TOUKO LAAKSONEN (d: 1991), best known by his pseudonym TOM OF FINLAND, was a Finnish artist born on this date. He was notable for his stylized homoerotic fetish art and his influence on late twentieth century Gay culture. He has been called the “most influential creator of gay pornographic images” by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade. Over the course of four decades, he produced some 3500 illustrations, mostly featuring men with exaggerated primary and secondary sex traits with tight or partially removed clothing.
Laaksonen’s style and content in the late 1950s and early 1960s was partly influenced by the U.S. censorship codes that restricted depiction of “overt homosexual acts.” His work was published in the beefcake genre that began in the 1930s and predominantly featured photographs of attractive, muscular young men in athletic poses often shown demonstrating exercises.
Their primary market was gay men, but because of the conservative and homophobic social culture of the era gay pornography was illegal and the publications were typically presented as dedicated to physical fitness and health. They were often the only connection that closeted men had to their sexuality. By this time, however, Laaksonen was rendering private commissions so more explicit work was produced but remained unpublished.
In the 1962 case of MANual Enterprises v Day, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that nude male photographs were not obscene. Softcore gay pornography magazines and films featuring fully nude models, some of them tumescent, quickly appeared and the pretense of being about exercise and fitness was dropped as controls on pornography were reduced.
By the end of the 1960s the market for beefcake magazines collapsed. Laaksonen was able to publish his more overtly homoerotic work and it changed the context with “new possibilities and conventions for displaying frontal male nudity in magazines and movies.” Laaksonen reacted by publishing more explicit drawings and stylized his figures’ fantastical aspects with exaggerated physical aspects, particularly their genitals and muscles.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art has acquired several examples of Laaksonen’s artwork for its permanent collection. In 2006, MoMA in New York accepted five Tom of Finland drawings as part of a much larger gift from The Judith Rothschild Foundation. The trustee of The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Harvey S. Shipley Miller, said, “Tom of Finland is one of the five most influential artists of the twentieth century. As an artist he was superb, as an influence he was transcendent
In 2014 Itela Posti, the Finnish postal service, published a set of first class stamps in Finland, including two drawings by Tom of Finland, selected for the sheet by the stamps designer graphic artist Timo Berry, and Susanna Luoto, who represented the foundation named after Tom of Finland (Tom of Finland Foundation) operating in Los Angeles. The sheet, consisting of three self-adhesive stamps were published on September 8, 2014 and are accompanied by the exhibition Sealed with a Secret – Correspondence of Tom of Finland in the Finnish Postal Museum. The stamp set became a hit with its popularity surprising Posti which received pre-orders from 178 countries around the world.