Sultans of Skin
The Leu Family are among the world's most famous tattooists.
They operate from the Leu Family Iron in Switzerland, and are
some of the nicest people I've ever met. I was delighted to make their acquaintance and they were extraordinarily kind and hospitable to me. First published in Mondo Magazine.
Henri is a Dutch systems administrator. He works with computers and is clearly a well-paid kind of guy. Nevertheless, you sense the world of hard drives and ‘errors of type one ocurring’ take a rather weedy second place to his main obssession – he wants to have the whole of his body tattooed. He thinks it’ll take him around 20 years.
So, Henri, no qualms about about, you know, stuffing up your whole career?
‘No.’ He says over the bzz-bzz-bzz of the needle, manfully hiding the agony he’s being subjected to in pursuit of his dream. ‘I’m not looking for the type of job where people will be offended by tattoos. My work is the same whether I’m covered in tattoos or not.’
Yeah. But still. Aren’t you making life considerably more difficult for yourself?
‘That’s Henri all over,’ chirrups Louisa, his other half. She explains that they make the 10-hour trek from Holland to Lausanne in Switzerland so Henri can get a tat done while she does a spot of shopping. It’s their third trip.
And they’re not the only ones. In lopes Kurt, a huge bloke with Deep Purple hair who’s come all the way from Canada for the first of many sessions on a mammoth ‘back piece’. After a couple of years, several Canada-to-Switzerland jaunts and, ooh, 60 hours under the needle, his vision of a phoenix rising, burning then being re-born will be finished.
Now nutters they may be, but the participants in this bizarre multi-cultural meeting are not stupid. While there are no doubt plenty of tattooists in both Holland and Canada, they make the trip to Switzerland for a good reason: Filip Leu.
At 33, Filip is a second generation Leu tattooist. He and his father Felix form the axis of a true family legacy – almost 30 years of hurt. In fact, in the world of painful needlework, the Leu name is second to none. So if you are going to fuck up your career, or turn your back into a mythical story, you’ve come to the right place.
The place would be ‘The Leu Family’s Family Iron’ in Lausanne, which serves as studio and living quarters and represents a kind of comma in the family history. They have, for the time being at least, stopped roaming the globe and laid down roots. Prior to that they lived the hippy ideal, making the world their gaff, an ethos passed down by Felix who studied art in San Francisco during the Summer Of Love.
The Family Iron pans out like this: In the studio, diligently drilling into Henri, is Filip. Occasionally his wife, Titine – attractive, heavily tattooed – will join him, bring him cups of tea, yak-yak with visitors. She’s a tattooist herself, but spends more time on intricate paintings of tattooed people. Filip usually shares his studio with Ajja, his brother, a musician now tattooing full-time. Ajja tends to take care of the smaller bits and bobs now Filip’s working on the kind of grandiose body pieces that take years rather than hours. But Ajja’s not around today and there is a smaller piece to be done. Step up mama Leu, Loretta, an artist and tattooist, and more than happy to take up the ink when necessary. She lives across the hall with Felix who no longer tattoos at all, but whose influence, ideals and ethos is inked deep into the family philosophy.
There are two other Leu children, Aia and Ama, who live in Ireland and London respectively. And although neither of them tattoo professionally, both of them can. And have. ‘It’s a good thing to know for a rainy day, yes?’ says Felix later.
They’re called a tribe, a clan. But what they are, most of all, is a family. A family that’s moved nomadically around the world, but still a traditional nuclear family where the parents are still together and the kids have moved into dad’s business and they sit down and eat together. Which makes them, well, weird…
That’s the whole thing with the Leus. They’re weird/not weird. They’re a tattoo tribe and therefore by their very nature live outside nine-to-five society. And yet they operate the kind of family values that keep Margaret Thatcher warm at night. Take Filip: happily married, hard-working guy, a specialist in his field. Only he’s a specialist in permanently marking people’s bodies. He’s so good that most of his work is freehand and at least half of his clients are tattoo artists themselves, which is kind of like having chefs coming to eat at your restaurant. His eye-liner tattoo gives him a Sisters Of Mercy air, and he has this habit of pulling scary faces for photographs, but really Filip is smiley and soft-spoken.
‘We’re freaks, tattooists, travellers, hippies,’ he says. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor of a side room, grabbing a bite to eat and leaving Henri alone with his pain. ‘I don’t know. Everything carries stereotypes. Hippies are supposed to run around with flowers in their hair and not have a care in ther world and we ain’t totally that. I mean, I’m not a hippy who does fuck-all and smokes dope all day long. I have to get up and work every day. I don’t have a boss to tell me what to do, but I have to work as hard as anyone else.’
Filip learnt the technique from his dad but travelled worldwide to study under other experts, finally creating his own unique style the faithful reckon they can spot from 20 paces. He’s been on tour with Slayer, Sepultura and Slipknot. He’s done those vaginal tattoos you’ve been sent on the e-mail. Recently he did his 15-year-old nephew Kirk because the lad wouldn’t stop bugging him about it. Yet equally, in that weird/not weird sort of way, he has a sharp sense of responsibility towards his trade.
‘It’s an easy profession to prey on people,’ He says. ‘People don’t know about it, it’s a dramatic experience. Who’s going to stand up at the end and say, ‘I don’t like this?’ It’s hard enough to complain in a restaurant when you don’t like the food. But to complain to a guy who’s just made you bleed… So I’ve always thought of educating people as the best way with quality work in magazines and books and doing conventions…’
Filip gave up tattooing for a while. ‘I lost the love,’ he explains. But now… ‘I’m about halfway there and I don’t think I’ll ever really get there either. Someobdy asked me the other day what’s my best tattoo and it’s my next one. It’s got to be.’
In 1976, Felix Leu was buying and selling carpets in Kosovo with a mate who wore two tattoos. Because of the two tats a couple of passers-by took them to be tattooists and waved a lot of money in their faces.
And that, according to Felix, was pretty much that. At 54, he looks much older. He has recently recovered from a terrifying bout of throat cancer but in all fairness, even pre-cancer pictures show a man of whom you might easily say, ‘I bet he went to art college in San Francisco during the mid-Sixties.’
‘See this?’ he says, leading the way from one room to another and pointing at a set of three pictures hanging on the wall. Each similar, but different. ‘This was a triptych I did in Goa in 1990. This one was drawn on high doses of LSD and you can see it’s very open, it almost moves. Now this one was done on mescaline and it’s very organic, just like mescaline trips are. And this one was done on speed which is a real bum drug and you can see how everything that was loose over there on acid has become sharp and defined here. I think I’ve spent my life experimenting with art and drugs.’
It’s a sensibilty that’s not only drip-fed the Leu family’s life, but that also helped change the face of tattooing. See, the blokies waving money in his face in Kosovo had a big impression on Felix. He realised that in a much more fundamental way than, say, internet banking, or Bird’s Eye Menu Masters, tattooing could give him the freedom to live his life.
‘I saw it as a way to spend my life on the road, which looked really perfect to me,’ he says. ‘I was never interested in tattoos before – the ‘enemy’ had tattoos, straight guys who didn’t like freaks and hippies. It was a different world then, people with long hair were not liked by macho builders with tattoos, there were harsh words all the time.’
He learned from a legendary inker in King’s Cross, a tattooist called Jock who allowed him into the shop where his first task was getting used to the sight of blood. From there he picked up the technique and with that sorted, Felix packed his gear, including a newly acquired tattooist’s needle, and buggered off to Goa. There, he says, the distinctive Leu style began to develop as he practised on the many hippies littering the beaches.
‘The English style was deep, thick lines. But during the 80s I was in the right place at the right time and I was one – and, you know, there were others – who opened it up and got away from that one style, the thick lines, not too much shading. And we began to experiment and do crazy things. Some were mistakes, I drew too many lines, trying to do too much and I’d see the client 10 years later and it was just black because the lines had all flowed together...’
But hey, at least if you looked like a Rorscharch test, you’d know it was all in the name of progress. Swimming’s less fun, but Henri looks pretty good. Still, Felix kept on experimenting, playing about with different styles – graffiti, psychedelic, portraits – everything you might expect to see along King’s Road come Saturday afternoon.
At the same time, of course, the Leu family was growing. Filip had been born some years earlier, in Paris, and he grew up wherever the family moved. They had periods of living in Goa, in Ibiza, Greece, and when, at just 16, Filip began to learn his trade he too travelled all over, learning from tattooists in India, Japan and Africa. The family grew, assembled, dissassembled and finally settled in Lausanne where the Family Iron was born.
‘We’ve done everything on our own terms,’ says Loretta even later, when most of the clients have gone home. ‘And, you know, Felix – I think he’s exceptional, I really do. He has such strong ideals and ideas and we have always lived by them.’
Despite the hippy-bubble construct, they have had their fair share of travails. Felix has a radiation symbol tatooed into his leg which bears the dates of treatments he had for cancer. Nowadays, he handles the family’s PR and, in that whole weird/not weird sort of way, listens to Robbie Williams at ear-shaggingly high volumes. And in Robbie, he clearly sees something of himself. ‘All the stuff he does, taking his pants off and stuff, man. It’s the same message that was there in the Sixties. He’s a young prophet. He’s saying, “Don’t give in to some old fuck by working for them. Go for it.”’