Tom of Finland Set the Standard for Gay Erotic Art

Known as Tom of Finland, Touko Laaksonen is credited for setting the standard for gay erotic art.

He created an out-of-reach and impossible to ignore image of gay masculinity influenced by motorcycle culture. In turn, his drawings provided a roadmap for the gay leather scene and eventually surfaced in the mainstream via the Village People.

Laaksonen loved men in uniform. He was enthralled with stylized military outfits, and his images sexually objectified Nazis and other fascist regimes. He regularly appropriated police uniforms and even service station overalls to convey a hyper-masculine aesthetic. Skilled as a draftsman, he transformed them into skintight costumes for men on the prowl, and they left nothing to the imagination.

Rise to Fame

Raised in Finland, he moved at 19 to Helsinki (where his work is much celebrated today) to study advertising. His work eventually made it out of the country, although the very act of mailing or receiving it violated numerous laws.

While Marlon Brando popularized the sleeveless white tee shirt (known around the world after A Streetcar Named Desire as a “wife beater”) Laaksonen brought jeans out of the ’50s. Before Tom of Finland, jeans were often a loose-fitting denim called “dungarees” and relegated to yard work, industrial settings and anyplace requiring work in filth. Tom of Finland’s form-fitting interpretation is on display throughout Western today, and is clearly evident in the gay clothing line Rufskin.

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The artist’s work grew increasingly celebrated throughout his life, although it never ceased causing controversy. He depicted men of color alongside Aryan stereotypes without any regard to race, which drew accolades. Still, his association of sex with Nazi symbology never sat well in other circles. Late in life, he became friends with gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, an artist whose explorations of fetish culture and sado-masochism mirrored his own.

Laaksonen died in 1991 from a stroke related to his emphysema.

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Kevin Phinney

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