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June 8, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 23
 
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Religious Coalition for Equality seeks Executive Director
 
Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Was Tom of Finland?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer The erotic art of Touko Laaksonen - better known as Tom of Finland - shaped the erotic fantasies of countless Gay men and helped redefine the popular image of male homosexuality.

Laaksonen was born May 8, 1920, in Kaarina, a rural village in southwest Finland. Both his parents were schoolteachers, and he developed an early appreciation for art and music. Aware of his same-sex attractions from a young age, he created homoerotic drawings - often featuring farm boys and laborers - for his own enjoyment.

At age 19, Laaksonen moved to Helsinki to attend art school, but was soon drafted into the Finnish army, which allied with Nazi Germany to fight the Soviet Union in World War II. Serving as a lieutenant, he began having sex with fellow soldiers and developed a fetish for men in uniform, which he reflected in his drawings.

After the war, Laaksonen completed his art degree and studied piano at the Sibelius Institute. By day, he worked as a commercial graphic artist, then played the piano at cafes and private parties in the evenings. Feeling little affinity for the flamboyant and effeminate men who frequented Helsinki's homosexual venues, he traveled often and became familiar with the Gay leather scenes in several European cities. In 1953, while cruising in a Helsinki park, Laaksonen met his sole long-term romantic partner, a dancer named Veli (whose last name is not publicly known); their relationship endured until Veli's death from cancer nearly 30 years later.

Encouraged by friends, Laaksonen submitted some of his sketches to the Los Angeles-based bodybuilding magazine _Physique Pictorial_. Publisher Bob Mizer was impressed enough to feature a drawing of a lumberjack on the cover of the spring 1957 issue, dubbing the artist "Tom of Finland." In 1973, Laaksonen had his first public exhibition in Hamburg, Germany, and was able to quit his job at an advertising agency and live off his art. In 1978, he visited Los Angeles for his first U.S. exhibition, where met Durk Dehner, who became his friend and manager; after Veli's death in 1981, Laaksonen split his time between Los Angeles and Helsinki.

Laaksonen is credited with introducing the masculine homosexual into Gay, and eventually mainstream, culture. His drawings of stereotypically macho men - bikers, cowboys, cops, sailors - were almost photographic in their detail, but grew increasingly idealistic in their portrayal of perfect male specimens with protruding nipples, exaggerated bubble butts, and enormous penises. As censorship laws loosened, his drawings also became more sexually explicit. He was among the first artists to portray manly men engaging in joyous, guilt-free sex; even his sadomasochistic scenes had a playful aspect. "I work very hard to make sure that the men I draw having sex are proud men having happy sex," he once declared.

According to author Ron Suresha, "Tom of Finland's visions of happy, masculine, loving men projected forth from the collective unconscious of Gay men's liberation and increasingly, through the second half of the 20th century, defined much of its erotic substance and style." Indeed, Laaksonen's work helped bring the underground leather culture to light, and the "Castro clone" look - black leather jacket, cap, moustache - became a new Gay stereotype.

But Laaksonen's work was not without controversy. Some critics accused him of harboring an affinity for Nazis, though he disavowed fascism and racism. In the 1970s and 1980s, his work was caught up in Gay and Lesbian community debates about pornography and sadomasochism, as well as the charge that his idealized images were impossible for real men to live up to. For his part, Laaksonen maintained that his work reflected his own erotic sensibilities, not a larger political statement. "If I don't have an erection when I'm doing a drawing," he said, "I know it's no good."

As his work grew more popular, Laaksonen became an international celebrity. His images spawned an industry, and in 1979 he and Dehner co-founded the Tom of Finland Company. In addition to several books of collected works, Laaksonen produced a multi-volume series of comics featuring Kake the leatherman and did private commissions (including a revisioning of Michelangelo's David for Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli). "Tom's men" became cultural icons and inspired many imitations, including the "Tom Girls" series by punk artist G.B. Jones. Today, his work is included in the permanent collections of several museums, including the New York Museum of Modern Art and Finland's Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum. The Tom of Finland Foundation, initially founded in 1984 to preserve Laaksonen's work, now offers a "safe haven" for all erotic art.

Laaksonen continued to frequent the leather and dance club scenes well into his 60s. Diagnosed with emphysema in 1988, he was forced to cut back on his travel, but continued to draw. In 1991, his life and work were chronicled in the documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy. In November of the same year, he died of a stroke in Helsinki.

"I know my little 'dirty drawings' are never going to hang in the main salons of the Louvre," Laaksonen said shortly before his death. "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 side rooms."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 



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