Iconic Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen, known to millions under his pseudonym, Tom of Finland, was born 100 years ago (May 8, 2020). Exhibitions and events to celebrate the centenary of his birth have been postponed or canceled because of the pandemic. However, his anniversary is being celebrated online.
Who was Tom of Finland?
Laaksonen was born in 1920, and raised in the Finnish town of Kaarina, near the city of Turku. He began drawing erotic drawings of men in his late teens, before being conscripted into the army to fight in World War II. He says it was his experiences with other men at the time that led to him developing a fetish for uniforms.
He continued to draw erotic art, developing a stylized aesthetic: detailed drawings of men in leather and uniforms, often with hyper exaggerated muscles and genitals. He specialized in bikers, laborers, sailors, and soldiers: most of the images too explicit to show here.
His work first reached a wider audience when he sent it in 1957 to US magazine Physique Pictorial.
His erotic art immediately found a following, not only for the male beauty it depicted and photorealistic approach but also because his drawing showed guys unapologetically and shamelessly enjoying sex with one another. His men were often shown smiling and staring lustily at one another: a sexy, liberating utopian fantasy that most gay men could only dream about in real life.
Over five decades, Laaksonen produced over 3,500 drawings, reprinted in gay publications around the world. His work earned itself a cult following. So much so, he relocated himself to California in the late 1970s. In 1979, he and his friend Durk Dehner set up the Tom of Finland Foundation, which continues to showcase his work and champion the work of other erotic artists today.
Laaksonen was diagnosed with emphysema in the late 1980s and was to die from an emphysema-related stroke in 1991, aged 71.
Since his death, Tom of Finland’s legacy has continued to grow. There have been continued exhibitions of his work, while – in a belated nod of recognition – in 2014, the Finnish Postal Service produced a commemorative set of stamps featuring his drawings. It went on to be the country’s biggest-selling set of stamps ever, with collectors from around the world snapping them up.
Below are just a few of the ways you can celebrate the Tom of Finland centenary.
Love and Liberation in London
In March, London’s House of Illustration opened up a Tom of Finland exhibition entitled Love and Liberation (from some of the images featured in this article). Sadly, because of COVID-19, the venue is now closed, but organizers say that once they re-open, they will extend the closing date of the show to allow more people to see it. It features, “iconic, previously unseen drawings from Tom of Finland Foundation’s collection – unabashed tributes to gay sexuality and identity which continue to have an outsize influence today.”
Although you can’t see the exhibition, today at 6pm British time (1pm ET/10am PT), the show’s curator Olivia Ahmad will hold a Zoom discussion with Durk Dehner about Tom of Finland’s work and legacy. You can join by registering for a free ticket (although donations are welcome).
Take a virtual Tom of Finland tour
An exhibition of Laaksonen’s work was scheduled to be running in Tallinn, Estonia to coincide with his centenary. Tom of Finland: The Darkroom, opened in February at Fotografiska Tallinn, but has now been put on hold. Like the London, show, its run will be extended once the venue can reopen. In the meantime, you can take a 50-minute, virtual tour of the show via YouTube (below).
Similarly, you can enjoy an online exhibition of Tom of Finland art at the David Kordansky Gallery. The exhibition will be online until May, 12. Some of the work, including photo collages, are available to buy.
Tom of Finland foundation
Check out and consider supporting the work of the Tom of Finland Foundation. Based in Los Angeles, the Foundation is dedicated “to protecting, preserving, and promoting the erotic arts.” It’s also the first port of call for any Tom- of Finland related artwork or merchandise. It also carries information on all events taking place to mark the centennial of Laaksonen’s birth.
As so much of the world is currently in lockdown, the Foundation is encouraging fans of Tom’s work to celebrate him on social media.
“On 8th May we encourage all to make something beautiful and share it – bake a cake, open a bottle of wine and raise a toast to Tom for all that he created and left us in his legacy,” says Durk Dehner, President, and Co-founder, Tom of Finland Foundation. Everyone is invited to wish Tom a happy birthday with a tribute on whatever social media platform/s they use with the tag
Watch the movie of his life
In 2016, a Finnish-language film about Laaksonen’s life was released. You can check out the trailer for Tom of Finland below or find the whole movie to rent or buy on streaming services, including YouTube.