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.
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.