Everyone knows Tom of Finland’s work even if they don’t know his name. With his iconic pencil drawings of leatherbound and uniformed muscle hunks with oversized phalli, Tom both embodied and helped shape the aesthetic of a generation. Rebel Without a Cause may have predated Tom’s bikers by a decade or two, but it was Tom who codified the garb of the gay biker and helped to popularized it around the world. This new edition of Tom of Finland: The Official Life and Work of a Gay Hero, by F. Valentine Hooven III, makes a selection of his works from the 1940s to the 1980s available in beautiful coffee table format, including many explicit and color images that were not included in the original 1993 printing.
Born Tuoko Laaksonen in the town of Kaarina, Finland, in 1920, Tom knew by his teenage years that he was attracted to other males, so he started drawing them. He served in the Finnish army in World War II, where the chaos of war combined the frustration of living in close and informal quarters with other young, attractive men with the opportunity to explores his fantasies in the flesh on off-duty evenings in Helsinki. After the war he went to art school, played piano in cocktail lounges, and took a job in advertising. While he was not a success as an advertising illustrator—“clients kept rejecting his families because his daddies were ‘too sexy’,” writes Hooven—he eventually rose to be art director of McCann Erickson’s Helsinki office.
All the while he was cruising gay bars and parks in the Finnish capital, committing his fantasies to paper in the form of pen, pencil, and gouache drawings. His earliest surviving works date from the 1940s and resemble cartoons with dialog boxes or advertising sketches of smartly dressed men, except for what the men are doing. In 1957, at the urging of another friend, he submitted two drawings to the American beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial, founded several years before by the photographer Bob Mizer. One of the drawings, showing two smiling, muscled, and bare-chested lumberjacks driving logs down a river, was featured on the cover of the spring 1957 issue. Tom’s drawings were an instant hit.
By 1973, he was earning enough from publications and private commissions to quit his advertising job and devote all of his time to producing homoerotic art, from calendars to murals on bathhouse walls. He made his first trip to the United States in the late 1970s, where he met Robert Mapplethorpe and other gay luminaries. After the death of his partner Veli Mäkinen from throat cancer in 1980, Tom began spending six months a year in Los Angeles, returning to Finland each summer. He died of emphysema in 1991.
In addition to the artworks, The Official Life and Work makes the basic facts of Tom’s life available to the reader, along with extensive quotations and photographs. But as the subtitle makes clear, it is a paean, and while long on historical details it is short on critical evaluation. We learn, for example, that Tom admired the work of Paul Cadmus, but not whether or how Cadmus’s practice influenced Tom’s. We learn that his work was new because it was obviously gay, because it did not adhere to the “classical alibi,” and because “his men were unmistakably happy. Happy homosexuals? That was new.” But there is little if any comparison of Tom’s overtly gay depictions of men to those of other artists (Cadmus or Mapplethorpe, for example) or to the voluminous gay literature of the mid-20th century.
And then there is Tom’s unsettling fascination with uniforms, which developed in part from sexual encounters with German soldiers during World War II. Several of his drawings feature Nazi soldiers, including one of an SS guardsman whipping a shackled man’s naked buttocks. And the attire in many of his other drawings seems inspired by German uniforms, even if the insignia read “Kaketown Patrol” or “Fuck’n Cops.” “In my drawings I have no political statements to make,” Tom said. “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!” Hooven has little to say on the subject beyond this quotation, but considered from the vantage point of 2020—with a contemporary understanding of racism, anti-Semitism, and the institutionalization of violence—this does not seem an adequate treatment of a difficult subject.
The journey of Tom’s work from pornography to art has only reached its end since Tom’s death. “I know my little ‘dirty drawings’ are never going to hang in the main salons of the Louvre,” he once said. “But it would be nice if…our world learns to accept all the different ways of loving. Then maybe I could have a place in one of the smaller rooms.” The world still hasn’t learned to “accept all the different ways of loving,” but Tom’s work has gone under the gavel at Christie’s; been shown at the Whitney Biennial, LACMA, and countless private galleries; and is in the permanent collections of MoMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Not bad for a boy from Kaarina!