The ingenious Filip Leu, gave his first and only interview up until today to a Greek medium, HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine. He spoke to us about his long life relationship with tattooing, the reasons why he chose Japanese tattoo, the responsibility that every tattooist carries, the importance of a great design, his thoughts on copying, his admiration for strong women and the everlasting bond of the Leu family.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

How did you get involved with tattooing?
The main thing I can tell you about my life and tattooing is that I didn't choose it; my father and my mother did it first. So it was natural for me to follow. Here at the convention (ed. The London Tattoo Convention) I realized that most of these people chose it. They had a different life before and then decided to become tattoo artists, which I find interesting because I never really thought about it; it was natural. I did what my father did. It was easy for me to begin. I mean nothing is really easy. That choice was easy though.
My father Felix was doing many things before tattooing. He was an artist, he made jewellery and batiks. He got into tattooing when I was nine. In the beginning I didn't like tattoo so much. I didn't understand it.
What changed then?
You know, you stay around tattoo a little while and it totally catches you. There is no escape. I am happy though because I like tattooing.

How many years you’ve been tattooing now?
About thirty-two years. I was already tattooing by the age of twelve. However, I was fifteen when I started working properly full-time; everyday like my father did.
How much has your family influenced you as a tattooist?
They made me as a tattooist.
My father was my teacher and made me who I am. Then I travelled and I learned more every year. I get older, my life changes, my mind changes, and my design choices change. You never stop being influenced by learning.
How is your relationship with the rest of your family?
I live with my wife Titine and my mother Loretta. We all work together. My father died a few years ago. In the past the Leu family lived all together in one home. Now, everyone has wives and husbands and their own houses. Nothing has changed however; we are still a very united family.
Do you have kids?
No, I never wanted any. I am too selfish. I know what I like. I love children; I just don't want to work so hard.
So you reckon that children are much harder work than skillful tattooing?
Absolutely. They are your responsibility forever. Tattooing is finished quite soon. In two or three years a bodysuit is finished. 

So far I had interviewed for HeartbeatInk some very respected and charismatic tattoo artists. Many of them have characterized you as “a genius”. How do you feel about that?
Oh! I feel very privileged.
Over the years, I have worked on a lot of tattoo artists. It’ s a big part of my work, and it is very enjoyable because I work with people who understand the business very well. So it’ s more like playing than working; exchanging ideas, exchanging designs, and working on the designs together. I like working with people. I learn a lot when I work on some very good tattooist.
You got involved with Traditional Japanese tattoo, a tattoo style with great history and strict rules and you interpreted it in your own way, a way that has influenced many. What was your influence? What led you to your style?
My Japanese style is influenced by different things; a little bit of American, a little bit of Indian, a little bit of Rock 'n' Roll. I like to mix. I am not Japanese, so I don’t have the full understanding of it and I don’t study enough. I do the best I can and I mix everything I like. It’s more fun like that. Ed Hardy was also very influential for me. I do American/Japanese sometimes. There are other non-Japanese artists, that do really beautiful and very traditional Japanese work, like Shad from Belgium and Ivan Szazi from Brazil.
Why did you choose Japanese tattooing in the first place? What attracted you towards it?
I went to Japan when I was seventeen for the first time and I got to see all these men with bodysuits in real life. It was very beautiful. I like Japanese because it is so graphic. What I also like about it is that it is one design. The back is the centre, and the arms and the legs are the accompaniment. It’s a complete work. The American bodysuit is also beautiful. The Tribal bodysuit is beautiful too but if it’s wrong, you see it immediately and moreover I find it much more difficult. With Japanese, you can hide it (laughs). You can shade it a little bit and you can add different things. You can play a lot. Realistic is also too much work. It takes a lot of energy and time and the skin changes through the years, as it is alive and it’s going to spread out eventually. There is nothing you can do to stop that. I knew that if I did a graphic style, I could do more tattoo work in my life.
Japanese tattooing goes hand in hand with strict rules and some consider it as a demanding and difficult tattoo style.
I’ve learned the rules and I have changed them. When you study the Japanese work, you notice that every artist did his own little thing. That’s what I like to do: make my own version. Like a “homage”, but not a total copy.
Does it bother you when tattooists “copy”?
For me it is not important that everything is drawn “originally”. I think it doesn't matter where the design comes from, as long as it is a good design, it is in the right place and you do a good job tattooing it. I don’t draw everything I tattoo myself. If I find something I like I take it, I copy it. I like Japanese and Indian art for instance. I’ll take from everywhere I can. They say “A good artist copies. A great artist steals” (laughs). I heard this the other day and I liked it (laughs).

How do you feel about the current commercialization of tattoo?
I wouldn’t say it’s positive. It’s not negative though. It is what it is. It’s inevitable. It’s the way the world goes: digital, internet, connections, information. A boom. I don’t know when it will stop. The future is going to be interesting. I had no idea when I started, that it would be like this; the television shows, the internet magazines and so on. The information is out there and everyone can access it. So now it’s easy for someone that likes tattoo to start. It’s not easy to develop though. It still takes hard work to get good at it.
What would you advise a young person that choses to follow the path of tattooing?
To practice his drawing because above and beyond being a job, tattooing is an artistic endeavour and if you want to succeed in it this day and in this crowd, you need to work very hard on making beautiful designs. I believe good design work is the key. I think that it’s much more difficult to become a tattooist today, even with all the information, because there is so much competition, where there was very little before. The strong ones will survive and the people who don’t really like it they’ll stop. Some think that tattooing is a job that you can do from 9 to 5 and then go home and forget about it. In time they learn that t’s not like that. If you like tattooing, it becomes a passion. It is in your mind all the time and it goes home with you.
Is tattooing in your mind all the time?
Yeah, I think about my work, not 24/7 though. I’ve been doing it for so long, that I wouldn't know what else to do. I make music for fun, I make art, and I paint. Tattooing is a constant practice. It’s like bodybuilding; if you stop, you lose your tone. Art is the same. You’ve got to keep working at it. So my advice is, if you’ re not tattooing yet, learn how to draw and paint, practice your art, take a class. It will make tattooing so much easier. I learned drawing and tattooing at the same time. It’ s like learning two separate jobs. If you know how to draw, tattooing is just about the medium.

In the past, you’ve shared an artistic project with Paul Booth. Is it still running?
Yeah, the “Art Fusion Experiment”. I still do it with Titine and friends at home. I’ve done it for years. My father used to do it as well. It’ s like doing anything with a friend. Drawing and painting together in the same environment and sometimes tattooing together, I’ve done it a lot with Paul, it’ s a nice way to become friends.
You’ve been traveling with and without your family from a very young age. Have these constant travels affected your tattoo work?
My parents travelled a lot before we settled in Switzerland. We were moving all the time until I was thirteen. After my father taught me how to tattoo, I travelled and went around to learn from people in America and Asia. I worked in different tattoo shops, trying to learn stuff. 

I also love comic books a lot, so they have probably influenced me, and that’s how I met my wife. Her family had a comic book shop. I used to read comics all the time when I was a kid… and then we got married (smiles) in 1990. We are still together. It's like a tattoo; it’s for life. I believe marriage is for life and Titine believes the same. So we’ve been lucky. I didn't want to live alone in this life. I need a partner. Without her I couldn’t have done any of the things that I’ve done all these years. She works very hard behind the scenes in the business and she keeps it together. She keeps my life together.

It seems that throughout your whole life you’ve been surrounded by strong women such as your mother and your wife. Have you ever felt “intimidated”?
It is absolutely true. I like and I admire strong women. I am a feminist. People don't understand feminism; it only means equal rights. That’s it. The other stuff is different and people wrongly connect with it. I am with equal rights all the way. The thing about the “weaker sex” is bullshit. We are the weaker sex, actually (laughs). The man is the head and the woman is the neck. She can turn it wherever she wants.
After tattooing all those years, how do you still keep on being inspired?
I like what I am doing, which makes me lucky. However, this is a job and you’ve got to pay the bills. That’s the first part. But because I like it, it makes it easy. I enjoy myself as much as I can. I like people and that also makes me lucky, because you’d better like people if you want to be a tattooist. I get my inspiration from the people I work on. If I get someone that comes and sees me whose work I admire, a really strong tattoo artist or a painter or a musician or any kind of artist, then I want to give back. They stimulate me to show my best side. Artistic ego is what drives me.

In your opinion, why people do get tattooed?
I put it down to one thing: rebellion. Self-affirmation followed by wanting to be part of a group. It goes really quick; first they get the tattoo and feel more individual and then they want to join the group of tattooed people. So they go from one side to the other, or at least that’s what happened to me.
What about all those kids now, that get heavily tattooed in one year, while in their 20’s, and sometimes even younger?
They don’t know what they are doing. It’s a long life, man, to live… But maybe we are the dinosaurs to this generation. They didn’t like Elvis when he came along, right? Maybe this is the future… I never thought tattoo would be so popular.
I don’t do facial tattoos, except for Paul Booth’s. That’s it. I don’t even like doing hands; if I do it has to be somebody that has a lot of work already. Because I feel responsible and if they’re doing it on a whim they’ll probably regret it.
You reckon they might regret it?
When they start getting ripped apart at the airport every time they try to travel, it’s not so easy. Life is already complicated enough. On the flip side, the last years I started travelling with short sleeves and I am having an easier time than I did before. I walk up to the immigration and they go like “are you a rockstar or a tattoo artist”?
When my father started tattooing back in the 80’s, you had to be twenty-one to get tattooed in our shop, because you change immensely in your early years. He sent a great amount of people away from the shop. A lot of these people came back twenty years later to thank me for what my father did. He protected people from themselves. He took his job very seriously and he thought that part of it was looking at the person in front of you and helping him to make the right choice.


Tattoo work photographs courtesy of The Leu Family.