Tattooing—Ask Here: Felix Leu.
Tattooing in the Western world has a number of important cultural touchstones, and the art is changing so rapidly and in so many different directions that it’s often hard to articulate which styles owe what to whom. In the United States the tattoo has cultural roots that are often more salient than its artistic heritage. The “traditional Americana” aesthetic, for example, has always favored badges, more than coherent design, and those badges are embodiments of a particular kind of person more than they are a statement of aesthetic orientations. Thanks to a combination of magazines, MTV (when it still played actual music), and reality television programming, American tattooing eventually became an art form worthy of that moniker, but any realistic assessment would place much of the history of American tattooing more in the realm of craft than art. A deceptively difficult craft, to be sure, but a craft nonetheless. There are notable exceptions, of course. In the United States, most of these exceptions trace back, in some shape or form, to Ed Hardy and Cliff Raven, and through them to Sailor Jerry, and ultimately back to Japan, where the full expression of the art really finds its breath, breadth, and glory in the full body suit. The problem with this narrative is that American tattooing, for all its fun and brash embrace of the outrageous, is more provincial than it should be. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule—San Francisco has always been a blossom of the most exquisite tattooing in the country, and often the world—but I often find American tattooing disappointingly unimaginative. For truly artistic tattooing in the West, one is on a lot firmer ground in France and Switzerland than most of the United States. There are a variety of reasons for this, of course, but one of the most important is the fact that so many of today’s best European tattoo artists owe a debt of gratitude to Felix Leu, whether they know it or not.
In Tattooing—Ask Here Loretta Leu has assembled an indispensable account of the career of one of the great unsung heroes of Western tattooing. Part travelogue, part cultural history, and part love letter, this book is a masterful touchstone on how revolutionary Felix’s approach to tattooing was. Of course, the designs featured in the book are representative of different parts of Felix’s career as an artist, and many of them predate the directions the art has gone since his death in 2002, but anyone with a sense of how the art developed along the way will see why European tattooing is so vastly superior to its American cousin. Felix’s palette had strong early roots in bold flash designs that are the bread and butter of anyone learning the craft, but the directions he took those designs show the cultural influences of the different artistic branches of his particular tree. Many a traveling hippie might be content to pick up some spending cabbage doing butterflies and R. Crumb characters for a living. It takes genuine understanding of what makes a tattoo great to capture the glorious complexity of Hindu deities in the bold and simple lines that make a tattoo read well, for example. This book is filled with those early artistic reference points, and any truly discerning eye will see them for the cultural gold and diamonds that they are.
But this book is so much more than fun designs that were ahead of their time. It’s also—and perhaps even more importantly—a record of the highest ethics of the trade. Every story and every design shows an artist wrestling with the demands of an art form that is rooted in simple (some might even say “simplistic”) expression of an idea, but carrying the cultural weight of a permanent, embodied consequence. This isn’t painting on skin, after all. Tattooing really is a lot closer to sculpture than painting, because the canvas moves through space. It also ages. And it bleeds and suffers as the artist plies his/her/their craft. The best designs express complex and complicated ideas in bold strokes that withstand the demands of time and aging. The nature of this particular canvas demands a kind of respect that many who pick up a machine never fully understand, but it’s eminently clear that Felix understood the impact of his work. He respected the canvas, and he understood the responsibility that artists bore when they started those needles buzzing.
Felix’s legacy is alive and well in Ste. Croix today, of course, at The Leu Family’s Family Iron, but tattooing in Europe more broadly would not be what it is without his guidance, tutelage, and example. This book is indispensable for anyone who values that history and loves this art. Buy it today, and learn something.
Text: Angus Vail, 30th December 2019.