TURKU — For him, he was just Uncle Touko. Tapani Vinkama recalls the vacations he spent in Helsinki with a man who so many foreigners keep asking about. Now 72, Vinkama manages the Kvariaatti bookshop on one of the main streets of Turku, a city in southwest Finland. Only in the fall of 1991 did Vinkama discover the secret life his mother’s brother, who had just died.

Behind the successful graphic designer Touko Laaksonen, born in 1920, was the illustrator of homoerotic drawings Tom of Finland, praised abroad but who stayed undercover in his homeland to respect the promise he had made to his sister never to reveal his alias. More than a quarter-century later, a new biopic has been released that retraces his journey for the whole world to see.

On the walls of the family home in the Turku archipelago, Vinkala keeps his uncle’s illustrations, mostly landscapes. None of his famous drawings of strutting and swaggering men, wearing tight uniforms that reveal the virility inside their pants. “I admire the beauty and technique, but I don’t understand them all,” he admits, surprised by his uncle’s success 26 years after his death. “You can’t step outside without coming across Tom of Finland.”

A walk through the center of Helsinki proves him right. Postcards, napkins, coffee mugs and aprons are decorated with hyper muscular men with prominent crotches and fill the aisles of souvenir shops. They even compete with the famous Moomins from Tove Jansson’s tales, emblematic figures of Finnish children's literature, popular among the tourists.

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Art by Tom of FinlandPhoto: Tom of Finland Foundation Facebook page

Since March, in honor of the legalization of gay marriage, Tom of Finland has had his own emoji (which you can download on thisisFINLAND): a mustachioed man in a hat and dark glasses. “It’s a sign that the nation has accepted change,” the new film's director Dome Karukoski notes.

For the centennial of the Nordic country's independence, Tom of Finland was officially recognized as a "great figure" by the planning committee (under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office), alongside composer Jean Sibelius and poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. An underground figure during his lifetime, he has become a symbol of the nation. “He is not only one of our greatest contemporary artists," says Suvi Innilä, program director for the centennial, "he played a leading role in a movement for equal rights. The Finnish are proud of him.”

The young man's first pangs would provide inspiration.

In Turku, since January, the tourism center has offered a guided visit through the artist’s lifetime. It starts in front of the big yellow wooden house, which used to be Touko Laaksonen’s school, which he attended in the 1920’s with his four brothers and sisters, and their parents, who were teachers. A guide, Magnus, points to the river and the fields, where the young man's first pangs would eventually provide inspiration: “He would hide to spy on farmers, who were working shirtless, pouring with sweat," he says. "For Christmas, his parents gave him a pair of leather boots he constantly had with him, even when he was going to sleep.”

The visit also shows the the high school where Laaksonen studied, before being sent to fight the Soviets in 1939. “This was followed by dark years, where he started meeting people in parks in Helsinki,,” the guide explains. He doesn't forget to mention the fetish around the Nazi uniform. The artist was accused of being a Third Reich sympathiser in an article published in the 1970s. Tom of Finland responded by expressing his disgust for “the Nazi philosophy, the racism, and all the rest” — but added: “Of course I still drew them. They had the sexiest uniforms!”

After the war, Laaksonen played music in pubs, and then was hired by the advertisement company McCann Erickson. By day, he was the artistic director; by night, he transferred his fantasies on paper — his “naughty drawings,” as he called them. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1981 in Finland, and was punishable by two years in jail.

The alias “Tom of Finland” appeared for the first time in 1957, on a drawing published by Bob Mizer’s bodybuilding magazine Physique Pictorial. Durk Dehner, 67 years old, who was the illustrators partner and lover and now manages the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles, testifies: “In the 1950s and 1960s, if you were a young gay man, you would be considered neither a boy nor a man. You were a perversion. It was hard to have a sane identity.”

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Actor playing Tom of Finland in the recent biopic — Photo: David Heerde/ZUMA

Tom of Finland changed the game. He broke away from the image of the feminine gay man and molded him to his taste. “He was inspired by an iconography usually exclusive to heterosexual men to provide young homosexuals with a positive image, showing them they were perfect the way they were," Durk Dehner recounts. "He drew men in nature, under the shining sun. It was a way of telling boys that even if society didn't like them, Mother Nature was on their side, as she had created them.”

In the 1960s, his drawings pushed young gay men into Californian gyms, and they were soon followed by their heterosexual counterparts. He influenced a generation of artists, from photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to singer Freddie Mercury, as well as Rob Halford of the heavy metal ban Judas Priest. Dian Hanson, director of the “Sexy Books” collection printed by the German publisher Taschen, compares his style to Walt Disney: "Round shapes, clean lines. If it had only been porn, it would never have worked. But his men were glowing with love and self-esteem.”

Jean Paul Gaultier discovered his drawings in the 1970s. “I was immediately seduced by his world. The drawings where both realistic and surrealistic. It was a macho man, active and sexy. It reminded me of Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire." There had been pin-ups for women, like Vargas’ drawings, but nothing similar for men before Tom of Finland came along.”

In his country, however, the artist long stayed anonymous. His neighbors had no idea what he was up to. A documentary titled "Daddy and The Muscle Academy" was released a few weeks before his death, in November 1991, and made a bit of noise. And then, just as quickly, Tom of Finland was forgotten outside the gay community.

Is there a risk in doing too much?

Then, 20 years later, Turku, then the European Capital of Culture, displayed an exhibit of his work, which sparked a mix of reactions “There was quite a bit of confusion," Suvi Innilä remembers. "Some thought his drawings weren't compatible with Finnish values.”

It all changed in 2014. The Finnish post service decided to create three stamps in Laaksonen’s honor. Graphic designer Timo Berry chose a naked man, sitting in between the legs of a man in uniform, and a face behind a butt. “The timing was perfect," he says. "We needed a symbol illustrating the change in Finland’s mentality, defending liberal values, human rights and gay rights.”

An online petition circulated, asking for the project to be cancelled. But most reactions were positive, and sales hit a record high and pre-orders from abroad broke the post’s website. A few months later, Finlayson, the linens brand, launched a collection in black and white. Its new CEO was contacted by the Tom of Finland foundation, which saw it as an opportunity to revive the brand’s outdated image. Only one of their 12 stores decided to carry the collection. The Latvian factory refused to manufacture the product, pretending they had a problem with the colors. “It was all in black and white,” the artistic director Petri Pesonen laughs.

Is there a risk of doing too much? Some gay activists complain that their icon is being stolen away for commercial purposes. Biopic director Dome Karukoski says the response can be found in Laaksonen's own life. "He came from the advertising world. He wasn't scared of marketing," Karukoski says. "He drew on demand, created a foundation. He once said he wanted straight people to understand men like him. It was his way of saying 'Make me mainstream!'”

The president of the local LGBT association Seta, Viima Lampinen, agrees. “The more mainstream Tom of Finland is, the easier it becomes for gay people to come out and for artists to work on the same topic.”

Tom of Finland’s art can be found in the permanent collection of such great institutions as the MoMA in New York. But his ultimate dream was having an exhibit in the Louvre, recalls Durk Dehner. This would be the open and definitive proof that the world has accepted “all types of love.”