Berber Tattooing - A book by Felix & Loretta Leu

Books & Publications - Issue 25

All the admirers of the art of tattoo know and respect the legendary Leu family. The book "Berber Tattooing" was born thanks to Felix and Loretta Leu's roadtrip in August 1988 in Morocco's Middle Atlas. It uniquely records the traditional tattoos of Berber women through their personal stories, revealing their culture and the role of tattoo, while providing excellent visual material consisting of fifty rare photographs, thirty-seven pencil illustrations, one hundred twelve black & white drawings, and two maps. HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine studied "Berber Tattooing" and spoke with the book's writer Loretta Leu, and publisher and painter Aia Leu.

Loretta Leu interviewed by Ino Mei

When did you decide to create “Berber Tattooing” and why? 

Loretta Leu: It happened during a holiday road trip in Morocco which Felix, our 13-year old son Ajja and myself took in 1988. Felix and I decided at once that the amazing tattoos which we were seeing as we travelled absolutely needed to be documented, as this was something we had never come across before. Until then we had only seen Berber women, both in person or in photographs, with small designs on their forehead and below their lips on their chin. The women we were encountering during this trip wore extensive tattoos placed all along their jawlines like a beard, down their throat, along their forearms, on their hands, calves and ankles. We immediately bought the tools we needed to document these tattoos and their wearers: a notebook, transparent sticky plastic and felt-tip pens; we already had a camera. At the same time, we met a local family who invited us to stay with them while we criss-crossed the area in search of more tattooed people.

How come did you publish this book now, after three decades and not sooner? 

Loretta: This material Felix and I gathered in 1988 remained in our archives over all the years we were busy with our tattoo studio and it was only in 2017 when our daughter Aia Leu offered to help me in getting it published that the time had finally come for it to happen. Aia had already published two other books, “The Art of the Leu Family” and “Building with Hemp”, through her publishing house, “SeedPress”, so she was well-versed in the setting up, printing and distribution process. We included in this book the sketches she had done in 1988-89 which were based on the photographs we had brought back from our trip and added her new drawings of the tattoo patterns which were taken from the tracings we had made of the women’s tattoos. To complete the book, I thank JoannaKate Grant for her proof-reading and editing skills.

Fatima drawing the design in ink on Loretta’s wrist prior to tattooing it.

What were the main challenges you faced during your road trip in Morocco’s Middle Atlas back in 1988?  

Loretta: The heat in that part of the world in the month of August, the wonderful hospitality of all the people we visited which meant we were bound by honour and politeness to eat and drink until we thought we’d burst (laughs). Finally, the difficulty in communicating with the women we interviewed, despite the fact that we had one, two or even three translators. I do feel that I might have been given access to more information if only women had been present during these meetings.

How did the local people treat you and your family?

Loretta: We were treated like honoured guests in every house we visited. They gave us the best food they could offer, the best cushions, carpets or sheepskins they had for us to sit on. They were warm and friendly. The old women were curious and enthusiastic about tattoos; they let me trace their tattoos and tried to answer our questions as best they could.

How many different tribes did you encounter during your road trip? 

Most of the people we visited were farmers and herdsmen and they lived in the rural area around the town of Khemisset. As far as we could learn they were mainly Zemmour Berbers. The principal tribes mentioned to us as being their tribe of origin were Huderrane, Ait Ouribel, Ait Gnoun, Ait Abou, Ait Oichi, Kabliin and one Arab tribe, Ait Amer. These in turn had sub-tribes made up of varying numbers of families each.

Loretta Leu with tattooist Aicha Bent Hamadi in 1988.​

Why was it mainly women that were tattooing and also getting tattooed? 

Loretta: We were told that it was their custom for most women to be tattooed just before or after getting married. The fact that most of the tattooers we met or heard about were women seemed logical to us because of customs also: it was more acceptable for women to touch other women, women were the weavers of carpets in every household and therefore passed the same patterns which are in the tattoos on through the generations. Some of these tattooers were also medicine women and knew the magic healing meanings of the symbols. We were unable to find out why the few men we met with a tattooed hand had that done.

Did you notice variations of the Berber tattoo designs from tribe to tribe? 

Loretta: Not among the people we met in this area. The designs were the same, only the arrangement or placement changed. As we were told, the designs were spread to different tribes by the tattooists who were summoned to tattoo the women. They were also handed down by mothers or other family members who sometimes did the tattoos themselves. Finally, one finds the same patterns in the carpets which the women of each family weave.

Tattoo design on Loretta’s wrist.

What are the main connotations of the Berber tattoos? 

Loretta: The meanings of the tattoo symbols seemed to us, for the most part, lost in time. There are no written records. The symbols in their tattoos are the same as those in their carpets, but which came first? r did they appear at the same time? We were given different meanings for the tattoo designs by different people. Some said they were purely decorative, to be pretty. Others gave us literal names of the design such as: the road, the comb, the spider and more. Still others, just a few, seemed to know the magic, talisman meanings: to keep your husband, to have children, against the evil eye and so on.

From your book, it is apparent that it was mainly older women that were wearing the tattoos. Today’s Islamic predominant religion “forbids” tattoos. Are traditional Berber tattoos still being practiced or are they facing serious extinction? 

Loretta: I have not been back to Morocco since 1988, but already at that time tattoos were considered haram or forbidden by Islam and uncivilised by the younger generation. Some of the older tattooed people were being encouraged to remove their tattoos! Although we never met any who had actually done so. Berbers are the earliest people living in North Africa. After the Muslim conquest of the area in the 7th Century the indigenous Berber tribes adopted Islam, but retained their customary laws, so tattooing fell into a kind of grey area. I don’t know the situation in Morocco today, but I seriously doubt any young people are continuing the practice of these extensive traditional tattoos on themselves.

Back ankle band tattoo on Yamna Bent Lahassan, pen on paper 42 x 30 cm, Aia Leu 2017.

Felix and ‘Baga Beach’ the VW van, in the forest above Azrou.​

What are your intentions with “Berber Tattooing”? Although is not an anthropological book, is it perhaps one of your book’s intentions the preservation of Berber tattoos by documenting them in the late 80’s?

Loretta: Absolutely! I hope this book remains as a document of these beautiful extensive Berber tattoos and the wonderful people who wore them; it will give a glimpse of this Berber custom to some interested researcher in fifty or more years down the road. 

While reading “Berber Tattooing” I kind of felt the atmosphere and the vibe that was in the air… What are your feelings about this book now that it is been published and Felix is no longer here? 

Loretta: I am extremely happy that it finally exists and I believe Felix would be also. We both felt from the start of this story that it was worthwhile telling, and now it has been.

Which were your road trip’s most intense moments? 

Loretta: That trip was full of intense moments, but my favourite is when I was tattooed by Fatima. She was a lovely young girl and although she didn’t have any tattoos herself she told us that her mother had been tattooed and had described the process to her. I asked her to do me a small tattoo on my wrist. She was reluctant at first, saying she had never actually done one, but she finally agreed. Under a canopy set up outside their house and with her whole family watching she did her best. It’s a little faded now, but it’s still my best-loved tattoo.

Hajah, pencil on paper, 32 x 24 cm, Aia Leu 1989.​

Using battery operated travelling tattoo equipment, Felix Leu tattoos Fatima Rajai.​

Aia Leu interviewed by Ino Mei

Where were your pencil illustrations based on?

Aia: When Felix & Loretta returned from their amazing travels in Morocco, they decided to write about the tattooed tribes they had met there. Felix had the idea and announced I had the job of drawing the illustrations. To begin with, he gave me a bunch of photographs they had taken of the tattooed women there and so the pencil portraits I drew were based on these. The photos were small and most of their tattoos were done years ago; sometimes the details had faded a bit and I often had to use a magnifying glass to see the detail better.

How long did it take you to create all the 112 drawings of “Berber Tattooing” as well as the pencil illustrations? 

Aia: I was only seventeen years old during the spring of 1989, and it took me about three months to draw all of the 37 portraits. The tattoo designs for the book were drawn later, in the summer of 2017, these I did from the original tracings that Loretta had made in Morocco, from Loretta’s notes and from photos if any existed. First I drew them in pencil, and then transferred them to ink on paper. I tried to reproduce accurately the tattoo designs, again sometimes it was difficult to see the details or they were very faded, but as each design was drawn in a particular way I soon began to recognise the technique of the different artists’ styles who had drawn them.

Aicha Mulud, pencil on paper, 32 x 24 cm, Aia Leu 1989.

The book is published by “SeedPress”; your publications. How was the process of gathering all the material for this publication?

Aia: Loretta had their original notebook from the journey and a box full of handwritten lists of the symbols, rough drawings of the maps and photographs and of course the finished portraits. Everything was mixed up and the original idea had been to have charts with the designs and their meanings and places tattooed on the body. We soon abandoned that idea, as it was obvious that each symbol had different meanings or placements. The story of each of the women was a better way to present the information gathered, and putting it together was like a puzzle and a real labour of love for me, originally I thought it would be a few weeks’ work! There was no deadline, and with me as SeedPress publishing the book, this gave Loretta the choice of how she wanted the book to finally look.

What inspired you to make this book?

Aia: In about 2013 I think, Loretta decided to restart the project which Felix and herself had never had the chance to complete. I offered to help and it seemed natural that we would work together on the book. Loretta on finishing the research and text, and I drawing the tattoo designs, editing and publishing it. By 2017 the main work was done and in the end, for the text editing we engaged the help of JoannaKate Grant, so the whole book was a project worked on by three women! Felix was very meticulous and from him I learned to always triple check details, I hope he would have been proud to see the finished book.

Tattoo designs brow,nose,lip,jawline and throat, Rebha Mohamed, pen on paper 42 x 30 cm Aia Leu 2017.

What are your feelings about “Berber Tattooing”? 

Aia: The women and men’s stories and faces in Berber Tattooing are fascinating and unforgettable, and I think it would have been a great loss to tattoo culture if the research Felix & Loretta gathered in 1988 had never seen the light of day. I think it is also a glimpse into a point in time, where an old custom is dying out and the new generation deciding their own choices and it’s also a story of the strength and power of women in a male dominated culture.

Rebha Mohamed, pencil on paper 32 x 24 cm Aia Leu 1989.

Are you currently working on a new book? 

Aia: The next project for me is, again a joint project with Loretta. We really enjoyed working together! It is a book documenting Felix’s early tattoo Flash from 1978 to 2002, it will show the process of his work with a little of his tattoo history too and include photographs of his tattoo works. I’m looking forward to going through the archives with Loretta to gather Felix’s Flash drawings, it will be fascinating to see all the familiar drawings again from my childhood.

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You can buy the book from SeedPress.