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Friday 31 October 2014

A-Z of Fetish Artists - Tom of Finland - 8

Part 8 Tom's Thieves
Tom of Finland - The Shoplifter

Theft is a recurring theme in Tom's early work. This shoplifter from 1958 must be one of the earliest examples and casts the clumsy felon in a fairly sympathetic light - more young rascal than villain. This is another 'being found out' scene and although it's rather different in character to the examples involving illicit, sexual dalliance that I pointed out in Kakes 19 and 24, it involves the same ingredients of exposure, embarrassment and anxiety for what may follow. Most gays will relate to the fear of exposure and this young man's state of undress compared with the other characters serves to emphasise his suddenly awkward predicament. There is no follow-up image but those skimpy shorts seem to cry out for a spanking.

Note the contrasting treatments of the two authority figures here, the unpleasant, sneaky woman (as usual for Tom) versus the improbably suave, male shopkeeper who, far from being angry, seems to be contemplating with satisfaction the opportunity provided by the young thief who has delivered himself (gift-wrapped you might say) into his power. Judging by the notice on the counter, one suspects he isn't going to pass up this opportunity by simply calling the police. Tom uses gay underground language here to slip some 'hidden eroticism' past the straight censors but it also introduces the possibility that the young man's apparently inept efforts at thievery are more calculating than they seem and that in fact the two men are sharing a secret joke from which the woman is excluded.

Bear in mind that Tom was already 47 when he drew this and it seems more likely that he identified with the older figures in these drawings sadistically enjoying the discomfort of the young.

Tom of Finland - The Saddle Thief (1958)

Tom's thieves always get caught in the act. In the same year he drew a series of pictures where a leather-jacketed, equally young biker is caught, apparently trying to steal a cowboy's saddle (to sniff?). Unlike the shoplifter he attempts to escape and is first spanked for his impudence, then tied spread-eagled for a more painful lashing with his own belt. In this picture his captors take the chance to loosen his jeans while he is defenceless. You can see something of Quaintance's lanky Latino's in the way Tom has drawn these men

Tom could not publish pictures with full frontal stripping at this time but the way the captive seems to be shrinking away from the invading hand is pretty erotic in it's own right. The explanation is that this series was intended for sale by mail order. It consists of around 20 drawings and you will find examples with the images numbered. Magazines like Physique Pictorial could publish the innocuous initial images as a 'come on' for the meatier items in the full set which readers could discreetly buy through the post. This was the way erotic/gay publishing got round censorship restrictions. (Photographs delivered through the Post actually feature in the storyline of Kake 25).

Tom actually played it pretty safe in this set. As the belting gets under way the would-be robber's unbuttoned jeans slip down, suggestively exposing just the upper part of his buttock to the lash. By the time he is eventually freed in the final picture, his backside (comprehensively saddle-sore) is completely uncovered but it's discreetly facing away from us as he makes his escape, hindered humiliatingly by the sagging jeans. It's enough to imply that he has experienced a fully bare ass beating - and maybe something more. In his haste to get away he leaves his precious leather jacket behind, adding a very traditional moral to the yarn.

The calculating nature and severity of the punishment meted out in this story is quite striking. Popular imagery of this era was routinely violent (after all this is the hey-day of cowboy and war films) but it was not usually explicit or cruel. 

Tom of Finland - The Cowboy and Thieves 1
Tom produced another series with a cowboy in 1960 but this time the bikers attempt to steal his clothes while he is still wearing them. This results in a memorable 'forcible stripping' image which makes the erotic intent rather more obvious, particularly given the 'glamourised' tough guy treatment of the T-shirted assailant.

As it turns out, the rogues seem totally uninterested in their captive once they have stripped him to his underwear and tied him up. If there were any more suggestive images in the series they seem to have disappeared. Instead they fall out over who should get the gun (which could be read as a deadly dispute over what should happen to the cowboy and another possible contender for my 'sinister Tom' collection). While they fight the cowboy manages to escape from his bindings and turns the tables on them. 
Tom of Finland - The Cowboy and Thieves 2

The cowboy's clothes which are the basis of this story are similar to those seen in the previous example. They reflect the fashions of the time - perhaps a little too closely for lasting appeal. They also seem to be suggestive of wealth and a 'flamboyant' character. However, in this era cowboy heroes seen on film and TV, like Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey were always immaculately dressed like this and invariably stood for high moral values. This rather nice double bondage finale thus symbolises the (rather smug) triumph of good and decency, which tells you quite a lot about Tom's character at the age of 47. 
Robert Fuller - star of Laramie
The grittier, earthy cowboy hunks of Rawhide and Laramie were just over the horizon in 1960
 but even in the 80's Tom's cowboys were still very neatly dressed.
Tom of Finland - Night Visitor
1961 sees one of Tom's most memorable pictures as a jockstrap clad young man tackles a rather nasty looking intruder, whose torn T-shirt echoes the unscrupulous tough guy in the 'cowboy roped' series above. As with the shoplifter image there's a degree of ambiguity about the purity of intentions of the householder, indicated by his knowing determined look and the yawning dishevelled bed behind him. The intruder might well be similarly inclined judging by his carelessly groping hand which makes a matching fit - Yin and Yang - with the artfully highlighted bulge in his attacker's jock. Or perhaps that just fortuitous. Another example of Tom's talent for tantalising, hidden eroticism.

The overpowering of the villain is an important element in all these theft scenarios and Tom makes it the sole subject of this one. You might pleasurably speculate about who is straight and who is gay here, but there's also a message in this picture about standing up for yourself against villains, no matter how vulnerable your opponent might imagine you to be and no matter how audacious he is in invading your most private space. So a picture about 'overpowering' is itself 'empowering' and that is why we connect with it so strongly. You may recall I mentioned this image as an influence on Takeshi Matsu.

This is a prime example of Tom's craft at a particular moment in his life when he was gaining wider and wider acceptance as a gay man through his art. It's good that Tom chose relatively timeless styles for the setting and clothing of these men because this picture's message continues to be relevant today. Gay men, who no matter how liberated and how much accepted they are, will always be a minority and always obliged to assert their distinctive identity and special brand of masculinity amidst a sea of remorseless heterosexuality. Tom is one of our cheerleaders.
Tom of Finland - The Leather Outfit Thief 1
Also in 1961 Tom drew a series which opens with a young man covertly watching a muscular biker strip out of his leathers in preparation for sunbathing. Tom uses a novel, close-up view to enhance the erotic appeal of this majestic specimen of manhood and the watching youth is probably a reminiscence of his own teens. Most of us will have had this experience. As the god-like creature settles down for his sun-worshipping the furtive watcher homes in on his bike and leathers. 
Tom of Finland - The Leather Outfit Thief 2
This thief lingers to try on the outfit and is spotted by it's owner who gives chase and punishes him with a spanking. I say thief, but to be fair there is a degree of ambiguity in this story, where the offenders guilt is implied by him bolting when challenged. His terrified flight from the naked man he was admiring but a short while before is a masterpiece of irony and full of overtones about acceptance of one's sexuality and discovering the true nature of man to man sex.

The poor lad might claim that he only wanted to try the clothes on – a lesser offence in legalistic terms but not necessarily much less offensive to the owner. Trying on someone else's clothes as though to borrow ('steal'?) their envied qualities is a surprisingly powerful urge but this chap has not realised there's also a reverse effect whereby the borrower becomes more like the clothes' owner and therefore more attractive to him, one of the gang if you like. It's one of the more subtle effects of uniforms in the military as well as the leather scene

Tom of Finland - The Leather Outfit Thief 3
The setting for this scene is a beach fringed by a wood which invokes a typical gay cruising ground and the easy pickings of unattended belongings in these places frequently attract thieves. The dunes in Gran Canaria have their own resident thief who regularly appears to steal the bags of men engaged elsewhere. We can only speculate as to whether Tom ever experienced this himself but interestingly this same storyline is revisited by him later in the 60's and developed further for Kake 2&5.
Tom of Finland - Biker Captive

There are plenty of pictures by Tom where punishment is being inflicted but it isn't clear whether thievery is the cause. In my article on black characters I speculated about one from 1962 and this is it's companion picture showing the offender struggling impotently with his bindings while his captors gloat over his arousal. 
Tom of Finland - Crate & Crowbar
This crowbar and crate picture from 1963 is an equally intriguing possibility, but the 'Thief' pictures are really a subset of a wider group of 'offence and retribution' scenarios reflecting Tom's observations of unsatisfactory male behaviour and which would include, for example, the photograph-bending Postman (Kake 25) and the Cowboy-bending Outlaw (Kake 23), also the Motorbike-bending Cyclist and the coffee-spilling Sailor from article 1.
Tom of Finland - The Motor Cycle Thief
Tom changes tack in 1964 slightly where a biker's motorbike, parked next to a roadside snack trailer is stolen while he's having a drink. There's absolutely no ambiguity about the intentions here and as always the felon is spotted in the act and even with the help of a motorbike he is unable to outrun retribution. He is tied to a tree and belted on his bare backside. You can see how Tom's sensuous style continues to develop in these years and the figures begin to fill the frame drawing us into the erotic intimacy of the scene.

Tom of Finland - Leather Thief (Kake 5)
Later on in the 60's Tom revisits the theft of unattended leathers from a raunchy gay beach (in Kake 2). Again there is no ambiguity about the crime, nor significantly is there any doubt about the sexual orientation of the perpetrator, he is gay. The thief/voyeur is caught later (in Kake 5 )when he returns to the scene of his first offence wearing the very same clothes he stole previously. Ironically, Kake is also wearing 'borrowed' clothes at this point and appropriately enough it's a policeman's uniform. He gives chase and overpowers the felon, a struggle which Tom depicts in some detail across several pictures attracting as much effort as his punishment.

There's more than enough justification here for stripping the captive of his clothes and Kake is assisted by two men he's just been playing with, which gives the ritual a little more edge and foreshadows a multi-pronged punishment as, for the first time, Tom supplements the mandatory belting with an explicit sexual humiliation - the guilty man is penetrated singly and severally before being discarded, handcuffed to a bench to await the approaching policeman . As I remarked in my original Kake 5 article, there's a considerable degree of venom in the punishment, which is erotic but also suggests a significant degree of emotional involvement on Tom's part.


Why was Tom so preoccupied with this scenario? 
Obviously at a superficial erotic level it gives plenty of seemingly legitimate scope for depicting man to man struggle, forced stripping, bondage and spanking (but not sexual invasion - that's a different thought process altogether!). However his repeated returns to the subject suggests there may be more to it than that, perhaps in his own life experience.

Clothes, which feature prominently in these stories, were important to Tom. Hooven tells us he was something of a dandy in the 40's (his late twenties). He designed his own clothes including leathers which would have been a very personal (and expensive) expression of his individuality and sexuality. It's entirely possible he may have experienced the loss of them perhaps during a casual gay encounter such as he depicts in these stories. The clothes may also be a metaphor for something else equally personal and precious such as his own drawings and we know he lost a suitcase containing both of these things during a traumatic visit to Berlin in 1954. This was a loss of something which was intensely personal and secret , an irreplaceable record of his youthful sexual feelings which his orientation had prevented him from enjoying to the full. He surely would have mourned it's loss for the rest of his days.

In fact, he was destined to suffer repeated losses connected with his drawings later in life, when originals submitted for publication or for exhibition were neither paid for, nor returned to him and also when his early Kake's were pirated without payment of royalties. Once such incident in the mid-70's may well have been the trigger for his return to the Thief scenario in 1977. It's also not impossible that Tom's feelings in these drawings reflect the cumulative effect of other painful life experiences beyond his control which also entailed a loss of 'innocence', such as normal bereavement of course, being gay, his enforced war service (where he killed a man) or simply growing older – Tom was 56 in 1977.

Tom of Finland - The Locker Room Thief 1
Tom's 70's output (with some notable exceptions) mostly consists of arty explorations and innocuous sexual encounters, including most of his middle series Kake (Nos 10-20), but in 1977 he produced the 'Locker Room Thief' series. Once again it's leathers being stolen but the intimate setting of a changing room gives the robbery the same deeply invasive character as the bedroom-burglar scene above, rekindling the same sense of affront and vulnerability. 
Tom of Finland - The Locker Room Thief 2
The naked owner emulates his 60's predecessor, having no hesitation in tackling the fully-clad thief and making sure he doesn't stay that way for long. What follows is a ferocious belting and sexual humiliation before the offender is contemptuously cast out onto the street, into the gutter, with his jeans flung after him – not even kept as a souvenir by the intended victim. It's a powerful expression of anger and contempt, but interestingly, for this very reason it does not quite achieve the same inspirational impact as the 1961 picture. What it does do, is to hammer home the good vs bad morality which I pointed out for earlier works in this article.

Tom of Finland - Punk in the Locker Room
The Locker Room Thief seems to have done the trick in clearing Tom's obsession, or perhaps his life simply settled on a calmer course. Soon after this, in 1982, his long term partner died which would temper most people's anger. Whatever the explanation, there are no more thief scenarios after this, apart from (possibly) this Black-on-Punk imagery from his final years which substitutes cheerful confidence and assertiveness for rage and contempt.

In some ways Tom seems to have been very worldly wise - his international travelling and sexual adventures, his war service, his astute targeting of subject matter for his drawings, his talent for hidden eroticism and knowledge of arcane practices such as sounding all point to this. Yet he was also quite na├»ve in other ways, like incorporating stereotypical African 'Natives', Hijackers and Nazis into his images and not least keeping his precious drawings in his travelling suitcase and showing them to casual pick-ups. He was a repeat victim of people he trusted with his drawings which were something immensely precious and meaningful to him. This repeated experience of betrayal must have been very dispiriting for him, probably more so than the financial loss involved, since time and time again it was other gay men who did this to him and it must have made him doubt on his own judgement and stoke his resentment against the unfair laws which drove him into the arms of these unscrupulous individuals as the only outlet for his work. 
An expression of frustration and rage was an understandable response.

Tom's later associates bemoan the fact that Tom lost out on income through piracy, theft and simple exploitation and this unquestionably must have rankled with him as it would with anyone else and yet he also seems to have been quite fatalistic about it and lukewarm about pursuing the issue on his own account. The trouble was that Tom always wanted to share his work and inspire other gay men with it and he knew that conventional publishing channels limited what he could do and who he could reach. The 'betrayals' helped make possible the spreading his work more widely, and ultimately more successfully than he could ever have imagined. He actually died just before the internet began to change the world of publishing and make 'pirates' of us all but I expect he would have been comfortable with it, deploring and approving it in similar measure, not least because it has both enabled and forced his modern day heirs and custodians to continue to share it and not hide it behind museum walls.

To be continued in Part 9
Links to previous articles: Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3 , Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part7

For other artists in the A-Z series click on the label below or search by name.

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