Designer, Tattoo Artist, Editor, Creative Director; who is Maxime Plescia-Buchi?
Those different titles are different means of expression. Tattooing is at the core of that expression, in that it brings so many of those other elements together. It combines graphic design, 2D art. It involves 3D art and shapes. It is highly symbolic—it can have any sort of meaning you want it to carry, but it can also be purely formal. In order to tattoo efficiently, you need to be good with people and relations. You need to be good at business—to be both able to make money and do interesting work. This is different from most other artistic professions, where often an artist can just focus on their practice while other people take care of the business aspects of their art. On a more personal level, having always struggled a bit with ADHD means that using my hands to work is very important: it keeps me focused physically.
I’ve said that the act of tattooing is an expressive means, but it’s also a means to an end, a means towards realizing a vision. I only became a tattooist in my late twenties/early thirties, and for this reason I had already begun other practices. I didn’t just leave them: publishing, design, curation, and all of the other things I do come together in a kind of general vision. What I am is all of those things together. You can take their sum and add all the other things that I find important, what I have done and what I still do. For example, from a young age I was involved in the city council of my hometown in Switzerland. I was active in politics and alternative political movements. Then I taught at an art college. I did social work, and I was a lecturer at other art colleges. I occasionally write as well, and I am a father.
What I do and who I am are in permanent relationship to my environment, especially my social environment.
That relationship is something that I don’t just take seriously as an idea; it’s a part of my practice, a part of what I do on a daily basis. What’s important to me are the social and human aspects of things. The people here know that I give to charities, for example. I’m also going to be sponsoring a beehive.
I grew up in a very political environment and I personally didn’t feel that I had a career in institutional politics. For me, to do politics is to attempt to find a balance between our individual moral duties within society, our relationship to the physical world, and how we express ourselves or how we affect that world. We are artists. We are creative people. With that role comes a certain amount of responsibility towards everything around us, from the people that we work with or for, the people we employ, to just anyone—the bees included. That’s my vision and everything I do is attentive to that.
There are certain things in life that you find you’re good at; you also need to make a living, so you gravitate towards those things. I fell in love with tattooing when I was a kid. Not particularly good or beautiful tattooing, just like shitty tattoos on locals. I remember there was a guy at the local public swimming pool who had a topless mermaid tattoo on his arm and I thought it was the most erotic thing I had ever seen. I was always hoping he would be there so that I could see his tattoos. There were other guys, too. I would see these random tattoos done in the ‘80s and that’s what I fell in love with. They were part of a world, as were the people that wore them. I progressively situated myself in that world, but, coming from art school and a family that was involved in publishing, I began with a more discursive, journalistic approach to tattooing. That’s when I started Sang Bleu Magazine. I felt that a lot of bullshit was being associated with tattooing and I had very different perspectives that I wanted to share and promote. I also wanted to change the emphasis on which aspects of tattooing were being promoted.
Then, when I became a tattoo artist, my familiarity with media—including digital platforms and social media—allowed me to effectively promote myself as such.
The world of tattooing is undergoing such a thorough expansion that it has become a challenge to maintain a reliable amount of knowledge and coherence as a tattooist. That world is completely self-organizing: there is no stable hierarchy; no authority that tells people involved in tattooing what to do, how much to charge, how to behave. These customs have been informally constructed over decades—maybe centuries—in the relationships between people, their mutual care for the work that they produce, the pressure they put on one another, and their continued drive to push things forward. This simultaneously makes the tattoo community very strong and very vulnerable to outside influences. There are enough people involved in tattooing and enough money in the industry that it has become attractive to people who haven’t had a relationship to it until now. Both commerce and the media are beginning to realize this, and I don’t know to what extent the tattoo community is ready or able to react to the intervention of those outside forces. In any case, I think that, if it’s going to respond, the community needs to establish media platforms, institutions, and a very effective communications infrastructure among tattooists now more than ever.
There are so many people getting involved in the industry now and so many new tattooists. The tools are very easy to access. The Internet is saturated with images of tattoos. What is much more difficult is accessing tattoo history, because tattooing is an oral tradition: of course there are books about tattooing, but there are no canonical texts or established technical manuals. That type of information, the history of the practice and the practitioners, is very difficult to find if you don’t know the right people—if you don’t do an apprenticeship, if you don’t take the time to meet people and hear their stories. Because of the rapid rate of growth within the tattoo community, that history struggles to continue to reach the people who do want to know it. There are always people who don’t care, who are purely opportunist. They just want a piece of the cake, or want to get a bit of the money. But there are people who really want that information—who really care about tattooing—and often struggle to find an apprenticeship, struggle to find those who know the history. Those difficulties are even more acute in terms of the recent history of tattooing, what’s currently happening. It is truly more of a challenge now than it was twenty years ago, because, at that time, the main tattooists within the industry all knew each other. Things moved much more slowly. The important information was there and you knew where to get it.
This shift is one of the reasons why I want to continue to be involved in tattooing. It also foregrounds the importance of media’s relationship to tattooing: if you want to make the people working in the industry and the clients getting tattooed legible to a more general audience, if you want that audience to understand why we do the tattoos we do, then they also require a certain amount of information. Now, the beauty of this is that it generates more business for everyone. It’s great—no one is complaining.
But it also means that tattooists have less time to pass on that history, to talk to people.
The presence and accessibility of that information is very important now, because otherwise the tattoo community risks forgetting a significant amount of its history. People who do have that information will withdraw, retire, or die and the information will no longer be available. That said, I feel very strongly about publishing as one way to maintain and share this history.
TTTism gives a comprehensive overview of the most contemporary and innovative works on the tattoo scene. In your opinion how has it changed in recent years and what is the goal of the new project TTTism?
The goal of TTTism is to represent tattooing as a whole in time and space. Accordingly, it will represent its traditions and history, but it will also strive to represent the most contemporary and most experimental work. As a curator, I consider it my duty to examine each piece apart from my criteria as a tattoo artist. I’m almost forty years old, and I have a very specific, somewhat old-school (although still open-minded) perspective on what a good tattoo is and isn’t. I personally judge each piece included in the magazine beyond the standards of my own sensibility. Of course, I include work that agrees with that sensibility, but regardless of my own aesthetic judgments, every piece I show I have wondered: is it a good tattoo? Is it relevant? Is it going to age well? Is it well executed? It follows that, if a piece is not well executed—we show some weird stuff—there will be a real reason why it is like that, why it is relevant.
TTTism is only an update of what traditional tattoo media has been in the past. If you look at Skin Show or Tattoo Times, they show a lot of weird stuff, too! Back then, they showed traditional work, but they also showed hand-poked, tribal, and DIY tattoos. To a certain extent, all of those are within the tradition that I claim, but conversely, I’m trying to embrace what tattooing is today, which amazes and excites me.
The significance of the contemporary moment is what I’m trying to represent, but with a real attentiveness to tattoo history and tattoo culture.
To be open to the potential of where tattooing can go, while respecting the traditions and histories that it has come from—that’s the general principle behind TTTism.
In terms of the evolution of tattooing, I don’t have any statistics, but I believe there are now more active tattooists who have attended art schools than tattooists who haven’t. Tattooing is transitioning into a field of art, a field of design, a field of mainstream popular culture that transcends social groups and classes. This means that tattooing is no longer specific to a few marginal social groups, which also means that now there needs to be as many different approaches to tattooing as there are tattooists and clients. This shift was prefigured in the eighties. Ed Hardy was in San Francisco then, at a time when the city was heavily influenced by art and the local art scene. During that era, Ed Hardy was one of a small minority of tattooists who trained at an art school, but he nonetheless became very influential in that decade and the following one.
The Leu family is related to swiss fine artist Jean Tinguely. Most of the people that we consider to be major figures in shaping contemporary tattooing had ties to art, somewhere and somehow. However, I would say that the fact that the majority of tattooists now have some formal training in art schools represents a major change to the industry, such that we will progressively be able to refer to tattooing as an applied art practice, comparable to others. It’s in a league of its own—that’s agreed. But if we do want to summarize it like this, tattooing is tending towards a more complex structure, where different fields, communities, and styles will coexist. Like a tree, branches will have a life of their own, diverging into more branches, all while retaining common roots. In that sense, it’s important to both respect the life that each branch takes, and to be aware of the roots that they all share in common. This is what TTTism aims to represent and maintain: a critical but open-minded and inclusive survey of tattooing.
There’s another important transition, which I referred to earlier: the business of tattooing becoming large enough globally for corporations and companies outside of tattooing to became interested in the industry. Potentially, this creates incredible opportunities for the tattoo world, but it also endangers it by opening it to people who don’t know its history and are mostly interested in money. Tattoo culture has always been located in a liminal space between a practice and a commercial service, which makes it quite vulnerable to the encroachment of corporations. I feel quite weary of this, and I think that the tattoo community should take it seriously. I enjoy seeing tattooer-owned businesses flourish such as Black Claw, Good Luck Iron or fantastic machine builders who really bring something new to the game such as Dan Kubin. Or seeing companies such as WorkHorse Iron develop their own products etc. This is the way forward.
I am excited to see historical tattoo media such as Tattoo Life do the transition to the new era of digital media, but unfortunately, the media side has for a long time now been “under attack” or at least be appropriated by mainstream media with some positive and a lot of very negative results.
Television being the most obvious example, but it is now quickly spreading to social media and the digital world. TTTism is also an attempt to occupy this space with an entity that is owned by tattooists and people who are directly involved in the community, no opportunistic venture capitalists that no one will ever see at a tattoo convention. Yet, to finish on a positive note, I overall I think that I’ve never seen as many good tattoos every day as I do today, and that’s fantastic and very exciting. I’ve also never seen so many bad tattoos, and that’s because there are just a lot more tattoos, I guess! Note as well that the tattoo industry’s new visibility also places it under the scrutiny of the governments etc, which will also be a major challenge for the industry to adjust and, probably on occasion protect itself very much like Tin-Tin did in France with the SNAT. But that’s a whole other conversation.
How is TTTism different to Sang Bleu?
TTTism is specifically about tattooing and things that relate to tattooing—tattoo culture, community, history, and experimentation. Sang Bleu is a much more theoretical project that approaches all kinds of topics. From the beginning of the latter magazine, these topics have included tattooing, fetish, and non-traditional aspects of art and culture, which made the publication stand out. Sang Bleu concentrates on society, and that includes tattooing only where it’s relevant. The ongoing research required to create Sang Bleu has nurtured TTTism, but Sang Bleu remains the more experimental, artistic, and abstract publication, whereas TTTism aims to be a serious medium about tattooing.