This was a novel concept at the time.
In a 1991 documentary about Tom, Daddy and the Muscle Academy, many of the gay men interviewed about the impact of his work spoke to the sense of liberation his drawings brought about. Tom gave some young fledgling gays an image they felt was worth pursuing—one of exaggerated manliness, as cartoonish as those images may be. As artist Nayland Blake states in the film, Tom provided "a blueprint for the appearance of gay men in the latter part of the 20th century." As Micha Ramakers, author of Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality, put it, "He invented a (pretty butch) fairy-tale gay universe in which masculinity was held up as the highest ideal."
Laaksonen's work went on to inspire an entire generation of gay artists, from Robert Mapplethorpe to Freddie Mercury. What was once merely a personal fantasy for Laaksonen—he once admitted most of his drawings gave him a hard-on—became reality, as muscles and leather took over the nation's gay bars and bathhouses.
It could be quite easy—fashionable, even—to look at Tom's legacy as necessarily perpetuating a rather narrow view of gay male culture. His inspirations, after all, came from Nazi and Finnish soldiers he lusted after during the war. Yet that requires ignoring the tenderness that exists within Tom's sketches, and the way the sexual encounters he enshrined depended on refusing the idea of men as inviolate authority figures. Many of his sequential drawings, for example, are full of scenes where curious cops (link NSFW) are later seen enjoying themselves, and of ridiculously ostentatious men whose vanity all but shatters any kind of heteronormative ideal of a man. His drawings often combined the socially approved with the culturally ostracized. The uniformed soldier getting sucked off. The virile man having his ass groped.
Above all, Tom of Finland's joyful, happy, sex-positive gay men are what continue to give him continued cultural currency. What may have felt aspirational in the late-20th century now feels all too commodified, but those defiant looks (not to mention those hilariously engorged penises) still carry within them a promise of total unencumbered freedom—not merely in a legal sense, but in a larger, cultural sense as well.
Karukoski's biopic ends in a buoyant celebration. We see Tom amidst a leather-clad crowd of gay men in the United States who've quite literally brought his drawings to life. Before the credits roll and after we're told that Laaksonen died of emphysema in 1991, a title card sums up the film's ultimate message: "Tom of Finland lives." We may have yet to banish the shame Tom of Finland sought to expunge or the prudishness he rallied against, but his enduring legacy helps keep that history alive, with both its pride and its shame intact.