Alvin Li, writer, curator, Shanghai and London
Also published in Leevi Haapala, João Laia and Jari-Pekka Vanhala (eds.), Tom of Finland – Bold Journey. A Museum of Contemporary Art Publication 178/2023. Helsinki: Parvs and Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, 2023, p. 63–67
If I don’t have a hard-on, it’s no good.
Tom of Finland
I must open my essay with a confession: before taking on this commission, I had never considered myself a fan of Tom of Finland. Not a real fan, that is, in the sense of someone who would have studied his biography, taken notes on some of the collections, public and private, that house his work – travelled to see them, even – purchased prints (well, ideally originals) to hang at home; and learned all the gossip about his lovers and fetishes, as I now have. Worse, I cannot even remember my first encounter with his drawings. If I had to take a wild guess, I suppose it might have been in the form of digital reproductions on Tumblr sites in the mid-noughties, when I was in junior high school, posted in between gifs of ejaculating male bodies and vintage porn stills. Did I ever jerk off to Tom’s men? I’m honestly not sure.
This amnesia I have just described, the inability to retrieve the memory of a first encounter, is not mine alone. When I started doing research for this piece I sent out a questionnaire to a dozen of my favourite queer writers and artists across a few different generations. Among the Generation X interviewees, a common reference was a cowboy T-shirt produced by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in 1975 – though, as later critics have pointed out, the image printed on that T-shirt was not in fact one of Tom’s, but a piece by artist and photographer Jim French. But among peers of my age group (I was born in 1993), the memory gets increasingly blurry. Some similarly cited Tumblr posts they saw back in high school, while a queer zine editor referred to magazines, though was unable to recall the exact title. One possible reason for this inability to recall our earliest acquaintance with Tom’s aesthetic resides in its iconic status, which by the time of my coming to terms with my homosexuality had thoroughly penetrated and reshaped the representation of men, gay and straight alike, across the mainstream and in subcultures. There are pros and cons to this. On one hand, there’s a bit of Tom’s man everywhere in visual culture, from the aesthetics of 1980s bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood to the boys hanging out in your neighbourhood gay bar. The downside is, compared to the early, post-war decades when his work started circulating, whether as covers of Physique Pictorial or as comic books, one’s first impression of Tom’s work today is more likely tainted by a speck of familiarity than an experience of utter shock and engrossing infatuation.
 Jim French. ‘The Myth of the Cowboy T-Shirt’, in Dian Hanson (ed.), Tom of Finland: XXL. Cologne: Taschen, 2009.
Featured image: Tom of Finland, Untitled, 1980, pencil on paper,
42cm x 30cm. Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen
Read more — Download ‘Boys Will Be Boys? Some Notes on Tom of Finland’, by Alvin Li, as a PDF