How would you define your style of tattooing and how have you come to develop it?
I think that “Euro-traditional” is a good descriptor. My style is a certain vision of tradition. I try to merge what I understand of tattooing and what I have learnt about tattooing from a technical perspective, which considers not only how to apply and create a tattoo but also how it will look, if it will age well. I decided to apply this approach to iconography that makes sense to me—an iconography that I know, that I can talk about, that I can relate to, and that I can promote because I grew up around it. Having been born and raised in Switzerland in the eighties and nineties, landlocked in the middle of Europe, I grew up in an anachronistic environment consisting of medieval monuments, seventeenth century books, as well as contemporary art, architecture, and cinema. Hip-hop and various American sub-cultures were also formative for me. I wanted to create a style that could bring all of this experience together in my tattooing. I realized that, as fascinated as I was with Japanese tattooing, or sailor tattoos, or Russian criminal tattoos, I’m none of those things myself. I enjoy them aesthetically. I enjoy the history behind the pieces. In other words, I enjoy them conceptually, but I felt that I would be better at doing something that is closer to me.
When I moved to London in the mid-2000s, I started seeing what Duncan X and Thomas Hooper were doing. Both of them were traditionally trained, but were taking non-traditional iconography—based on engraving or Russian criminal tattoos, for example—and integrating them into somewhat traditional tattoo styles. That opened a whole new world for me. I realized that you could draw from new iconographic references in a tattoo practice that is still coherent and anchored in a real tattoo tradition. I thought, “this is what I want to do; this feels right.” During my apprenticeship, I tried things all the things I knew: I did old school tattoos, I tried Japanese, I tried tribal, I tried whatever I needed to do to train, whatever people would come to the studio and ask for.
Then, conversely, I also tried to use anything that I had, any personal connection to graphic design, architecture, classic and modern art, art history, in addition to engraving and antiquity—all the things that were part of my own culture and upbringing.
I tried to bring these influences in one way or another and it took a while to find out how to do that successfully. Progressively, I realized that it worked and that I felt happy doing it, and that the people who came to me also really connected to that iconography. I found that a lot of people didn’t identify with Russian criminals or sailors in the same way that I hadn’t. There was a real need and demand for a new type of traditional, European, art history iconography. So I pushed that iconography, which seemed to resonate with people. From there it became self-propelling.
I was heavily influenced by Thomas Hooper and Duncan X stylistically and technically. They were older than me and I tried to borrow technical elements of their work in addition to tattooists such as Jondix and Yann Black, who did a lot of experimental stuff that I really liked. I also drew from traditional tattooists such as Filip Leu, who I apprenticed with. He brought a more classic perspective on things and a high level of technical execution. He had already appropriated Japanese tattooing in a very personal manner and I tried to apply that approach to the imagery that made sense to me. I started studying books and I really fine-tuned the elements that I knew best, that I could talk about, and that excited me.
In terms of what my style is today, I would say it is traditional because I use traditional iconography; it is not traditional within the world of tattooing but most of what I do is traditional in its own context. While they are relatively new in the tattoo world, the architectural or graphic design elements that I incorporate might be from the modernists, from the fifties or forties, for example, or I will incorporate elements of abstract painting and tailoring—all of which have long histories prior to their incorporation into tattoo imagery. I use a lot of references from armours, from classic tailoring or jewelry design. If I do engravings, it’s all fourteenth century or fifteenth century. From one perspective, it doesn’t get more traditional than that. But again, that imagery is relatively new in the tattoo world. My style is a certain vision of what tattooing is applied to a wider perception of culture, the culture I know best. I realize my own references are very Eurocentric and so that’s how I would define my style.
The style I work in has only existed for maybe ten years, which is pretty much the span of my own tattoo practice. Add five more years if you think of the amount of time Duncan X and Thomas Hooper have done it, but that’s still only fifteen years. Only tattooists like them have done very extensive coverage or extensive work in their respective styles. There is now a need for the people who are the most advanced at this style to define and experiment, to find out how it works on very large scales. For example, if they were to create a whole back piece or a whole bodysuit, how would that work? Traditional styles of tattooing—Japanese, for example—have already addressed these problems, but how might they be adopted by new “Euro-traditional” styles? I think that this is the main challenge today, which is both exciting and frightening because the territory is uncharted. The only reference I can use for these questions are structures and elements of Japanese tattooing that I try to apply to my own style. Other people of my generation, like my friends Liam Sparkes and Maude Dardeau, have done large work. I’m very inspired by their work, too.
Tell us about your apprenticeship with Philip Leu…
My apprenticeship was amazing. I’m glad I started it in my late twenties because his level of expectation was so high that I don’t think I could have physically or psychologically survived such an ordeal at a younger age. It was the most challenging experience of my entire life. It was incredibly thorough: the way the Leu family works, no stone is left unturned. Everything you do is premeditated—the way you talk, the way you move, every moment of the day; how you think, how you draw, how you charge, what you say, what you don’t say. In addition to how you attract a certain type of clientele, who you associate with in the industry, outside of the industry. It was incredibly dense and challenging, but I took the challenge and the result was one of the most amazing learning experiences of my life. The Leu family has it all figured out, so it was really a matter of trying to keep up, trying to take in as much information and inspiration as I could. The standards are so high that you’ll never meet them, and that can be crushing. But even today there are still times—if not on a daily then on a weekly basis—where I’m like, “what would Filip do in this situation?” or, “what would Loretta say about this?” And I try to remember. Occasionally, I will remember something that I saw or heard during my apprenticeship and think, “that’s why they were saying that.”
I try to stay true to that, to maintain the highest possible standards in everything I do.
Philip Leu also tattooed you. Can you tell us about that?
What I experienced getting tattooed by Filip changed me. It made me realize that there was a world parallel to the very normative one that I grew up in, close to it and yet far from it—a world in which I could fit somewhere. I was confronted by such an incredible mixture of caring, attention, and softness, at the same time as something extremely challenging, painful, maybe even violent. It was much less scary for me because it was open and honest. In the same hour you will cycle through all of these feelings. That’s life, even though there’s often a social pretext that obscures it. I can deal with that form of openness a lot better than the weird tension between the idea of life that’s sold to you and what the reality of it actually is. I realized that was where I was meant to be and could thrive, so it was only a matter of finding a means to get there. Then one day Filip offered me an apprenticeship and I guess that sealed my destiny.
Getting tattooed, and living with those tattoos, I experienced that honesty again in dealing with my own physical presence in the world. You’re told that you should look like you’re twenty until you die. But life is not like that, and tattoos aren’t either. A tattoo will look crisp for a few years, and then it will start to fade and lose a bit of its definition. You’re stuck with it. That’s the beauty of it; that’s how life is. There’s a price to every fucking thing and nothing stays the same. It’s a crazy, foolish idea that things do but at least in tattoos that is acknowledged. People will say, “what happens when you get old?” Well, my tattoo is old if I’m old. Do you want to have a tattoo that looks like you just got it when you’re seventy, eighty, ninety? No, you don’t. You want something that works with you. In tattooing, I experience extreme honesty, and honesty is not always pleasant but it’s something that I can deal with very well.
Where are you right now and what are you working on?
What I’m working on is taking my dreams, fantasies, and hobbies and trying to turn them into a lifestyle and a profession. I now have three children. I have people that I work with, people that I employ, and for me that’s an extension of my family as well. I’m working on navigating these visions and ideas that I have, ensuring that they remain viable, functional, and productive. I’m always keeping in mind the effects that my work has on the world. I also need to pay the bills. Sang Bleu Magazine cost me a lot of money that I never made back, but I had to do it. It was like psychoanalyzing myself. But I saw that it was relevant, that people supported it, and I wanted to continue. Now I’m trying to see how I can continue to develop these platforms as real, sustainable businesses. Whatever happens, my focus is to stay true to what I believe in. On a daily basis, I concentrate on tattooing as much as anything else. Within a couple of years, my goal is to be able to create whole body suits in the style that I prefer.
If I manage to get all of these other projects to a state of self-sufficiency that is faithful to the original mindset and message behind them, that would be an incredible achievement. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with each of the tattoo studios. Each studio needs to be its own entity with its own crew. Each has to have a singular style that develops over time, with no fixed formula. I try to ensure that every artist working at Sang Bleu does not have to worry about any logistical or material problems, so they can really focus on their practice.
There will be second issue of TTTism Magazine coming out over the summer as well as an online platform that will exist with it. We are sponsoring and collaborating with the San Francisco Tattoo Convention, which is really exciting. It’s one of my favorite tattoo conventions, alongside the one in London. I think Taki is doing a fantastic job there. I really enjoy it because it’s very focused on professionals. Tattooists can meet, hang out in the seminars. We have a few more books coming out, too. We will potentially release a book with Steve Byrne of Rock of Ages. We have a collaboration with Laurence King Publishing coming out next year that we’re wrapping up at the moment—a six-hundred paged book about tattooing that will be translated into five different languages and distributed worldwide. The clothing collections are growing and developing. We are turning them into separate, self-sufficient brands because they have a life of their own now. There’s a new issue of Sang Bleu Magazine coming out in early 2018 and we’re continuing the collaboration with Hublot, which is quite interesting. We have a new watch design coming out at the end of this year. We’re working on a couple of art books as well. Hopefully, the whole studio is going to do a series of pop-ups in Asia in January and February, and something in Los Angeles in October, before the San Francisco Tattoo Convention.
Do you travel much and where is your ideal city?
I don’t travel as much as I used to. When I started tattooing, I travelled a lot with my old pal, Liam Sparkes. Just after I finished my apprenticeship, I moved back to London and started travelling and tattooing with Liam. We were always pushing each other to define ourselves and grow, and to work as hard as we partied. With three children now and a dozen employees, it’s a bit harder. It’s something new to me; I’d never stayed in one city from the age of eighteen to thirty, maybe even thirty-five. I have to say, it’s quite nice remaining in London, absorbing and enjoying a specific geographic location. Nonetheless, travelling is a part of my equilibrium. It helps me take some distance from what I’m doing and from where I live, in order to process information, to question and interrogate myself. The act of travelling is itself more important than the destination. I used to be happy nowhere, but now I can be happy anywhere—I will find something interesting. I never get bored (as long as I have 4G, I guess).
By default, London remains my ideal place because I fell in love with it the first time I came.
But there’s a ton of stuff I dislike about it. It’s horrible for a family, but then anywhere else is obviously not as ideal, especially not right now. Who knows—we might move back to Switzerland, or we might move to Asia, or the US. My wife is American. California is an option as well. What is ideal for me is to stay flexible: being able to move to different places and being able to tailor our environment to suit the needs of a certain moment in our lives. I would say that England in particular has been good for me because it is a cultural and geographical point between the Anglo-Saxon and America worlds and the European world that I knew growing up. It was and still is the perfect launching ground.
What is the soundtrack for the perfect day?
I like to start the day with something quiet and chill. When you get to work early in the morning and have stuff to do, you don’t want to be aggressed with music quite yet. I like to start with movie soundtracks. I really like the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jessie James by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, for example. Then, when things start ramping up a bit and I start tattooing, I’ll probably play things that are a bit more rhythmic but still not too aggressive. More acoustic music, from Philip Glass to something a bit more up-tempo, like Talking Heads. Then, a bit later when I’m running at full speed, I listen to hip-hop—a lot of very recent stuff, from 21 Savage, or Gucci Mane, or Curren$y, to older stuff like Nas, Public Enemy, and Mob Deep. In the afternoon, I occasionally like to play a bit of metal. Depending on how the day ends, I either get a bit clubby with electro and minimal techno or electro house music.
A film that you ever get tired of watching again and again?
I can watch The Big Lebowski any day. I’ve probably watched it more than a thousand times, literally. I’m not generally into “feel good” movies and typically like more realistic movies, but I think it’s amazing. I have a few others, but that’s the movie I couldn’t ever get tired of—ever.
Any interesting exhibitions you’ve seen lately?
A little while ago, I went to see Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate. I had never seen any of her work in person and it’s unbelievable. I really enjoyed that. She has definitely achieved a balance between timelessness and belonging specifically to a certain time. I think that’s a really good metaphor for what I’m trying to do with my own work. I went to the Dia:Beacon a year ago and that was great. The space is fabulous and the works are good, but I don’t think they have the best pieces of the artists they do exhibit. I saw the exhibition, “Dürer’s paper triumph: the arch of the Emperor Maximilian”, at the British Museum. That was incredible and nominally much more relevant to my tattooing.
What personal or artistic projects have you got lined up in the near future?
On a personal level, I would mention the development of Physical as fashion line. Over the next year, I will really try to develop Physical in the direction of womenswear and high fashion, with jewelry and accessories. I’m excited to explore more experimental designs. I have a few fine art projects—things I’ve been working on for quite a while, from installations and sculptures to paintings. Hopefully, within a couple of years I can start creating a body of work. That’s not for the immediate future, but those are definitely the personal projects I am most excited about.
What books have made a bog mark on you and what are you reading right now?
As a young child, my mum had all the French fairy tales with illustrations by Gustave Doré. They made an incredibly huge impression on me. My grandma, who is Italian, was obsessed with Dante Alighieri, also illustrated by Doré. We had Russian fairy tales illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, whose incredible watercolor illustrations really struck me as a child. I think they’re something I have always carried with me. As texts, I was really struck by L’Ecume des jours by Boris Vian, which was a surrealistic and poetic book. It was pivotal in my young adult years and showed me how to navigate between meaning formed by narrative and meaning formed by the phonic and semantic structures of language—how words sound and play, how they build symbolic landscapes. Images that are not relevant to the narration but remain poetic images in themselves as well—those really moved me. There’s another book called Almost Transparent Blue by Ryū Murakami. It is pretty hardcore, but strikes me in how it brings out the poetic side of things that can be very hard and harsh in life—things that would be perceived as trashy from the outside but, when perceived by the person who’s actually living them, are also very poetic and beautiful. Now I’m reading a book in French called L’Europe au Moyen-Age, a history book about medieval Europe. It’s very readable, not too dense or abstract. I read a book called Aurora,which is a science fiction book that gives an interesting perspective on where life is headed. I re-read Martian Chronicles, which is an incredible book by Ray Bradbury. It’s like science fiction, but it’s not really science fiction. And I’ve been reading a book called A People’s History of The United States, which is super depressing and brutal but also very interesting—biased, as everything is, but a very good read and an especially important book today.