Any tattoo enthusiast will have heard of the Leu’s – the Swiss-based tattoo family famed for pioneering and evolving the art-form over two generations.
But whilst many are well-acquainted with eldest son Filip Leu’s Japanese-style works (thanks largely to the tattoo publications which grew in number and accessibility during his rise), fewer people have been able to appreciate the art of his father and mentor Felix Leu (1945 – 2002).
“Tattooing – Ask Here” paints a vivid picture of Felix’s life, meticulously detailed by his wife Loretta. Taking the reader on a journey from Felix’s days as a Kerouac-inspired adventurer to establishing the revered ‘The Leu Family’s Family Iron’ tattoo shop in Switzerland, the pages are filled with photographs, interviews and flash designs sure to inspire a whole new generation of tattooers.
Felix’s early flash was shaped both by his client’s requests and a melting pot of his own artistic influences. Designs feature hippie, biker and punk rock imagery alongside tribal and oriental motifs, later followed by Crumb-style cartoon sketches, psychedelia, bio-mech and trippy visions of sci-fi landscapes.
But beyond the innovative designs flowing throughout the book, it is Felix’s philosophy, work ethic and outlook on life which strikes the reader. His charisma and energy shine through Loretta’s words. Felix Leu’s consistent pursuit to further his craft is humbling and inspiring.
This book is a must-have for those wishing to expand their knowledge of tattoo history, providing a thorough and intimate account of one of its most unique characters.
This week, author Loretta Leu sat down to answer some questions about the new release and talk to Tattoo Life about her incredible journey with Felix…
What was your first impression of Felix?
I was standing in the entrance of a grand and sumptuous reception hall in the Jewish Museum of New York. It was November 1965 and the occasion was the gala opening of a new exhibition. My eyes scanned the room and the glittering crowd within it and I saw a very tall, slim, young man looking at me from the opposite end. He was dressed in a wine-red velvet jacket, white t-shirt, tight black jeans and motorcycle boots. His light brown hair was tousled and he looked like an artist, a rebel and a free spirit. This was Felix, and as our eyes locked there was a spark and I was definitely interested.
A little later in the evening we actually came face to face and I found him to be the most interesting and charismatic person I had ever met in my 20 years.
From then on we became inseparable as we walked the streets of lower Manhattan, often at night, or sat on the West side piers, or went to rock n roll concerts, or to dirt track races. A few months later we began travelling the world. I just wanted to be with him, wherever he wanted to go and whatever he wanted to do. He was adventurous and a lot of fun. He led me on an amazing journey which included our four beautiful kids, Filip, Ama, Aia and Ajja, and I never regretted joining my life to his. It has been a joy.
There is such a rich archive of material throughout the book, from photographs of your travels to letters and interview snippets. Did you recall any particularly fond memories through its creation?
This book was a labor of love and looking through his flash drawings and photographs of tattoos of course brought up many memories of our tattoo years together. We were a united couple and family, we were our own bosses, working when we needed to and taking time off when we chose to. We loved the freedom tattooing gave us. It was hard work but also exciting and fun. We worked in our own home and every day was made different by the interesting variety of people from all walks of life that we got to meet. We lived for many years without a TV.
What made you decide to write the book now and what did the process of creating it look like?
Felix was ahead of his time in his art and an individualist in his lifestyle. The younger generation of tattooers knows little to nothing about his story in tattooing and I feel that I am the best person to tell it. In August 2018 my daughter Aia Leu, the publisher of seedpress.ie, encouraged me to put together the material I had begun to gather about Felix’s tattooing. She would then publish it. We had collaborated on “Berber Tattooing in Morocco’s Middle Atlas” in 2017 and we worked well together once again on this book. Together we chose the format, paper, fonts and worked out the layout. I wrote some texts and we included Felix’s own words in excerpts of interviews he had given. With her help and a lot of hard work on both our parts the book came to life.
Looking at Felix’s art, particularly his ink drawings, I can see some similarities with Filip’s style. What was Felix like as a father and teacher?
He was a great teacher to Filip. He taught him everything he himself knew about the technique of tattooing and also about artistic concepts, such as to stand back from his work and see it from a distance, to consider the whole body when drawing on it, to use and follow power lines in a design, etc. He was a wonderful father, loving and helpful to all of his children. At the same time Felix was a tough and meticulous teacher not only to them but also to the many young artists who visited us. He advocated self-discipline and believed in hard work. He inspired those around him by his philosophy of life and his creativeness. Most of all he had the ability to make life interesting and fun! Never a dull moment!
Do you have a favourite design from the book?
Felix had a flowing way of drawing. I love his lines and colours in all of his designs. One of my favourites is the dragon and opium pipe he drew for a client in Goa, and of course all the little sundowns over the sea with a few palm trees which he created. I love his psychedelic and freehand work, particularly his forearm which he designed and tattooed on himself in 1978. I also like his traditional flash with hearts and roses and I have two of these which he designed for me tattooed on my arms; one is a series of hearts and a rose with our kids’ names in scrolls and the other is a heart with two bluebirds and a scroll which reads “Felix Forever”.
Tattooing has boomed in popularity over the last decade. What do you think Felix would make of today’s tattoo scene?
He already saw the inevitability of this in the 1990s, as popularity is bound to grow in almost any field. He always said that competition is a good thing, as it can only bring forth a better quality of work in the end. I believe he would have regretted the loss of the circus flavour, the rebel and outsider atmosphere of tattooing. This is what had attracted us to it in the first place.
What is your favourite quote or piece of advice from Felix?
I’ve put a selection of some of his favourites on the last page of the book. I agree with all of them! Two I especially like are: YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE and BE HERE & NOW and of course VIVA LA VIDA!