100 Heroes: Tom of Finland

The gay man who created art that helped shape queer identity and desire.

100 Heroes: Tom of Finland

Tom of Finland is the pseudonym of artist Touko Laaksonen – an erotic illustrator from Helsinki.

Tom of Finland’s work as an artist was instrumental in shaping 20th-century gay culture – his impact is still being felt today. 2020 is the centenary of his birth.

Laaksonen never went to art school, instead moving to Helsinki when he was 19 to start a career in advertising. He came of age fighting in the Finnish army, defending his country against the Soviets during World War II. Soldier’s uniforms would end up playing a big role in his artwork and in defining his style.

Laaksonen viewed his homosexuality as a non-issue, and wanted to normalise it for everyone else in his community at a time when being gay was literally a crime.

“In those days, a gay man was made to feel nothing but shame about his feelings and his sexuality. I wanted my drawings to counteract that, to show gay men being happy and positive about who they were…” Tom explained, before he died in 1991 from an emphysema-induced stroke. “I didn’t sit down to think this all out carefully. But I knew — right from the start — that my men were going to be proud and happy men.”

The men drawn by Tom of Finland were pretty much the first sex-positive modern art figures depicting gay men – strapping beefcakes, with bulging muscles, big boots, a visor hat and leather, or a mixture of civilian clothes uniforms – everything about them is big and unapologetically bold.

By 1973, Laaksonen had given up his job in advertising so that he could devote himself to his art full-time.

The landmark 1962 Supreme Court case MANual Enterprises, Inc. v. Day essentially legalised the mailing of male pornographic materials a decade prior, and allowed him the freedom to publish and exhibit his work on a larger scale.

In the early 80s, he came to L.A. at the invitation of Durk Dehner, a gay businessman, film director and publisher. Together they started the Tom of Finland Company so that they could publish approved copies of Tom’s graphic novels and curtail all the bootlegs that were going around.

Celebrating the legacy of Tom of Finland

As part of the 100 year celebrations, the Tom of Finland Foundation invited artists to create a tribute to the style and spirit of Tom.

The Foundation shared the submissions on their social media. They’re fantastic!

What’s the Tom of Finland Foundation?

Tom ended up living in L.A. for half of every year for the rest of his life, and each time he came, he would bring more materials with him – drawings, letters, uniforms, his stamp collection.

As a means of archiving, Tom established the Tom of Finland Foundation in 1984, with Laaksonen’s actual house, located in Echo Park, serving as headquarters. It now functions as part museum, part event space and a community centre.

After completely cataloguing Tom’s materials, the foundation has focused its attention on other artists, giving them support and a space for their works to be shown via art and culture festivals, drawing sessions, and emerging artist competitions. Also added were artist-in-residency program, screenings and most recently, a summer music program too.

The foundation is a non-profit that works towards “protecting, preserving and promoting erotic art.”

Mike – On The Bus

One of our favourite characters created by Tom of Finland is that of Mike, who appears in the series On The Bus.


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