"Tattooing, like all art, is a universal visual language that transcends borders and language barriers..."
Grace: "This week's spotlight is with someone who’s name is known throughout the tattoo world. Her family’s tattoo, art and adventures have impacted me and so many others throughout our tattoo journeys across the world. I give you THE MOTHER of tattooing... Loretta Leu x"
As the matriarch of a pioneering family of OG tattoo artists, Loretta Leu tells the kind of stories you could sit and listen to for days. Led by the constant stream of rare experiences promised by a life on the road, Leu has been travelling the world since she was young, immersing herself in new places and translating their cultures through art.
“It was never something that I questioned. It was just what was happening,” she says of her childhood spent split between a handful of countries, explaining that her first experience of travel was moving from Italy to Australia with her mum, an opera singer, at the age of four – a trip that took three weeks by ship at the time. After a couple of years, they moved back to Europe, settling for a while in France, before emigrating to New York when she was ten.
“I didn’t grow up with a constant environment; I didn’t grow up in a house that was our house. The only steady thing in my life was my mother. When it was time to move, we moved,” Loretta shrugs, highlighting that constantly experiencing new environments at such a young age – “even if it’s not exotic places, even if it’s just moving from Italy to France and learning a different language” – provided her with a natural intuition for picking up on the idiosyncrasies of different ways of life, adapting to new surroundings and making the unfamiliar feel like home.
It was here, in mid-60s New York, that she met Felix Leu. An artist accustomed to a life of travel, he had been preparing for a trip to Morocco and asked the then 20-year-old Loretta to join him – who, charmed by both the man she had fallen in love with and the prospect of a new adventure, packed a bag.
“He said, ‘Look, take whatever you want, but whatever you take, you carry,’” she recalls, settling into animated story-telling mode. “So I filled up a duffle bag with all these party dresses. Then when we started hitchhiking, I realised that this fucking duffle bag was pretty heavy, and I was hardly going to need these dresses under the circumstances! So I started taking things out and leaving them on the side of the road. Some farmers must have come along and just found these New York party dresses…”
Later the pair married and together they travelled to many corners of the world with their four kids, making jewellery to sell or bringing embroideries from India to London as means of survival, and collecting adventures instead of material things. It wasn’t until over a decade after they had met that they took up tattooing, but the combination of Felix’s artistry and their eclectic influences quickly cemented their family’s reputation amongst the most innovative tattooists of their time.
A striking collection of these cultural influences was published a few years ago, in a book documenting the tattoo designs, meanings and techniques of the Berbers of Morocco’s Middle Atlas Mountains, recorded by Felix and Loretta in August 1988 with drawings later captured by her daughter Aia Leu.
“That was a total, total accident, in the sense that we had decided to take six months off from our studio,” she remembers. “Felix and I and our youngest son Ajja, who was thirteen at the time, had a van and went through Spain to Morocco. We were just travelling around. On the way back, in this one region we started to see these women with really extensive tattoos, which we’d never seen before – all round their chins, down the neck, full arms, full around the calves. So we started asking around, ‘Are there more of these people?’ We were told to go to a certain village.”
They stayed for a few weeks to study Berber tattoo culture, meeting with different women and tracing and photographing their designs. With the help of a translator they also asked questions: at what age had the tattoos been done, by who, using what technique, their meaning, an so on. “They did. They were very nice,” Loretta says on how the community welcomed them and their research. “We stayed with one family, because that’s the thing to do. You let them be your family and then they have this allegiance with you and help you, and of course, you help them and buy food and stuff like that. They started making the contacts for us – they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember there’s this woman over in another village,’ somebody’s aunt or somebody’s grandmother. Every day we would go to visit one of these women and they would let me trace.”
It’s the trust they built with the Berber community that opened up a rare, intimate insight into tattooing in their culture, and their book “Berber Tattooing in Morocco’s Middle Atlas” – as well as all the designs that have subsequently been inspired by it – has preserved some of the tribal elements of this culture that have been slowly fading out. “The women we met actually enjoyed showing and talking about their tattoos, you could see it,” Loretta emphasises, explaining: “The thing is that they were all older, quite a bit older. A lot of them were 60, 70, even 80. And all their adult life they’d been told that tattoos were bad, because Islam considers tattoos haram. But although the ancient Berber people had converted to this new religion, they kept many of their old traditions, including tattoos.” Our interest and admiration for their tattoos made them happy.
Now that tattoo art is accessible and trend-led thanks to social media, the Leu family legacy serves as a welcome reminder that many of the designs we print on our bodies stem from cultures in which their meanings are coded and even sacred. Their research connects Berber art back to its roots in a way that’s both celebratory and historically important – they found out that many symbols used by the Berber community were perceived as magical or healing, for instance, and that it was traditional for women to be tattooed to mark getting married. Loretta and her family’s work – outside of their artistic legacies – serves as a reminder that tattooing, like all art, is a universal visual language that transcends borders and language barriers, offering a means to identify with customs or common values and facilitate communication. While we might not all be cut out for a nomadic life on the road immersing ourselves in the intricacies of other cultures, the Leu family has passed on invaluable information to a whole generation of artists, and their experimental ethos is something we can all benefit from thinking about next time we screenshot the next tattoo on Instagram.