An Interview with Xed LeHead

Published: 28 February, 2010 - Featured in Skin deep 135, July, 2006

For those who didn’t see your previous profile in Skin Deep some years ago, tell us something about your life and background prior to your becoming a tattooist.


Nothing too exciting to report. I had a lot of fun through the eighties, working off and on in various jobs such as drain cleaning, TV installer for a Radio Rentals, painting and decorating, water treatment engineer, until the autumn of ‘87 came and house music and the fantastic club scene that sprung up around then. I gave up working and spent the next two and a half years clubbing and just surviving courtesy of John Major, damn fine years they were too. I kind of always felt that something was gonna draw me in so I just took whatever came along until tattooing decided I was gonna be one of its humble servants, and I really feel that it chose me rather than me choosing it.

With regard to the designs you wear on your body, when was the first work done, what was the inspiration behind the designs and who were the artists?
The very first bits were by myself and some schoolmates in our early teens. My first professional work was all done by Barry Louvaine in southwest London starting when I was nearly fourteen. My inspirations were all tattooed folk who I saw, I just loved em’ all and still do. Back then of course, there weren’t magazines like now so I thought that Barry’s flash covered walls was all that was available. My young mind never questioned that it could be anything else, so I merrily continued to get coverage from my hero Bazza until I was about twenty or so.

Stylistically the work you wear has changed and metamorphosed since those early days. How and why did this progression come about?
I guess the psychedelic influences of the heavy club years between ‘87 and ‘90 would have something to do with it. I don’t think I had any work put on at all during those years, apart from maybe a couple of token gestures. My energies were all poured into full time partying, and mind expansion... Then I met Terry Scott who showed me that the only limitation was the imagination. And then I discovered the work of Alex Binnie, WOW! To say I was blown away is an understatement. Now I had found someone whose work I could express myself through. The only problem was, he was going away to America, so I ended up getting some equipment and starting to fill myself in, learning as I went with an old mate Andy Short. We were doing some mad shit on each other, definitely breaking any rules we knew about. When Alex saw what I was up to, he encouraged me to stop fucking about with whatever else I was up to in life and to devote my time to tattooing. So I did. As for my own work, I wanted to do stuff that had very little or no meaning, just coverage for coverage sake, that’s how it evolved into covering areas with random lines, I had never seen anything like it, and loved the effect. People were gob smacked by it, and not always positively. Oh well, you can’t please all the people all the time... 


In what ways, if at all, has your sense of body image and self-esteem changed since you have become more heavily covered?
I have discovered confidence that wasn’t there in younger years. Let’s say I feel particularly strong when naked in front of people, and that has to be the armour suit aspect, like I am never really naked coz of them. The self-esteem comes from many areas of my life, and I reject that which reduces it and try to follow the paths that will increase it. Being heavily covered has worked well for me in that sense, and seems to have the same effect on everyone who undergoes serious body decoration, although there are always exceptions to the rule.

What was the inspiration behind the work on your face and who were the artists? What is it in particular about facial tattoos that appeal to you, both as a wearer and as an artist?
I knew years ago I would get my face done, I just had to reach the point of confidence to be able to deal with the public attention it would bring. I can’t say that I don’t care what people think about me completely, but I feel that I care much less than the average person does. This is a comfort zone for sure. The work has been done over a few years, although the bulk of it was done last year, and it’s by Hannes from Berlin, Pink in Belgium, Tas and French Thomas.  There’s no overall plan and it could be finished now or equally it could evolve into total coverage. But I am cautious not to overcook it. Face tattooing is fucking brilliant. There’s no hiding who you are, and it brightens up the day. Imagine getting on a bus or the Underground and everybody has facial tattoos. Incredible. What a world to live in! And with the continuing advancements in creative expression, what a truly amazing species we would be in appearance. 

Tattooing is nowadays an industry saturated with newcomers and wannabe’s. How did you begin your career in tattooing and how have things changed since those days?
I prefer to view tattooing as a folk art rather than an industry, and as such, I welcome all newcomers. The more the merrier. I want to see the whole world covered from head to foot and that isn’t going to happen unless a whole heap more people start doing it. We gotta’ long way to go. I actually think its harder now in one-way and easier in another. As I said before, I began on myself and friends with primitive equipment, out of a true desire just to mark and be marked and back then, it was not so easy as now to get your hands on good machines. So equipment wise, things have improved tremendously but the thing that has applied new pressure is that the quality of the work in general is incredible now and must be very daunting to anyone wanting to start out. What a challenge to take up. I wouldn’t like to do that now, not without the confidence I have discovered with age.

What obstacles or challenges did you have to overcome in order to reach the status you have now achieved within the industry?
Hmmm... My lack of artistic capability was and still is rather an obstacle, but I would not say that there were any challenges other than the usual swings and roundabouts of learning a craft. To get anywhere in anything, one must devote serious time to the pursuit of excellence, and never arrive at the destination of feeling that you have achieved excellence.

You are especially renowned for your dot work. How did that particular style of work evolve for you?
Being someone with no drawing ability whatsoever, and finding myself getting sucked into tattooing other people, I had no choice but to find a mode of expression that would be outside of normal criticism because it would be outside the accepted view of tattooing. It was a long and slow process to bring it to the point of the last couple of years, especially with me switching between handwork and machine work over the years, and the different disciplines involved in each. I have always found the dots to be very expressive, very organic, and one day I hope to have learned how to really use them.

During your career you have worked on some people who are considered extreme even within the tattoo community itself. I am referring to the likes of Lucky Diamond Rich and more recently, the work you have done on Matt Gone. Tell us something about those collaborations and explain how they have come about. What is it about you that attracts these people?
Lucky? Extreme? Never! But seriously, what Lucky did was inevitable, it had to happen, there was no way that somebody was not gonna do this one day. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for my involvement in turning him black, coupled with my desire to truly do the unthinkable, almost the impossible. As soon as he said this was his plan, I immediately put my hand up and demanded that I do the face, head neck and hands and feet. In fact, I demanded to do as much of the difficult stuff as he would let me. I didn’t know at that time I was gonna get the arse crack and the scrotum as well. There are some unsavoury times in this trade, but what the heck, you just gotta’ roll your sleeves up and get stuck in. As for Matt, I kind of muscled my way into that job by contacting him after I heard that he was gonna’ get this work done. I think some of this work comes my way coz I am willing to go all the way, and coz I know I can get the ink into those hard to reach places on the body. I have always been drawn to off the wall characters, they are much more fun. And after all, it’s all about the people, innit? 


In the past you performed with the Wildcat crew doing suspensions and other such feats. What do you think about the fact that shows like this are becoming mainstream and what was the appeal  for you at the time?
I am very pleased to see so many people exploring their bodies to this degree, coz when you go through such experiences, it can and often does bring you to a greater and deeper understanding of yourself. I am also very happy to have been involved at such an early time with Wildcat and those legendary Fakir shows and to have experienced the intense excitement it was for us. Those shows were monumental in my life,  not just for the experience on stage but the whole insanity of the event. If you ever did anything with Wildcat in those days, you would know what I mean. John Lomax is one of the strangest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and his philosophies were a great lesson to me. Those crazy missions with John  and Fido were some of  the funniest, strangest and wildest of my life. I hope these people getting into this stuff now are also managing to build it into a surreal period of time,  to increase the impact of just how far outside of the normal mindset you are actually going with this stuff.

You have worked for many years at Into You. What is it about that studio that makes it so unique?
Good question. I think about this often, and realise it’s something that cannot be quantified easily. Sure, it’s the team that work there, and what a team we have, but it’s more than that. It’s the building itself, I think the constant creative hedonistic vibe that has been humming there for nearly fifteen years has permeated the very walls themselves. That room has seen some of the world’s finest tattooists lay ink there, and the atmosphere has always been one of creativity rather than business. When I am there, I feel creative more than anywhere else. Alex has been a good helmsman, evident by the fact of the success of the studio. Thank god its gonna’ continue there as Alex has managed a renewal on the lease.

What advice would you have for newcomers who wish to follow in your footsteps and make a name for themselves in the industry?
Make the art of tattooing your goal. Be the best you possibly can, forget about the money, make perfecting what you do your goal and the money you need to live on will come. The pursuit of excellence will bring greater happiness than cash. Try to produce things you have not seen before, bring something new to tattooing, search deep for your own expression and stick with it, it will take years to develop properly. Don’t do anything your heart is not into, there are so many tattoos out there that have no soul. Know that to get anywhere in anything, you will have to put in some serious hours - and continue to put them in.

In terms of the future, how do you see things progressing for you personally and the tattoo scene in general?
I see myself getting deeper and deeper into this vast field. The time comes now where I will start to work with others around the world and increase my knowledge. I feel that I have gained a certain amount of understanding of black ink, and of course dots, although I realize that there is so much more to learn in both of these areas. After almost fifteen years of tattooing, I am just starting to get into grey shading and this adds a whole new dimension to explore, and by the looks of it, it’s gonna’ take a long time to really get a handle on that. As with everything to do with tattooing for me, slowly slowly, catchee monkey. Who knows, maybe in years to come, I may even start doing colour work? 

As for the scene in general, its not reached fever pitch yet. The carnival is just warming up. Tattooing is gonna’ be fucking enormous. What we see now is just the beginning. Human nature being what it is, coupled with the relative irreversibility of tattooing and I can only see this thing moving forward at an alarming rate, which we are seeing happening now. Everybody and their grandmother will be tattooing and soon I think we will see a situation where for most of us, the price starts to drop and for the superstars at the top, their price will go through the roof. It is and always has been a folk art, and the highest quality of all has always been the preserve of the wealthy. I am happy for this to occur because if there is not so good a wage readily available to the less skilled, we will see more people drawn in to it purely for the love of tattooing and not because of the money. The music scene is like this with most serious musicians knowing it is likely they will only ever earn enough to survive, if even that, but it doesn’t stop them making music, coz it’s their passion. I think this is where we are heading with tattooing. 

Is there anything else you would like to say?
I want to thank everyone for everything, because without every single experience of my life, I would not be who and where I find myself now..

Into You Tattoo Studio 
144 St Johns Street, London , England
020 72535085


Photographs Ashley Photographer’s assistant Michele Martinoli


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