Felix Leu - Tattooing Ask Here

Books & Publications - Issue 26

Felix Leu is a true tattoo master and pioneer, as well as the father of the iconic The Leu Family. “Tattooing Ask Here” beautifully unfolds his tattoo work and distinctive freehand tattoo style, his unique and charismatic personality, his love for Loretta and his family, their extensive travels, his ethics. From Goa to Lausanne, “Tattooing Ask Here” definitely reflects the tattoo magic and the authenticity that is rarely found nowadays. Among its pages, there are 269 colour illustrations, 189 black & white illustrations, 101 colour photographs, 19 black & white photographs, interviews and personal stories. After reading this precious book, HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine had a conversation with its writer, Loretta Leu.  

Loretta Leu interviewed by Ino Mei.  

When did you decide to create a book about Felix Leu, and how long did it take you to write it and to compile all the necessary material for its publication?  

Two years ago I started to look through our archives for all the tattoo drawings (or “flash”) which Felix had done, and when Aia came to visit I showed them to her. She said: “Why don’t I help you to organise this material and we make another book together?”  We had collaborated well on my book “Berber Tattooing in Morocco’s Middle Atlas” in 2017, and I agreed.

Artwork by Felix Leu 1978.

Reading about how Felix got into tattooing in 1978, would you say that it was… fate…?

Most definitely, as tattooing had not been a part of our life before in any way! For years Felix had been looking for something, a good way for us to survive while keeping our independent lifestyle, and here he found it by pure chance!

Can you estimate about how many tattoos did Felix do in total throughout his career?

Not really. What I can say is that he tattooed for nearly 20 years and we had periods of intense 12 hour days in which he tattooed 2, 3 or even 4 people, depending on the size of the design of course. We also still travelled at times or took time off when he didn’t tattoo. So it is hard for me to estimate how many tattoos he did.

Snake-Demon: Flash drawn by Felix Leu and painted in gouache on paper, Goa, India 1980.

Snake-Demon: A photograph taken in 1990 of a tattoo done by Felix in Goa, India in 1980.​

How important was to Felix to broaden the client’s tattoo horizons, as well as his ethics on the matter of tattooing that are summed up in his “Tattoo Rules”?

Felix thought that offering access to books about tattooing and art was an important service he could give people. In the early years many of the clients who came to us didn’t realise that a tattoo could be something more than just the traditional designs on our walls or in our flash books.

Felix felt that it was absolutely necessary to be ethical. Keep your karma clean! You have to be able to look at your own face in the mirror in the morning!

Tattooing is a situation where you could easily take advantage of people. They come to you for a tattoo and they may not know much about it, they assume you know what is best for them, and when you tattoo them you are in charge. He thought it important not to abuse this trust.

Early business card circa 1979, advertising Felix Leu, Tattoo Artist.​

How extensive is your photographic archive of Felix’ tattoo works, and how big did “The Wall of Fame” turn up to be?

I have put a selection of the best images I have of Felix’s tattoos in the book. We started tattooing in a pre-digital age and did not always have access to a camera. So Felix’s work was not as extensively documented as tattooers can do today.

“The Wall of Fame” grew until it covered one wall of our studio and the length of our hallway, at which point Felix stopped taking polaroids of each tattoo he did. Our clientele was growing fast and it was no longer reasonable to document each one. Also we wanted to change our walls and put up more artwork. I would estimate a few hundred polaroids at least by the end of the project.

Felix and Filip tattooing in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1983.​

What was the inspiration behind the creation of the famous “The Leu Family’s Family Iron” logo that was created in 1992?

In our early years Felix made our business cards as Felix & Loretta Leu. That is how we were known. That is also what he wrote on the back of the photos of tattoos we sent to other tattooers or for publication in magazines and books. One day I said to him: “Why write “by Felix & Loretta Leu”? You have done these tattoos, why do you put my name also?”. He answered: “Because without you I wouldn’t have done them.”

By the early 90s Filip had been tattooing with us for many years already, Aia had been drawing for the studio and all the family was involved in the running of the business. It seemed time to pick a new name and so we invented “The Leu Family’s Family Iron”.

The logo originated from a comic book drawing of a skull wearing a helmet. Felix and Filip redrew it, added the scrolls with our new name and refined the design together. We had always seen a skull as a positive image. It’s a reminder to live your life every day to the fullest, to be here and now. It was also an homage to the Grateful Dead and to Mexican and Tibetan art, where it often appears.

The Leu Family’s Family Iron’s logo, created in 1992. ​

What role did rock ‘n’ roll play in Felix’ life?

It was a very big part. Rock ’n’ roll was the soundtrack of our life since the beginning. So many good messages were in the lyrics of music in the 60s and 70s. Vinyls, cassettes and finally CDs. Wherever we lived we had our music. Once we began tattooing it became even more essential. Imagine being tattooed in silence! Felix loved rock ’n’ roll and the energy it could give to tattooing.

Original flash by Felix Leu, Lausanne, Switzerland 1990.​

Which tattooists have tattooed Felix? 

Not so many. He did many of his tattoos himself. The rest were mostly by Filip, then smaller ones by me, Titine, Ajja, the Indian tattooer Soma, Lo Kam Hung and Horigianca.

Why did you return to Switzerland in 1981, and for how long was the historical tattoo studio, at 34 Rue Centrale at Lausanne, open? 

We came to Switzerland because we didn’t have enough work in Goa. At the time we had only one or two clients per week there, and although life was cheap in India, eventually this was not enough.

The studio at 34 Rue Centrale was open for 20 years, until the building it was in was demolished!

The Leu Family’s Family Iron Tattoo Studio and Museum, 34 Rue Centrale, Lausanne, Switzerland, Photo by Neil Labrador 2003.​

Being Greek, I must ask you when did you visit Greece during your extensive travels, in which places did you stay, and for how long? 

It was before Felix started tattooing. In the spring of 1976 we had gotten a car ride with friends from France to Athens, where we got on a boat and started island hopping. We were looking for a good place which was not too full of tourists to spend some time. I can’t remember the different islands we stopped at. We spent one or two nights on each until we could catch a boat to another island.

We also went to Crete and in Paleohora we met a guy who told us about a small island a few hours away by fishing boat called Gavdos. We decided to go there and camped with our children on a wonderful deserted beach for 3 weeks. 

After that we went on visiting different Greek islands and finally found Leipsoi, a tiny island in the Dodecanese group, up north near Turkey. In fact, you could see the turkish coast from it! There were no tourists, only one other foreign couple living there and we stayed for two months.

I have great memories of Greece: the beauty of the place, the warmth of the sun, the clear water of the Mediterranean and the friendliness of the people. They really love children and we had four! Every day we’d come back to our little house in Leipsoi and finds gifts of fruits, tomatoes and other gifts hanging in bags on the door!

The Leu Family, Bombay, India. 1981. ​

What were Felix’ views on craft and art when it comes to tattoo and tattooing?

If you tattoo someone’s else’s design you are a tattooer.

If you design your own on paper or freehand on the skin, you are a tattoo artist.

You can be very good at tattooing in both ways.

Snake, Eagle and Dragon Fighting or Battle Royale. Tattooed by Felix, Loretta and Filip Leu in 1985, Lausanne, Switzerland.

When did Felix retired from tattooing and why?

In 1995 he was diagnosed with cancer. He stopped full-time tattooing but continued doing the p.r. for the business: writing articles, sending out photos, designing posters, and so on. He also devoted himself to his fine art and painted and drew.

Number 31, the Paul Booth Project, by Don Feliz, India ink on paper, 2001.​

Although Felix became famous about his original freehand tattoo style and custom work, he created in 1998 his series of flash tattoos as Don Feliz, his new alias. How come? 

He felt that after 1995 there began a new chapter in our life, so why not new names. In our artwork we became Don Feliz and Y Maria.

Black Roses and Pierced Hearts: Original flash sheet by Don Feliz, pen and coloured pencils on paper, 1998.​

Did Felix “foresee” the vast popularity of tattoo nowadays, and what would his feelings have been of the current tattoo scene, as well as tattoo’s commercialization?

He was an intelligent man and he could see the inevitable growth of tattooing coming. He would have been impressed by the quality of the work today but I think he would have been disappointed at the loss of the rebel and outsider atmosphere in tattooing. That is a big part of what attracted us to it in the beginning. 

Snake with Bio-Mechanical background: Freehand Tattoo by Felix Leu, Lausanne, Switzerland 1984.​

In your opinion, why did Felix fall in love with tattoo and tattooing?

He found it to be a great way to make money using his artistic ability. People come to you for it, you don’t have to look for them. There is no middleman, it is a direct transaction between you and the client. You don’t need much, just basic equipment and you can do it anywhere in the world. 

Then he got interested and charmed by it. We didn’t have any tattoos when he began tattooing but we soon started to tattoo ourselves in Goa. And continued… haha!

Original eagle: Flash by Felix Leu, Lausanne, Switzerland 1987.​

Original eagle: Tattoo by Felix Leu, Lausanne, Switzerland 1987.​

What are your feelings about “Felix Leu, Tattooing Ask Here”? 

I am very happy with the book. My aim was to document Felix’s tattoo life and make something which present and future tattoo artists and enthusiasts can refer.

I love reading about tattooers from the beginning of our tattoo history till today. So here now is one more.

Are you currently working on a new book? 

Yes. It is a more personal biography of our family which tells of many adventures and travels also before tattooing came into our life. I can’t tell you when I’ll be finished, there is still a lot of work to do.

Felix Leu in Lausanne, Switzerland 1988.

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You can buy the book “Felix Leu, Tattooing Ask Here” from SeedPress.