Touko Laaksonen is better known to thousands of gay men as Tom of
Finland. His explicit drawings have helped shape gay erotic sensibility and
fantasy and provided enjoyment for generations of gay men. Though the
artistic merit of his work has been challenged and debated for years, his
popularity has endured and continues to endure despite his death in late
1993, St. Martin's Press published Tom of Finland: His Life and
Times, a biography of the controversial artist by F. Valentine Hooven
III. Shortly after the book was published, I interviewed Mr. Hooven
about the book, the lasting popularity of Tom's work, and Mr. Hooven's own work
with the Tom of Finland Foundation.
One of the things Tom of
Finland did was to inject humor and guilt-free characters into gay art.
Hooven: Yes. It was a conscious thing on
his part. He was deliberately making his figures happy and positive. In
fact, when he died I went through the drawings we have at the Tom of Finland
Foundation trying to find a figure appropriate for a memorial service,
something sad or melancholy…and I couldn't find one.
Why were the uniforms so
important to his art?
During WWII in Finland, he didn't see an able bodied man for five and a half
years who was not in uniform. But his interest goes before that as well; as
a schoolboy he was turned on by the uniforms of the bus drivers.
You speak in the book of
Tom drawing in a state of arousal. Was art a sexual outlet for him?
He definitely had a very healthy sex life. He was not substituting drawing
for sex. I think it was just another way for him to have sex, almost like
You refer to Tom's "Happy
Logger" drawing on the cover of the spring 1957 issue of Physique
Pictorial as a super-event in gay culture. Would you elaborate?
I remember seeing that drawing and WHAM, it hit me right between the eyes.
I'll never forget seeing it on the newsstand. And, I have talked to other
people who experienced the same thing. It was something new.
But such artists as Etienne
and George Quaintance were also active at the time. What set Tom apart?
It is that sense of pride and almost open gayness. Etienne comes closer than
anyone else. In Quaintance, for example, in most of his work except at the
very end, was a guy who just happened to have his clothes off but still
seemed straight…that was the feeling. Tom hints at overt sexuality and I
think it's because of his storytelling ability. He is not just drawing a
sexy man; he is presenting a sexy vignette.
As an erotic artist
yourself, how is that accomplished with his drawings of single figures?
Partly facial expressions and partly gesture. The poses are perfect in the
detailing. It's so much more than just a drawing of a naked guy.
What effect did Paul Cadmus,
Tom's idol, have upon his work?
A peculiarly American sensuality that Cadmus did very well. I corresponded
with Paul Cadmus because I wanted to use his drawings for the book, but he
would not agree. As far as he was concerned Tom's stuff was smut and his was
The cultural impact of Tom
of Finland is incredible. Men are still emulating his types -- the biker, the
lumberjack, the sailor, the cowboy, etc. Did Tom type cultural identity or
did he reflect it?
Both. I think it went back and forth, one reinforcing the other. He took
stereotypes that were already there and defined them. He always said he
never really saw men that were Tom men until he came to America in 1979 when
he was in his fifties. Many men were creating themselves based on his images.
How did he respond to
criticism for his presentation of manhood as exaggerated masculinity and
that it perpetuated unattainable ideals?
I don't think he came into much contact with that. He didn't read widely so
he never saw it unless someone showed it to him. I did bring up some of the
criticism that they all looked alike. He didn't want to hear it and he made
You mention in the book
that Tom created upwards of 3000 works.
That was an estimate. It's easily double that.
How many are currently
owned by the Tom of Finland Foundation?
The Foundation only has 300 and something. We also have about 1000 rough
sketches. We have over 100 of Etienne's and a couple dozen of Rex's.
I had no idea the
Foundation dealt with other artists as well.
Yes. We're the only group dealing with this really erotic artwork. It was
either expand or watch the work get dumped in the streets.
How effective has the
Foundation been in its three-part goal of preservation, restoration, and
It's getting there. Exhibits are coming up in New York and Berlin. The work
is starting to get some real acceptance. We may even have a building in a
year or two.
How is Tom of Finland
viewed by mainstream art critics?
They're coming around. Attitudes are shifting about pornography.
Does the Foundation own the
rights to his work, and could you give me a ballpark figure when it comes to
All that was willed to the Foundation by Tom. The drawings range from $2 to
That's quite a range. In
the book you mention director Franco Zeffirelli commissioned Tom to do a
version of Michelangelo's David. Did Tom have any other famous clients?
Andy Warhol owned a couple, Robert Mapplethorpe owned six or eight, Halston
also had a couple as well.
How do you explain the
enduring popularity of Tom's drawings?
The book I'm working on now is called Beefcake: The Muscle Magazines of
the Fifties [published in 1996 by Benedikt Taschen Verlag
as Beefcake: The Muscle Magazines of America 1950-1970]. The
introduction is basically what makes a man sexy. It's something
cross-cultural whether it's Egyptian, Phoenician, Etruscan, and Shaka Zulu
and all the way down to today. Repeatedly we use the same distortions of a
real person in portraying ideal men -- broad shoulders, small head, narrow
hips, and a whole group of details. Tom captured all that extremely well.
And what does his art mean
The open and sunny sexuality, guilt-free, proud without all the excess
baggage and subliminal messages.
What were your impressions
of him as a person?
He was a sunny personality as well. He fit his own image of a happy man
having happy sex with happy men.
In the eighties Tom's
drawings became more reality based and less idealized. Did AIDS and age
ground him more in reality or was it something else?
I think both had something to do with it. He was very conscious of AIDS and
towards the end would not portray unsafe sex. But I also think his realism
showed his growth as an artist. He could do fantasy in terms of reality, a
Has gay male photography
replaced erotic male art?
No, because you can't really photograph fantasy, but you can draw it.
There's an aspect that just can't be photographed.
What legacy did Tom leave
behind when he died of a stroke on November 7, 1991?
Besides his art, I think the Foundation is going to be very important. Sex is
essential and yet when it comes to art we pretend sex isn't there except at
very safe levels. That's changing. The Foundation is getting involved more
and more in this aspect because no one else is doing it. We're trying to get
Madonna as a patroness. She seems like someone who would be proud to have
her name on a Museum of Erotic Art. We're also having the first Tom of
Finland art contest to find the next Tom and to encourage new artists. One
of the curators of the Whitney has asked to be a judge. That shows a new
attitude and we're very pleased. And I know Tom would be too.