Hey Sailor, Where ya Goin?
What’s up y’all? Here we are again at the speakeasy Tattoo apprentice rantings and ramblings from the mind of a deranged sociopath nightmare blog. What does that even mean? Do you think I know? I’m just saying words. So it’s been a while since I have focused on one particular artist that I hold in high esteem and site as inspiration. This week I wanna do a brief little overview of someone who is not only a hero of mine but also a hero of the LGBTQ+ community.
WWII veteran and erotic illustrator Touko Laaksonen, better known to the world as Tom of Finland.
Tom (for simplicity’s sake, let’s just refer to Touko as his pseudonym “Tom” for the rest of this), was born in a rural region of Finland known as Kaarina in 1920. This region had only recently become it’s own independent land and was populated primarily by hard-working farmers and loggers. Imagine the pacific northwest or even more accurately, Alaska. Tom’s parents were teachers who, noticing his natural born talent, fostered and encouraged his creative side in an era in which typically it is more encouraged to go into hard labor trades.
As he grew older he worked for an advertising agency doing illustrations for marketing campaigns in the late 30s and early 40s. It was then that Joseph Stalin decided he wanted Finland back and decided to invade the forest and lake-filled nation. Naturally Tom being a man of age, Tom was thrust into the horrors of war. Because their enemy was Russia, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany. It was during his military service that Tom Wood fully realize and express his homosexuality. Having a number of clandestine encounters with German soldiers. The dangers of this cannot be overstated. Given that homosexuality was horrifically persecuted under Nazi regime but was also illegal in Finland as well right up until 1971 (it should be noted here that while it was decriminalized in 1971 it was still illegal to what would be considered to promote or express any sort of homosexuality at this time. It wasn’t until 1999 that these laws were removed from the books in Finland). It was during this time and because of these experiences that the classic Tom of Finland style would emerge. Fetishizing burley buff men often clad in militaristic uniforms with shiny jackboots
and authoritarian hats.
As odd as it may seem the end of the war was bittersweet for Tom in that it meant an end to these dark lit erotic in meetings with jackbooted soldiers. During the peacetime days following the horrors of World War II Tom returned back to doing freelance artwork for advertising but he found a little for filament creating window displays and fashion designs. At night he would work as a piano player for high society parties and cafés quickly making a name for himself in Helsinki among more “bohemian” cliques. All the while continuing to surreptitiously illustrate his erotic militaristic fantasies.
In 1953 he met the man with whom he would love and live for the subsequent twenty eight years, Veli, just a few blocks from his own home.
It wasn’t until the end of 1956 that Tom shared his artwork with an American magazine known for featuring muscle bound scantily clad men. It was here that he dubbed himself Tom out of the obvious paranoia of the time regarding the subject matter at hand as well as the legality of how he was simply born. Noticing immediately someone of immense talent that people in the community would love, the editor put his illustrations to press immediately featuring a laughing lumberjack on the cover of the 1957 spring issue of Physique Pictorial. The editor officially coining the name “Tom of Finland.” Tom blew up. His illustrations were a wild success and demand only increased over the following decades exponentially. Eventually Tom no longer had to do anything but focus on his art. Eventually his art would bring him to Los Angeles where he would see even greater success through the 70s and 80s.
It was during this time that the horrors of the aids epidemic began to decimate the gay community. It was here that Tom created what he is possibly most renowned for in his “Use a Rubber” campaign, featuring a overly muscular, leather clad, bubble butted, shirtless mustachioed fascist (for lack of a better word) looking man giving the thumbs up. This was featured on posters and even on some condom packaging. The whole mentality was to make using a condom a sexy activity rather than a negative.
Unfortunately in 1988 Tom was diagnosed with emphysema. This disease caused his hands to shake making it nearly impossible for him to execute the kind of work for which he was known. At this point he abandoned his classic black and white detailed figure drawing and focused more on colorful pastel nudes. However, on 7 November in 1991 Tom suffered a stroke as a result of emphysema. As a result Tom passed away. Thankfully Tom’s legacy lives on and he has now been elevated to a national hero in Finland even being given his own series of finish stamps.
I in no way covered all of the interesting elements of Tom’s life. I would suggest everyone go to the Tom of Finland foundation website (https://www.tomoffinland.org/) and you can even watch a really well executed bio pic about his life on Amazon. Not only is it one of the very few movies to focus on some parts of World War II they have gone forgotten but also one of the few bio pics and. Pieces that I actually find pretty true to form an executed well. I think that’s it for this week. Check out one of my own flash sheets pictured to the left here where you can readily see Tom's influence on my own work.
Maybe next week we will touch on another artist that I hold in high esteem who also tends to walk the line of smutty and artistic. But what can I say, that’s just me. Enjoy your weekend. I will be in the desert, naked, shooting guns, celebrating both mine and my wife’s birthdays.