The man who made gays macho

A new book about Tom of Finland says the artist was the first to show homosexual masculinity.

Published April 8, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Tom of Finland's pornographic drawings of hunky, fuck-booted, bubble-butted beefcakes banging the booty in door-busting swells of charcoals, pencil and ink, watercolors and gouaches leave you -- depending on which team you bat for -- scratching your head, rolling your eyes or rubbing your crotch.

A new book, "Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality" (St. Martin's Press), by art historian Micha Ramakers tries to make sense of the invisible hand that jerked off a generation of gay men. It's a schwing-for-the-fences treatise combining the rise of the gay movement, the world of fine art, and of course, porno.

The gay characters in Tom of Finland's art are so masculine they make straight men look like girlie-boys. Recognized as the originator of macho gay porn, the artist died nine years ago but his work lives on in the hearts and crotches of millions of gay men.

Touko Laaksonen, aka "Tom," was born in Finland in 1920. His first commercial gig was drawing half-naked men for Physique Pictorial, a 1950s gawk-and-load homosexual firearm disguised as a straight men's magazine. You know, like Men's Health.

Laaksonen's drawings became enormously popular and Physique Pictorial's publisher, smelling a hit, wanted to promote the artist. But not with a name like Touko. He wanted his readers tripping over their boners, not their tongues. So he christened him "Tom of Finland." So what if it made him sound like a pretentious hairdresser? It was easy to pronounce. And when the blood rushes out of your head to your organs, every bit helps.

As Tom's drawings became more popular he began doing private commissions and exhibitions in sex shops. By the '70s he quit as the chief of ad giant McCann Erickson's Finnish-based art department and lighted for the center of penis cosmology -- America.

In the United States, Tom freelanced to ad agencies as a graphic artist to support his "habit." But soon his habit didn't need support, as his commissions and magazine work generated enough bucks -- and buzz --to stop the freelance gigs.

Ramakers argues that Tom had a profound influence on gay culture because he was the first to connect words everyone assumed were oxymorons: Masculinity and homosexuality. In a world that insisted gay men were sissies, Tom did the unthinkable, portraying them as confident, macho and aggressive.

Every one of Tom's characters has a squarish face, firm chin, thin lips, snub nose, short hair and sideburns. And just about every character is either a lumberjack, cop, construction worker, cowboy, biker, sailor or soldier. Not a florist in the bunch. Squeeze any of his characters and they'd fart testosterone.

Tom skewered the notion that gay men were nelly queens charring the floor with the flame of their effeminacy. Tom himself said his characters were prototypes, his own idealized version of how a gay man should look and act. He wanted to show that all gays didn't have to tease hair, that "they could be as handsome, strong and masculine as any other men." Ramakers quotes Tom as once saying, "My whole life long I have done nothing but
interpret my dreams of ultimate masculinity and draw them."

By co-opting all the symbols of masculinity (uniforms, motorcycles, aggressiveness) he implied something greater than the presence of masculinity in gay men. He inverted the proposition altogether: You couldn't be masculine unless you were gay.

Ramakers calls Tom's work "the masculinization of gay identity" and credits it with making millions of men more comfortable about their stigmatized sexuality. "Seeing two blue-collar men enjoying each other made being gay more acceptable to me," says a working-class gay man in the book. "I had all very negative associations with it. When I finally did come out, it (Tom's
art) made me feel more comfortable with the fact that I liked other men."

But one man's sweet spot is another man's sore spot. For every grin in the gay community there's a grimace. Tom's characters are handsome and sexy but they're also grotesque and outlandish. He combines hyperrealism with garish flights of fancy, making his men ruggedly handsome but radically out of proportion. The Ford Taurus should have headlights as big as their nipples. And the National League should have bats the size of Tom of Finland penises. Every hit would be a home run.

The older Tom got, the more exaggerated his bodies became, to the point that author Philip Core once called Tom's work "macho camp." There's only a consonant separating leather from feather, and in many ways Tom's work blurred the distinction. He turned masculinity into burlesque and in some ways burdened gay men the way fashion burdens straight women -- by idealizing a
body physically impossible to attain: massive chests, tiny waists and perfect hair.

The "masculinization" of gay identity came at a price. There's hardcore sex, but not a twinge of tenderness. It's rare to find a drawing where men kiss, hold hands or show any kind of affection. Hell, even in business there's an expectation of being kissed before you get fucked. Not in Tomland. It's strictly meat and potatoes sex. Emphasis on meat.

They say women look for a reason to make love and men look for a place. In Tomland, the only place men don't have sex is in their homes. Almost every drawing shows men pawing each other in public settings -- at construction sites, bars, warehouses and the outdoors. Talk about out and proud. It was as if Tom wanted to show that gay sex was so natural it shouldn't be depicted with
the shades drawn and the doors locked.

Ramakers swirls the chardonnay with the best of art historians when he asks the inevitable, "But is it art?" Tom himself didn't seem to believe it was. "Yes, I consider my work pornography," he once said. "My motive is lower than art. If I don't have an erection when I'm doing a drawing, I know it's no good."

Ramakers seems to be an agnostic on the subject, which is odd given the amount of play he gives it. The most he'll say is that Tom was "the highly talented producer of superb-quality pornography." Erections are famous for making men waffle like Aunt Jemima.

Still, he manages an interesting argument about the merits of erotica vs. pornography. "Can art be porn?" he asks. "Can porn ever be art?" He argues that contemporary analysis makes a false distinction between erotica (art) and pornography (mass culture). Erotica, according to Ramakers, is a kind of "disinterested aesthetic rather than a bodily desire." Hence, Michelangelo's "David" is art, but Playgirl's centerfold is porn. Ramakers
disposes with the "if it makes you hard then it can't be art" argument, and he does it by quoting Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personnae": "The emotional response of spectator or reader is inseparable
from erotic response ... emotional arousal is sensual arousal; sensual arousal is sexual arousal ... pornography and art are inseparable."

David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol were admirers of Tom's work. Not bad for a pornographer. None are having an exhibit at the Whitney, an auction at Christie's and a home in the permanent collections of four museums. While art historians debate whether Tom's fuck machines constitute art, the market seems to be making up its own mind. Everyone can
see that the bubble-bottomed macho boys of Company Dick are hung. But now they're hung in museums.

By Michael Alvear

Michael Alvear is the author of "Men Are Pigs But We Love Bacon," a collection of his sex advice columns, to be published by Kensington Press in May. He lives in Atlanta.

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