Tom of Finland

Tom of Finland's iconic drawing style is one of the most enduring influences on gay culture. As a young boy, he daydreamed about the farmers and labourers from his rural hometown in their leather boots and workwear. As an adult, he turned these fantasies into his legacy.

6 min read

Where was Tom of Finland born?

Tom of Finland is the alias of Touko Valio Laaksonen, who was born in 1920 in the small town of Kaarina, Finland. His parents were teachers, and from a young age, he was absorbed in the arts, with a particular passion for drawing and playing piano.

When he was growing up, the area was very rural, and he was captivated by the hench muscles and heroic gait of male labourers who worked in his town. The leather boots and workwear of loggers, farmers and fishermen became a complete fixation and fetish for a young Touko.

In a rare interview from 1988 at the California Institute of the Arts, Touko describes the early desires that shaped his life and legacy: "I had erotic fantasies very early already, I would say before I was 10 years old. So I adored very much the handsome men in my neighbourhood, and I had a very strong fetish for some reason for leather and boots and everything that was combined with the masculine professions and image."

Obsessions, 1982

Portrait of Eric, 1985.

World War II: Tom of Finland’s first sexual fantasies come alive.

In 1939, Touko moved to Helsinki to study marketing at the School of Sales and Advertising. However, shortly after he started his studies, World War II broke out, and he was drafted as a lieutenant in the antiaircraft unit. By the time Touko was drafted into the army, the country was in the midst of an invasion from the Soviet Union (known as the Winter War 1939-1940). Blackouts were common across the city, and (in a paradoxical twist of fate) the secrecy of the darkness finally gave Touko his first opportunity to fulfil his erotic fantasies with men.

He was particularly taken by the German soldiers, who came to Finland as they were allies in the war. His drawings of Nazi soldiers have garnered criticism throughout his career, but Touko was very clear throughout his life that he did not condone the Nazi genocide through his drawings: "In my drawings, I have no political statements to make, no ideology. I am thinking only about the picture itself. 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!"

When the blackouts stopped, Touko had to hide his sexuality once again. But soon, he found his community in the underground leather scene. To make ends meet, he worked freelance in marketing and advertising, doing any job that came to him, from window dressing to advert design. At night, he played piano in gay bars and clubs on the underground leather scene.

Tom of Finland and Veli ‘Nipa’ Mäkinen

In 1953, Touko met Veli ‘Nipa' Mäkinen on a street corner to have sex. But the casual rendezvous soon began to develop into something much deeper, and the two went on to be together for 28 years. The couple lived together and had an open relationship. After nearly 3 decades together, Veli was diagnosed with cancer and died shortly after. Like any relationship, there were highs and lows, but their connection changed Touko's life for good.

In the book Tom of Finland – Life and Work of a Gay Hero by F. Valentine Hooven, the artist describes how Veli stayed with him long after his death: "In the ten years since Veli died, he has never really left me. Every now and then, I hear him go galumphing through the house the way he used to, or I will feel someone standing close behind me and know it is him. Usually, I find his presence very comforting, but once in a while, when I am trying to draw, he will suddenly whistle or blow in my ear, infuriating me the same damned way he loved to do when he was alive."

Breakthrough: Tom of Finland’s first sight at international fame

In 1956, Touko finally sent one of his drawings to a popular muscle magazine, Physique Pictorial. A friend persuaded him that it would be a good idea to call himself Tom because Americans would struggle to pronounce his name. A little reluctantly, he signed the pictures, 'Tom.'

Physique Pictorial, Vol. 11 Number 4, May 1962

When his drawings reached the magazine's office, the editor and founder, Bob Mizer, fell in love. He put Tom's drawings on the front cover and suggested the name 'Tom of Finland.' The drawings were a huge hit, and soon, with support from his manager, Durk Dehner, Touko was able to make a living from his art.

By the 1970s, Tom of Finland was a legend in the gay scene and art scene, and his influence even crossed over into pop culture too. Andy Warhol was a collector of his work. Robert Mapplethorpe was an admirer and soon became a close friend. In the 1980s, the likes of Freddie Mercury introduced Tom-inspired looks into mainstream pop culture.

The Tom of Finland Foundation

In 1984, The Tom of Finland Foundation was set up by Durk Dehner and Tom to help support and preserve queer erotic arts. "Today, ToFF continues in its efforts of educating the public as to the cultural merits of erotic art and in promoting healthier, more tolerant attitudes about sexuality," explains their website

The house that Tom lived in is now a cultural landmark and has been kept nearly exactly how it was when he lived there. It is also recognised as a "cultural resource" by the City of Los Angeles and has become a pilgrimage for fans and admirers from across the world.

The Tom of Finland Foundation broadens its scope for erotic queer art with residencies and support for up-and-coming artists, not just from the gay white cis male world but from a much broader and diverse breadth of the queer community. Although Tom of Finland's work mainly focused on cis gay men and predominantly (although not exclusively) white men too, the foundation is dedicated to supporting all forms of queer erotic art – from trans and gender non-conforming artists as well as artists of colour and from different class and cultural backgrounds.

Untitled, 1977

Legacy: How did Tom of Finland change society’s views of gay men?

In 1991, Touko Valio Laaksonen, Tom of Finland, died at the age of 71. Over his lifetime, societal understanding of gay men had changed dramatically. And his drawings certainly played an important role in this movement. Not only did they empower the gay community, but they helped break taboos around gay sex and sex in general in the straight world, too.

In his late 60's, he reflected on his life, saying that, in his younger years, he was adamant that he only wanted to draw for "people who understand my way and my style." But he realised later on in his life that he was actually motivated to make wider social change.

"During all these years, finally, I found out that I'm sort of lying to myself. And the obvious purpose is still behind there: I want to influence other people. I want to change opinions. I wanted to make them understand things which they didn't understand before. And even I wanted so-called straight people to accept, understand and see gayness in a positive way."

Untitled, 1974

Untitled, 1980



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