Lea Nahon - An Artist on the Road

Published: 01 October, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 172, May, 2009

Lea Nahon hails from the same idealistic school of thought as many of her Gallic amies, taking tattooing away from traditional form and composition in favour of a freer and looser approach. Please don’t mistake such terms as a detriment to the quality of Lea’s work; as is plainly clear from these pages, her technique is solid and the tattoos she conjures up are perfectly executed.


Based in Belgium for the majority of her time, she splits her working life between La Boucherie Moderne in Brussels, Art Corpus in Paris and Brighton’s Nine studio, such is the demand for her work…

“I was born in Paris and it was there that I grew up. As a child, I was really interested in the circus and enrolled in circus school where I studied for five or six years, during which time I learnt how to walk the tight rope and perform equestrian stunts. I loved my time there and there was no question in my mind that I would mould a career for myself in the circus. Unfortunately circus school is expensive and my parents eventually decided that it would be better for me to study a more conventional prospectus, so I was sent to regular school where I stayed until the age of fifteen at which time I went to art school.

After graduating from art school, I embarked on a movie-making course at university. That didn’t go too well as the students decided to boycott the university in the hope of gaining better facilities, so we just stood there for two months, campaigning. I then went on to study musical theatre, eventually hoping to become a dance teacher.”

So you are obviously athletic as well as artistic.

Definitely. I’ve also practised boxing for many years, American style, full contact boxing.

Not a girl to be messed with then?

That’s right! (Laughs).

So how did tattooing come into the picture?

I was looking for a part time job and there happened to be a tattoo studio that was situated close to where I was studying. Luckily the guy wanted to employ an apprentice and when I showed him some of my drawings, he agreed to take me on.

The art background came in useful?

Yes. A lot of what I had been doing was connected with styling and comic books; I had done some stories and designs for underground magazines and was keen to see whether that type of imagery could be incorporated into tattoo design.

How did things progress from there?

After only a month at that studio I left and spent the next two years working with another tattooist, Fabrice from Tattoo Age, he really taught me a lot. After that stint I went travelling for a bit before coming back to Paris for a year. I then went to the United States for the first time. Whilst there, I attended the Las Vegas convention where I saw all of the best artists who were around at the time. I quickly realised that my own portfolio was pretty blank and unimpressive compared to theirs, but I did sell some of my paintings, which people seemed to love.

I met Karl Marc in Paris – he was the one who took me to Las Vegas! He’s a tattooist who was working at that time from Santa Barbara, so when I wanted to go to America to work, I called him and we got together.    

I got a job in a studio called 1st Amendment Tattoo in LA and all of the guys from there seemed to be more into sketchbooks rather than portfolios and they started to ask me to tattoo some of the sketches that I was doing. At first I thought that these were just sketches and wouldn’t necessarily adapt to tattoos design, but I decided to try it out and it worked. I took photos of those tattoos back to France with me, just to prove that tattoo designs could be done in this way and could look good and luckily people liked what they saw.
Along with Karl Marc, Dave Sanchez and a few others we formed what was known as the On The Road tattoo crew. Since then we have been doing all of the US tattoo conventions together, basically we all work separately throughout the year but people know that we come together for the conventions and can always find us there.

Do you enjoy the element of travelling?

I’ve become used to it. I worked with the On The Road crew for four years but then was unfortunately refused entry to the United States and was sent back to the UK.

How did you become involved with Nine Tattoo Studio?

When I was sent back from the States, I called Kirsty, whom I had previously met at the Brighton convention. I told her that I was in trouble and needed some money with which to go back home to France; she invited me to guest here for a while and the rest is history. As the US is no longer on the map for me, I choose to work between Brighton, Brussels and Paris - I actually live in Brussels now… I work here most of the time at La Boucherie Moderne. I started in Paris about two years ago in a shop called, Art Corpus, which is a really good studio, the whole crew there are amazing. Roberto and the rest of us from the shop are organising the Paris convention.

Who, or what, would you say are the main influences behind your work?

Painters like Alphonse Mucha and Egon Schiele.

When tattooing, are there any particular styles that you prefer to do?

I can adapt to cover more or less everything. If you come to me and ask for Japanese work, I would always recommend that you go to a specialist who may do it better, but if you insist on me doing the work, I’ll work on the basics and hopefully if the client agrees, try and imbue the design with some of my own particular style and really have some fun with it, which is, after all, probably the reason that the customer chose me to do the job in the first place.

How would you sum up your work as a tattooist?

As I said, I can do pretty much whatever is asked but I prefer to do sketchy stuff and like to retain the first sketchy lines within the finished piece. In terms of most of my artwork, I have always preferred the sketch to the finished product, so retaining the construction lines is important as that is usually where the most interesting aspects and movement within the design can be seen. Obviously it’s important that the piece looks finished, but I like to see the process visibly represented within the tattoo, whereas for many artists, this may not be the case.

You are now coming regularly to Brighton to work here at Nine. Where else do you work?

At La Boucherie Moderne in Brussels, at Art Corpus in Paris.

Tell us something about the tattoos on your own body.

I have work by many artists. I’ve got work by Nate Esteras, he lives in California, and he’s also from 1st Amendment tattoo shop. I’ve got some lovely work by Navette from Lyon in France, I’ve got work by Remi from All Tattoo, Paris, and he did my ribs. I’ve also had work from Yann Black, he just did my hand, and my other work has been done by William Thidemann, Jason Tyler Grace, Dave Sanchez and Juan Puente. Most of these tattooists are friends that I have met on the road and they are just awesome artists whom I trust implicitly.

Are there any artists from whom you would particularly like work?

There’s Nikko, I’d love to be tattooed by him just to see how he works, he does very realistic stuff. I’d also like work by Sabine Gaffron, she’s awesome too.
It seems that so many more tattooists travel extensively these days.

It’s just a way of life to travel, but it can be hard to live that way. Luckily I don’t have children so I am a lot freer to travel than someone like Lionel, another French artist who also guests at Nine, as he has four kids and a wife at home.

I suppose it is hard for my family and my boyfriend when I am away but it’s not hard for me, it’s what I love to do.

So how do things work out with you boyfriend?

They don’t really work, (laughs).

What draws people to you and what makes your work different from that of other tattooists?

Lots of people come to me and tell me that they want me to tattoo them but they don’t know exactly what to get. I have thousands of sketchbooks and I suggest that they look through them and see if anything jumps out at them. To me, my sketches are like my personal flash. Most are quick sketches inspired by movies, people, etc and these sketches tend to be what initiates the tattoo designs. Sometimes the sketches are very personal to me but when people see them and don’t know me well, they wouldn’t necessarily be aware of that personal significance, so they interpret the design in their own way. If people recognise something of themselves within my sketches, that’s fine by me.

So you don’t feel that they are taking too much of your personally if they choose something that has a particular, personal resonance?

Generally not. If something in my design rings a bell for the client, that’s good. We don’t have the same personal experience, so whatever the design means to them will never be the same as what it meant to me when I was creating that particular image. For example, I’ve done some paintings of my boyfriend and myself making love and when somebody asks for that as a tattoo, I don’t see any reason why not to do it for them. That’s happened three times, and at first I did hesitate, but once I realised that what the client was picking up on was the strong emotional element to the design rather than the actual people represented, I thought, why not? If they can get something positive out of it, take it. The clients may not have initially realised that the image was a self-portrait, but I did tell one guy, who wanted the design as a huge backpiece and he was fine with it.

Obviously the influences that inspire your painting are the same that inspire your tattoos?

Yes. Especially nowadays when my tattoos are often directly related to my paintings. However, it was only after I started tattooing that I started painting seriously. In my opinion, tattooing is one of the best art school experiences one could have, as it incorporates every type of drawing and design. You could be asked for anything, as these days people are more aware of the possibilities in terms of tattoo design, so you have to have the ability to encompass a huge variety within your work before choosing the style that you ultimately prefer.   

When I started doing comics, I worked mainly in black and white but when I moved on to painting, I had to incorporate colour and that was a whole new game. When tattooing, I had to learn which colours worked together to make the design really stand out from the skin and that took some time. I don’t like super flashy colours but I do use them if the design warrants their inclusion, though my preference is still for graphic, sketchy imagery.

What do you especially enjoy about the challenge of working on skin as opposed to paper or canvas?

It’s interesting. When working on skin, once you’ve got an initial design the body will give you the direction. Any muscle, any bone, any joint, will influence the way you work the design and I really like that, it’s cool. When doing freehand work directly onto skin, I work quite fast, and for me that’s easy.

Painting can be a lonely, reclusive occupation but tattooing is just the opposite. That’s not always the best thing as some days you may not really feel like being sociable or even talking, but you have to, you have to be patient, you have to make conversation and you have to be friendly. On the other hand, meeting all of those people can be great; I have made so many wonderful friends through tattooing. In many ways most of my life revolves around tattooing and I think once you take it on as a job, it quickly becomes
a lifestyle.

Do you see tattooing as a lifetime career?

There’s no question about it. I do like to stop sometimes and have a short break but at the moment that’s not really an option, I’m just too busy. I have got to a point in the past when I have wanted to throw my machines away, that’s for sure, and to find a good reason to stop tattooing, take a break, get away from it all, but every time someone shows up with a good idea, I just want to tattoo it.

I would like to make more time for my painting; hopefully now that I’m working in Brussels, I’ll have more free time. I’ve just had two exhibitions in Paris; one was at a gallery called L’Art Riens. As well as galleries, I also like to exhibit in bars, where prices for artwork are more accessible, enabling my friends and other people I know to buy work if they choose. At least then paintings don’t just pile up at home for my cat to scratch!

When you sell as piece of artwork, do you feel like you are losing a piece of yourself?

Yeah. Sometimes my mother has even felt the need to buy my paintings because she has known that I haven’t wanted to see those particular pieces go. It really all depends on the work. A lot of what I paint is portraiture and my emotional connection with the artwork will depend on my relationship with its subject.   

It was a bit like that when I first started tattooing. If I did a big backpiece and I had been working on that person every month over a long period of time, once it was complete and they had walked out of the door, it felt weird, but I’ve got used to that now.

In terms of the paintings, it is better that they go to someone who loves them, rather than just rotting away in a corner of my apartment.

How do you think your work as a tattooist will develop over the next few years?

It’s constantly evolving. Things develop from one day to another, things are always inspiring me and there is so much that I want to incorporate within my work. There are always new techniques and new inspirations.


Interview: Ashley (http://www.savageskin.co.uk)


Skin Deep 172 1 May 2009 172