Today Tom of Finland is an iconic brand, its hypermasculine, overtly gay figures instantly recognizable to even straight observers. But the artist, born Touko Laaksonen, wasn’t always beloved in his homeland.
“Tom of Finland was known of in Finland but he wasn’t a popular figure until after his death in 1991,” says Dome Karukoski, whose biopic Tom of Finland comes to the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend.
Most of his countrymen didn’t even know Laaksonen was Finnish, says Karukoski: “I grew up thinking that this was an American guy who visited Finland and got inspiration from the country to create his name. I remember I was a teenager when I learned that he was actually Finnish.”
When Laaksonen first gained prominence, his connection to Finland was a source of shame.
“People felt ashamed about this figure conveying Finnish men as leather gays. Over the years, the phenomenon of Tom of Finland has grown with the younger generation, so there has come a certain amount of pride. A national awareness has changed.”
Karukoski’s first film was 2005’s Beauty and the Bastard, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he began researching Laaksonen and decided that his life story would make an interesting movie. “We started collecting info, contacting the Tom of Finland foundation, reading his letters, looking at his photographs,” the director recalls. “Once you dug into the character you realized it was an obvious cinematic piece.”
He applauds the Finnish government for creating Tom of Finland postage stamps, something he believes helped his countrymen embrace the artist.
“[The politicians] were the ones to take the hit from conservatives, who were demanding to know why the government hadn’t made a stamp honoring a veteran. In fact, Laaksonen served in WWII.”
Later, Finlayson, a linen company, began making bedding adorned with iconic Tom of Finland men. Some more old-fashioned customers weren’t pleased: “Finlayson’s the brand that grandmas buy linens from, it’s a very traditional company,” explained Karukoski.
“There was a lot of conservative people bringing their old linens back to the stores, saying ’I don’t want my grandkids using this.’”
Same-sex marriage passed in 2014, though it didn’t go into effect until March of this year (making Finland the last Nordic country to embrace marriage equality).
A real turning point came in 2015, when 20 or 30 straight guys men “with beer cans in their hands” threw a Heterosexual Pride March in Helsinki. “People were so appalled—the number of people at Pride that year exploded,” recalls Karukoski. “There were 60,000, when normally there would be 10,000. Everyone thought, ’Okay, now we have to stop this idiocy.’”
To Karukoski, Laaksonen is something of early gay rights activist.
“In Finland, even in the doctor’s books wrote that gay men were weak, that they had low testosterone levels. It was just so stupid. But Tom drawing them exactly the opposite. That was part of their popularity.”
And Laaksonen celebrated his sexuality, in his life and in his art. He rejected the idea he should be ashamed of being gay. “The only thing he had a problem with,” says Karukoski, “was society.”
Overcoming shame is a main theme in Tom of Finland, which shows Laaksonen cruising parks and visiting seedy, secret gay bars. His artwork, which didn’t obscure its intentions, was downright revolutionary to gay men of the 1960s and 70s.
“They understood through his art that they didn’t have to feel ashamed—they could be sexual, they could be lustful, they could be whatever they want,” says Karukoski. “Even in wild and sexual fantasies, there is no shame. That part changed the lives of so many men.”
Today, Tom of Finland has evolved beyond postcards and pictures into a thriving industry: There’s everything from skateboards and sex toys to cologne and coffee, and even a high-end fashion collaboration with Assume Vivid Astro Focus. A biopic about the artist couldn’t come at a better time.
“There’s something interesting about his art, there’s so much joy in it,” Karukoski offers. “When you have a Tom of Finland skateboard or shirt, you’re not just part of the trend—you communicate joy with him.”