Since the early 1980's I had been hearing about a couple named Felix and Loretta Leu who traveled around India and Europe tattooing. As a traveling tattooist myself, I would sometimes meet up with another lost soul from one country or another who wore a tattoo done in some far off place by the mysterious Felix or Loretta. Somehow it was comforting to know that somewhere along the tattoo Gypsy trail, in some other obscure village, there were other folks who lived on the road as I did, other tattoo nomads. I remember wondering if my path and the Leu's would ever cross. You know "Doctor Livingston, I presume? Gotta cigarette?" Oh, well...
Life takes it's strange turns and I finally met Filip Leu (Felix and Loretta's son) in 1985 on his first trip to New York. He was just back from touring Japan, where he and his lovely and talented sister Ama (who I had first met in New Orleans) had been hanging out with some of Japan's great tattooists. Filip, who grew up mostly in India and got his first tattoo there from a street artist when he was 10 years old, was only 16 or 17 at the time and had already been tattooing for several years. He had just had the great honor of tattooing Mitsuaki Ohwada, founder of the Tattoo Club of Japan and one of the country's great tattoo masters. I was also very impressed with Filip's work so he had the not-so-great honor of tattooing me in my New York studio. As he tattooed we talked and, by the time the tattoo was finished, Filip and I had become friends.
Soon after his stay in Fun City, Filip returned to Switzerland and I headed back to California. We sort of lost touch with each other for a few years until we met again in 1990, in Hanky Panky's tattoo studio in the middle of Amsterdam's red light district. Filip was there with his whole family, the legendary Felix and Loretta were fresh off a plane from India, his sister Ama, a fashion model who lives in New York, her friend Gigi, a photo journalist was there to document the Amsterdam tattoo convention, his other sister Aia, a talented graphic artist and sign painter who currently resides in Ireland, and his brother Ajja, a young blues musician and composer, as well as his wife Titine, a gifted artist and apprentice tattooist. When I saw the whole family together, I was struck by what a close knit and multi-talented group they are and, of course, finally having the opportunity to meet Felix and Loretta after all these years was a great pleasure and honor for me and my wife, Vera. And the most lasting image I have of Filip at the convention was seeing him walking up to the stage again and again to accept nearly every award presented at the show.
Then, in 1991, Vera and I finally made the pilgrimage to Switzerland to spend a few days with the Leus in their family owned and operated tattoo shop. It was a surprise visit because they don't have a phone and didn't know we were coming. Luckily, they weren't off traveling the world, and we spent the next few days getting reacquainted. This interview with Felix was conducted on that visit and was filtered out of eight taped hours of long and outrageous "bullshit until dawn" sessions, and supplemented by multiple overseas faxes, telegrams, and phone calls.
Before returning to New York, we invited Filip and Titine to come to Fun City and work with us. A month or so later, Ama Leu wandered into the studio and told us her brother and sister-in-law were on their way. Filip has been working here since May and has already developed an appreciative following of tattoo connoisseurs, who admire his bold and flowing Neo-Japanese, ultra artistic wild-style custom and freehand work. It is and honor and a pleasure to have a partner as talented as Filip. His fresh and innovative approach to tattooing are an inspiration to me. (He's also a great guy and a pleasure to work with. Yep, we're having a lot of fun these days, at Fun City Tattoo!) And who knows, maybe even the elusive Felix and Loretta will drop in for a visit someday. It seems only fitting since they originally met right here in New York, many years ago. Like true tattoo nomads, the Leu Family has roots all over the globe. Long may they roam! J. Shaw
Jonathan Shaw: When and where did you first start tattooing?
Felix Leu: I apprenticed with Jock of Jock's tattoo in King's Cross, London. He's been in the same studio for years. Far out dude, man!
JS: How did you first get together with him?
FL: I called him up one day and told him I wanted to study tattooing.
JS: And he just told you to come on in?
FL: Yeah, and I started going there twice a week. I spent all my time there with my face right next to his face, so I was the same distance from the tattoo he was working on as he was. I guess that's how he knew I really wanted to learn. We hit it off good. I tried to do little things for him, like I made up some studio T-shirts for him.
I didn't learn drawing from Jack, I learned tattooing, the mechanics of tattooing, and I did my first tattoo in his shop. Jock is like that--if he likes you he will help you. The now famous Lal Hardy studied with Jock at the same time.
JS: Is Jock still around?
FL: Yes. He is amazing. He could do a complete chest piece in 20 minutes. He is a great tattooer and a really fine human being.
JS: When were you tattooing in India?
FL: For three years in Goa in the late seventies. I also tattooed for six months in fuckin' Bombay, downtown Colaba, man! What a scene, out of a pension! Loretta and I tattooed mostly Westerners, hippies, freaks n' travelers, but also Indians. Fisherman and a lot of Indians are into tattooing. First you get the tribal scene, of course, vast, man! What a field to study. And then there are the Hindus and Christians who are into it. They generally have their Gods, Jesus, Shiva, Hanuman, and so on, tattooed on their inside forearms or they have crosses, Om signs or hearts tattooed between their thumb and index fingers. Pilgrimage is like a national sport in India. There are hundreds of feast days. And on the feast days the Hindus go to the temples. And outside the temples there will be maybe 200 tattooers with people sitting, lined up, waiting, in front of them. These dudes work on the floor with funky battery setups.
JS: You traveled quite a bit?
FL: Yeah I left Switzerland in 1961 and didn't make it back here again until 1981 - 20 years man. Yeah, it's a big rock we live on rolling in space and I learned quite a lot on it. (Laughs).
JS: Apart from being tattooers and painters what else might one say about your family?
FL: Well, we are an artist family, my mother is a painter. We're freaks, what used to be called hippies, what used to be called beatniks, what used to be called bohemians.
JS: So how and when did your family get involved in tattooing? It seems like everybody in the Leu family tattoos!
|FL: Loretta, my wife, started to tatttoo when we were living in India in the late seventies. Filip also did his first tattoo there, in Goa n' Bombay. Filip's wife Titine started tattooing in 1989.|
JS: Do your other kids tattoo?
FL: They all know how to, yes, and have done some -- but Ama is a fashion model, Aia is an artist and Ajja is a blues and rock singer and guitarist.
JS: How old was Filip when he first started to tattoo?
FL: 13 years old. But he didn't just jump into tattooing right away. He did flash for years before that. He started tattooing full time in 1983, in Switzerland, at the age of 16. In 1985, when there was not much else I could teach Filip, I met Ed Hardy in Rome and he agreed to take on Filip at Realistic.
JS: Filip was already on his way to being a great tattoo artist by the time he was 16. .
FL: The way is long, man (laughs). We taught him all we could first, man, and then in '83 he met Spider Webb. What did Filip learn from him? Well, to be precise, how to tattoo Morbella with a rose and a safety pin. That's exactly why we love Spider Webb. Then, at the '84 Amsterdam convention Filip was able to observe good tattooers, like Fritz from Vienna, Ian of Reading and others. Greg Irons also gave him a hand and in '85 Filip picked up some Japanese hand tattooing from Horitoshi in Japan and turned him on to electric irons.
Then Filip went to America and got to observe some incredible artists there. He worked, I think it was nine months, with Dan Thome and Bill Salmon in Hardy's Realistic Studio in San Francisco. Then he did a stint with the Dutchman in Vancouver for a while before he returned to Switzerland.
He picked up the mechanics of tattooing from Paul Rodgers, rest in peace, man. He learned well there and makes fuckin' good irons from scratch man. Frames, coils and all, fucking far out.
Some people out there have bought some Paul Rodgers irons from the old man directly; they were actually built by Filip. The proof: although these irons are signed by Rodgers on the outside of the frame, on the inside of the frame, hidden by the coils, they are signed by Filip Leu. Yeah, the old man was a joker, and Filip was a good apprentice. The old man would have never sold those irons as his if they would have been crap. Those irons could be valuable some day, write to Filip to find out if you got one. I think he made, and Rodgers sold, five of them. I think it was in '86 or '87.
JS: Now Filip works for you in this shop?
FL: No, (laughs) we share the shop. It's a family shop. We rotate the place, take trips to India or something, then come back here to keep the place alive. Keep on trucking, man.
JS: What other media have you worked in besides tattooing?
FL: I paint and draw, so does Loretta... fuck, so does the whole fuckin' family (laughs). Never gave it up, we all still paint besides tattooing.
JS: How come you got into tattooing? Weren't you in your thirties when you started?
FL: Yes. In 1976 I found myself in Yugoslavia with Loretta's mother, who was a famous opera singer by the way, and may she rest in peace man, and our friend Robbie. We were buying Albanian carpets and hand embroidery. Robbie has two tattoos. He's from Scotland. He has a Geisha girl on one arm from Terry Wrigley, a Scottish tattoo artist, and a Scottish Piper on his other arm, which he got from a tattoo artist in Hong Kong! Talk about cultural exchange man. Heavy! Man, tattooing is a groove. There are so many sides to it.
Anyway, we were loading up the truck with the carpets we bought when these two guys who were convinced we were traveling tattooists came up and started flashing money at us. In those countries people are not so quick to flash money. They like to talk first and try to make a deal. So when I saw this money come out so fast I went BUZZ! Soon as I got home I called Jock and got started. BUZZ, man (laughs a lot). This fitted right in, man. Just the way we have always lived. Jack Kerouac! Allen Ginsberg!
I was earning my living then drawing big fucking paintings with colored chalks on the sidewalk! I always worked for myself all my life and tattooing fitted right in, man. Never had a bossman dicking me around - and I don't want anybody working for me either. Loretta and I are both painters and studied art in the sixties. I studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute, right on, so tattooing looked good man. On the drive back up to London I started checking out tattoos, and every fuckin' time I would say to myself -- right on, I can do that.
JS: So you tattoo for the money?
FL: Right on - and because I never do anything for money that I don't want to do I'm having a great time (Laughs). I'm getting off on the art side for paisa, man. I don't want to get fuckin' rich, man, just do my thing.
JS: Did you get involved with tattooing in any way before Yugoslavia?
FL: No, I didn't give a monkey's fart if you had tattoos or if you didn't. Now, though, I really fucking dig tattoos. Loretta 'n I are currently working on a book on Berber tribal tattoos in North Africa. Facial tattoos, neck, arms, legs, body coverage, incredible, beautiful, far-out stuff, man.
JS: Did you teach tattooing to anybody besides your family?
FL: I always openly exchanged information. I did teach the Fuhrmann brothers, Claus and Jurgen, from Vienna, Austria, back in '85. I am proud of them. They do really good work and you'll hear more from them.
JS: Back when you first started tattooing, did you ever envision doing the kind of work you're doing now?
FL: On the technical side, my first big push came from Spider Webb's excellent book "Pushing Ink" which I had in India. A great book, and doubly so in 1979, considering what else was published on tattooing at that time. But the real breakthrough came in Bombay when the famous tattoo authority and tattooer Dr. Jangoo Kohiyar gave me a copy of Ed Hardy's "Tattoo Secrets" as passed on to him and published by Dr. Lemes III, MD. That booklet had everything in it, man! A complete manual! Straight from the horse's mouth. And then, too, tattoo conventions are great places to learn. Yes, truly, man -- the tattoo Gods were calling and being kind! BOMSHANKAR!
On the artistic side, when I first started tattooing, Jock taught me the very traditional style and I drew flash according to the demands and limits of my rotary tattoo machine that I bought off Jock and the needles that I had at the time. I was an innovator in my artwork from the very start though. Loretta and I did tribal work back in the '70's, including the work on my left forearm which I tattooed on myself before I ever heard of Leo Zuletta -- who's a great tattooer by the way, man. I did mechanical tattoos way before Geiger's became quite rightly so fashionable.
I'm the inventor of the twisted, soft, psychedelic way of drawing irons for flash. That famous border around names that is drawn like synthetic, white, long, spiky fur... fur as you might find on a pair of white toy fur dice hanging from the inside rearview mirror in a 50's hotrod -- such fur glowing crystal-like thin and spiky in the diffused neon glow on a dark, lonely, foggy night, man (laughs a lot). I enjoy all types of tattoos, from the fatline traditional to one needle realism, to Japanese bodysuits, not forgetting the little butterflies. I like some variation in what I tattoo. I'll draw and tattoo anything, in any style.
JS: Where are Filip and Titine now? (1991)
FL: They are working in the famous Jonathan Shaw's Tattoo studio in downtown Manhattan (telephone: 212-228-8851) (laughs). It's their turn to roam the planet. LOVE & PEACE. Later on they'll appear at Bill Salmon's studio in the Bay area and then back to Fun City for awhile. By then we're ready for India, man! (laughs) INSHALLAH!
JS: Do tattooers ever visit you?
FL: Yes, over the years, quite a few have. They are welcome -- we found it always interesting.
JS: Anything else you wish to say?
FL: Sure (laughs). Thanx for the interview and for coming all the way from New York City to see us. Yes, what I want to say is that the three people who did the most to bring about the "tattoo renaissance" that we are living now are Spider Webb for bringing tattooing into modern art and for publishing in 1979 his book "Pushing Ink", Ed Hardy for his work and publications, and Huck Spaulding for publishing "Tattooing A to Z". I vote to nominate these three gentlemen to the title of GODFATHERS OF THE TATTOO RENAISSANCE.
And thanx to Michelle Delio from Tattoo Revue, one of the tattoo world's most renown journalists, for all the fuckin' work and energy she put into this interview. We owe her one. (Thank you, Felix and Loretta, it's an honor to have you and your family in Tattoo Revue. Namaste! - Michelle)
PURPLE HAZE, MAN, PURPLE HAZE, PURPLE HAZE.
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