Currently reading : SB6 Archive (2012): Tin-Tin
Edited by Clément Delépine and Nick Schonberger
Tin-Tin, legend says, once taught taught scuba diving in the Caribbean. Rumor has it that he is also an excellent tango dancer. He wouldn’t confirm or deny but, somehow, it wouldn’t come as a surprise. The man himself is theatrical and to get along you would certainly have to share his sense of humor…which is an exercise in itself for those who are unprepared.
The legendary tattoo artist from Paris is a mysterious man. However, there is no mystery at all in how he reached his status. He worked furiously for nearly 29 years. Self-taught, Tin-Tin learned what he knows by being on the other side of the needle first. The boundaries of this profession were blurry at that time, and owning your material was sufficient to make you a professional. He eventually got his hands on a tattoo machine and became a tattoo artist in 1984.
Tin-Tin certainly doesn’t know everyone, but everyone knows him. “Thus human courts acquit the strong” says the poem. Nonetheless, Tin-Tin makes a point of treating everyone the same and making his shop a hospitable place.
Let’s start with a reminder—according to you, between the end of the ‘80s, beginning of the ‘90s, and the establishment of the contemporary tattoo, who were the people and studios important at that time, in Europe, at least?
You know the ones that first come to my mind. There was the Leu Family who was greatly decisive and influential in Europe. They launched a lot of people. It was mainly Felix back then who influenced his son. The mood was originating from there, it was a reference, a meeting point, a knowledge pool you couldn’t miss in the ‘90s. I was already looking towards the United States, but I hope regardless that I have been one too—an anchor point in Europe or in France. There was Alex Binnie in those years, Filip, Alex, and I, we had pretty much the same careers, we started at the same time. All the same for Luke Atkinson in Stuttgart.
What about Holland, Germany, Italy?
There was Hanky Panky, but more for the events he was organizing. The meetings he was able to put together. Back then, Amsterdam’s convention was the world’s convention. At that time almost only three conventions a year were happening in the world, so when you went to Amsterdam you met Horiyoshi, Ed Hardy, the Leu family; they were all there...All these tattoo artists present there became legends. There was Bernie too, really important during that era, Bernie Luther and the Furhmann brothers—at the time they were still two. However, it happened way later in Italy. They were a bit behind in the ‘80s. In the ‘90s, they woke up a little bit. Same thing in Spain in the ‘80s. It started slowly with Hernandez but before him...Of course, there were tattooists, there was Mao, but nobody else really major in Spain. It’s only later that came guys like Jee Sayalero, Jondix, and Hernandez.
What about Scandinavia? When did Theo Jack leave?
I don’t even know where he was...
He’s from the East Coast of the United States, from upstate New York.
Yes, originally he is American...I think he was still there back then. I started in 1984 and I’m talking about the years 1988 to 1992. Then it’s the ‘90s, and at the end of the 90s Hernandez and the like made their appearance—there were plenty after that. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s we were a small group so we all knew each other.
At that time, did the Americans travel to Europe?
A few, but not that many. In Amsterdam you would meet Jack Rudy, Ed Hardy, etc.
"That’s what mattered to me at the time, that conventions were something where tattoo artists wanted to come, where they felt respected and where they didn’t need to pay for everything."
Did it function as a network? How was the scene connected? Were a lot of magazines available in Europe?
There were no magazines. The only publications we would get were the bible of the days. It was Outlaw Biker, things were you could find bikini pictures, but it was more bikers’ magazines in which they published tattoo contests from bike shows. It ranged from the best to the worst. From time to time there was a picture of a super beautiful tattoo, but it was quite rare. Back then, Shotsie Gorman was doing a thing called Tattoo Advocate. But you had to subscribe, it was really obscure. There were the publications of National Tattoo Supply which were exactly the same as they are today but at that time there was nothing…so it was a reference. And mostly Ed Hardy had done Tattoo Time. There were four issues I believe. The blue, the yellow, the white...In Tattoo Time you’d find things by Eddy Deutsche. It was a staple. We knew them by heart.
Could you find Tattoo Seventies, the thing by Lyle Tuttle, or Skin Show?
Skin Show, yes, but later. Chris Wróblewski was doing books. But you’d find the best to the worst in them. And there was Gippi Rondinella, an Italian who had done “L’asino e la zebra”, the donkey and the zebra. It was quite interesting, beautiful tattoos in there and well documented. At that time even books were scarce. The iconography was the collection amongst tattoo artists. We would exchange pictures, letters with pictures. Each tattooist had pictures from the other artists pinned in his or her shop. That’s how it was done; it was a general unspoken rule since I was getting tattooed at Marcel in the 80s in Paris and there were pictures by Alan from Marseille and Gilles from Brest on the walls. The rare tattoo artists of the time. There were maybe 30 or 40 tattooists in France, today probably 4000. There was one tattoo artist per big city and everybody would know each other. Jean-Marc from Rennes, Alain from Lorient, etc. In Toulouse in 1986 we were already two. It was already overcrowded. Nowadays, I believe there are 27 in Toulouse. So when I bought back that shop there, it was already a big city, you see—two tattoo artists!
Did people travel already? Was there a guest spot system?
More or less, yes, it was in practice. I was at Kari Barba’s in 1986. I crashed there for three weeks and I was able to tattoo one of her tattooists. I got tattooed too. I wasn’t really working guest as it is understood today, but we were able to tattoo at each other’s place. Anyway, I wouldn’t go anywhere without my material...but it was not like the cases of today. It was very much a trunk, which made for quite a journey.
Can you pinpoint some decisive moments in the history of tattoo in Europe? Or is it more of a continuous evolution?
I do think it is a continuous evolution. There were decisive moments all the time so you cannot choose one particular moment. The first time it happens, every moment is a conclusive one. The first time I met Filip, I must have been 21 years old and he was something like 17 or 18. Back then the kid could already tattoo better than me. It was at Zürich’s convention.
Who was organizing Zürich’s convention?
I don’t remember. They had done a poster for that convention. There was a German guy called Fritz, the Furhmann brothers, and Bernie. It was quite a simple convention when you think of it today, but back then our eyes were sparkling. Who was organizing that...I cannot recall.
I’m fast forwarding a little bit to a more important event for you. The first Mondial du Tatouage. How did it go? When was it?
It was in 1999. Much later. I know it went really well because it got stuck in the collective unconscious and in people’s minds. I still hear about it while organizing a new one 13 years later, and I cannot judge but only repeat what I’m being told by some people—that it was the best convention they have ever been too.
The fact that they say such high things of it is probably because I did it two years in a row and then stopped. So it stayed as a magical thing. The fact that I stopped so abruptly certainly does a lot. But Miki Vialetto, the current pope of the Mondial convention, made the most beautiful compliment. We were in Tahiti once together, with Filip, too, and he told me, “the conventions, you gave me the way to organize them”. Coming from Miki Vialetto, it’s the most beautiful compliment you can receive. Look at what he has done, if I have taught him then I did it fucking well because now I am asking him for help and not the opposite.
For you, what was crucial in the organization?
I was the first one to invite all the tattooists. I do it less nowadays because there are a lot of expenses. But back then I felt it was unfair that tattooists were paying so much when they were doing the show. Thus the first time I gave them a ridiculously cheap deal. Not enough to cover the price of the champagne bottle I was delivering to their booths daily. I had a champagne sponsor so every day all parties were free for them. Open bar, catering. It was a big feast and I made money because the visitors were paying. That’s what mattered to me at the time, that conventions were something where tattoo artists wanted to come, where they felt respected and where they didn’t need to pay for everything. Today, you cannot make it anymore, you cannot invite all the tattooists. You can only invite the super big names.
What I did this year is that I decided not to invite any French. So nothing to make a fuss about. I have so many friends in France, if I invite the best ones and my friends...then I invite everybody. Should I get three or four to pay out of 30? It’s nonsense. It would create jealousy. So I stated, all the French have to pay and I only invited a few foreigners. That would be Filip Leu, Paul Booth, those kind of names, you see, only heavyweights who are tattoo legends.
I’m taking the liberty to continue with another topic: the legal dimension of tattooing, which everybody is facing. First, if you could tell us in a few words about what happened with the union and what laws the French state tried to pass.
They succeeded! They tried to pass some laws even though there has never been any law since the beginning. Everybody was minding their businesses and suddenly they succeeded in passing a law about hygiene, which we were not against in the first place. We almost reported that some could do pretty much whatever they wanted with hygiene. As we work with blood there can be virus transmissions. There are a lot of shops that do both tattoos and piercings under the same roof, under the same name, so they wanted to tar everything with the same brush. But it’s not the same practice, nor the same risks. It’s done in the same place, indeed, but the risk is a lot more invasive with piercings as it goes beyond the skin barrier, whereas a tattoo is only an act of superficial skin penetration.
So they made a unique law. They thought, “Why have less when you can have more?” They issued for piercing an all-sterile rule justifiable by the bacterial risk. However, they wanted the same rule for tattoos when the bacterial risk is almost non-existent because we don’t break into the skin barrier. The bacteria that will do a lot of harm in piercing will be innocuous in tattoos. The risk with tattoos is more viral than bacterial, because of the cross-contamination. If somebody has contracted hepatitis, you touch his blood, you touch your lamp, his blood is on the lamp. You touch your lamp again and you can transmit viruses like hepatitis.
It was nonsense to treat it similarly. Like we would have required the same rules of hygiene as a dentist and a heart transplant surgeon. It was that dumb. On one hand, a superficial skin penetration, and, on the other, a hygiene protocol that requires a sterile environment, sterile material—everything sterile. So we fought, I fought all by myself for a long time then I created a union so we could team up. We were able to modify the decree and to have rules adapted to the profession. Today the outcome is not so bad.
From what you know, what is the status in Europe? Are there a lot of countries with the same laws or is it a French particularity?
It’s a French particularity, but Europe followed the French decrees to lay them down on other countries. But as other countries didn’t have unions, it didn’t go well. Take Italy or Spain for instance. Looking at Spain, during conventions, they work in Plexiglas cubicles. It doesn’t help anything; it pisses everybody off and increases the costs. It’s only the law that requires this and once in place you can only follow it.
Last question about the union—is it still useful to resolve other issues today?
The union was not created for this purpose. Initially it was put in place to make the tattooist legally recognized as an artist, for taxes. So, at first, the union was not there to fight against decrees but by necessity it served that purpose too. As a few tattooists were fighting to be recognized as artists on the same level as a painter on canvas or silk, or an artistic ironworker or fireplace artist, or a photographer. There are so many ways to be an artist for the tax department in France, but if you’re a tattoo artist, you’re not an artist, you’re considered as an ugly little parasite. It’s an ongoing battle. Judiciously, with a lawyer, we are appealing. We are dealing with the Conseil d’État right now, but we will make it sooner or later. We are also here to defend tattoo artists from scratchers. We are trying to fight against anybody who is not declared and who is coming to tattoo at your home even though it’s forbidden. They are killing the profession slowly. Did you see, there are even some websites now, LOL tattoos, to show all the atrocities that are done. We tried to battle against that too, to fight for the profession. We’ve done everything for the job to be respectable and it has become almost too mainstream. It attracts all kind of abuses. So we try to fight against that and to inform about that matter.
I have a question regarding the role of studios. The artists are talked about a lot but the studios are discussed relatively little in comparison. I had the pleasure of working here. Through your studio, you have created a kind of institution that works harmoniously. So I’m asking myself, what makes a good studio? How did you create yours? And finally, according to you, what makes the fundamental balance in a tattoo studio?
Well, the institution is skilled tattooists who are getting along and who you’re happy to visit. Then it is the duty of the ones who determine that the studio is an institution to explain why they have determined that. I cannot show up and simply say my place is an institution. Many do that, while their studio is an institution for no one but themselves. Many would like their studio to be a tattoo institution. It will probably never be but it doesn’t bother them to claim it is one. Therefore, I don’t know if I am one or not, if you say so it pleases me. Other tattoo artists say so too because they have fun coming here to work. Because there is a good atmosphere. First, for me, it’s important that nobody takes oneself seriously. Then you have to be a shithead and to say shit because it’s my mentality and the one of the people around me. Shitheads attract shitheads, every shithead that wants to play shithead feels good here. Now it’s a fact that people who have two thumbs up in their ass and have a hard time removing them will be fucking bored here, because it’s a little loud and it’s a happy mess, but only in our attitude—our work is truly everything but a mess. The work is distinct from your attitude. You can talk about dicks all day long and be the best tattooist or you can comb yourself with pencils or tattoo machines and scratch your chin all day long with a serious attitude, so artist-like, and produce only shit. Many have that artist attitude I cannot bear. They’re not difficult to find, those people. They are legion—tons of them and you see them at conventions. God forbid laughing, god forbid saying something dumb; they take themselves so seriously, but moreover, they suck at tattooing.
"There are things where you cannot compromise and others that are not so important. So I don’t know if I have a secret. I am myself and I hope to attract the people I deserve. We only get what we deserve in life..."
Do you think you have to stay eclectic or create a coherent style within a studio?
You simply have to stay yourself. Create your own style. There are people more serious than me and I respect them too. You don’t have to play the jackass all day long like me or like the people around me. Birds of a feather flock together.
I was wondering what is your secret to be a good boss?
To choose the people you work with wisely. That way it’s not difficult. If you don’t work with jerks, you don’t need to play the boss. You have to play the boss from time to time, but not too often either. I have no clue actually. I’m a boss of bosses: I’m not busting their ass, I’m not there to keep an eye on them or require them to meet a quota or something. However, there are things with which I’m uncompromising. I have been giving a fucking bad time to some of them for years by telling them: “You’re doing your bandages like shit; that’s not how you’re supposed to do a bandage.” There are things where you cannot compromise and others that are not so important. So I don’t know if I have a secret. I am myself and I hope to attract the people I deserve. We only get what we deserve in life...
I have a question we are all confronted with: what justifies the price of a tattoo?
Simply, people being ready to pay the asked price to get tattooed by you. As long as some people accept that price, it justifies it. What do you want me to say? It’s so random. So many say I’m outrageously expensive, while I’m cheaper than others.
I’m asking because we had discussed it with Filip and I respect his reasoning a lot. He said that in the end he doesn’t want to tattoo only celebrities or rich people.
It’s the same for me. It’s why I’m not super expensive and even a hell of a lot cheaper than others. Sometimes you have an hourly fee, but the tattooer is so quick—like Filip, who has an hourly fee twice as expensive as others, but works three times as fast…he’s cheaper in the end. I’m fast, too, we have pretty much the same turnover and you ask yourself how much you’re going to have to charge an hour to have the same price as others.
To the ones who claim that I am outrageously expensive—I am 200 euros an hour and they are 100—for them it seems to be double. But what I do in one hour they need four. So the client will pay 200 with me and 400 with them...and they’ll have a shitty result on top of that! In the end, they are twice as expensive as me. Furthermore, you should not depreciate yourself either. A beautiful tattoo is cheap when you see the number of asses whose prices are out of reach for doing crap!
Besides that, it’s not because my waiting list is getting longer that my prices are increasing. Like Filip told you, if I can only tattoo people with a lot of dough, it’s not interesting to me. You have to tattoo funny people, some don’t have any cash but they are so nice that you give them a deal. Others, you give them less of a deal.
Then you have people so dumb that it justifies that they pay more. The more they are a pain and rude, the less I want to give them a good price. But even these people, I don’t rip them off overall. I don’t charge more than usual. My price is what it is and I decrease it depending on whom I’m going to tattoo.
I have a question that’s puzzling me regarding the training of tattooists. I feel like most of the people working here went to art schools.
Not of all them but some, yes...
How do you position yourself regarding the transmission of knowledge?
It’s not necessarily through art school; I don’t give a shit. What I care about is their skills when I’m hiring them. If they have achieved their current level through art school, so much the better. Personally, I didn’t go to art school; I’m not going to lay down a course of studies that sometimes doesn’t mean anything. There are art teachers that are sometimes really bad but they are nonetheless teachers.
What about apprenticeships? What strikes me and sometimes saddens me is that I see some genius artists who don’t take any apprentices. Do you find it a duty to transmit your knowledge? You haven’t done an apprenticeship but you hire apprentices all the time, do you consider it important?
Yes, it is valuable. The proof is that it renews itself. Tattooists don’t belong to you; they live their own life. Some run off, some come here. So sooner or later there will be some you’d like to keep but who leave. There needs to be a rollover. If the rollover is done with people that have all done their apprenticeship with you, you have the advantage of knowing them well and of trusting them because they learned with you. It works like a charm. Indeed Mimi, Issa, Maud were my apprentices. Bruno Kea, too, but it shouldn’t be told (laugh).
I’m going to write it in big letters!
Do that, it will piss him off. I tell everybody he was my apprentice, but it’s not true—this, however, you don’t put it in big so that the ones who don’t read my articles only see he was my apprentice (laughs). It’s not true, but only the ones who read the fine print will know it.
As you didn’t do an apprenticeship, do you think it has the same value or would you recommend it by default?
There are no rules. As I didn’t do one, I would be in a bad position to say the contrary. But it’s always better. You gain time when you’re doing an apprenticeship. However, it’s also better to learn by yourself than with somebody lousy, who will teach only teach you crap. The rare things I was shown when I started were often serious bullshit. Well, looking at tattooists’ work, traveling, going to conventions, and watching the best working—that’s also an apprenticeship in itself. I was never Kari Barba’s apprentice but when she tattooed me, I didn’t miss a second of it during the five and a half hours it lasted. I came back home and changed everything. Watching Filip Leu tattooing, you don’t have to ask him anything, everything lies under your eyes. If you can be close enough to see the depth of his needle, to see in which caps he’s picking; if you’re clever enough and if you’re watching, theoretically, you don’t need to ask anything. By yourself with your eyes and if you’re smart and passionate you’ll learn a lot. Then there are the ones who have to be told everything and even then do not understand…There are no rules. I’ve seen all possible scenarios.
According to you, do the Internet and other broadcast media change anything?
It changes everything. You snap your fingers and you get machines. You even know where the best are if you’re smart. But you can also buy some knockoffs from China for 20 Euros, the five machines. You have anything and everything. You can access all information, books, you can even find how-to tattoo videos on YouTube. TV shows, Miami Ink, LA Ink—it crashed the party but somehow skyrocketed us. However, it made a lot of people believe that they could tattoo and that it was easy…when it’s all the opposite.