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One of several stamps honoring Tom of Finland. Courtesy Itella.
On April 13, 2014, Itella, the Finnish postal service, announced that in September it will issue a series of stamps featuring the art of Tom of Finland, who created some of the most indelible--and erotic--images of twentieth-century gay life and fueled the fantasies of innumerable gay men. Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), an advertising illustrator, adopted the soubriquet Tom of Finland as a pseudonym in 1956 when he began submitting erotic drawings to the American bodybuilding magazine, Physique Pictorial.
A press release from Itella hails Tom of Finland as "one of the most well-known Finnish artists around the world. His emphatically masculine homoerotic drawings have attained iconic status in their genre and had an influence on, for instance, pop culture and fashion. In his works, Tom of Finland utilized the self-irony and humor typical of subcultures."
The stamp sheet features two drawings selected by graphic artist Timo Berry, who designed the stamp, and Susanna Luoto, the Finnish representative of the Los Angeles foundation named after Tom of Finland.
"The sheet portrays a sensual life force and being proud of oneself. There is never too much of that in this northern country," said Timo Berry of his design, adding that the drawings on the stamp sheet represent strong and confident male figures.
Although Laaksonen's work is now widely celebrated, when he began publishing his Tom of Finland drawings in the 1950s, at a time when pornography was strictly regulated and individuals could face prison sentences for erotic drawings, his work was not only daring, but also dangerous.
Rejecting the conventional use of slender or boyish men to signal a queer subtext, Laaksonen depicted the gay male body, in the words of Ken Gonzales-Day in his glbtq entry on the artist, "as a square-jawed, scruffy and stubbled, hyper-masculine knot of bulging muscles with narrow waist and broad shoulders."
Tom of Finland's pantheon of rugged butch men include lumberjacks, sailors, bikers, policemen, and prison guards. As Gonzales-Day observes, these images "provided a fantasy space, a mental training ground, for those young men in America's heartland who, in the 1960s and 1970s, would shape the gay rights movement."
Moreover, the openness and visibility of Tom's depictions suggested an emerging gay subculture that was defiantly rejecting the invisibility, homophobia, and indignities of pre-Stonewall life.
Although innocently posed in the early years, Tom's drawings became more explicit later and they came to take on a more aggressive edge. His work reflects the gay liberation movement (and the relaxation of censorship in the face of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s) in that it progresses to ever more explicit depictions of sexual desire between conventionally masculine men.
Despite the exaggerated masculinity of his subjects, and even the brutality of some of their actions, Tom also injects both tenderness and humor into his work.
In the video below, Timo Berry speaks (in Finnish) about the process of designing the stamps honoring Tom of Finland.