Title Card: You’ve been sur­round­ed by tat­toos and tat­too­ing since you were young. What was it like grow­ing up in this world?

Filip Leu: Initially I wasn’t so impressed by it, fun­ni­ly enough. But you know, it’s inter­est­ing, and it’s got a lit­tle mag­i­cal side to it. It’s very hard to be around it for any extend­ed peri­od and not get caught up in the excit­ing part of it.

Title Card: What do tat­toos and tat­too­ing mean to you?

Leu: The hob­by, the pas­sion. The headache. I’ve been doing it so long I don’t real­ly remem­ber what it was like when I start­ed. I try to go back to the begin­nings and…it’s been a while. The longer you, I think, stay in any given field you’ll get rid of some prob­lems and inher­it some new ones, you know. It’s an ongo­ing process. But it’s a won­der­ful life, or has been for me.

Maximillian Jacobson-Gonzalez: What are the changes that you’ve seen? I know yours is quite a per­son­al and quite [inaudi­ble] sto­ry…

Leu: The most notice­able change is the quan­ti­ty of peo­ple com­ing into the pro­fes­sion. But that goes hand in hand with the amaz­ing art in the pro­fes­sion. Looking at them as artists per se, not tat­tooists, the qual­i­ty is quite amaz­ing, tru­ly impres­sive.

Title Card: Can you tell us a bit about your ear­ly days?

Leu: I got involved after my father learned in London, in Kings Cross. The fam­i­ly went out to India and we end­ed up in Goa, and they were tat­too­ing out there, my folks. So my job was, at age 11, to drum up a bit of pub­lic­i­ty. I had to do the beach­es every now and then with a stack of cards. Found it exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult, walk­ing up to strangers sun­bathing and intro­duc­ing myself and giv­ing them a busi­ness card. A lot of them thought I was a local boy, would shoo me away like I was com­ing to beg or try­ing and sell them someth—which I was, actu­al­ly, try­ing to sell them some­thing. But they didn’t know I was a for­eign­er.

And I didn’t tat­too right away. I would draw for my dad. We had a cat­a­log with very small designs in it, and they didn’t have any pho­to­copies. There were no com­put­ers. If you want­ed a pho­to­copy, you had to go to the main town, which was over an hour away. So I used to draw things up for him using a grid sys­tem, like a small grid and then a large grid and just copy every­thing box by box. That kind of got me involved in it. I didn’t get to tat­too right away. 

I like that we had a tat­too house. I liked being tat­tooed young. Form of rebel­lion, it was fun. Even in a kind of loose trav­el­er, hip­py com­mu­ni­ty when you’re a lit­tle kid with a cou­ple of tat­toos, they kind of do a double-take like, What…? Aren’t you a bit young?” So I always felt quite pow­er­ful hav­ing a tat­too artist as a father. He gave me strength.

Title Card: How much do you think tat­toos are a pri­vate thing and how much are they a pub­lic thing, on show for oth­er peo­ple?

Leu: Are you speak­ing from a tat­tooee or a tat­toers point of view? Because no mat­ter how showy or group-orientated peo­ple might think this is, when they sit down to get a tat­too it’s a big moment of soli­tude. You’re on your own. And it’s you and you alone that has to go through it. So, very pri­vate.

Then again, look­ing at the men­tions in mag­a­zi­nes and TV shows, a lot of peo­ple like to be seen get­ting a tat­too. Not just wear­ing it, but they like to get it done in a con­ven­tion set­ting with an audi­ence. So it’s right across the board, down to the indi­vid­u­al. People may get the same tat­too design, but they do it for very dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Very par­tic­u­lar… Fashion I believe has just made it more acces­si­ble to do some­thing they want­ed to do any­way, you know. But it ain’t fash­ion that gave them the desire to get tat­tooed. I think that starts for oth­er rea­sons.

Usually when peo­ple are young, they see a fam­i­ly mem­ber, some­thing like that, some uncle come back from over­seas with a tat­too on their fore­arm and it marked them when they’re age 10 or 9 or some­thing, and they remem­bered it their whole life and always had this lit­tle idea that one I’ll may­be get one,” you know. But, I live on top of a moun­tain, so I’m not total­ly in touch with the tat­too scene, and big cities are dif­fer­ent.

Title Card: Tattooing used to be regard­ed as a sub-cultural activ­i­ty, now it seems to have become much more main­stream. What are your thoughts about that?

Leu: True. I wouldn’t know about main­stream acces­si­ble. Now one doesn’t even need to go into a tat­too shop to vis­it it. You could do it online, or you could do it in a pro­gram. So yeah, it’s def­i­nite­ly broad­ened right across the board the peo­ple that are get­ting into it. I would not have want­ed to go into a scary shop in the bad part of town. Now I can go to the nice part and find a very open, col­or­ful, art-based tat­too stu­dio, which they were few and far between before.

Title Card: Can you describe the tat­toos that you do and the kind of tat­toos that you like and enjoy?

Leu: One of my ear­ly inspi­ra­tions in tat­too­ing was Japanese. I real­ly like the body suit idea, the one design. Other cul­tures have done it too, trib­al, Americana, old school, Russian pris­on. You see peo­ple that fill in the entire thing, but I real­ly was tak­en by the Japanese. So I do a ver­sion of that when I’m allowed. It’s uh, Euro-American Japanese, it’s all been fil­tered down. I’ve got the books. I kind of go back to the source now, but I’m not a tra­di­tion­al­ist per se. But my idea’s based on Japanese suits. Central piece on the back, accom­pa­ny­ing pieces on the arms, legs, and ribs, and the things all tie togeth­er with a com­mon back­ground. That’s real­ly what I would like to get, as many of those done before I’m gone.

Title Card: Do you think there is a dif­fer­ence between some­one who gets a large tat­too and a small one?

Leu: Apart from the obvi­ous, ones like real­ly into it, the oth­er one just wants a taste. But no, the process is the same no mat­ter how big or small. You still go through the act of chang­ing your­self for life, mak­ing a deci­sion that doesn’t take into account any­body else but your­self and kind of mak­ing a visu­al state­ment of, I did it.” So size doesn’t real­ly mat­ter. The big ones are…different psy­chol­o­gy behind it. I wouldn’t dare to guess. Once again, the rea­sons real­ly are diverse. Why does one man[?] end up with a trib­al suit and anoth­er a Japanese? Beyond taste, or luck, or mood of the mon­th.

I think I have learned that over­all, the­se years, that the main dri­ve we all have is the desire to be tat­tooed. Design comes in sec­ondary, absolute­ly, because there are mul­ti­ple choic­es at every turn that would suit just fine. What should I put on my elbow? Flower, you know, cloud, wave; they’re all good. So the real dri­ve is to be tat­tooed and that one’s won­drous. Who knows why? The real rea­son behind that is very com­pli­cat­ed.

Title Card: Have you noticed any par­tic­u­lar trends when it comes to tat­toos?

Leu: Trendwise… I kin­da like the Japanese for that, because it’s eter­nal. There are some styles that have been here a long time ago and they’re still around. And then there’s all the new ones that pop and go through sum­mer phas­es and stuff, which I do a lot less of since I don’t do walk-ins. There was a sum­mer of trees and then there was a sum­mer of owls, now we’re in the sum­mer of fox­es and wolves, and how that gets set is a mys­tery to me. It’s quite inter­est­ing. Somebody should hunt it down. Who sets the trend and why? Which pho­to of which per­sons inspired a group to fol­low?

Title Card: Since you began tat­too­ing have you noticed changes in the demo­graph­ic pro­file of peo­ple get­ting tat­tooed?

Leu: Since day one, we’ve tat­tooed right across the board. Since I start­ed, that much I remem­ber. I could do a punk one day and a meter maid the next, and a wait­er and then you do a lawyer and then a sur­geon shows up. So it real­ly is every­body. Some groups may­be more than oth­ers, like I did a lot of punks when I start­ed because they were real­ly into loads of lit­tle tat­toos. I do a major­i­ty of tat­too artists myself, which is a very enjoy­able sit­u­a­tion since I’m deal­ing with peo­ple in the know. No more sales, as in you don’t have to sell an idea. People under­stand that if some­body rejects an idea [and he’s?] of the profession…he got it, he doesn’t like it, we do some­thing else, and it’s all very easy and it’s fun, actu­al­ly. I real­ly enjoy work­ing with peo­ple in the same field. I learn. People push me to do things that are dif­fi­cult or ways to do things extra rapid­ly. Ways to achieve a lot with a lit­tle. There’s all kinds of dif­fer­ent pas­times to keep it inter­est­ing.

Title Card: Is there a sense of com­mu­ni­ty amongst peo­ple with tat­toos?

Leu: In the out­side world, it’s an ice­break­er. I got to the pool, I’ve got a body suit, hey I can talk to every­body. They all come and talk to me. So I do talk to oth­er peo­ple with tat­toos. You give them a nod or what­ev­er. I see anoth­er back piece, I’ll go over and ask him who did it. We have a com­mon inter­est. You espe­cial­ly feel that at con­ven­tions. When you’re like, twelve thou­sand strong in a room and everybody’s into the same thing, it’s kind of fun.

As far as it being the indus­try uni­fy­ing, it’s like a fam­i­ly, obvi­ous­ly, and there’s cousins that don’t talk and all the rest of it. I’m sure every pro­fes­sion has to be. There’s not like a world voice for us or noth­ing. Each coun­try has dif­fer­ent asso­ci­a­tions, Tin-tin that heads SNAT in France, there’s one that looks after French leg­is­la­tion and stuff. I’ll put it this way, most of my friends are in the busi­ness. You can’t know every­body, there’s more and more peo­ple.

Title Card: What do you think about the cur­rent pro­lif­er­a­tion of tat­too­ing and tat­toos?

Leu: I’ve been watch­ing this stuff with amaze­ment. The rise and push of tattooing’s boom. Its inva­sion of every mar­ket and every media. Its pop­u­lar­i­ty grow­ing right across the world. I think it’s aston­ish­ing. I nev­er would have dreamed, when I start­ed out, that it would become this inter­est­ing to the world. So where it’s going from here, I real­ly don’t know. 

There’s an inter­est­ing side to it, see­ing as it’s a lot more dif­fi­cult to change your look if you’re tat­tooed than if you have like, a nose ring pierc­ing. And as time goes by, a lot of the­se heavily-tattooed peo­ple move into soci­ety. Jobs where they make deci­sions whether they let the tat­tooed guy get the job now, and stuff. And see­ing as they got a whole suit, it’s got to light­en up, you know. So I don’t know. It’s inter­est­ing. Very wait and see.

Jacobson-Gonzalez: So people’s per­cep­tions, you think, have def­i­nite­ly altered.

Leu: They’re def­i­nite­ly relaxed. A lot more uptight about it. I mean, I’m still an odd­i­ty, but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Like I said, I’m almost fin­ished. When I go to the pool the kids fol­low me around because you don’t see a full-tattooed man every day. But I don’t feel a lot of… Okay, Switzerland, every country’s dif­fer­ent. I’m sure there’s parts of the plan­et where it’s still not very good to be tat­tooed, and I’d be bet­ter off hid­ing them. But as far as the big cities go, and the fore­front of fash­ion and, what would you call it? trend, tattoo’s very promi­nent. But to bring it into the house­holds through the tele­vi­sion, there’s the­se shows that peo­ple now watch right across the world.

Jacobson-Gonzalez: Do you think that they’re cre­at­ing an unre­al per­cep­tion of tat­toos and tat­too­ing?

Leu: Put it this way, since I watched the tat­too shows, I look at all the oth­er ones with a very dif­fer­ent slant now. Once I’ve seen what they present of some­thing I real­ly know a lot about, for the most part it’s alright but they make huge errors and now I think every oth­er show could be the same, almost. Frightening thought.

Title Card: Is there still a stig­ma attached to tat­toos and tat­too­ing?

Leu: Yeah, I don’t believe that’s gone. I believe there’s almost a false image to so many con­ven­tions and mag­a­zi­nes, and we all think it’s total­ly main­stream and the whole world will get tat­tooed. These things could change. And I think it’s awful nor­mal that there’s a cer­tain amount of peo­ple that are not into tat­too­ing. We can’t all like the same things, can we? It’d be strange. Apart from blue jeans, which seems the world world over. The biggest club in the world, the blue jean club. But I do believe that there are def­i­nite­ly social cir­cles where tat­toos are just not on, and will stay that way, I think.

Title Card: Do you think that the gen­er­al pub­lic being exposed to tat­toos in the media is influ­enc­ing the pop­u­lar­i­ty of tat­toos?

Leu: Oh, the hard sell is on, and has been for a while. I agree with you. And that’s a fun­ny ques­tion. Do they all like the tat­toos because the tele­vi­sion told them to? Or are they just feel­ing like it’s okay now cause the TV said it’s fine? Because there’s always been a cer­tain amount of peo­ple that get tat­tooed. Before it was pop­u­lar, we worked in this coun­try fine. Never had a short­age of work. And like I said, again, right across the board. Everybody, police­men to crim­i­nals. Seriously, all of them. So may­be a few peo­ple now watched a show and think, Oh, it’s pop­u­lar and mom won’t kill me. I think I can do it. That’s my defense. J.Lo did it,” or some­thing like that.

But it might be incit­ing peo­ple to start work­ing in the busi­ness, because they make it look very glam­orous indeed. You don’t see the clean­ing of the toi­lets and the clean­ing of the tools. They don’t explain that this is a job where we lit­er­al­ly swim in people’s bod­i­ly flu­ids and blood, and it’s a high-risk job, very dan­ger­ous, actu­al­ly, if you want to talk about that. That’s not pre­sent­ed prop­er­ly, in some ways. You can catch a dis­ease. Less easy to infect some­body than—you always hear speak about the cus­tomer. What about the artist? We’re the ones receiv­ing peo­ple in our local, after day after day after day. Something to be thought about.

Jacobson-Gonzalez: And what about tech­niques? Have tech­niques changed since you start­ed tat­too­ing?

Leu: The machine I use today was patent­ed in 1927 and is the same. Literally. The needle quality’s got­ten, I have to say, bet­ter. They change a lot. The knowl­edge has been shared a bit more. We get into a tricky zone here. It’s chang­ing, it’s in an evo­lu­tion. Some parts of tat­too­ing have actu­al­ly moved back­wards a lit­tle bit, just from my expe­ri­ence. I mean, I wait to see, but the loss of appren­tice­ship is not always the best of things, because knowl­edge does not get passed down, and that was impor­tant, I think. Not to say that you can’t fig­ure it out your­self. I have seen the most amaz­ing artists with only two years tat­too­ing, and I have been speech­less because they got the right help and the right infor­ma­tion. The apti­tude to put it into effect, to work. It’s not enough know­ing the secret, you’ve got to under­stand it and then use it. Knowledge floats around quite freely today, but not everybody’s using it.

Title Card: What about the rebel­lious ele­ment to get­ting tat­tooed, if more peo­ple are get­ting tat­toos nowa­days, are some peo­ple going to have to find oth­er ways to meet their needs?

Leu: I think rebel­lion is a mas­sive part of it. It’s just being able to sep­a­rate your­self from the group. This is me. That is one major moti­vat­ing fac­tor, and fun­ni­ly enough that’s what I want­ed at first. By the time I had my sec­ond tat­too, I want­ed to belong to the tat­too fam­i­ly. So I went from want­i­ng to be total­ly sep­a­rate, to want­i­ng to be part of the group, all in two tat­toos.

These, I think, are age­less. You have no age to feel like this. I’ve done mas­sive tat­toos on men in their 50s that’ve decid­ed, Right, that’s it, I’m doing it and chang­ing myself,” and get­ting a whole back piece sud­den­ly, quite late in life. It’s not only a young man’s game. Change comes at all age. And it does rep­re­sent some form of change. If some­body comes to see me to get a seri­ous­ly big tat­too, I believe that’s a moment in their life where they’re sort­ing a lot of stuff out. I know it’s been my expe­ri­ence. You read­just to your own visu­al­iza­tion of your­self, how you see your­self, self-perception. Strength. Tattoos are a lot like armor, a visu­al mark­ing of I total­ly enjoy walk­ing top­less in a fes­ti­val and hav­ing a fully-tattooed tor­so.” It’s a won­der­ful rush, I got­ta admit, you know.

[…]

All I see when I look at all my tat­toos is I don’t know how I sur­vived them. They were such an ordeal, each and every one was so hor­ri­fic, and so painful. At some parts of the body that I remem­ber. So I guess it more gives me a feel­ing of con­fi­dence or self-image again. I man­aged to beat that, it makes me feel. Because I know that when peo­ple look at the whole body, that’s a big part of when peo­ple go [sharp intake of breath] when they see your tat­toos is they’re imag­in­ing the pain you went through. So it’s real prim­i­tive, this thing about feel­ing good about look how tough I am,” and it’s true. Look what I man­aged to sur­vive. That makes me, you know…tough? I don’t know. So that’s the feel you get out of it, or I do. 

Not that I’m walk­ing around look­ing for a fight or any­thing. I actu­al­ly found rather than chase peo­ple away, it kind of brings them towards me. When I got out and dis­play my body, peo­ple go, Wow. How long did that take?” and like, Can I have a look?”

Jacobson-Gonzalez: Has that been forever, or has that been recent­ly?

Leu: Pretty much forever in my life. I grew up with long hair in a kind of hip­pie fam­i­ly, so I’ve always had peo­ple going, Oh my god, look at him.” Tattoos have been more of an asset than any­thing to me this far in my life. I was able to sit in the back of the bus in San Francisco when I was 17, and that’s where all the tough guy crazy loonies sit, and they all left me alone because I had loads of tat­toos, so it was great. It’s like I fit right in, and I was an impos­tor.

Title Card: How do you feel about the tat­toos that you’ve done?

Leu: Real nos­tal­gic, a lit­tle sad some­times that I chose a medi­um that’s tran­si­tion­al, only the lifes­pan of the wear­er. Photos live on, I know, but I should’ve worked in bronze. That would’ve last­ed for a thou­sand years. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of ener­gy. It’s a huge respon­si­bil­i­ty. Bigger than… To change peo­ple for life, it’s been on my mind since the begin­ning. Am I wor­thy? Is it the right design? Do they know what they’re doing? Yeah. To wor­ry about if they do it for the right rea­son. I refuse to things I don’t think are good ideas or I think they’re doing for the wrong rea­son. I’ll go that far to say no. Hopefully I do them a favor, and if they go get it from some­body else, so be it. But I don’t need to be par­ty to some­thing I don’t believe in. I’m not into facial tat­too­ing in a big way, or even hands for that mat­ter. You need to have a lot of tat­toos before I’ll do your hands. 

Some old approach­es, you didn’t see a guy with hands and neck until he was full, and it over­flowed. The seri­ous old sailor that’s retired and he’s cov­ered every­where, or that guy who filled his body up, kind of. It kind of scares me that a lot of peo­ple start with the fore­arms and the neck, and then you see them with­out any clothes on and they’re all naked. Now they have to fill in. So in a way they’re just com­mit­ted from the begin­ning rather than be shy about it. 

But yeah, obvi­ous­ly the new gen­er­a­tion does sur­prise me in tat­too­ing. They’re a lot more bold about it, they’re a lot more showy. It took me 20 years of tat­too­ing before I got a tat­too that passed out­side of the clothes line, and I kept it all very dis­creet. Then again, now I trav­el with a t-shirt and fly on the air­plane and it’s just fine. So yeah, times are chang­ing.

Further Reference

This interview was conducted by Maximillian Jacobson-Gonzalez as part of the requirements for his Master of Arts in Creative Media, at the University of Brighton, 2014, and portions were used in his documentary Tattoos: Perceptions & Perspectives.


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