Many of you already know her; this woman’s allure and personality are truly striking. She’s Loretta Leu, the woman who accompanied Felix Leu as wife, and Filip Leu as mother, on a unique artistic and creative path.
They say that beside a great man there is always a great woman, and with her courage, life experience, and many interests, Loretta is living proof of that statement. We sat down to sip coffee and have a lovely chat together. With red Tibetan decorations adorning her hair, Loretta reminded us of Frida Kahlo: an amazing woman full of love, who understands true freedom – which is the pillar of her very beautiful life.
This interview by M. Baleni was originally published on Tattoo Life Magazine.
I’d love it if you could tell us your story….
I was born in Asti, Italy, at the end of the war. My father was Sicilian, and my mother was Jewish, from Zagreb. My mother was a cultured woman, an opera singer who had studied in Vienna. Her name was Bianca, and she was very strong. After the war, she and I lived in Rome for two years; she had separated from my father, because she didn’t want to live in Sicily with him. And then when I was four years old we left Italy for Australia.
At the time there weren’t a lot of people living in Australia, so anyone who moved there and stayed for at least two years would have their trip reimbursed. After three weeks on a ship, we arrived and settled down in Sydney. My Mom would sing and we were often on tour.
But she really missed the European culture, so after two years we went back to Rome. The idea was to go to America, where a part of our family already lived. But while we were waiting for the visa, we went to Paris and stayed there until I was ten, when we finally went to America. I lived in New York with her until I was twenty.
What did you do there?
I studied at Art School; I wanted to become a painter. I loved NY, it was such a fun city, with so many things to do, parties, and exhibition openings. My mother still sang, but at a certain point she decided to change her life. She was a well-educated woman and spoke 6/7 languages – Russian and Eastern European languages – so she started to work in tourism.
How did you and Felix meet?
We were always going to exhibition openings and museums, and one day an ex-boyfriend invited me to an opening at the Jewish Museum in New York. One of the artists showing his work was the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely. Felix was his assistant, as well as his stepson, because Felix’ mother, artist Eva Aeppli, had been his first wife. There I was that evening, looking so elegant and sexy, and then I see this guy who’s very tall, very interesting, with long hair, a red velvet jacket, black jeans, and biker boots… We noticed each other, and after a bit he introduced himself. So that’s how we met, and we started to go out.
We were both twenty years old, and had both recently ended a relationship.
So we started out very slowly, nothing serious. We just had fun together! We’d walk around New York and hang out in the storefront that Felix had rented for the duration of the exhibition, because at the time he was based in Paris. A few months later the exhibition went to Washington, D.C., and so he moved there. At the time I was working as a museum receptionist, but I left my job to go be with him. Even though we’d said that we didn’t want a serious relationship, I knew that he was the most interesting person I’d ever met, and I wanted to spend some time with him. We also went to Pittsburgh together on tour for the exhibition, but eventually Felix decided to leave everything because he wanted to go to Morocco. So I went with him. At the time there were small, cheap merchant ships that travelled between the U.S. and Morocco, with only about ten passengers per trip. It took us ten days to get there.
To have an experience and travel. We stayed there for about a month and then decided to go to Paris; we hitchhiked from Morocco, through Spain. Felix was used to this kind of life, because he’d left home early and had been on the road since he was 16, whereas for me it was a whole new experience.
What did you two do in Paris?
His mother lived in Paris. She was no longer married to Tinguely, but they were still friends, so we started to work with Niki de Saint Phalle – Tinguely’s new wife – to prepare her sculptures for an international exhibition in Montreal. We worked all winter long with her, in Paris. It was a really great period, and I became pregnant with Filip. I was 22. Following Filip who was born in Paris, the other three children arrived after a few years: Ama in London, Aia in Spain, and Ajja in London again.
Why is it that you decided to travel and never settle down in one place?
Because for us what was important wasn’t where we were living, but just being together and travelling. We got by on very little money; we’d make jewelry to sell at markets – also batiks, and things like that. After Ama was born – in the meantime we’d returned to live in London where I worked at different jobs, including modelling at an Art School – we decided to use the money that we’d saved to buy a VW bus and take a trip to India. Filip was one and a half, and Ama was three months old when we set out. We travelled through Spain and then continued on through Morocco and Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. But we had to stop there; we didn’t know that the Suez Canal had been closed because of the war, and so we weren’t allowed to pass.
A friend who had come with us decided to go back with the VW bus, and we continued on by train, following the Nile through the Valley of the Kings, because we knew that there were ships to Bombay leaving from Sudan. But Filip started to get sick on the ship. He had an infection and we needed a doctor and I just couldn’t go on. We went to the Swiss Consulate in Saudi Arabia and they helped us return to London. The funny thing was that after a six-month voyage, we returned to our starting point in just six hours. So we were back in London again! But just for a bit; we got married there and I got a Swiss passport, like Felix. We continued to live this lifestyle: we wanted to be free.
Our lifestyle wasn’t necessarily linked to art; we just wanted to live with true freedom. And so in 1970 we went to live in Formentera, where Aia was born.
How did you manage to live there?
We lived in a little stone farmhouse without electricity or running water. There were no creature comforts, but the place was breathtaking. We spent our days enjoying what we had.
Didn’t you miss the comforts?
No, it seems strange, but that was true freedom! There were definitely some negative aspects, but there were so many positives ones, too. We had the sun, the beautiful fields… if you are willing to accept life at a simpler level, there is so much to be gained.
How long did you stay in Formentera?
Two years. Felix made jewelry and with the money we earned we were able to get a house in Ibiza, where we stayed for three more years, until 1975. Then we went back to London, where my mother lived. I got pregnant and Ajja was born. Soon after that we moved to the South of France for another job that Felix’ mother had found for us. Then Felix decided he didn’t want to make jewelry anymore, because it took long to make but was difficult to sell. Some friends were going to Greece by car and so we left with them. We sold the jewelry-making equipment and moved to Crete in 1976, and then went on to Lipsos, which we really liked. The people there really liked us, we were welcomed by everyone. Not many people lived on the island, and there were no young people. Then we returned to London.
Was Felix the one who made the decisions for the family?
Yes, he was a courageous man who had an incredible drive. The ideas were his – but we’d talk about it and then decide together. Though he was definitely the leader.
So was London your home base?
Yes, because my mother was there, and her doors were always open for us. Some of our friends had started to make a living by buying embroidered ribbons in India that had been removed from ruined saris, so we started to do that too. It was very beautiful, antique Chinese embroidery. Our friends would buy rolls of these at the flea market in Bombay and then sell them at the market in London, and make a good profit. Felix decided to do the same thing and it worked well. He did the first and second trip – one by himself, and one with Filip. Then I went once with Ama. But they were brief, one-week work trips, just enough time to buy the ribbons. When we had earned enough to afford it, we all went to Goa for six months, and then spent six months in Nepal.
But tattooing hadn’t become a part of your lives yet, right?
No, that happened in a completely unexpected way, when we returned to London in ’78. My mother had opened a boutique in Knightsbridge and she’d buy a lot of materials in Yugoslavia: fabrics, antique embroidery, clothing, etc.… and once she asked us if we could take her there with the van so that she could buy more materials than what she could manage travelling by train. So me and the kids went to stay in Scotland with a friend, and Felix went with her husband Robbie, who just happened to have two tattoos. One day they were in a village in Kosovo, waiting for my mother, and the van doors were open. Some men had noticed Robbie’s tattoos because he was wearing a vest, and thinking they were tattooists they approached Felix and Robbie with money in hand, asking to be tattooed. Felix had a bit of a revelation then: he realized that if those people, who weren’t rich, were willing to spend money for tattoos, then tattooing must be a good job.
That’s how we became interested in tattooing, which had never been a part of our lives before then.
Neither of our families had ever had a tattoo; maybe our only interest was from a historical standpoint, when we happened to read something in National Geographic, but nothing more than that. So in London Felix contacted Jock Tattoo, a true old school tattooist who did traditional. Jock had a tattoo shop in Pentonville Road at King’s Cross, and Felix asked if they could meet. They were two very different people! Jock had a real tattooist background, whereas Felix was an artist and hippy. But they really got on well together. Felix had asked Jock to teach him the basics of tattooing, and promised that he wouldn’t work in England, but in Goa. So they made a deal: Felix would go to his studio two or three times a week and watch him work. In exchange, Felix would help him with graphics jobs for cards, t-shirts, banners, etc. After a few months, the apprenticeship was finished and it was time to make the first tattoo: Jock chose one of his biker clients who was covered in tattoos. It must have been hilarious to see that big guy being tattooed by a tall, skinny guy who was nervously sweating. He tattooed a little scroll with his name, Felix. And that was his first tattoo.
And then you left for a while, right?
Yes, we went to Goa, where there were other families who had embraced this kind of lifestyle. It was a good place for making tattoos, because there were lots of young people who passed through there. We would tattoo about two paying clients per week, while tattoos were free for the local people, in exchange for their local products. We were able to live on very little there.
And why did you decide to return to Europe?
After about two and a half years we’d spent almost all of our savings and we weren’t working very much. Unfortunately we were robbed of the little money we had left, and so once again we went to the Swiss Consulate for help. By a strange coincidence, the consul in Bombay was the same one who had helped us in Saudi Arabia. We spent six months in Bombay, waiting for them to send us back, because they wanted to send us to Basel, Felix’ home town. But he wanted to go to Lausanne, because tattooing was illegal in Basel. In the end we made the move. It was ’81, Felix was 36 and he started tattooing the day after we arrived. Filip was 14. He hadn’t started tattooing yet, but he had done a lot of illustrations for tattoos in Goa. In Lausanne, we lived and tattooed in the hotel where the government service hosted us, and we immediately made a small flyer to present ourselves as tattooists to the people we met around town who were tattooed. After staying in the hotel we were granted an apartment, where we lived for twenty years. When Filip turned 17 in ’85, we went to Rome to visit the exhibition l’Asino e la Zebra (the Donkey and the Zebra). During that visit Felix spoke with Ed Hardy, with whom he’d arranged to meet, because we realized that the time had come for Filip to work in different places and learn new things.
So Filip travelled all over the world visiting tattooists, and then he went to work with Ed Hardy. Ama was 16 years old at the time, and she went with Filip to document everything as a photographer. They travelled to Bombay, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taiwan, and then San Francisco together. Ama stayed on in San Francisco and started a modelling career. Filip went to Canada, and then stayed with tattoo machine builder Paul Roger, in Florida. After a year he returned to Lausanne, bringing a lot of new information with him. We had already started to send photos of the tattoos we made to magazines, because that was the only way to get our work out there. At that point we tried to promote Filip’s work more, even though Felix was still tattooing. Then Filip met Titine, they got married, and we all lived together. In Lausanne our work load increased very quickly. It was all word-of-mouth, because for ten years we didn’t even have a phone, and so folks would write us or maybe stop by hoping to find us. That was our lifestyle, and that was our reputation.
You are still a very close family today!
Yes, I still live in the same house with Filip and Titine, on a different floor from theirs. Ajja is a psy-trance musician, and travels the world working at loads of festivals. Aia lives in Ireland; she’s a painter, has children, and owns a publishing house (www.seedpress.ie) We made a book about Berber Tattoos together. Ama lives in England; after ending her modelling career, she also had some children, and she makes t-shirts and other clothes using Filip’s designs (www.amaeleu.com).
Now you have both freedom and creature comforts. Do you miss anything about those years?
All I miss is Felix, who unfortunately died in 2002. Believe me, other than that we really don’t care about having stuff. I can’t say that I miss anything from those times, because every day was what it was, and the past has passed. I never thought I’d go to live in the Swiss mountains, but my life is here now, and I am happy. I have so much to do, painting and taking walks with my dogs. And Aia and I are working on a big project now, too.
Can you tell us more about that?
It’s a book on Felix’ tattoos and flash. It will be finished in a year.