In the tattoo industry Filip Leu is a name that speaks for itself, and if you don’t know who he is, I suggest you go back to and do your homework.
Filip is a historical figure of the tattoo industry, an icon, born and raised in the tattoo culture, already a master in his teens (in the 80s). I had the honor of meeting him at the Tattoo Expo Bologna 2018 for an interview that became an enjoyable one-hour conversation and we were also joined by his wife Titine over the phone.
So let start with the first question:
Usually, the general tendency as a teenager is rejecting everything that comes from our parents, did you ever have something like that or you were you just…
Are you talking about teenage rebellion?
It was very hard to rebel against my father and my mother, they were very cool, well, they are cool.
My rebellion as a child was tattooing actually, and getting tattooed, I started getting tattooed at ten, eleven. By the time I was fourteen I had quite a few, and I liked it because I kind of grew up in a hippie community, and everything is cool with these people, it’s hard to rebel.
There was nothing to rebel about.
I wanted tattoo work, and they said: “No you’re too young, you’re too young” But I liked it, all I wanted was getting tattooed.
So you were just part of the rebellion, let’s say.
Oh, it’s a funny story, I mean, I did my first tattoo because I wanted to proclaim my independence, and you know, kind of a big “fuck you” to everybody.
Then within a week or two, I wanted another tattoo so I could belong to the tattoo family, so I went from an extreme to the other, and in less than a month I had quite a few.
You did your first tattoo at fourteen right?
I started professionally at fifteen but I tried tattooing since I was twelve, and at eleven I got my first tattoo.
You were already considered a master in tattooing when you were eighteen, right?
Maybe a bit later,
But anyway at a very young age, so being considered a master at a young age it seems that you probably never had the struggle that somebody else had to go through to be successful, it appears that success is your nature, at least this is what it looks like from the outside of course.
My father started the family business, he made it a success, so I didn’t have to worry, I’m like Obelix I fell into the pot.
A lot of people, most people here [referring to the convention] had to look for tattooing, they decided “What do I want to do? I’m going to do tattoos” I didn’t have to look, it came to me.
So it’s kind of different, and then he set up the business, Felix my dad, I was just tattooing, and the reason that I got recognition early it’s because I started full time at fifteen, I started earlier than other people, so I had a head start.
Nobody makes nice tattoos in the beginning, you have to learn, there’s a long struggle just professionally speaking.
My father was a very old school teacher, he wouldn’t let me fuck about or make mistakes, he was on me all the time, watching me, pushing me, very quickly he took a back step, and he put me in front to push me forward.
It was easier in many ways, all I had to do was to sit down and work.
So you didn’t have some kind of struggle something like…
Oh, it’s a struggle every day, it really is!
I drew a book for Luke [Atkinson] with two thousand dragon feet, sometimes I sit down to draw a dragon’s foot, and I’m struggling.
It’s unbelievable, it’s a weird thing, we artists are subjective to how we feel, good days go easier, on bad days nothing works.
It seems that you have a kind of thing with dragons. It appears that you really love dragons, I mean, maybe I don’t know your entire work, but I saw a lot about dragons from you.
I really like the subject, I liked them even before my father was tattooing these.
Dragons are really fun and what I like about drawing is they don’t exist.
So you can have fun, I studied a lot of Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi, Horitoshi, Horicho, I like looking at their work and learning how to draw like them.
I know some people like Luke or Mick that have really amazing book collections, I also started collecting them, we go to the source where the Japanese art is copied from, the old paintings. So I started to steal from there.
Ichibay did this a lot, he does the same things, he finds these designs and brings them forward for us.
How many dragons did you draw? Thousands?
Yeah and I still have a hard time as well.
Yeah, it’s amazing
Because you’re a perfectionist?
Leonardo Da Vinci was used to say that “A piece of art is never finished is just abandoned.”
Because we as artists are always looking for something to make it better.
I totally agree. The thing you learn with time is when it’s a good moment to abandon a piece of art.
Because you come close to the end and then you fuck it up, then you go backward, and then you have to work a bit more, and you go close to the end, so it’s learning the moment you stop, is like learning when to stop drinking.
There’s this one point in the night when you know you should stop.
You need experience. (says, my girlfriend)
You need experience on that. But then experience works against this sometimes, you’ve drawn it in so many ways
then you start looking for a new way, and you get stuck in a corner right?
I was talking yesterday with Melvin Tay about that.
I took a seminar for illustrators and painter. They showed us about twenty, twenty-five paintings and they wanted to show us the perfectionism in which we as artist lose ourselves.
They showed us three stages of those works, the sketch, the middle progress and the completed one and the impressive thing was that the difference between the middle and the last step was almost irrelevant, it was just about the artist perfectionism.
The idea is in the sketch, once you got the sketch that’s it right?
The incredible thing is that most of the time spent on those painting was lost between the middle stage and the end, and the changes, for the external viewer, were almost irrelevant, it was just the artist that was like: “Oh, maybe I can do the eye in this way or the other way.”
Do you find yourself in the same kind of perfectionism or do you think that with your experience you have already found when you have to stop?
No, I understand that.
I’ve got a couple of ways of working. Usually, I work pretty quick, just for the pleasure of doing something fast.
Because tattooing is so slow that when I do part from the tattoo scene I like to enjoy myself, but there are few paintings that I take to the end, in my end, and I love the ending is the fun part.
It’s when you walk around it and come to terms with each corner, “I’m happy with this bit, I’m happy with this bit.”
Then, when you’re happy with all these bits, and it’s going to work together, then… Yeah, I like that.
To do a painting about (showing the size with hands)…
50 70 cm?
Less even, smaller, 40/30 or something, I can do a week, which is a long time for me because some of that stuff takes me two hours.
I just like to freedom of going quick, but the ones that I get to spend time on, I like the ending.
But then I paint differently. Since tattooing is so regimented, you have a design, you have to meet the requested work for, it’s a commission actually, right?
I’m watching my wife. She will sketch, pre-sketch work on ideas, I don’t. I just start and then work for a while and start to see things: “Oh look” And then I bring them to life “Oh Look over here, this could be…” So it’s more like a game actually.
I try not to worry about what it means or what it looks like, that’s not really the important thing for me, I just look for harmony, in my eye, that the colours are right, I like the shapes and I use a few tricks that I use over and over again, each artist has his own. I like perspectives and stuff like that, stuff to add in there.
You know, art for me it’s good for my tattooing in the way that I can learn, experiment.
I don’t tattoo very much of my art on people, I’ve only got about six or seven people that wear psychedelic tattoos that have nothing to do with my regular production. Because you know, I was thinking about pizza. I had a pizza yesterday – oh it was good – this guy cooks the same pizza every fucking day, and he’s still making it good. That’s an achievement.
That reminds me about this violinist, which I don’t remember the name, he was ninetysomething, and there was this journalist that asked him “You are one of the greatest violinists in the world, and you stopped playing live over ten years ago, but you are still practising two hours a day every day. Why?” And he replied: “Well, I can see there’s still improvements.” This is art, a love for what you do that never goes away.
Titine: Apprentice for life.
What was your biggest challenge as an artist?
Are we talking art in general or we’re talking tattooing here?
As an artist, I think…Even if tattooing can probably be considered a commission, more like an illustration, I think that if it’s done in a certain way it can be considered art, so…
Well, I do make the distinction between tattooer and tattoo artists, it’s two different fields, right?
Yes, I think so, tattooer is the one that…
That only does reproductions.
The other one it’s where we actually experiment our work and so on.
My biggest challenge in tattooing itself, in the beginning, was getting over the hurdle of hurting people.
That was my biggest block, causing pain. It’s not natural.
So that was a real struggle, to learn how to be able to do my job and ignore this idea to block out the pain so you can do your job properly. That was kind of difficult.
Yeah, it’s still a struggle.
It’s hard, it takes energy if the person is in a lot of pain it takes all of your energy you know.
Artistically my biggest hurdle…
The discipline to work regularly, because it’s like everything.
If you’re an athlete, you need to exercise, if you’re an artist you need to work and sometimes I don’t work a lot on paper or canvas, just the tattooing, but I think I work in my head. It’s difficult for me to paint regularly.
I wish I were more disciplined in that department because it would be better for me, it would be easier to work and if you do it all the time a bit. You know, if you’re cold, you haven’t painted for a few months, and you want to do a painting it takes you a couple of days to get into it, right?
Yeah, I found myself being a bit lazy sometimes, and I see a lot of artists that sometimes become lazy? There was an Italian comic artist that unfortunately died very young, who said…
No Liberatore is still Alive, it was Andrea Pazienza.
I loved Ranxerox.
I collected comics since I was a kid, I have a lot of comics, I wanted to be a comic book artist when I was small you know. I really love it.
I did it for some time.
You know my problem?
I could never find a story good enough, I needed somebody else’s story because every time I tried to draw my own stories by the time I got in the middle of sketching this out, I lost faith in the story and I abandoned it. You have to believe in the story. Right?
A lot of comic artists work in a team, actually.
You get the sketch guy, you get the ink guy, you get the lettering guy, you get the colour guy, and then you get the story guy.
Yes but that’s more of an American thing, in Europe, we used to have a writer and the comic artist.
Just the two.
Titine: and the colourist.
Yes and the colourist.
Her family comes from comic books, they had a lot of comic book shops in Switzerland.
Yes, it depends, because sometimes the comic artist was doing his own colouring, other times the comic was done in black and white for magazines and the colourist would come at the end to colour the entire story that would have been published as a book for bookshops. Without mentioning black and white comics that never got coloured.
And what is your biggest challenge now?
Getting out of bed every morning.
Actually, we’ve just started something new. I’ve just made my first sculpture actually. You know, like a proper sculpture for an art show in Geneva. Titine and her brother Matthieu also each made a piece for this same show.
I really liked it. I did this skull, a little bit Star Trek. I’ve always wanted to work on this idea of building monsters for the cinema, looks like a fun job right?
All these special effects.
So we made one each, and I really enjoyed it. It was a bit challenging, but I want to do more. 3D art, in three dimensions.
Yeah, that’s great.
Did you ever work digitally?
No, I don’t even use Photoshop; I’m like really old school.
I use light tables and tracing paper.
I’ve got a photocopy machine which is nice. You know, it helps, it really does.
You blow something up. I’m learning to steal from here and there.
It’s quick for the work.
Would you like to experiment with digital tools?
You know I’ve had people coming to shop and show me these Wacom or the iPad stuff, and I’m just afraid that if I start to work with that technology, I will spend more time learning about the technology and less time doing art.
It’s not so difficult.
I’m a vidiot. I’m obsessive, when I play video games I do only that, I get lost in that.
I record music, I don’t make great music, but I like using the program so much. It’s like a video game, you know what I mean?
So I make a quick song, and when the song is finished, It takes one day to make that song, and when that’s done… Next!
I never finish them.
I understand that’s why I got rid of all the games and the Play Station…
Oh god yeah, you have to.
Yeah, because I remember the first time I lost almost two years on that thing…
The game says you played 90 hours, and you’re like, “What?!!”
It’s 5 o’clock you have to go to sleep now.
( We Laugh)
The tattoo industry is changed a lot, especially in the last 25 years.
Not even, just in the last five years.
It’s accelerating this stuff.
Yeah, what do you think is the best and the worst, if there’s any worst?
Well, the best I would say is the opening up of the information.
It’s all free flow now, and I would say all of these highly talented young art students that are able to join the profession, because it’s not so scary, it’s not so difficult.
It used to be hard to get into the tattooing. There was a lot of good artists that were not strong enough to do the apprenticeship, so they didn’t become tattooers.
Now they don’t even need to do an apprenticeship. They learn from the internet, that’s really good, but that’s also bad because there’s a loss of some guidelines. They will all learn in time.
The main message is: “Don’t forget you’re working on living skin! It will change with time. It doesn’t matter how small your needle is or how hard you work to make it, it’s not going to stay. It’s alive.”
It’s really a fundamental rule that it’s kind of being forgotten a little bit.
There’s some of this art I see now, these realistic portraits. I couldn’t even paint it on canvas honestly, and I don’t even understand how they can do it on the skin, it’s so hard, but it’s short-lived, I think, for the most part, I do believe that if they keep working, they might figure it out.
I don’t think that realism is wrong, I think it needs to be done on a larger scale, not so tight.
If you do it bigger, it will ages better, right?
Few rules like that.
I mean all of these TV shows, conventions and the opening of tattooing has made it easier than it ever was before.
If you know how to use Instagram and you work your PR you can travel the world today, and wherever you go you have
appointments waiting for you right?
You can hop around the planet. It’s great.
On the other side, I don’t know maybe Pinterest is destroying the individuality of tattooing.
Everybody’s getting the same little Pinterest elephant they see online.
You can get it in Tokyo, you can get in in Buenos Aires, you can get it in…
Titine: It’s killed the imagination.
Yeah, they all using the same sources of designs, people go to the computer, and if you look on the computer, you think: “Oh, I find everything I want.”
No, I have a book collection, and there’s more stuff in my collection about dragons than I can find on the internet!
So you’ll only find on the internet what people take the time to upload and they didn’t do it all.
So yeah, people are using the same group of designs so long, and I think that’s causing similarities.
I like individuality, that when you can look at the work you go: “Oh, that’s a Tin Tin. Hey, that’s a Luke”
Do you think this is also happening because… You were talking about art students that are getting into tattooing, and it’s easy. So they theoretically have the foundation to create their own art, while before that tattooers were not really trained in art.
No, not at all for the most part
They were just copying.
So do you think this is also happening with this new…
No, there’s a lot of creation going on, more people know how to draw, there’s a lot of copying a lot of reference works, stuff like that, but that’s fine, I mean it’s better than it was in the past.
If you look at what was around, like in the 80s, a lot of the Japanese designs that came out of Germany
out of Europe. They were terrible designs, right?
In Italy until the 90s, even now.
Everything in Italy started much later compared to the rest of Europe
Somebody was telling me a story that in the 40s Japanese tattooers were going to Hamburg. They came on the boats, and they worked in Hamburg tattooing by hand doing beautiful works, and then the local guys would copy the designs by hand, and then those get copied, and copied, and copied, but all the copies were done by guys who didn’t understand drawing, so they got worse and worse. They started with something good, and ended up with a dragon with three legs and a funny face, they just copied it until… Now it’s going a bit better.
Yeah, because there are people who are able to draw
And they understand
So they take something that it’s good and maybe make it even better.
They take something that’s bad and make it good.
They have that capacity.
As far as the designing goes I have no complaints, I’m very happy that the art is getting stronger and stronger and stronger.
I think that’s great.
And the worst?
The worst part is maybe… It’s a mix in both ways, I don’t know, I watch some tattoo show sometimes, they drive me mad.
But then it’s fine, I like chef Ramsay, that it’s a terrible show on cooking, it’s not about cooking it’s about yelling at people!
Yeah, it’s just about the experience.
So I should shut my mouth and just accept these shows are good for business, that’s all I could say.
But maybe they give a false image of who we are, but then, hey it’s a plastic world, right?
It’s all show, I mean, it’s funny and… the worst, I don’t know, it’s not really that bad.
There’s nothing bad?
Nothing terrible, you know, it’s just evolution, things are changing and it still growing this is what surprises me
I expected it just to slow down at some point. It’s not slowing down.
The last week I was talking about the last millennia and a half since the monotheism raised – and it seems that wherever the monotheism is present, they banned tattoos at some point – Well, in the Western world tattoos were not entirely prohibited but used as a mark of shame. So it means that before of that we were tattooing we always had a tattoo culture, they just banned it for whatever reason and then we are rediscovering this kind of…
It’s probably a political reason, they use it as an excuse to…
Well, I have my theory but…
Because tattoos were popular as well in the 18th [century] when Captain Cook brought it back to England, the aristocrats [got tattoos] you know, it was in, then it was out, then it was in, then it was out.
Now people are actually a little bit in control of certain positions in life, but they’re pro-tattoo because they’re covered.
So, free to go away, I mean hey, anything can happen tomorrow, but banning it, I don’t see that happening right away.
Some horrible stuff has to happen before they can stop this.
Yes, that’s what I meant because now that there’s this kind of renaissance of tattooing
I think it’s normal that people want that. We got rid of all this banning and…
Who knows, if all the world was tattooed I guess I would want to be not tattooed.
If it was mandatory I don’t think I would do this for fun, I would say no, right?
I’m a dinosaur. You know facial tattoos, hands tattoos, neck tattoos, this was something that when I started you only saw this on people that were full!
They had a complete body [tattooed], there was nothing left, so they did the hands, the neck the feet and the face.
Now, this new generation starts with the neck and the hands.
It’s kind of shocking to me a little bit, I’m a dinosaur you know, I think in the old way.
It’s the opposite right now, you start from outside to get inside.
Yeah, which is a total 180, and these people, as they grow older [the ink] it’s all sit in, it ain’t going away, it’s difficult lasering all this off. Tattooing is not a hairstyle, it’s not a clothing style it’s kind of more permanent.
Never mind why they do it, now they’re going have to live all their life tattooed.
Do you think it’s coming from the TV shows we were talking about?
A little bit, maybe it gives them the excuse or the feeling that it’s not, you know…
How many people do I know that get tattooed, that they’re the first person in their family to be tattooed for example? Is your mother tattooed, no, your father no, your brothers no, so they have to do it and defend it to the family right? Before it was hard, but now they can say: “Mum look at the TV show it’s ok, look at these stars tattooed and the movie actors tattooed, Sylvester Stallone has sleeves…” And you know, things are becoming more democratic, more open, it’s not just one group. Even though tattooing was everywhere before, there was a lot of people that got tattooed but they just didn’t show it, they hid it.
Since I started we’ve worked on lawyers, doctors, all kinds of people that would never show their tattoos to the regular public, and they’ve always existed, this group.
It’s a kind of psychological thing probably, now people are starting from outside to get to the inside, perhaps before people were more…
Undercover, it was more secret, the secret is over, put it that way.
Yeah, but I’m thinking about the idea that maybe before people were more
conscious about themselves, they weren’t constantly bombarded by the outside world.
Are you talking about the world before the internet?
It was a different world.
So that’s also a metaphor about the people, they were full inside, and so they didn’t need to show anything, now it’s the opposite.
Yeah, very possible, but it doesn’t matter what the reason, when the person comes in sits down and you stick the needle in the arm, they all have the same experience, right?
It doesn’t matter, that’s the moment of truth, and then they manage that and then they have to live with it for all their life.
So whatever the reason they still become tattooed and part of this… The thing is hard to deny once you’re tattooed you know, it’s you.
Somebody asked me an interesting question: “How do you feel about changing people’s lives? When you tattoo all their body, you change their lives.” I say no, they changed it. They come to me, and I make it permanent. They are the ones that make a change in their mind. I don’t take people off the street, so they have to do the process before they come to me and we just solidify it, we make it real.
So I’m not responsible, I don’t feel responsible for changing their lives. I’m part of changing their life, but it was their decision.
I love this idea. Really profound.
What would you suggest to a young guy that’s starting tattooing today?
Draw, draw, look, study.
I don’t know, I’m very critical, I’ve always looked at things like I would have made it, and the work I like is the work I would see myself doing, but I can always see something I would change, in my work and the work of others.
I think it’s good to stay critical.
It can be improved, there is no ultimate, there is no best, that’s an impossible idea, right?
I think it’s the best thing about every art, that there’s always room for improvement.
I look at that like levels in a building, with groups of people, and now I got to this level, now we’re going to move to try to get to the next level, like understanding or application or…
I’m trying to go simple, simple is the opposite of easy and simple is not easy right? It’s really hard.
Woody Guthrie said: “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”
I like that.
Something that actually helps me in tattooing, there was this guy called Sailor Moses, he was American, I met him once.
He had a quote that I like, he said: “If you make a mistake long enough or over and over again people would call it a style.”
(We laugh together)
This fucking helped me
I was like: “Yeah all right,” you know, I can deal with that
(Still laughing together)
And the other quote I like was that:
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
Titine and I together: This is from Picasso.
Yeah, that’s Picasso.
Yeah, that was good, yeah right on.
Because you know, originality is a strange and slippery idea. Original, like really original, I don’t know, does it exist? y
You know, there had to be somebody who drew the first dragon and then you just copy this guy, you know what I mean.
Yeah, something derivative.
But it’s hard to be original in this day and age in tattooing, it’s very hard, I look around to see people that have styles that stand out.
There’s a guy I met, Javier Obregon, he does fantastic Biomech, but it’s not really Biomech it’s more abstract art, he makes these weird shapes.
Markus Lenhard, he does this Biomech that is different. I really like his work because you recognize him when you see it, it’s like “Oh I know who that is!”
That’s what I like, really original.
And yet I’m sure he found his works in paintings. Was Marcel Duchamp that guy who did this The nude descending staircase it’s one of those Picasso periods, it’s all made out of blocks, it’s a motion painting, it’s like a robot or woman coming down the stairs, but you can see the motion of the legs and the arms. It would make a great tattoo, and that was done like years ago.
There’s anything you would change in your artistic experience?
I need more time, I wish I were twenty.
Because it takes a long time to understand what you want to do.
I think everybody would like to have more time.
Yes, more time is what I’d change, but otherwise, I wish I wasn’t so lazy like we were talking before because laziness is a drug.
But sometimes maybe we need this laziness.
I don’t remember who said that an artist needs some laziness because without laziness you can’t get your ideas.
Yeah, you need time to think.
If you could go back in time when you were 20 what you would say to yourself?
Just that? (Titine and I laugh)
Yeah, because you can’t go back.
All the work I did earlier, I wish I had done even more of it because, but I also enjoyed myself, I had a good life you know, I didn’t work all the time, I have no regrets really… it’s a good place to be, tattooing, I’m very happy, it’s been a good life.
And what’s the thing that makes you most proud of yourself, that thing that you said: “Finally, I did it!”
Pushing the big magnums, you know, when I started it was round and flats, and then in the States I started using magnums, the biggest one that people were using at the time was an eleven, and I talked to everybody: “Why don’t we have more needles? More needles!”, “Oh, it’s not possible.” And I thought: “It’s so stupid.” It’s like painting a room, you do the corners with a small brush then you get the roll for the big part. I talked to a lot of people, I asked Ed Hardy, I asked Jack Rudy, I asked all the people!
So we have to thank you for the 45 and over magnum, that’s great! Thank you!
They said: “We tried and it didn’t work.” So I went home to Switzerland and there’s a local guy, near where we live, who’s a precision mechanic, I’ve tattooed him since I was very young and he started making tubes for me, we tried different prototypes. It took us about two and a half years to find the perfect tube, and when I got it working I went back to America where we did three conventions, I worked in public and I showed everybody the tube, interested folks took pictures and measurements, and within a year the industry started using it.
Now I’m so happy whenever I see somebody using it because it’s because of me. It’s accelerated tattooing, bigger work is done, less pain, better for healing, the whole thing.
That’s directly my fault. That’s actually why there’s a tube out there with my name on it.
I wouldn’t call it a fault 😀
Well no, it’s my doing. I’m very proud of that. I’m really really happy about it.
I’m thinking of a new tattoo machine. I want to invent a new machine. You know those maglev trains? Those trains that don’t have wheels, it’s all on magnets, and nothing touches? I want to make a machine like that, with no moving parts.
I’d like to try because you know, it’s an old industry we have. The machines we use were patented in 1929, and they haven’t changed since. It’s actually surreal, everything else has moved forward technology-wise. All of these new rotaries that have come on the scene, it’s just a rotary, it’s a rotary! We need something new to move forward.
Yeah, I totally agree with that.
Do you think that it’s just because the market before was just a niche before, while right now it’s spreading? Now we are many, like dentists, everybody goes to a dentist, so there is an industry behind that, they want to invest money to…
Yes, they innovate, they’re constantly evolving
But we didn’t have something like that.
It’s happening now, this is these years, now it’s expanding, there are lots of people trying to make new systems but they’re always working with the old. I think we should get away from the old one and try something totally different.
I’m totally with you.
Because my thinking is: “Look, we can send a machine to Mars, why the fuck can’t webuild a new tattoo machine?!” You know what I mean? Come on, It’s got to be possible.
Yeah, I don’t have the skill to do something like that, but I’m entirely with you.
I have the dreams, and I’ve talked to electricians, people into electronics, when these guys come to the shop I talk about my ideas, and there are a few guys that tried and they couldn’t do it, it’s not easy otherwise somebody would have done it, but I’m sure it’s possible.
Yeah, maybe you should talk with Apple or some of those guys.
I was also thinking about a new lamp. We have this led here on the phone that is so powerful, and we are still using these big lamps, and I also have an idea for a new machine, well you can take I don’t believe I will do anything with it, there is the engine that makes the phone vibrate, they are pretty powerful…
They are tiny, fuckin’ microscopic engines, correct.
We need a new drive shaft that’s what we’re looking for. Right?
Something that doesn’t get hot. We did make one that has only one spring, and it works on a different system, but it gets too hot, that’s one of the problems with the heat.
I think it’s an open field which is going to change, I’m excited, I think it’s really cool.
You’ve probably done hundreds or thousands of interviews, is there a question that maybe you thought: “Why is no one asking me this question?”
One question they don’t ask me too much is if I make mistakes.
I make mistakes every day, part of the way I work is fixing my mistakes. It’s like drawing, I’ve come to a point in tattooing where even a mistake is not a problem, I can fix it.
It’s the way I see it from my side.
When I tell my people, friends watching me work, I’m like “Did you see me make a mistake and fix it?” and they say “No I didn’t see it.”
That’s cool, I like that.
But would you call it really a mistake?
I remember when I was in school and my teacher, Karel Thole – maybe you know him, he was the cover artist of Urania, an Italian sci-fi periodical – told me that sometimes what we perceive as a mistake is not really a mistake it’s just our perfectionism, we were talking about that before, so maybe… Are you sure you’re fixing mistakes rather than working on your perfectionism as an artist?
I only call it a mistake, obviously when I draw I modify on route, it’s like painting, till you’ve finished.
It’s only a mistake in the sense that tattooing is a process, you do your lines correctly, then you shade, then you colour, there is no room for inventing and fucking around right?
But I tend to do that more and more, so it’s more like illustrating on the skin, I’m more free with myself, and I enjoy that.
You know tattooing is a strange form of art. You’re forced to create in public, on demand, with a time limit, so it’s like a performance. Because as an artist, when you’re at home, if you don’t feel like working you can go and drink a coffee and then you come back when you feel better, here [in tattooing] we can’t, so it’s a stress performance kind of work, it’s strange.
A friend of mine, Roddy McLean from Scotland, and I were talking about that, and about the fact that we are pretty much something in between a rock star and a doctor, because we can fuck somebody else’s skin, and at the same time, what you’re saying, it’s required that we perform flawlessly every day. If we fuck one time, it’s like a rock star that makes a gig that goes wrong and everybody starts talking shit about him.
One bad tattoo would do so much negative publicity compared to ten good ones.
Yes. This reminds me of a video I saw on the internet.
There was this maths teacher that was doing the times table, and she made a silly mistake on purpose. The entire class laughed, and she said, “You see? I did everything right, but one and you laughed about the only mistake I did. So this is a lesson in life. Life is like this, people would always point out everything you do wrong forgetting about all the things that you did right.”
What do you think will be the next step in the tattoo industry?
Well, you already said that the next step is evolution and a lot of possible investments in new technology and so on.
Well yeah, since the industry has reached a point now where outside investors are starting to become interested, if you will, the corporate takeover of tattooing. Unfortunately, the corporate mind is not what I would like to see in this business, I would like to keep it more homegrown because we still kind of know each other. It’s getting big now, but some of the first conventions I went to in Amsterdam, at the end of the show everybody went to one restaurant, it’s impossible now, they’ve become too big.
But I do see maybe a change in the industry that is more geared toward capitalism in the sense of tools, image.
Even though, if you looked at tattooing when it was part of the carnivals, it was like hard sell and, you know, get them in, get them out, all of that it was much more… Very business as well at the time.
I like the artistic stuff. Hardy started this, Ed Hardy, and others like my father Felix Leu, bringing fine art into tattooing.
George Burchett, the guy was working in England in the 30s and 40s, a fantastic artist not just tattooing.
There have always been good artists here and there.
Do you think that someday… I don’t think so, but anyway, do you think that one day the Western tattoo culture will use or perceive tattooing as sacred like it is for let’s say more primitive cultures? Or it will always be… I don’t know… Artistic is cool and sacred is cool, fashion I don’t think is so cool.
So do you think we will ever have a chance to go back to those kinds of roots?
No. What’s the most sacred thing today in western culture? The iPhone.
I’m pretty sure you don’t have this kind of problem, you do bodysuits and so on, but for many artists that want to do bodysuits it’s hard. Because people want little things, maybe they put a little something here and there, they don’t do organic work, they don’t decorate themselves in that way and I think that’s part of a sacred culture of tattooing. If you look at primitives cultures, they have this kind of sacred art, so they decorate their bodies in a harmonious way, entirely…
If you go to tribal groups, these people are often half-naked, so it made sense that they would decorate the body because they can see it.
Japan was my favourite when I travelled when I was younger, and I discovered the body tattoo, they were the most intricate for me, one central design on the back the rest is just the framework. I liked it, a long culture of tattooing.
Now there is a long culture in tattooing in the West too, but it was never big tattoos, it’s always been small.
When I started, the same tattoos were being done in the 80s that they do now, the little dolphin, the little rose, it’s always been there, and I think it will exist forever. The people who get these are more interested in the act of tattooing than the image of tattooing.
So in a world or a culture that has no more sacred or profound, they are making their own.
Even though it’s a silly little design it’s the act, they come, they’re scared, they sit down, they suffer, they control the pain, they’re happy, they feel stronger after, is the process that’s important for them, that’s what they like, I think, because the designs it’s not important.
It took a long time before I started doing big works, at least ten years, for me, even more, before people allowed me to do big work on them, and I needed to travel do it elsewhere and then come home.
It’s work. You have to do your time doing the little works before you get enough… People need to meet you, and like you, they need to know you, there needs to be a contact, people trust you, It’s strange the way they select for the big work.
It’s Like Gian Maurizio Fercioni told me Yesterday, “when somebody gives you his body to decorate it’s an act of love.”
Yes it is, absolutely, it’s a huge step, and we’re doing pretty good for a culture that doesn’t have bodysuit in it, Switzerland I mean, to be able to do more and more, it’s coming, it’s starting.
I was talking to some guy from Argentina, and he was talking about how over there they still think of the tattoo as a talisman, they still have that concept. I don’t think that’s true here as much.
Take lettering, Chicano script, lots of people do it, nobody can read it, but it speaks very loudly it says I’m tough. It doesn’t matter what’s written there, you just see the lettering, and you have an idea of the person…
Is like that kind of rebellion that we were talking about earlier.
It’s funny, I can never read it, but you get the message.
It’s like my first tattoo. I did it myself when I was fourteen, I probably did it for the same reason, I didn’t know what I was doing.
What did you get?
It was a little rose, but it wasn’t even about the rose it was just… I was fourteen, there was this older guy who came back from the army and had this tattoo, I had never seen a tattoo before, well that tattoo was crap, anyway, I asked what is that, he explained to me how he did it, so I went home, and I did this little rose.
Why the rose?
Because it was the first design at hand that I liked and I thought: “Ok, I’ll try to do this on myself” and I did it, I didn’t even know why I did it. Probably I did it because I wanted, you know, it was 1982 in those times in Italy there was just this kind of shit, and it was for drug addicts, criminals…
Yeah, so probably I just wanted to look tougher and older than I was…
Did your mum freak out?
Well, I was pretty good at hiding it from my mum and to my father…
So the first time they got to see it was two years later, so it was too late, I remember my father, we were eating dinner, he looked at me, and he had this reaction: “What have you done to your arm?” And I was “Oh, this one? I got it two years ago” So there weren’t significant reactions, it was already too late…
My first tattoo was a black star for anarchy, I didn’t even understand the concept, but it sounded good.
Thank you Filip for this amazing conversation. And is there anything else you would like to say?
Just thank you very much, it’s been fun talking.
Thanks to you for your time.
You can find Filip Leu at http://www.leufamilyiron.com/site/
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.