Known for his masterly erotic drawings of leather-clad bikers in captain’s hats, Tom of Finland was one of the iconic gay artists of the twentieth century.
Touko Valio Laaksonen was born in 1920 in Kaarina, Finland. He studied advertising in Helsinki, then served in the Finnish armed forces during World War II. He was gay and made erotic drawings for his own pleasure, but in a country where homosexuality was a crime until 1971, he was long deprived of the ability to publish them or display them publicly.
His drawings first appeared in 1957 in Physique Pictorial, the beefcake magazine published by Los Angeles photographer Bob Mizer, who coined the pseudonym “Tom of Finland.” But what was derided as pornography during much of his life has gone mainstream, and his works are now held in institutions such as Museum of Modern Art in New York.
His drawings influenced several generations of mostly gay artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe, filmmaker John Waters, and photographer Tom Bianchi. Now, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, the New York Times interviews eight contemporary artists—including Waters and Bianchi—about his significance and modern influence.
“As a frustrated, horny adolescent thinking myself alone in my perverse desires, I reveled in his mind-blowing sex fantasies,” Bianchi said in the interview. And while Tom of Finland’s style—and his leather men—may not be to everyone’s taste, there is no denying their value as works of art and as a message of solidarity to the gay generation that came of age between World War II and Stonewall.
Photograph: Tom’s room in Los Angeles, cropped from CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Henning von Berg · John Chiaverina, “Eight Artists on the Influence of Tom of Finland,” The New York Times Style Magazine, July 23, 2020 · Wikipedia biography · Tom of Finland Foundation