Tom of Finland, born Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), is one of the most recognizable gay erotic artists of the 20th century, having practically minted the prototypical “leather stud.” Born in a time when Finnish laws were not lenient in the representation of oversexualized male bodies, Tom of Finland’s attraction to burly men and his acting out of fantasies through drawing started at a young age, in secret.
Conflicts during World War II (including his own enlistment) added a strong fetishism for military uniforms to his fascination with strong masculine roles. After studying arts and looking for venues to publish his homoerotic pictures, he sent material to Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial, and quickly became one of the fixtures of the North American magazine, providing illustrations, covers, as well as his first sequential stories. It was Mizer who gave Laaksonen the “Tom of Finland” moniker.
Although there was a clear evolution in his line – bodies became burlier, poses more dramatic, sexually explicit – his identifiable style crystallized in the early 60s: black and white, pencil and Indian ink, subtle shade work. In 1968, he created the archetypical “Tom’s man”: a brunette, brawny, mustached hunk of a man named Kake, always searching for exciting trysts with equally muscled young men.
The character also named a series of booklets launched in 1968 in Denmark, presenting wordless, linear stories with Kake engaging in multiple, fun-filled romps. 26 books were published until 1986 (and collected in one volume by Taschen Books in 2008). He also published other titles, such as Jack in the Jungle and Beach Boys.
Tom of Finland’s characters are barely distinguishable from one another: extremely muscled, with rounded and more often than not hairy chests and arms, salient nipples, prominent buttocks, perfectly spherical testicles, impressively large penises and the ubiquitous square jaw with a cleft chin. Differentiated only through easily recognizable stock roles (sailor, motor-cop, cowboy, lumberjack, truck driver, and so on), they are a staple of “beefcake” culture.
Overtly masculine, these powerful fantasies can be seen to uphold certain stereotypes towards the inherent “weakness” of effeminate gay men, women and men of other ethnic backgrounds (Thorburn 2014), in a precarious balance between eroticism and controversial BDSM culture (rape scenes are recurrent). Tom’s most important role, however, was in the emancipation of homoerotic images, with scenes revealing consenting adults who blissfully smile as they are both pleased and please back.
Influenced by George Quaintance in the creation of the “macho hunk” look, it was Tom of Finland’s over-the-top style that would become authoritative the world over, and his reach can be seen in contemporary comics artists such as Gengoroh Tagame or Ed Luce, not to mention in fine arts, fashion design and music circles.