Tom Of Finland, A Pioneer Of Homoerotic Art, Is Celebrated In New Film

In post-war Europe, a Finnish man by the name of Touko Laaksonen spent his days crafting beautiful advertorial illustration while imagining a world of unsuppressed gay eroticism. He was fascinated with leather men and strong, hyper-masculine renditions of gay men, and decided to use his artistic talents to create a homosexual utopia. In an era where homosexuality was often viewed as effeminate and borderline asexual, Laaksonen’s commitment to buoyant pornographic sexuality helped shift the cultural paradigm and usher in a mainstream acceptance for gay men (and subsequently gay rights movements). Known artistically as Tom of Finland, the artist eventually moved from Finland to Los Angeles and created a safe haven for gay artists in his Echo Park home. The home still stands and serves as home base for the Tom of Finland Foundation.

Tom of Finland has recently been the subject of a new biopic around his life, aptly titled Tom of Finland. Directed by acclaimed Finnish director Dome Karukoski, the film had its American premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. His transition from shame in Finland to shamelessness in Los Angeles paints a fascinating portrait of navigating 20th century social upheaval and creates an evergreen story about the cyclical nature of hatred and acceptance in contemporary social politics.

LAist spoke with Karukoski about the film, its meaning in Finland, and how to make a movie about pornography palatable to a wide audience.

LAist: The movie is fairly calm and nuanced for something so graphic and visceral— was the decision an aesthetic one or a fear of being too graphic?

Dome Karukoski: Too much graphicness and we can’t sell it—where does the line exist? Right now it’s too graphic to sell everywhere around the world. It’ll always be a question of too much or too little. It's also a matter of conveying that his art creates a fantasy. If the present time in the movie was very graphic, or if his sexual life was very graphic, it would be difficult to convey that he was drawing a utopia. If the film itself doesn't play as graphic, it's more to convey the drama and emotions of his character.

How do you balance the narrative of his story and the larger sociopolitical implications of the film?

You have to start with his story first, can’t be a preacher movie. You tell the person’s story and the things he’s endured and then basically the social/political aspects come out of the story. You have to find it in the moments and the feelings. We dramatize parts so that the messaging of those parts are easier to read, but overall it's a story about Tom first.

So much of his story involves the move from Finland to America. Could you speak to the cultural duality of leaving one country to live in another?

I have an American father, so I visited New York often in the 90s. Finland at that time was very different and I remember very specifically the jump from the suburbs of Helsinki in a rural small village to Manhattan. It was an enormous kind of explosion of how I felt and I used that feeling very much in the film. Tom's arrival in America plays as a dream sequence because there's a natural feeling of dreaming when making the jump across countries. His life in both places created a Clark Kent/Superman life for Tom. He puts on his suits and then you have this guy who puts on a leather jacket in the airport in America and lives a completely different life. Los Angeles especially became an emotional home for him. It's not in the film, but the people here in L.A. smuggled all his work and art to Los Angeles at the end of his life so his friends and the foundation would take good care of them. Tom was scared Finland would burn or throw it away.

How did Finland receive Tom as an artist?

When I was growing up, his art was kept a secret until his death (or at least wasn’t widely known). There was a certain element of shame where he lived because Finnish people thought “everyone from other countries will think we’re leather gays”. After almost three decades, it's changed into pride. At least for my generation and the younger generation. At the same time, though, we have this conservative side of “loudmouth people” who are raising their flag and calling it homopropoganda. Tom of Finland must have felt all these accusations in his own life. He was a shameless person—you can see it in his art—so what he must have seen around him and how it fueled his journey is very inspiring. It’s a very cinematic story and dramatic and interesting in and of itself. Our assumption was always that he could generate movie fans around the world.

Despite this wave of newfound tolerance, what about the rise in fascism and homophobia around the Western world? How does this story play into the current political landscape?

Here we’ve come to the fact that Tom’s art is very timeless. I think it’s very unfortunate but the fact is that all of a sudden this film is relevant again. Humans go in cycles, LGBT rights have ups and downs, there are dark eras, and it seems like we’re entering again a dark era. The evolution cycle has been that we’ve had a couple decades where it’s too joyous, too many colors of the rainbow, so then what happens is the people who fear and the people who hate try to gain control. This cycle sees those people trying to gain control again. So it's more valuable than ever to stop that cycle. So they don’t have their turn to be in power. That’s what the movie is very much about. You can only respond with the colors of the rainbow. Joy, shamelessness, happiness, and freedom. That’s the response to the hatred. In that sense I'm very proud and happy to represent the film in big festivals and to launch it in America. Tom’s message of joy, acceptance, equality, is present in all his drawings (where the power elements are shifted upside down) and it’s a very symbolic gesture to have images of sex where power elements lose control and there's always equality and love for the other person. It demonstrates how we should approach life in a given moment. By not giving into the hate.

Tom of Finland premiered this week at Tribeca Film Festival and will open nationwide in the fall.

The Tom of Finland Foundation is located at 1421 Laveta Terrace in Echo Park.