Tom of Finland's impact on gay culture is hard to overstate, but the story of his life is less well known. A new film hopes to change that.
Pekka Strang as Tom in Tom of Finland
In certain circles, the drawings of Tom of Finland are ubiquitous: intricately detailed sketches of beefy, musclebound men, often with facial hair, wearing leather or some kind of uniform, sometimes alone but often getting it on while sporting some fantastically large penises. His work's influence on the gay psyche can barely be overstated. First published in Beefcake magazine in the late 50s, Tom's drawings are easily among the most recognized gay erotica out there, and were a pioneering influence in the mainstreaming of fetish culture. For many gay men in the 60s and 70s, Tom of Finland allowed them to feel normal and comfortable with more outré ideas about sexuality and masculinity (while also offering a great source of jerk-off material).
The artist behind it all was named Touko Laaksonen. Since his death in 1991, Tom's fame has only grown—yet far less is known about Laaksonen's life story. With Tom of Finland in select theaters today, director Dome Karoukoski seeks to change that by fictionalizing Laaksonen's life on screen. VICE spoke with Karukoski about the challenges of adapting the story for the screen, and the role that the Tom of Finland brand have had on gay male identity, fetish culture and the queer liberation movement.
VICE: Touko's life story isn't one you would usually associate with a film biopic. What challenges did you encounter translating his story to screen?
Dome Karoukoski: When we started, we were like, "do we make this about the art, or is it about the character behind the art?" It's easy, when his images are as explosive as they are, to start with how that explosion began. But what we found most interesting was his life story. You would assume these drawings have been made by a free man with a boisterous, flamboyant life, but no—it's kind of a Superman/Clark Kent story. This man had to make all these drawings while it was illegal in Finland. He had to be very resourceful to get his art outside of the country and find places to publish it. That story of what happened behind these drawings became something we related to very strongly.
The challenge when doing a film about Tom of Finland is that everyone has an opinion on how to do a film about Tom of Finland. Of course you could go with what the fans are expecting, but when you're dealing an artist like Touko, you have to, in a way, do it for him.
In a way, it's not about making a biopic—it was also making a statement that Touko would have made. That is a film that encourages young men to be opeN towards joy and living without shame. And that was at the core of the film, and very much Touko's art as well.
One of the most significant aspects of Tom's work was the way it challenged the prevailing stereotype about gay males, especially at the time, as being effeminate or weak. What impact do you think Tom's art had on gay men's self-regard at the time, and by extension gay sexual liberation?
There definitely was an impact. He gave hyper-masculine gay men the chance to be free. I met a guy in LA who left Minnesota, where he'd been a quarterback in high school, and he said when he was younger he thought his feelings were quite odd and he wasn't sure he could actually be a gay man. And then he saw Tom of Finland's drawings, and felt, "I am gay and I understand this."
At the same time, if you look at the whole embodiment of his work, it's not just hypermasculine men. He did dandy men also; his early work wasn't about masculinity but very much about joy.
There were a lot of gay men who felt that pressure: Should I be hypermasculine and muscular like that? Tom's ideas might have caused some men at some point to feel shame about their own bodies. But that would be totally against what Tom would say. He never wanted that everyone should look like that. So in that sense, the film tries to promote the inner joy, the inner proudness of being a Tom's man. You can be a Tom's man without the body. Basically anyone can be a Tom's man, you don't have look like a Muscle Beach sensation.
One criticism of Tom's work was that it sometimes depicted men in Nazi uniforms; some thought it was sympathetic towards or glamorized Nazis. Laaksonen himself denounced that interpretation. The film doesn't bring that controversy up, but it does mention how his desires were influenced by the time he spent as a soldier in World War II, with a particular focus on a Russian paratrooper he stabs, who appears as a vision-like figure in the movie. Why do you think it was important for you to make the connection between Laaksonen's wartime experiences and his art?
Well, if you look at his body of art, uniforms and the influence of authority are very much Tom's sexuality. I find it very intriguing because war, as he stated, was the best time of his life in many ways, because the sex was so free. I think that's why war is so essential in the film —he always said that paratrooper was the most beautiful man he had ever seen. We don't know if that's more universally true, or if it's from memory, because if you kill someone, how do you remember the beauty of that man? He also shot down a plane which we could assume had many men in it. And we can assume that after killing men—the most beautiful thing he loved—he'd want to bring them back to life through his art.
During the AIDS era, he would actually draw these men that were dying "into life." There would be these beautiful portraits to give to their boyfriends, to hold onto as a memory. He would draw death into life, shame into joy.
We didn't touch the Nazi element because it's so difficult. Then you add ten minutes where you are trying to explain a misinterpretation. and then it's gonna feel like the film is trying to prove it was a misinterpretation. In all honesty, in Finland, we didn't support the Nazi ideology. We didn't get the concentration camps, the ghettos. So I would assume the men of Finland, in his mind, were innocent, not really understanding what they were doing. Explaining that in the film is really difficult to make the drama work. What you have to remember is that this is not a documentary. It's a feature film with fictional elements. It is based on the truth, but you have to make the drama work. Otherwise it becomes a biopic. And biopics try to prove a point—they begin to preach, and that is totally not what Tom would have wanted. He would have wanted something of joy, to make you cry, laugh, leave the cinema dancing and moving your ass, and hopefully ending the night with some really, really good sex. He would have wanted that and we aimed to do that. That was the movie we wanted to make.
Interview has been condensed and edited.