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Jasmine Rollason
Interview by: Jasmine Rollason Tuesday 24 July 2018
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Loretta Leu on the Leu family, neo-tribalism and Berber Tattooing

Loretta Leu, aka Y Maria, is the matriarch of the Leu family of tattooists. Though their studio is firmly established in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, life for the Leu’s began on the road, experiencing diverse cultures and garnering tattoo knowledge from around the globe.

Loretta’s new book, Berber Tattooing, documents one such journey through Morocco’s Middle Atlas. Exploring the fading tattoo culture of Berber tribes, it captures a seldom-documented period in tattoo history. The London Tattoo Convention is delighted to have Loretta attending to present her book.

Born in Italy in 1945, Loretta’s nomadic lifestyle began early, travelling the world with her mother, opera singer Bianca Buscaglia. In 1965, she travelled to New York, where she met artist Felix Leu (aka Don Feliz, 1945-2002). The pair fell in love, and together embarked on their own bohemian voyage, making ends meet along the way. Their four children – Filip, Ama, Aia and Ajja – were each born on the road. 

Their lives were transformed when Felix discovered tattooing. Realising it offered the freedom to create art, travel and earn, he learnt the ropes. Loretta soon followed, making her first tattoo – a Pinky Yun bird of paradise design – in Goa in 1978.

You were one of very few women tattooing in the late ’70s. Did this present hurdles?

It was no different to anyone else, male or female, because we were this unit, Felix and Loretta, so people saw us as a package. But even when I tattooed on my own [Felix was out of action with a broken wrist for a year] – I never encountered problems. People actually assumed if a woman tattooed them, it would hurt less!

You settled in Switzerland and opened your studio in 1988 – the world-famous Leu Family’s Family Iron – and attracted attention for your experimental, artistic approach. When did you realise the impact your work was having?

Our local reputation grew very quickly. Felix was very smart, he knew publicity was important. So, we corresponded with other artists, magazines and newsletters, sending photos of our work. The rest was word of mouth. Visiting artists were impressed by our studio – on the third floor of this building that was practically a squat, but what was going on inside was not like a lot of other studios.

We may have been artists, hippies, freaks in our way of living, how we decorated, in the serving of tea and the playing of rock ’n’ roll with incense burning, and visitors had to take off their shoes before entering. But in the hygiene and quality of work, Felix always said: ‘It’s your work that’s going to bring you clients. Each and every tattoo has to be your very best, whatever it may be – you can’t cut corners. You can’t accept a job late in the evening when you’re tired just because you want the money, because it’s going to work against you. If you do shit on people, their friends will see it! It’s not going to bring you more work.’

Your book – a family effort of archived material from you, Felix and illustrated by daughter Aia – details your encounter with tattooed Berber tribes. How did this journey take shape?

We had this VW van that Felix fixed up so we could make our own food and sleep. Our idea was to follow our noses, to go wherever we felt like going. We picked up this young guy Sahari along the way. He was invaluable, helping to guide and translate, finding water or wood when we were in the middle of nowhere. He also spoke several of the hundreds of different dialects. He was a good companion and we became friends.

In the Middle Atlas Mountains area we saw these heavily tattooed women. So we stayed, simply to get more information. We bought some transparent plastic, the kind people use now to design big tattoos, some felt pens and a notebook – which was the basis of this book – and used the sticky plastic to trace the tattoo designs.

How did the Berber women react?

They were absolutely wonderful. Most of these people were farmers, living not even in villages but right out in the countryside. We were always incredibly well received; they would insist on making food and tea, baking fresh bread, they would bring out the curd and the homemade butter. It was almost too much, because you couldn’t offend them, so if they brought all these things out, you had to eat them! In most houses, they would insist on doing henna on my hands and feet. They were very gracious, very warm.

These ladies have been told most of their life their tattoos are a bad thing – and here we come, we’re only interested in the tattoos and we’re saying how wonderful they are! We communicated through a translator or just through gestures. We would take their arms and look at the designs and show them ours. It felt we were giving them something in the last part of their lives. You could tell it made them happy, and sometimes when I traced the patterns on these women they would lie absolutely still, like they were remembering when they were being tattooed – which may have been at the time of their marriage.

The shift in societal norms, and towards Islam, has rendered Berber tattooing almost obsolete among the youths. Did you meet any younger women with tattoos?

The youngest we saw with a large tattoo must have been in her late forties. Most were way past 60, 70 and sometimes quite ill. They’d be lying down but would insist on getting up and worrying about who would make the tea for us – if a visitor comes, you show hospitality! These were not rich people; their houses are mud and stone structures with dirt floors, no electricity, the water comes from the well.

You and Felix met tattooed women from various tribal factions. Were the techniques passed down generationally?

Not from the family, but the Berber culture. It was hard to get exact reasons – some said it was because everybody in the village did it. Some said it was to look pretty. A few had been tattooers themselves and knew the meanings of the patterns and designs. They’d say one was to have children, one to have male children! One to keep a husband, and the most common was against the evil eye, bad luck.

But it was hard to really pinpoint it. I tried to make charts, but it was impossible because each one gave a different answer. If it was something special and sacred, why would they tell a total stranger who just shows up one day? 

Are there still some secrets left untapped, mysteries still to discover?

Oh, absolutely! Not in a bad way – just preserving something special to them. It’s interesting that it’s the same patterns you find in Berber carpets. And every family still weaves carpets in the countryside.

It’s a language. I don’t know which came first, tattoos or carpets, because there was no written language. It was all passed down. The Berbers were the first civilisation in that part of the world. There are no archaeological records to help people trace these origins, so the only thing left is the patterns – in the carpets, on people’s skins.

What was your most memorable encounter?

One was getting tattooed. It was really spur of the moment, me asking this young girl. At first, she refused because she’d never done it, but her mother had explained the technique, and I kept insisting – eventually she gave in. It was a cool moment, we had her family around and everybody was super interested.

We once spent the night at a farmer’s house. The grandmother of the house had very beautiful tattoos, and we’d traced and photographed them. I was sitting outside on the ground with her; it was approaching the evening, but she didn’t speak any French or English and there was nobody around to translate. So, we just held hands, looking at the landscape. It was a very intense, human connection – without any language. I remember that very strongly.

Do you believe there is a universal language of tattooing?

It’s really interesting that on opposite parts of the world you will find very similar patterns. How did they get there? Is it a human thing that comes from inside all of us, that if we draw a simple pattern, we’ll draw a cross or a zigzag or a half-moon – or is there another connection? In Tahiti, in Samoa... there’s differences, but many similarities too.

What changes have you seen in modern tattooing?

Since we started, there’s been many more amazing artists coming from art schools. Today I’m just blown away when I open a magazine and see how much incredible work is out there. There was good work in the early ’80s, but the quantity now is much greater.

What do you think of the recent resurgence of tribal tattooing in Western culture?

There was this huge revival in the mid-’80s, starting with Tattoo Time, Ed Hardy’s publication, along with books by Chris Wroblewski. And then Leo Zulueta, who was kind of Ed Hardy’s protégé, put out this series redrawing the Borneo designs. It took off from there; people liked the idea of black tattoos that didn’t represent a particular image – they were just shapes. And people started making their own, which became known as neo-tribal. At the same time that there were all these amazing new artists coming up, that could make these incredible artistic things – eagles, portraits or whatever - there was increasing demand for a simpler tribal style. I found that interesting.

Have you got any new projects in the works?

I want to do a book of photos of Felix’s tattoos and designs, because a lot of people know his name, but haven’t seen any of his work. My daughter Aia and I will work on this together. It should be ready next year.

Berber Tattooing is out now via SeedPress Publishing. Find Loretta and Aia Leu at The London Tattoo Convention, alongside hand poke artist Samantha Houten. Samantha will be offering Berber-style tattoo designs to visitors throughout the weekend.