Tapio Wirkkala was born on 2 June 1915 in Hanko, South Finland, where he spent his childhood and youth with his parents Ilmari and Selma and his younger siblings Tauno and Helena. All the children of the family inherited artistic talent from their parents and later went on to occupations in the arts.

The family moved to Helsinki in the 1920s. Wirkkala's drawing skills were already noticed in primary school and he studied ornamental sculpture at the Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1933 to 1936.

Wirkkala began his working career as a commercial artist. In these years, he won, among other contests, a design competition held for a postage stamp to commemorate the 1940 Helsinki Olympics, which were cancelled because of the war. The war also interrupted Wirkkala's work, but he was able to participate in several crafts competitions held for servicemen. During the war, he sculpted, for example, a monument featuring the heraldic lion of Finland in honour of the conquest of Petrozavodsk in Russian Karelia by Finnish troops in 1941. This work is presently at the Suomenlinna Fortress in Helsinki.

In 1941, Wirkkala was commissioned to design a badge for a Finland-Sweden walking contest for the public