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Correspondence of Tom of Finland

Tom of Finland is one of Finland’s most internationally renowned artists. It was the commercial artist and artist Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991) who was the master of homoerotic art behind the pseudonym. A lot of his correspondence, spanning six decades, has survived.

The letters give readers glimpses of Laaksonen’s life as a young man, a soldier in the Continuation War, a musician, a commercial artist, a brother, a well-loved uncle, a friend, and finally a sick old man. Laaksonen’s letters reveal him as a modest and compassionate man, who had a great sense of humour and who loved his family. Music was later replaced by art that left an impression and legacy far greater than he could ever have imagined.

  • Letters read in Finnish by actor Ville Virtanen
  • Letters read in English by Mikael Davies
  • Touko Laaksonen’s letters: Tom of Finland Foundation

Susanna Laaksonen wrote a book about Touko Laaksonen’s correspondence, Salaisuuksin suljettu – Kirjeiden Tom of Finland (Like Kustannus, 2017, ‘Sealed with a Secret – Correspondence of Tom of Finland’). Listen to an interview in which Suvi Jalli, the project manager of the Finnish Postal Museum, interviews journalist Susanna Luoto, a representative of the Tom of Finland Foundation. Listen to the interview here (the video has English subtitles. Press the subtitles on the video)


Lifelong childhood

Touko Valio Laaksonen was born on 8 May 1920 in Kaarina. Choir music and arts played a huge role in his family life; his parents were both teachers who worked at the Ristimäki school in Turku, where the family also lived.

His father, Edvin Laaksonen (1885-1971), was passionate about music and introduced his five children to choral singing. The choir, which consisted of the five children, was accompanied on the piano by Touko, who was already an accomplished musician. Their mother, Suoma (1887-1944), whom the children called Mami, was the school’s headteacher, and she encouraged the children to take up visual arts.

The siblings Salme (1912-1999), Pentti (1914-1983), Hely (1918-2006), Touko (1920-1991) and Kaija (1922-2008) spent their days almost exclusively among themselves and became very close.

Letters from Touko’s childhood have not survived, but in his later letters to his sisters, Laaksonen often reminisces about their childhood.

The war years

Touko Laaksonen graduated from upper secondary school in Turku in 1939. He started a distance learning course in marketing and advertising and graduated after the war in 1946.

He was conscripted in spring 1940, less than a month after the end of the Winter War, first in the signal corps, and then after non-commissioned officer training he joined the Anti-aircraft Regiment in Helsinki.  He was promoted to lieutenant in 1943, and he was awarded the Cross of Liberty (IV Class) in 1944 for his wartime merits as an artillery spotter of the anti-aircraft battery in the defence of Helsinki.

As a master pianist and experienced chorister, he managed to entice his fellow soldiers into joining in with the singing. He writes a lot about music in his long wartime letters.

Music takes over

Touko Laaksonen moved to Helsinki after the war. He started studying at the Sibelius Academy and soon he was busy not only with his studies but also playing the piano and composing. Laaksonen never finished his courses at the Sibelius Academy yet worked as a musician for almost a decade, mainly in clubs and restaurants but also as a rehearsal pianist at the theatre and ballet school.

In 1953, Laaksonen met his partner, Veli Mäkinen, nicknamed Nipa (1932-1981) while he was subletting a flat with his sister Kaija and her classmate. When the classmate moved out, there was room for Nipa to move in. He was known to the family as Touko’s roommate.

Finding his calling

Touko changed careers in the late 1950s and joined Oy Liikemainonta Ab as a commercial artist. Finland started to recover from the war years, and the world opened up. Touko’s letters from this period often describe the trips he made with Nipa.

Touko Laaksonen submitted his first drawings to the American magazine Physique Pictorial in 1957. Bob Mizer, the editor-in-chief of the magazine – which featured athletic semi-nude men – was immediately impressed by the illustrations signed by Tom. As was common at the time, the name Tom needed a fashionable epithet: Tom of Finland was born.

Freelance artist

Laaksonen worked for the advertising agency until 1973, when he decided to go freelance. In his letters to his siblings he describes a new, happy phase in his life. Touko made his first trip to America in 1978.

A lonely artist in the US

The 1980s started well in terms of art-making, but there was great grief in Touko’s personal life. His partner Nipa died of cancer in 1981, after which Touko spent more time in Los Angeles. Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Laaksonen spent winters in the warmth of Southern California where he found it easier to breathe.

The letters describe his work and life in the United States, sometimes in rather critical tones.

The last years

Touko returned to Finland in late 1989 to receive treatment and spent long periods at Laakso Hospital.

The letters from Touko’s last years were written by a sick man, who suffered from breathing difficulties. The letters reflect his poor health and him giving up, while there is also hope of recovery and returning home. Touko Laaksonen died on 7 November 1991 at the age of 71.

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