The Cat in the Hat - Xoil

Published: 05 March, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 209, March, 2012

The Brazilian painter, Sérgio Ferro, would often paint classical figures and leave them half-finished before going back and splashing them with paint. This would create a challenging visual marriage/ contest of different art movements.

Due to political reasons, Ferro was exiled from his own country for 30 years and lived in France where he continued to paint as well as teach at the Grenoble School of Architecture. As a young boy, Loïc Lavenu – known to the tattoo world as Xoil – would go over to his friends house and hang out.

“I used to be there all the time, I’d stay over quite a lot. We were pretty much best friends as teenagers. Just yesterday I was talking to somebody about my influences. My friend’s dad was actually Sergio Ferro, and his art would always be on show at the house, but I never really looked at it, because I wasn’t into it at the time; but I think it influenced me subconsciously. He would just splatter things, and there’d always be something beautiful in the middle of all the mess.”  

Looking now at the work of Loïc Lavenu, one can clearly see the influence of Ferro, something that must have buried itself deep within the mind of young Loïc, and come alive in his own art some years later. Born and raised in a small village in France, Loïc believed that it was important to be ambitious and to seek something different, despite being a self-confessed lazy child.  

“It was important that I get out of there, and when I was 20, I did.  I was lost, and knew I had to try and find my own way. I remember when I was a kid and we’d go to the nearest town, I remember this old guy with a half-sleeve. The tattoos were very old and traditional and they amazed me. There was just something I felt, I fell in love with the picture of it, being old and having tattoos. Being the owner of your life.” Loïc’s interest in tattooing grew, especially when his brother, who was in the Army, came home once with some tattoo tools and started tattooing on Loïc.

When Loïc was eventually able to get out of the village he grew up in, he moved to Paris and settled in a squat for a couple of years. During this time he started hanging out at various tattoo shops and became a piercer. “I was really keen to stop my old life that I couldn’t go on living, I just wanted some change. I took my own road and started tattooing by myself.”  

He would practice for hours in the squat, pushing himself daily to become better. “That was always my ambition, to grow and grow doing something that I love. It took a long time to teach myself, I was tattooing on friends and also people that didn’t have any money, but I just kept going and going. Eventually I did get work in a tattoo shop, but it didn’t work out. I had to move further away and find somewhere where I felt the spirit was right. Whilst I had been in the squat tattooing shitty stuff, it actually made me good with operating a tattoo machine and technically I’d come a long way.”

Finding his direction, his self-discipline had begun to really pay off. “I would force myself to make perfect lines, to make perfect squares. I wanted to be as technical as possible, and I was always trying to challenge myself. For example, I would take traditional flash and make it into something entirely different.” When Loïc was younger, he used to design fliers and album covers for bands, using mostly a collaging technique. His interest in graphic design and collaging soon eked its way into his tattoo-style, leading to him being an instantly recognisable tattoo artist, relatively early on in his career.

“I never really found that hard to do, it felt natural, so that’s where I believed I should head with my tattooing. I still have a lot more to learn. When I look at the first pieces I did right back at the beginning, I can see what I have learnt since, I can see that it is always evolving, and that’s what it should be doing. The more and more you question yourself and what you do, the more you are going to find, and ultimately the more you are going to learn. I continue in my own way, I work on it, and at the same time I’m digging around for more. People have always liked my graphic design style of tattooing, and it’s always felt good for me to work in that way.”

What, for me, is also most prominent about Loïc’s style, is his choice of palette. Red and black seem to be appear heavily in his work, despite seeing the occasional flash of a blue, or an orange.

“Red and black work really well. Red and black are the colours of revolution. They are strong and powerful looking. However, sometimes if you want to convey something like a sweet emotion, black and red may not be the colours to use. Actually, with my new palette, I am trying to go with less red and to be able to work with all of the colours.

“All my tattoos are experimental,” he says and after a short pause, “I call myself a gold-nugget finder.” I ask him what he means by that and he exlpains, “when you’re looking for gold, you’re coming up with all these different ways to try and find it. So if you’re good, you’re passionate, and you work hard, you’ll find gold every day. Every day, you find these tiny pieces of gold… and sometimes you just find a fucking big nugget. Sometimes we find the piece that is the masterpiece! A tattoo that fits the body perfectly, that simply works. You can’t control that. I don’t consider myself to be the best, but because I do something that is different, I see myself as a gold-nugget finder, and even though the big fucking nuggets aren’t there every day… one should always be looking for them.”

Evolving within his own tattooing is very important to Loïc, particularly finding the perfect relationship between human and tattoo. “Every day you should be looking at your tools, and the more you experiment with them, the closer you’ll get to finding that relationship. Every three or six months I find it important to change my palette. I’m using less of the red now, trying to become better at working without it. I’ve even just started simply using a different shade of red, or even an orange. It’s about growing another step, and then another, then another. One at a time. I feel I find the harmony between human and tattoo when the tattoo is larger, like a backpiece or something. It gives you a larger canvas and there is more of the human body to work with.”

When I first saw Loïc’s tattooing I wasn’t surprised to discover he was French. There was something about it that reminded me of French art, and so I asked him if he could perhaps explain why I made that assumption.  

“Well, in France, the style is very graphic. But if you go to Germany, or the US, you’ll see the style is very traditional, very old-school, but also way broader. The UK also. In France, the history is different. For a long time there were nothing but jail tattoos.” (The stereotypical view of the tattooed individual being a thug or a member of a motorcycle gang was something that remained the dominant view in France only up until very recently. Unlike the rest of the world, France had made its arrival in the tattooing world quite late, perhaps because of the jail tattoo being such a dominant force until recently. Once that changed, things had to be very different in order to put France on the tattooing map, hence the graphic-design style so originally conceived within Loïc’s tattooing.) “But what we do now is still inspired by that old school French stuff. It is generally very dark and there is lots of lettering and lots of scratches.”

Loïc has been tattooing for 12 years now. Whilst he is mostly based in France, he also works on the road, most notably for two months at Tattoo Culture in Brooklyn. But when he is at home, he works from the studio he built eight years ago, Needles Side, in a small town not far from the borders of Switzerland and Italy. His partner, Anne, also the mother of his children, runs the shop while he does the tattooing, which for him is strictly custom-work. Two others work with him, an apprentice and an old childhood friend.

“It’s a cool street shop and it’s a nice quiet place for working. It’s in a small town, but customers still come from all around to be tattooed there. With being on the road so much, then being back in France working from Needles Side, tattooing is now pretty much my life. Even if I take a break, it’s still all about tattoos. You’re wearing them on your body, you’re putting them onto other peoples bodies, they don’t leave you. Ever. When you’re tattooing it’s your whole life.”  

I asked Loïc about the preparation involved behind a tattoo. “Generally I spend about an hour – perhaps a little more or a little less – on photoshop, designing the idea. Then I do the tattoo, for which I use a stencil from what I’ve created in photoshop.

“The positive side of tattooing now is that we tattoo more and more and more,” Loïc responded when I asked him about how he saw tattooing in the 21st century.  “Generally, in society, people don’t have the same bad idea about tattoos like they used to, but also now that it has become much more lucrative, there are a lot of bad people owning shops and making it all about the money. I’m staying in Camden at the moment, and there are a lot of great tattoo shops, but also shops that only appear to be in it for the money. So there is the ying and the yang.

“But I will not spit on it. We all want to be somebody, to make our way. For me it means that I’ve stopped working in bad shops, and I try and work hard pushing the artform forwards. I remember when I was younger, people would laugh at me because my sketchbook was awful when I started. So what do you do when everyone laughs at you? I still wanted to tattoo so there was only one thing for me to do… kick my own ass every day to get better. That’s what I taught myself when I was living in the squat, scratching on people, scratching on myself. I had to work my ass off.

“It’s good that there are lots of artists because you then have to push yourself harder, to make it better. Wow. Wow. Wow. That’s what happens now when you look at what people are doing in tattooing. Tattooing is so popular now, and I think society has finally realised that we are not trouble, that we belong to something important, an idea, an art. People want to prove that they’re something, prove that they’re from a particular place, or that they listen to a specific type of music, or they’re a skin-head, a metaller. Or they’re someone that listens to rock, or folk. With tattooing you can take that further. For example, a rocker is most likely going to have old school tattoos. More and more tattooed people are keeping the movement alive.”

I asked Loïc what it feels like to be the tattooer, the person behind all these tattoos you see on all these individuals in all these countries around the world.

“If you listen to what the old guys say about tattoo artists, you’re considered someone very special within the community. People bring you gifts, sometimes you’re their doctor, or you can be their psychiatrist. It’s kind of like the modern equivalent of a shaman – and because I travel a lot and like to tattoo people in other countries, it’s almost like I am a nomad too.

“I consider myself a worldwide citizen. I’m French, but I hate the French government. I hate a lot of what’s here, but the same goes with other places too. I believe in human citizenship and not to swear only by my own country. I just love to be all over the place. Tattoos represent the moment, so I have loads of different tattoos. Colourful, traditional, graphic, shitty – but I don’t believe in having them covered up, no matter what they are. They represent who I was at the time, they are mapping my history.”

Sérgio Ferro

Sérgio Ferro was born July 25, 1938, in Curitiba (Brazil). After a degree in architecture, obtained at the Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo of Sao Paulo, he continued specialization in museum studies and sémiologie. From 1962 to 1970 he worked as a professor of Art History and Aesthetics in various universities, then became a professor at the School of Architecture of Grenoble until 1997.

Sérgio Ferro is the author of articles in Brazilian journals and French, as well as books on Drawing (1976), Architecture (1979), and Michelangelo (1981). Numerous solo exhibitions punctuated his practice since 1963; France, Brazil, Greece and Belgium. Ferro is represented in many private and public collections.

Le Rouge et le Noir

Here’s an interesting snippet for you considering Xoil’s take on the colours of the revolution: Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black), 1830, by Stendhal, is a historical psychological novel in two volumes, chronicling a provincial young man’s attempts to socially rise beyond his modest upbringing with a combination of talent and hard work, deception and hypocrisy — yet who ultimately allows his passions to betray him.

The novel’s composite full title, ‘Le Rouge et le Noir: Chronique du XIXe siécle’ (The Red and the Black: A Chronicle of the 19th century), indicates its two-fold literary purpose, a psychological portrait of the romantic protagonist, Julien Sorel, and an analytic, sociological satire of the French social order under the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30). In English, Le Rouge et le Noir is variously translated as Red and Black, Scarlet and Black, and The Red and the Black, without the sub-title.

Mostly on the road.
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Text: Tom Abbott; Photography: Xoil


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