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Courtesy of Rick Castro

‘Pure fantasy’: How Tom of Finland inspired generations of queer artists

We speak with four LGBTQ+ artists about the impact of the Finnish icon, and his Foundation’s ongoing work to uplift and celebrate queer sexuality

As a young boy coming of age in the shadows of World War II, Tom of Finland – born Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991) – remembers boyhood fantasies of adult men in the community with a distinctly fetish bent. Leather, boots, and masculinity became inextricably intertwined, forming the foundation of a lifelong passion he would explore in his art.

Although depictions of homosexuality and male nudity were criminalised in nearly every country on earth, Tom would not be cowed by bigotry, persecution, or imprisonment. Instead, he charged ahead, publishing his drawings of hypermasculine archetypes in Physique Pictorial under the name Tom of Finland, coined by magazine editor Bob Mizer in 1957. 

Tom’s erotic drawings quickly made waves worldwide. As demand for his fearless portrayals of sexuality and desire began to grow, he created a mail-order business that literally flew under the radar. As the Stonewall Uprising gave way to the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s, homosexuality was slowly decriminalised in the West. At the vanguard of a new era in LGBTQ+ history, Tom’s drawings began to inspire new generations of artists to use their work to speak truth to power by simply allowing themselves and their desires to be seen.

In 1984, Tom and Durk Dehner established the Tom of Finland Foundation, which has been building the world’s most extensive collection of LGBTQ art. Now, in conjunction with the Venice Biennale, they will reveal highlights from the collection in the two-part show, AllTogether, curated by Tom of Finland Foundation and The Community, supported by Diesel. The exhibition features the work of 70 artists, including John Waters, Rick Castro, Silvia Prada, Stanley Stellar, Bob Mizer, and Jim French. It will open on April 27 at Studio Cannaregio in Venice, and May 8 at The Community in Paris. 

“Tom’s work is as radical nowadays as it was back in the day, especially with all the censorship we experience on social media and in mainstream culture,” says Siberian-born artist and activist Slava Mogutin, who became the first Russian to be granted political asylum in the United States on the grounds of homophobic persecution in 1994. 

“Every time I see Tom’s work in major art collections, it still stands out as something that is against the grain,” Mogutin tells Dazed. “I love the fact that his work still has the same rebellious, revolutionary energy that is, unfortunately, missing from the work of so many young queer artists who are subjected to so-called ‘community guidelines.’ The Foundation’s work to promote and preserve radical queer art is especially crucial for this new generation growing up with social media. The mission is as important now as it was when the Foundation was established over 30 years ago.”

Here, we speak with four intergenerational LGBTQ artists who reflect on the legacy and impact of Tom of Finland, and the Foundation’s work to uplift and celebrate queer sexuality.

STANLEY STELLAR

“[After full-frontal male nudity was decriminalised in the United States in the 1970s,] magazines and newsprint tabloids suddenly had male nudes in them. They were very sexual pictures, compared to the zero that had existed before. I was so happy I could send my first postcard, which showed male nipples, through the mail and didn’t have to put it in an envelope. Before the law changed, if you didn’t cover it up, postal inspectors would come knocking on your door. Their attitude was, ‘We don’t want to see you. We don’t want to hear from you.’

“Seeing this shift was a part was unbelievably freeing. I don’t quite know when Tom’s work came into my perception. Everything that could be considered queer art was only available through porn magazines in the basement shops on 42nd Street. But I do remember that Tom of Finland images started to appear in gay culture. Even though they were pure fantasy, I liked them because we were being depicted in a strong, masculine, heroic, and erotic way. 

“Tom’s work transcended the leather scene. It was the whole look: the square jaw, the moustaches, the men busting out of their jeans – all these points of desire for homosexual men. They weren’t just superhero bodies; they had heroic energy, maybe it’s because he was military. Tom understood the exhilaration and freedom of making gay art for gay men. It’s a revolution, a slow one, which is still going on today. 

“When I saw the most recent Tom of Finland exhibitions here in New York, what I remember most were the pages from his scrapbooks. He was cutting out symbolic images and pasting them pattern-like in scrapbook fashion. It would be all black leather jackets from Look or Life magazine – little pieces of visual representation men were allowed to have in the media. Tom took a piece from her and a pie from there to formulate individual points of interest. When he started making drawings, he put all the pieces together in an organic way. They’re really beautiful, almost like calligraphy.”

RICK CASTRO

“I moved from the suburbs to Hollywood when I was 17, so I was like a gay baby in a candy store. I was completely intrigued by the gay leather scene and started going out on my own when I was 19 or 20. At that time, Los Angeles was very tribal; there were unspoken boundaries, and leather and fetish were still underground. Back then Tom of Finland’s work was considered pornography, so you didn’t see it in any mainstream venues including gay bars. You only saw it in very dark leather bars. I don’t think people even realised Tom was a real person. 

“In the mid-80s, Joel-Peter Witkin and I went to one of Tom’s very early exhibitions at Circus of Books in West Hollywood, which was at the time a video outlet selling porn, poppers, and things like that. They had just broken down the walls and expanded to a larger space that had become the bookshop and gallery. Tom was there with Durk Dehner, who I didn’t know yet. I talked to Tom and found him to be tall. In hindsight, I don’t think he was much taller than me but he seemed larger than life – and also very shy.

“I met Durk in the late 80s at One Way, the best leather bar in LA. I tried to hit on him but it wasn’t successful because we’re both tops. He wrote his number on a matchbook. Later I invited Durk to my very first exhibition in Silverlake, and he asked me if I would like to have a book published. I jumped at the chance. We made an appointment and it turned out I happened to live one block away from the Tom of Finland House in Echo Park. We met and I showed him my contact sheets. He told me I had to create more material, so I started to shoot non-stop, and we’d meet every week to go over the photos. 

“Durk and the Tom of Finland Foundation have created this world that is a dream come true for artists like myself who never went the commercial route. When MOCA had an exhibition of Tom and Bob Mizer in 2013, it raised the bar for homoerotic art. It has always been my goal to present what I am doing without explanation or apology. Tom, and then the Foundation, kept promoting sexually explicit art, and now the art community is finally accepting it. The only misfortune is that Tom isn’t around to see his impact. Now it’s open to all of us — finally. We are the ones who are going to present the future.”

SLAVA MOGUTIN

“I discovered Tom’s work in underground, self-published zines distributed in speakeasy places in Moscow and St. Petersburg. This was at a time when it was still considered a criminal offence in Russia. Homosexuality in his universe felt victorious: it contradicted the stereotypical view of gay people as very effeminate. I used Tom’s work as illustrations for some of my journalistic work at a time when it was totally taboo. A couple of those articles were published in mainstream newspapers, which introduced his work to Russia ironically enough. 

“When I was 18, I was an exchange student at a really liberal university in Moscow and went to San Francisco. That was my first time in the US and I got to see Tom’s work in monographs in a local bookshop. It was a revelation. In Russia, it was completely impossible to imagine something like this. Tom’s work is liberating for a lot of gay people who come from an oppressive background similar to mine. It was inspiring as both a young gay man and an artist who wanted to explore gender and body politics.

“I find the macho-on-macho eroticism and subversion of uniforms as symbols of power, as well as the authority and conformity in Tom’s work, very endearing. I explored these themes in my work as a photographer, poet and journalist. Showing policemen and soldiers happily participating in intricate sex acts felt like such a bold political statement against police brutality and the oppression of the pre-Stonewall era. Tom dreamed up a queer utopia where homophobia and bigotry no longer exist.

“About four years ago, I was awarded the Tom of Finland Lifetime Achievement Award, which was a great surprise. Durk Dehner and Sharp are pioneers who have opened the door for so many artists – some of whom now have big careers. I think the most important part of their mission, besides preserving the legacy of Tom of Finland, is the fact they are creating a platform that supports, encourages, and nourishes so many young artists. Durk and Sharp make everyone welcome. The Foundation used to be very white male-centric, but it has evolved to include women, nonbinary, trans artists and people of colour. 

“I like the fact that they also do sex parties because a lot of people don’t want to know anything about this part of the gay experience. Everyone is fine with gay people as long as they don’t go into details about what they do or how they do it. And that’s front and centre of Tom’s work; the actual experience of what it means to be a queer artist and a queer person. It’s not the castrated, sterile version the mainstream is trying to present. There’s no light without dark. In my work, I explore different corners of human nature, sexuality, and sometimes you find beauty in the most unconventional, gory, and kinky kind of places.”

SILVIA PRADA

“I grew up in a hair salon for men in Italy, and was exposed to all this gay male culture. Although I am female and homosexual, I feel as if I was never given any sort of gender at all. I define myself as a woman but I like a type of gayness that has nothing to do with gender or sexual orientation. It’s more about culture: the way I dance, collect music, and behave. 

“In the late 1980s and early 90s, gay culture was like a subculture within a subculture. Although it was not mainstream, it was very diverse. I was drawn to Ray Petri’s Buffalo movement, Versace’s campaigns by Avedon, 90s Jean Paul Gaultier – that era of pop culture rooted in that special gayness. I was just starting to become a collector of images, and was fascinated by the world in the back pages of Interview magazine. There was a little piece on Tom of Finland and I became absolutely obsessed with it. I was in my early twenties in my first year of art school, and it was exciting to see a very flirty outdoor scene of group sex. It was utopian and free. 

“As a female artist, my approach is not really erotic; it’s more about sexual tension and desire. I am a gay tomboy and Tom is a feminist. There is a level of freedom and respect in his work that I like. For me, female energy is always transgressive, modern and open, and I can read this in his drawings because of the way his characters look at each other. I see myself in many of those expressions and feel a sense of how powerful it is to be feminine. There is a romanticism to Tom’s work; he has this softness that’s like magic. 

“I would compare Tom of Finland’s impact on our culture to Andy Warhol. There are levels we haven’t discovered yet. The most important part of the work of the Tom of Finland Foundation for me is that it is not institutionalised in a way that is political. It is still very approachable and works in a multi-dimensional way with parties, events, and residencies. They are like a family. I grew up collecting images by Bob Mizer and many of the artists in the exhibition, and now it’s like I am closing a circle in my life.”

AllTogether, curated by Tom of Finland Foundation and The Community, supported by Diesel, is on view Studio Cannaregio in Venice from April 23-June 26, 2022 and The Community in Paris from May 8-June 26, 2022.

The catalogue will be available for purchase at the AllTogether exhibitions, in Venice, and Paris. To order online people can send an email with their shipping address to info@thecommunity.io.