There is no doubt the influence Tom Of Finland had on Gay Culture. His drawings of pumped up hypermasculine beefcakes came to be the idealised image of gay men all around the world, but it wasn't until after the his death that it was publicly revealed that the artist was, indeed, Finnish. In Tom Of Finland, director Dome Karukoski chose to focus on Touko Laaksonen, the man behind the drawings, rather than depict the legend that surrounded the artist in the US, Europe and back home in his native Finland. We caught up with Karukoski to aks him some questions about the film and to chat about the life and work of both Touko and Tom.
When did you first became aware of Tom Of Finland?
Actually at quite a young age. I was around 12 when I first saw some of his work and I remember the time when the news in Finland revealed that Tom of Finland was Touko Laaksonen when he passed away. Later, in art school, I learned about his work and understood the artistry of it. Over the time I have had the chance to come across his work over and over again and now, working on the film and with people close to him, I have become an even bigger fan.
What would you say is the lasting significance of Touko’s work?
I think in a broader sense, as it is drawn all over his work, that one should not feel ashamed for who they are. That is a relevant topic for generations to come. It is universal. Finding the courage within ourselves to stay true to who we are. But in a more narrow sense, it glorifies difference; it welcomes it and sheds light onto another way of existing. Tom's work had a defining impact on the way gay men throughout the world were perceived and, more importantly, how they perceived themselves.
How would you respond to someone who claims that his work is simply pornographic cartoons? It’s not. It has helped millions of people to understand themselves. It has a clear message of enjoying one’s own fetishes and fantasies. Not having shame. There is much to his work that has a socio-political backdrop; much of his art has influenced lifestyle, fashion, design. Whoever claims that they are “simply pornographic cartoons” to a body of work of that scope needs to look a little closer. A few years ago, his artwork was selected to be on the official stamps of Finland, which was a great honour but also stirred some water. With that came the outbursts and discussions in Finland too about his influence on the arts.
As you explore in the film, the leather subculture of the 70s and 80s was partially blamed for the scale of the AIDS Crisis. Do you think there is any justification in this claim? There is no justification. Tom felt guilt and stopped drawing for a while when there was no information or proper answers. Then he went to battle against AIDS with his art.
Touko and Tom are clearly wholly different people. Why did you choose to focus more on Touko in Finland, over Tom in America? We worked on the film for five years and explored all the ways we could make the film. We also had a version where more took place in America. But at the end we chose five different segments. Firstly war, as it was both his best time of life, sexually, as well as a really tragic time. Second it was finding his voice as an artist post-war Finland, in a time when the conservative oppression was strongly felt (it was illegal to be gay in Finland until 1971 and it was considered a sickness until 1981). Next, encountering Veli - his long time partner and love. Finally, it was two eras in America - Pre-Aids and Post-Aids. Working through these segments, the parts featuring Finland became stronger. Also it felt more natural to focus on his life in Finland as he was 57 when he first came to America. So his time there was much shorter.
In the middle of the film, the narrative begins to follow the story of Doug in the USA. On whom are the characters of Doug and Jack based? Both of them are a combination of two characters. We did not want to have dozens of characters that the audience couldn’t relate to, so we combined some characters. Then we changed the names of those characters. So they are not fictional characters, but based on various true characters. What is remarkable is that most of the events in the film are based on actual events. Tom lived an amazing life that one could not think to write. All the wild and crazy scenes that we see on the film really happened. Twenty cops in LA walking into a party at the Tom’s house actually happened; it’s magnificent!
Nowadays, the beefcake image that Touko envisioned has become a common figure in the gay press, both to covet and to emulate. Do you think these figures are potentially damaging to gay men’s self-image? It’s impossible to answer such a question. I firmly believe people react to different things in a unique way.
It is often claimed that young gay men are permanently sexually dissatisfied due to their need for something bigger and better than they already have. Tom Of Finland is the epitome of this ‘bigger and better’ masculinity; do you think the cartoons have had a part in creating this culture? I think Tom’s artwork has influenced many men to build themselves like Tom’s men. In that sense they have helped, as then you have more options when cruising. Nevertheless, there’s always a sense of wanting something more. Are you influenced by something particular or not? Even Tom used to say he had to draw the dicks bigger over time as there was more gay material available for his fans in the form of photographs.
TOM OF FINLAND IS RELEASED IN CINEMAS ON FRIDAY 11TH AUGUST.