The McCann Time Capsule: LGBT Pride Month & Tom of Finland

The McCann Time Capsule: LGBT Pride Month & Tom of Finland

At the Cannes Lions Festival three years ago, the CEO of McCann Helsinki co-presented on a onetime agency art director who has since become much more globally famous for his artwork outside of advertising. The longtime agency employee (1958-1973) was Touko Laaksonen (see photo), who has become better known as Tom of Finland, an artist whose work is considered influential in defining late twentieth century gay culture.

Joining with Durk Dehner, President and Cofounder of the Los Angeles-based Tom of Finland Foundation, McCann Helsinki’s Petteri Lillberg shared how “Touko Laaksonen turned Tom of Finland into a global phenomenon way before the internet, and at the same time, changed the world and gave gay men a new confident identity.”  With McCann Helsinki positioning itself at the time with the theme “Celebrating ideas that travel!,” the presenters used Tom of Finland to address the larger creative topic, “How can a drawing change the word and a spearhead a cultural revolution? And how do you start with niche and became an integral part of a wider popular discussion without selling out?”

Following up on the Cannes presentation, a blogsite devoted to the artist observed, “What makes Tom of Finland truly remarkable is not just what it achieved within the gay community; it has also become a known property in pop culture. Nowadays, it’s a brand in its own right; the leatherman image provokes an instant sense of brand recognition. . . . The important takeaway here is Tom’s undeniable legacy and influence; helping an entire generation of gay men accept themselves while challenging stereotypes. Not bad for an ad man with a penchant for gay porn.”

Since 2015, the interest in Laaksonen’s work and legacy has grown further.  Last year, a Finnish biopic called “Tom of Finland” was released, was nominated for an award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, and won several Scandinavian film awards.

At the time, the online contemporary art magazine Widewalls published an article discussing the movie and legacy of Laaksonen, who died in 1991.

“As Tom of Finland himself has once noted, during his whole life, he did nothing but interpret his dreams of ultimate masculinity, and draw them. Combining his love of machismo with his natural artistic talent, he created a groundbreaking body of work that celebrates the idealized male form.

“A grand master of homoerotic art of the twentieth century and beyond whose images of masculine gay men helped smash stereotypes and produce new diversity, not only did Tom of Finland create new role models for gay men, but he also had an impact on global culture, style and attitude towards liberated sexual expression. . . .

“. . . The celebrated Finnish artist and illustrator has been brought above the radar of cultural history in a new biopic by the acclaimed film director, Thomas “Dome” Karukoski. Premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, the film was written by Aleksi Bardy and has Pekka Strang starring. It provides an immersive, handsomely crafted look at how Tom of Finland came to create his iconic drawings of hyper-masculine, leather-clad men that ridiculed authority figures. . .

“. . . By day a senior art director at an advertising agency McCann Erickson, Touko Valio Laaksonen aka Tom of Finland spent his spare time drawing his sexual fantasies that featured homoerotic archetypes such as lumberjacks, sailors, bikers, blue-collar workers, policemen and men dressed in leather. . . .

“. . . After becoming established in popular publications, the work of Touko Laaksonen also gained respect for the genre of erotic art in the academia and museums. It was the institutional exhibitions that elevated what was once considered pornography into the status of an artwork, placing his practice into the context of the struggles of the gay liberation movement and queer body politics.

Having a compound status as an artist and sub-culture icon, his work has been influential to sado-masochism and fetish culture as well as inspiring many iconic gay artists, like Robert Mapplethorpe, Bob Mizer, Mike Kelly, Richard Hawkins, George Quaintance and Etienne, as well as pop culture icons such as Freddie Mercury, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and of course, Glenn Hughes, the leatherman from the Village People.”

Tom of Finland’s prominence has gained further momentum this year.  From mid-April through mid-May, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit held an exhibition of his work. In an article in Detroit MetroTimes on the exhibition, the writer quoted a Tom of Finland Foundation executive on how Laaksonen’s art director career at McCann intersected with his other artistry.

"He started out doing illustration, but somehow they thought that the father that he was drawing for a refrigerator ad was too sexy. They didn't fire him — they just kicked him up to management."

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