Sitting on the wall with Loretta, 2013
“Home is where the heart is….on the bus.” -Frank Zappa, Wet T-Shirt Nite
It has taken me almost exactly two months to finish writing this blog post, and I’ve thought about it every single day. After our trip to the Montreal Art and Tattoo Show held in mid September, my husband hit the road with a vengeance. Paris, London, Barcelona, Eddie toured around for two international tattoo shows in just over three weeks, plus a few guest spots with new contacts. I stayed home on this sudden European jaunt, helping to run our tattoo shop and keep things from burning down at home. Eddie had watched Filip Leu tattoo a one sitting backpiece in Montreal, and had been ready to travel, draw, and tattoo compulsively soon after. The London Convention was calling; so was Barcelona. Off he went. I was a proud tattoo wife from across an ocean.
The Montreal Art and Tattoo Show 2013 was possibly one of the most memorable conventions I’ve experienced. The energy was electric. Everyone was excited to see the Leu Family, and tattoo artists traveled from near and far to watch some of the world’s best tattoo artists practice their craft, live. I was given the exceptional opportunity to sit down with the First Lady of tattoo, Loretta Leu aka Maria, wife of Felix, and talk shop about tattoo life, family, wine, and our beloved dogs. According to the Leu Family Iron site, Felix and Loretta started tattooing in 1978 in Goa, India, and essentially raised their four children as bohemians and exceptional artists. They are possibly our most well known tattoo family, as well as the most respected, and I found Loretta to be sweet, straight forward, gracious, and very candid. I asked her if I could possibly sit and interview for her for a bit, so she gathered her jacket and we decided to sit outside of the noisy, buzzing convention hall for some fresh air.
After some brief introductions, Loretta lit her cigarette and said, “So? What did you want to know?”
Where do I start? I asked about all of the travel she had done over the years with her husband Felix and their four children. Was that a difficult undertaking?
Pause. “I had traveled a lot already in my life with my mother, I had traveled a lot with Felix before we ever got into tattooing. We didn’t start until we were thirty-five, both of us. Tattooing was really a Godsend; it saved our asses, because we always lived an alternative lifestyle, with four kids, already. So, it was always difficult finding ways of surviving. We didn’t want to go work in a shop, we found things to do, we made crafts, we went and lived in Spain, cheaper places, we would find ways of being able to carry on, the way we wanted to live with our kids…you know, without working for the man kind of thing…but it was always difficult. We got a bit of help from my mother sometimes, Felix’s mom when things were really tough, so when through sheer coincidence this chance came into our life, it seemed the perfect thing, you know, because you are your own boss, you don’t need to sell it in the sense that they come to you because they want a tattoo. You could be on a beach in Brazil with a little tattoo case, start talking to someone in a café, go back to your hotel room or whatever, settle on a price, and if they want a tattoo you tattoo. It is a very direct thing. We were both already artists, started that way originally, so it seemed perfect. After we started tattooing, we still did a bit of traveling.”
“How does that amount of travel change your life views? Do you always feel the need to keep moving?”
“When you’re younger, I think traveling is really good. Now, I am more than happy to stay home, with my dog, relax in my garden. I think you should see what else is out there, experience other cultures, people-it is only beneficial. Go for it. How do I think traveling changes you? It benefits you. It helps you have a broader view on life, and you see that it can be other ways.” She smiled broadly.
“Filip grew up on the road, so to speak, as did all of our kids. We would settle in places for six months, a year, Spain five years, India four years, several spots. But, you know, but…how shall I say, it’s not where any of us came from. It was just, OK, for two years, this is our house, that’s it. You know Zappa, right?”
I nodded my head and said ‘Of course!’
“That line, ‘Home is where the heart is…ON THE BUS!!’” she laughed, and rowdily sang a bit of Zappa to passing gawking artists.
“If you could give any advice to tattoo wives trying to balance family and this business, what would it be?” She had my utter and full attention-this woman had information and experience that humbles most on this particular topic.
“Advice for the tattoo wife? Oh! I would tell them be involved.”
“Be part of it. That was always our experience, we always tattooed in the same place that we lived if possible, we were always together all the time, meaning although we did different things, sometimes Felix did most of the tattooing, I would help, like, clean up, or I learned how to make needles, we were a team. I was very lucky with Felix, in the sense that he was uuummm…well…(pauses)…he was great, and from the beginning when we started sending out photos of work, which was actually HIS work, he always labeled it Felix and Loretta Leu-always.”
“That’s a beautiful credit”, I replied. That acknowledgement is something we all look for.
“In the beginning, there weren’t as many national magazines when we started, but he would never put just Felix Leu. I would feel funny sometimes, and I’d say, ‘look, I don’t think that’s right, that one is your work, that one is (also) your work.’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, but…you made the needles’, I was grinding pigments and mixing colors at that time, ‘you take care of everything else’…at the time I was doing all the appointments we would clean up together, the work kind of divided up by itself, it’s not like we made lists, but we both had things that we were better at. He was the one that learned to tattoo first, so he was the one that did it. We started getting a bit more work, and I did some too. But I never did the really big pieces. So my advice to tattoo wives is to be part of it, not have a separate life in the sense of OK, you have kids, so tattoo is what he does, and he has a shop and goes there, it becomes very a JOB, and that’s a shame. Then you have separate lives, and I’m a firm believer in a family, as much as possible, doing stuff together.”
I replied that I had always been a career woman, and working with my husband at our business had been a challenge for me, trying to find my place.
“Don’t misunderstand, when I say I believe in working together, once it wasn’t so, like in the beginning we were really broke, so when we got back to Switzerland, we worked really hard, like sixteen hour days, we would take anybody who came to the door, you know what I mean? Prices were way down, and yeah, sure sit down…we’d try not to let anyone walk out without getting tattooed. Once that got better, we got more of a, you know, reputation, more business, better prices, a bit more comfortable, Felix always encouraged me to go on for instance with my art, you know what I mean? And there was me, I was kind of copping out a bit, because it was easier just to do all of the work that I knew needed doing instead of, like, going off into another room to do art. I’m not saying don’t have something else you’re interested in, but if there is a way of working together or staying together I think that’s good as a couple and as a family, to do this thing together.”
I thought about their obviously loving relationship. “It sounds like you and Felix had something very special.”
“It seems special, just because a lot of people have a tendency not to do that anymore…but I think it used to be the way people did it, you know what I mean? The husband, the wife, the kids, everyone made a concerted effort for survival, way back when there was the grandparents as well, to look after the kids while the parents were doing the hard work. And that’s great, I think that is perfect.”
“So, I study and love wine and winemaking; I write about wines as well. Do you enjoy any wines or particular beverages?”
Sighing, “I don’t drink anymore now, and even if I have wine with dinner, I feel like crap. I just decided I can live without wine. No favorite, I guess red over white. Not a connoisseur, at all, even though the town I was born in-I was born in Italy-in a town called Asti, which is where the Asti Spumante sparkling wine comes from. But, I was six months old, so it doesn’t really count.”
I say it still counts. A wine connection is a wine connection, right? I’ll take it!
Shifting topics for a moment, “I am in love with my old english bulldog Madison Mae, and I hear you also have a little companion? Tell me about your dog, and her very unique name?”
“Ha! Lilu Multipass! The Fifth Element, that movie, I love the part where she says ‘Multipass! Multipass!’” Her face lights up even more. Why are tattoo folks almost always dog people? We all seem to have dogs that we treat as family.
“She’s a Tibetan Lhasa Apso and I’ve always wanted one. I said if I got a dog, it would be that. She’s great, she’s great with people, kids, just some dogs she does not like. Sometimes, it’s like I’m apologizing, she’s never hurt another dog, but even if it’s a big dog, she’ll grrrrrr….and then bark bark bark! I’m going like, sorry! Sorry! We’re in the mountains in Switzerland, so she is off of a leash mostly with me, where I walk her is mostly either forest or fields. She never strays; she’ll tear off and chase a fox or something, then come running back like, where is she? Did she leave? No, but she’s great. I obviously didn’t get her to replace Felix, but I got her initially for my health, because I realized I’m still smoking, and I’m too lazy to walk unless there is a visitor, but since I have her I’m out every day. Even in the winter, she’s so cute in the snow, pouf pouf pouf, snowballs stuck to the fur. What I like about this breed is while they are people dogs, they are alarm dogs, but she’s also independent in the house. It’s not like she has to be glued to me, she has her spots that she likes to do her siesta, I work over there, and then you think they’re asleep, and you walk past, and you just see the eye open, kind of following you, what is she doing…that’s been a big thing in my life the past three years. It gets me out there, I feel healthier.”
“Loretta, so why am I such a terrible client for my husband now? I used to sit for hours, now its, just….”
“No matter how different we are in our lives, we tattoo conventioneers have this one thing in common. You know what it’s like to get a needle stuck in you, and I know what it’s like!” Giggles. “And getting tattooed by artist husbands…it’s the worst!” More laughing and eye rolling, bonding through difficult tattoo sittings with our spouses. Real talk from Mama Leu!
She continued, “‘would you stop crying?’ It’s terrible to sit. I think it’s because they get nervous, they don’t want to fuck up, and then you get upset, and I can remember….this one (points to her throat tattoo) like, really hurt, and I’m like (whines) crying…he’s I can’t work if you’re crying…I’m going to stop NOW…and I’m like (whining) no, no finish it…ugh, terrible (laughing).”
“Of course I wish Felix was here as well, but that’s the way it went. I’m not unhappy with getting older in the sense of course I don’t like aches and pains, and the things that don’t work so good anymore, but I like the freedom-the mental freedom I feel now. It’s different.”
She smiled and glanced to the side for a moment. “It’s not like anybody was holding me back, I was holding myself in this place. And now, I’m so totally free of, like, I can get up when I want, I can go to sleep when I want, if I decide to walk over there, I don’t have to report to anybody and let them know where I am, there is a lot of freedom in getting older. Maybe I’ll make a tee shirt that say’s There’s Freedom in Getting Older!” she said, laughing at the idea. “But there is! It’s not all bad, what’s coming down the road.”
I told her I was looking forward to sharing any and all adventures that Eddie and I have in our future, together. Easily one of the most inspiring and generous spirits I’ve been blessed to talk with and be inspired by. Thank you to Loretta for taking time out of your busy weekend to talk with me, and for sharing the knowledge and love so easily. I’ve been much more involved, and as the universe sees fit….we’re getting on the bus. “Viva la Vida,” she signed a sticker for our resident female tattooist Colby Pou. Viva la vida, Loretta! Thank you again for your insights, see you out there…
LiLu the beautiful Lhasa in Loretta’s rose garden, at home in Switzerland
Loretta at work in Montreal, 2013