Compared to the rest of Europe and the US, in Italy tattoo culture spread itself fairly late. Gian Maurizio Fercioni is certainly one of the main advocates of this spread and certainly the most charismatic of the old guard.
Set designer, costume designer, anthropology expert and above all historical figure of the Italian tattoo scene. Over the course of his career, he has tattooed criminals, prostitutes, aristocrats, royals, celebrities of the Italian star system. He has tattooed in ports all over Europe. Among others, he has worked with Herbert Hoffmann in Hamburg and with Horiyoshi III, from whom he learned the traditional Japanese technique.
He opened his Queequeg studio in 1974, probably the first tattoo studio in Italy which later also became a tattoo museum.
Gian Maurizio Fercioni is definitely an icon of the Italian tattoo scene. I met him at the 2018 Bologna Tattoo Expo and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview him.
Talking to him is like taking a journey through time, one really has the feeling that time has stopped. An intense character, like his stories, a charismatic and fascinating human being impossible not to love.
The stories and adventures that could be told are many, definitely way more than those that I was lucky to hear during this interview.
How and why did you decide to throw yourself into the world of tattooing when tattoos were anything but a fashion?
My passion for the sea brought me to tattoos, sailing. The tattoo fever was born in the Northern seas where there were Danes, Swedes, Englishmen, Germans with whom I worked on board ships, and there the story slowly developed.
I noticed that in England or Denmark there were already actual tattoo studios that worked on the streets, in mysterious places, because in those days some were very hidden.
So I said to myself: “Why not do it in Italy?”
It was really hard, against all the conformism of the day it was a tough struggle.
I wanted some kind of license, this was in Milan, but they flatly denied my request.
But the moment they answered me, saying they weren’t aware of that and couldn’t file it under the artisan category and so on, the moment they answered I existed.
Otherwise, they wouldn’t have even answered.
So you opened as an artisan?
I opened as an artisan. I opened the tattoo studio justified by the fact that I existed and I was there.
Since you started tattooing, tattoos have changed impressively…
The cool thing back then was that it was very underground, in fact, the motto was “Let’s go back to the sewers”, because we basically emerged like dirty rats and little by little, eating rubbish, that the conformists made us eat, persevering, we managed to move forward.
I was a bit of an icebreaker in this, another one was Mino Spadacini in Milan, then Gippi Rondinella in Rome, Marco Leoni in Bologna. [Tattoos] began to spread and to lose that sinister cave dimension and we finally surfaced.
The world was very discreet back then, tattoo artists hardly showed their tattoos and even customers. It was a very personal thing, today it’s an exhibition, it’s a total exhibition.
There are inexperienced youngsters who get a tattoo, then another one comes along who wants an even more violent one, he wants it more precise, then comes another one with his neck, because maybe he’s been to Amsterdam and he got a neck tattoo, so they started legitimizing tattoos on the neck, then on the hands…
Think about Herbert Hoffman, with whom I worked in Hamburg…At the age of 75, with an entirely tattooed body, he asked his family’s permission to get his hands tattooed so as not to create disgust and disapproval. It’s a totally different world.
What are the good things and what are the bad things you see in this new world of tattooing?
The good thing I see is the fact that tattoos, which are really ahead of the future and more ancient than the past, still exist. In this dimension it’s a good thing tattoos are spreading.
The big problem today, since so many people are approaching tattooing, is the quality. I’m not talking about the medical aspect, because anyone can obtain a license. Then they invented all this tattoo course nonsense…
But a tattooist would be a fool not to follow a prophylaxis and have everything in order because if word starts getting out that someone got an infection, for example, it would be counterproductive.
We threw away needles even back in the day, also because the skin is hard and one doesn’t realize that they go blunt after a while, especially thin needles or single needles.
The negative thing today is that there is a lot of approximation and many approach tattooing for the money because one can earn well. A young person who is more or less capable can earn what he or she would never earn by taking a steady job.
Another thing it has lost is its allure because the internet has intervened violently.
Once, in order to get contacts you wrote, you went places, you traveled …
Everything was way more romantic back then.
Yes, romantic and poetic. There was a very poetic attitude, even if fierce, brutal perhaps, but the imagination was there great imagination.
Your dreams led you to believe of being able to meet Lyle Tuttle in San Francisco and you did everything you could to get to know him, but then you had to make the journey to know him, you had to cross the Atlantic and then reach the other side.
There were no low-cost flights in those days.
No, everything was more difficult, but those who were born back then as you can see are still here today and I don’t want to sound like a bully, but we are hard to die.
They tried to kill us in every way, even the newcomers, the youngsters.
But they can’t do it. They can’t do it because we have a past, a history.
You are historical figures, there’s no doubt about that. How does it feel to be a forerunner?
I didn’t realize it, even back then, being someone who had already started I was always surrounded by people who encouraged me, people with different mentalities.
You didn’t realize that you were a forerunner? Was there a moment when …
Now, I realize that now. Worshiping youngsters come up to me, call me Sir…Me! Who’s fought all his life to be just like everybody else, do his fucking business and have fun.
Fuck, they come up to me and say: “Excuse me master”
But please boys, leave the masters to school!
We are something else, we are close to you, because we are younger than you.
Yes, because we fed ourselves with homeopathic stuff (Laughter)
What would you suggest to someone who starts tattooing today?
Draw, draw, draw, don’t try to get smart, don’t try to get smart by taking advantage of your girlfriend and using her as a guinea pig. Because today you realize that they are getting everything mixed up when you hear “I’m a tattooist, a tattooer”, I fucking hate the concept of tattoo artist already.
Because the public gets to say whether you’re an artist or not, it’s for them to decide, but it’s not a word.
I remember that at the beginning of the 1900s or at the end of the 1800s, I can’t remember the date right now, there was a dispute between two tattooists, one English and one American perhaps because when they invented the name it was either Tattooer or Tattooist and they fought over it.
The proper, ancient, old, English, American, Northern European word and in Hamburg was Tattooist, which is the most practical word in my opinion.
Which is actually the contraction of tattoo and artist.
No. In fact, the word tattoo comes from the noise. Ta Tau, which is Polynesian, is the blow that you strike on the chisel with the mallet, which is a kind of hammer. It’s ta tu, a thump, which is the sound of the skin, ta tu, ta tu, and this word becomes magical. It’s like this rhythm here (referring to the drum soundcheck in the background), it’s magical, primitive, you can’t do a fuck about it. The tattoo machine is already 100 years old but hand-made tattoos are even older because they are the primitive side of man that emerges.
Old tattooists used to say that the great duty of a tattooist was to bring out the dreams and nightmares of each client.
But who is this beautiful girl?
Good for you. Is he treating you well? (Turning to her – We laugh together)
The most negative thing about today’s tattoo evolution?
The Internet, because it degrades everything, there are people who no longer acknowledge the importance of work, the love for work.
That’s the thing, one goes on the internet, “I want this one here”, convinced he’s getting a very significant and original tattoo, without realizing that there are already thousands just like that all around the world.
The famous copies of photographs.
It all ends there, it ends there, it’s something without a history, it has truly lost all that glorious, ancient, primitive, prehistoric dimension.
Because it seems like tattoos are as ancient as cave graffiti. It doesn’t seem that way, they are.
Lately I’ve been saying that that of the tattooist is probably one of the oldest professions along with that other one.
Yes, like whores!
Yes, they are very old, there’s no denying that, and I who have had to deal with…
A short break during which Gian Maurizio greets a friend.
I don’t remember if we were in Paris or elsewhere…There was this friend of mine, who later became a tattoo artist, who used to work with me and said: “I would like to get a tattoo, from whom can I get one?”
Genziana was just starting out and I had seen her work, she had a very heavy hand.
I told him: “Try her, you’ll see”. And this guy, unaware of her heavy hand and of the fact that she had a mania for tattooing with a single needle, got himself tattooed on the inner arm behind his elbow. He suffered…
With one needle?
One needle. And she was really slow, all worked up, it was one of her very first tattoos, during a convention. It was hysterical, everybody was taking pictures because they had never seen a guy complain like that, making faces (imitating faces), while she was sweating and striking, very determined. Fuck, he had an arm like this by the end!
Poor guy indeed.
What has been your biggest challenge in all these years, as a tattoo artist?
Well, having come up through the ranks, having been in the studios of great masters like Hoffman, I’ve seen it all.
Well I have to say, don’t take it as a boast of pornography, if you come to my studio you’ll see them.
Working in Marseilles down at the port and even up near the station, the clients were all whores, poor things. Poor things my ass! They earned more than I was tattooing.
There I learned to do provocative erotic tattoos, like on the crotch: Luna park, below the pussy. At first one got excited, with a hard on, and put it in. Then he pulled it out and written below there was “Gratuit” (Free). Fuck! He had already paid, one got a little pissed off.
So they were fun, I have reproduced these things and I have proof in the studio because I have pictures of these girls… And it was a brilliant, poetic world, although very provocative.
There were girls who got the measuring tape tattooed: “Not below this length” you know, the ruler.
Others got a cobweb, which was like saying: “I haven’t used it in a while”.
One who had to go there thought: “What the fuck, now she’s going to eat me alive”.
Those were pretty difficult.
A girl came to me, a well known model, I won’t say her name, she got a “ramage” around her butthole, a crown of tiny roses, and told me: “Since he told me he’s going to marry me, I’m going to give it to him”, the ass, “But I want lots of tiny roses, with lots of thorns because that way it will hurt him.” And I told her: “Look, it’s going to hurt you more. Every thorn is a pain.” (Laughter)
It’s a very difficult area to tattoo by the way. Crazy.
I can imagine.
Only women, whose minds run much faster than ours, have the strength and courage to do that sort of thing.
Is there anything that you would change in your tattooing career?
No, I feel really grateful, I must be grateful to tattoos because they made me travel the world, know incredible people. I wouldn’t change a thing.
And the thing you’re most proud of? That thing you say: “in life there was that thing and damn, in the end I succeeded!” The thing that has given you the most satisfaction ever.
Well, tattoos and family.
My family, my children. They also tattoo by the way, without me ever wanting to push them into it. They have always been the spectators of my life, of my work, then one day they expressed the desire to tattoo, but they are not “daddy’s children” because I am much harder on them than on any assistant I had in the studio.
I’m hard on them because they are my children, they can’t be sissies.
You expect more
If you could go back in time to when you were 20 and give yourself advice?
What would you say to the 20 year old you?
That maybe I could have traveled the world even more.
So you would tell yourself to travel more?
Yes, go, look, do, undo, punches, beatings, fights, everything, love more, women, friends, more, more, more. The sea leads you to this in a way, because when you find yourself in heavy seas, when even a good sailor shits himself, you can say I’m not afraid all you want, but once you’re in it you want more.
How long have you been a sailor for?
So, I was…I was finishing high school…18 years old, then I carried on as a professional sailor, with route plan and all.
I did that for 15 years, I used to rely on some brokers in Viareggio who found the ships for me.
Well, perhaps I would have put more thought into it, in the sense of picking the best embarkation, because I sometimes found myself on questionable ships or on ships full of wealthy gentlemen, I’m not a shipowner. They were wealthy gentlemen but they didn’t understand a thing about the sea, and the moment you sign a contract and you’re on board it’s your duty to be there in every way and often you had the bad luck, not having looked into it well, of finding yourself bored surrounded by boring people without…
Consider that when I was on board I tattooed almost all of the time, so I arrived in the port, I put my card on display even if the ship wasn’t mine, Tattoo, Tatouage, or Tatuerum.
There, perhaps I would have taken that further, more thoroughly. Maybe I should have settled on a ship and spent more time in the ports. But you know sailors (whistles and gives the gesture for leaving), they just up and leave.
So on the other hand, I have to say, maybe I didn’t do too bad after all.
Maybe I should have done a little more research, chosen the ship more carefully.
Now, I’m going to tell you a story. One of the brokers told me: “Fuck, there’s this awesome embarkation in Denmark. In Norway, they sail along all the Fjords, the islands. As a motorist “.
Well, I would never do that again, because I said “I’m going!” just to be able to be shipped out.
But as a motorist you’re always below deck, you don’t see a fucking thing. Then when we sailed the Fjords I went out and…Fuck, it’s always night! Basically, I didn’t see a fucking thing, I was in jail.
There’s this guy, the one who invented competitive sailing, called Uffa Fox, he said:
“Sailing is like jail, with a single difference, by sailing you can die from drowning, in jail you can’t”. Pretty cool isn’t it?!
And we’re talking about one of the greatest sailors here.
You know, I’m one who likes to get to the heart of things. I hardly do things lightly, it’s not a presumption, I realized this over the years, so sometimes I even became violent and an asshole in order to defend my position.
Then, thank God, thanks to boxing I calmed down because before that I tried to prevaricate.
You know that client who is a pain in the ass? If he went over the limit the first thing I did was lay my hands on him. Now I have become good at it and I can calm myself down and calm him down.
One thing I can’t stand is “But will you do a good job?”. That makes me itch even to this day. The client who comes up to me and asks: “But will you do a good job?”. Why the fuck did you come to my studio?
No, I’m going to do a shitty job because my hand is shaky and I’m old. Now, do you have the courage to do it anyway?
That’s a good answer.
We must always fight, however, but the fight is a game, a pleasure.
Take away the toy from the child and see how it pisses him off. Just like us tattooists, take away our toys or clients…That’s why the skin must be respected.
I hate these tattooists of today who confuse the skin with “my canvas”, who act like artists…But go fuck yourself! Respect the skin, imbecile!
It’s a little bit TV’s fault
Yeah, all that stuff!
With all the interviews you have done, you must have done hundreds of them, have you ever asked yourself: “Why does nobody ever ask me this question?”
Well, the most frequent ones are: “Is it going to hurt? Will you do a good job? How long is it going to take?”
But no one has ever asked me: “Are you sure?”
What do you mean “Are you sure”?
But are you sure you love what you’re doing?
This is a nice question.
And no one has ever asked you?
No, if I love what I’m doing, never.
As the Polynesians used to say: “A tattoo is made by two people, you and the client, but it’s an act of love otherwise…” This is how I perfected it “…otherwise it’s just a wank!” As they say in Bologna, “pugnette”.
And this is something that no one has ever asked me.
In your opinion what will the future be like? What comes after this?
If the light goes out and we have a power supply crisis, we will go back to doing them by hand.
And nobody will fuck with us then
We can carry on anyway
We thank Gian Maurizio Fercioni for his time and let him get back to work.
Thank you, and thank you to that pretty lady who took my soul away. As the Indians say, she photographed me.
But she’s leaving with me 😀
Good, good, but with a piece of my soul 😀
You can find Gian Maurizio Fercioni at http://fercionitattoo.wixsite.com/tattoomuseo
Jerry Magni is an Italian tattoo artist, illustrator, painter. In his spare time, he’s also a contributing blogger for Tattoo.com
He can be found at JerryMagni.com and look for him on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube.