Gaia is a born fighter, but in this interview, she shows us a rare grace and sweetness. She defines her style as “a Traditional that is gentle, but at the same time solid and classic”, and that sums it up perfectly: take a look at her work and the plates she has selected in her new eBook “99 Ladies”. Don’t miss this interview where you can make the acquaintance of a tattooist, and a person, who is truly special…

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino

Hi Gaia, and first and foremost, how are you doing? How are things going for you in this period?
Hi there! This is definitely one strange period, in terms of the good and the bad, and there is plenty of time for worrying, but for good resolutions too. On the one hand worries about the present and future, together with missing our nearest and dearest, but on the other hand there is the creativity, the will and the time for painting – something we tattooists often don’t have enough of when we get caught up in the frenzy of everyday life – and the pleasure of staying at home and enjoying being with our families. I am lucky enough to live in the countryside surrounded by meadows and woods, which certainly makes the isolation less of a hardship. For this reason, the yearning to start up again and get back to normality alternates with the fear of going back to being part of the outside world.

Let’s talk for a minute about your story and career: when did you first really get into tattoo?
It’s a love that goes back to my schooldays when at 18 years of age, I got permission for my first tattoo. That’s when I became utterly fascinated by this art. I was terrified, but at the same time euphoric and my eyes followed every detail of what the tattoo artist was doing. I think that was the moment when I realised that it was something that I could try too!

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino

What sort of training did you get?
I had attended art school, and once I finished high school, I enrolled at the academy of Fine Arts of Turin where I graduated in stage design.

And when did you realise that tattooing was going to be the job for you?
It was during my years at college when, while I was studying, I started working as an assistant stage designer: it was a wonderful job and meant I was able to make my own living for the first time. But my love of tattoo was still there and, together with my work and university, in 2008 I started my apprenticeship at a tattoo shop. In the beginning, I just prepared stencils and drawings; I cleaned the tips and helped with cleaning up. Then gradually I started to build my own little circle of clients until it ended up being a proper job. I finished my three-year degree programme a few years late, and then I was able to devote myself full-time and exclusively to tattoos.

Did you have a mentor?
My mentor was Renato Doctor Tattoo in Moncalieri, and I owe him so much for taking me on in his shop as an apprentice. He’s a great tattooist with this massive technical and artistic background, and he was always at my side, teaching me the trade with great dedication and enthusiasm, but above all with absolute trust in me, giving me the keys to his shop and even at times getting me to try out his machines. Only now, years later, do I realise how complicated and demanding it is to train up an apprentice, including the investment of time and mental effort that goes with it, but above all how hard it is to have that trust which Renato had in me back then.

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino

How have things changed since then? Is there anyone who has inspired you and guided you over the intervening years?
Today I am the owner of Hardtimes in Turin, and there are so many friends and colleagues that I have met throughout my career: all of them have had an influence on me. A particular mention goes to Sergio Messina and Miss Arianna who, apart from being dear friends, are important reference points for me when it comes to managing the shop. And then there is my friend and travel companion, Gaia Zeta, who I have to measure up against artistically and professionally: she is hugely important to me. Last but not least in terms of importance, my partner Marco, aka Sacronero, who supports me and advises me on a day to day basis.

Have you come up against any problems, being a woman, in a work environment that until quite recently was very much a man’s world?
Personally I have never had any particular trouble throughout my career, but probably this is due to the fact that I’ve got a very strong character and presence which means that certain situations just bounce off me. But I would be painting a rose-tinted picture to say that these kinds of problems don’t crop up in our sector – like in many others – where until just a few years back the men far outnumbered the women.. I’m sorry to say I still come across unpleasant situations. I’m a born fighter and I will never tire of standing by women who have to deal with these sort of difficulties, and I’ll never just look the other way.

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Turin, Italy

Good for you, Gaia! So now can you tell us something about “your” Traditional: how would you define it? Where do you look to for inspiration and how to you go about researching pieces?
I would define it a “gentle” Traditional, but at the same time it’s solid and classic. My inspiration is all vintage: old photographs, illustrations and paintings from the early twentieth century, but especially the great classics of western Traditional which, right from the very start, literally bewitched me and are certainly my greatest source of inspiration.

I love to reproduce and reinterpret the old flash, I feel they are timeless, and the more they age on the skin, the lovelier they are.

What really fascinates me about these subjects is the fact that for over a century now they’ve been passed down from one tattooist to another as a sort of legacy, they are “guardians of time” and even though they have been tattooed and redrawn millions of times, they are never quite the same, because each and every artist has added or subtracted or changed something and made them their own. My favourites among the artists of the past are: Amund Dietzel, Ben Corday, Sutherland Macdonald, Cap Coleman and Percy Waters.

Bear tattoo by Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo Shop, Torino, Italy

Your favourite subject definitely include women’s faces: is this where you got the idea for you eBook “99 Ladies”? Would you like to tell us more about it?
Sure, women have always been my favourite subjects: I never stop working on how to evolve them from a stylistic and graphic viewpoint.

I like to create these women thinking of them as real people: each of them has a name, a story and their own personality. They are somehow alive in my mind. “99 Ladies” comes from this great love of mine, and that is why I decided to bring together in this eBook 99 flash of women I have drawn and sometimes tattooed over the years: pirates, gypsies, sailors, vampires, snake charmers, bikers and many other female figures, all together in this collection which I hope and believe can be a handy source of inspiration for anyone who, like me, loves this subject.

Let’s talk about your shop: Hardtimes Tattoo. When did you open it?
I opened Hardtimes Tattoo in January 2011 together with my friend Fabrizio Farese, and I think of this shop as my creation: it is much more than a mere workplace, basically it’s my home from home where over the years I’ve garnered experience, and dealt with hardship, joy and changes. In 2017 I opened the second branch of the shop, a few blocks away from the first, and still a stone’s throw from the Mole Antonelliana, in the Vanchiglia district in the centre of Turin. This choice was dictated by the need for a larger space in order to accommodate more collaborators and guest artists, so as to create a meeting place for different styles and outlooks. In fact I feel that learning from different artistic styles is a fundamental part of my working style, I’d find it really hard to work in a shop on my own, I think I would get seriously bored.

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino

Is managing two shops complicated?
It’s not easy, from an economic or an administrative point of view, and that’s why in September, with a heavy heart, I will be closing down the old Hardtimes so that I can concentrate all of us in the new shop: a lovely 250 square metre premises.

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino

Who will be working with you and what sort of atmosphere will there be there?
At the moment there are 9 of us tattooists, including: Fabrizio Farese, Pamela Vecera, Marco Sacronero, November Oakbranch, Il Dime, Alessandro Damilano, Simona Cordero and Lucky Luchino, as well as piercer Layla and our shop manager Elisabetta. We are all profoundly united by a deep friendship and mutual esteem – and I think this is the reason why it feels like one big family.

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino

And what’s the scene like in Turin? And what can you tell us about your client base?
The scene here in Turin has sure changed a lot over recent years. There are more and more tattoo artists and there has been a considerable rise in the quality. There are tattooists now of the highest level for every style. My client base is very varied in terms of gender, age and nationality: on the one hand there are my Turin followers, and then there is also a bunch of people from other parts of Italy and abroad who are prepared to travel to get a tattoo by me. I think that is the greatest satisfaction a tattooist can ask for: to know that somebody got on a train or a plane to come a get tattooed by you!

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo, Torino

Tell us about a typical day in this lockdown period: are you reading, painting, watching movies or tv series, listening to music? What sort of a routine have you got?
In this period I’ve been painting a lot, and this is one of the few positives of this lockdown. He who hesitates is lost, and I think that it is essential to keep your artistic skills up to speed. Music is definitely the right company for this activity. I also enjoy getting outdoors in the countryside: I have a lovely garden a fantastic meadows where I can stroll with my dog Rosa. For the rest of the time, I am getting the most out of my Netflix and Prime subscriptions, watching horror films and thrillers, but especially courtroom documentaries and/or true crime which are my true love. In the next life I would like to be reborn as Jessica Fletcher!

Are you making plans for the future? What do you think things will be like once this emergency is over?
As I’ve already mentioned, the first project is closing down the old shop, and this will take up a lot of time and energy over the coming months. I’m also working on a book of paintings, which I hope I will manage to finish in this period when I am not working. I think that there will be profound changes in the world, we are heading for a leap in the dark because the changes won’t just be on a local level, they’ll be global too.

Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo Shop, Torino, Italy
Gaia Leone, Hardtimes Tattoo Shop, Torino, Italy

What is going to become of us, I don’t know, and it’s hard to imagine, but over the centuries, mankind has definitely shown an incredible spirit of adaptation and survival, and I think that this time too, just like in the wake of every war, we will find a way to rebuild what has been destroyed. There will certainly be repercussions in the world of tattoo as well and it will be a test of strength and courage for all of us…

Probably the only ones who will come out of it will be those with real passion and professionalism.

Is there anything you’d like to ask that we haven’t thought of asking you before we wind up?
I would like to add that, after this pandemic, if my career as a tattooist goes belly up, I’ll let you know whether I manage to make it as a private eye…just in case you need one!(laughs)

Follow Gaia on Instagram: @gaialeone_ht