Breaking the Silence - MxM

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

After a few years of being a graphic designer, MxM started an apprenticeship as a tattoo artist with Filip Leu which lasted for roughly three years, and has now been actively tattooing for four years. Prepare yourself for some fascinating insights into the mind of one of the most clued-in tattoo artists around…

Walking through cold Clerkenwell on a January evening, MxM starts to tell me about his life. He grew up in the French speaking side of Switzerland, in a small village near Lausanne. He went to college, then university where he studied psychology for three years, before going on to art school (ECAL, Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne) where he studied graphic design.

“I always had a broad interest in art. I did graphic design, but I was always interested in fine art and photography as well. Then I worked in publishing, because I loved the editorial context; text, language. Even in my graphic design practice, I always mainly drew inspiration from other domains.”

Whilst MxM was at art school he was already getting tattooed by Filip Leu. When his studies came to an end he moved to London and that’s when his interest in tattooing really took off.  “I started researching into it. And I realised how many different styles there were, and how vivid and strong the culture was, especially in London. All the things I studied or explored previously started making sense among themselves. For instance, graphic design helped me in some ways, but it was just one manifestation of the way I deal with visual matters. Tattooing stems out of that vision.

“I like graphic design and I like doing it as artistic expression, but I was never happy being a graphic designer as a profession. I am not good at compromising, answering a brief, second-guessing clients, bosses. I have a vision, which is the result of a long-term reaction to my environment. I need to do what I feel is right, it is my only way of judging my own work. If I feel alienated, however good the result might be, I will be unhappy. Tattooing is the perfect balance for me, but I had to wait some time. While I was still doing my art studies, as I was getting tattooed, one day Filip said he would take me on as an apprentice if I wanted to try. It blew me away, but I just didn’t know what to do with that offer at the time”.

Filip’s offer was to stay on MxM’s mind all the way through the rest of art school. In hindsight, MxM feels that even though he finished school, he knew that tattooing would be the thing that he’d ultimately pursue. “Coming from a middle-class background, becoming a tattoo artist doesn’t exist basically. So I guess I needed some time to process that in my mind and then it just happened really naturally.”

I wondered if the psychology degree had any influence on MxM’s tattooing. “In a way it did, but it was just a part of the bigger picture because I was studying all kinds of humanities anyway; anthropology, sociology, even politics. I grew up in a really political environment and social matters generally were always extremely important to me. My university years helped me to channel my thoughts, to sharpen my observation. Through anthropology, especially, I got the opportunity to approach – even superficially – the questions of tribal rituals, symbolic exchanges and constructions. In many respects, I now actively apply these notions in tattooing. I believe tattooers have a lot in common with witchdoctors or shamans. What we do is not rational.

“Except for its occasional decorative quality, what we do has no tangible value except for the symbolic one that is built in the triangle customer-tattooer-social environment. Literally, what we do is harm someone, and get paid for it. There’s nothing that can justify this other than a sort of mystical value. We’re in a society where a lot of people, like myself, grow up agnostic, but spirituality is a basic human need that traditional Christianity doesn’t really fulfil anymore. Lots of people are desperately looking for a spiritual discipline, they find it wherever they can.

“As tattooists, we deal with symbols, which is a mystical thing by definition. The ability to turn an abstract concept into a sign that sums it up, and that a group of people will share as a single signifier, is what differentiates humans from animals even more than anything else. To perpetuate, update, and create symbols is a big part of the tattooist’s job. That’s what makes tattooing such a powerful and universal practice.”

At this point, MxM and I are entering Shoreditch. We have left Into You (where MxM is currently tattooing) far behind us. It is getting later and the cold January wind is still about.  We keep walking. I ask if there were ever pieces MxM was not happy with.

“A tattoo is an encounter. It is the meeting of two people. We – like witchdoctors, psychotherapists, psychics, priests – learn to adapt to the person we have in front of us, to potentialise and optimise the quality of that encounter. Occasionally that encounter doesn’t work though. It can turn into a frustrating experience, but most of the time it’s good. You could be going through a tough time yourself, and not be fully available, mentally or emotionally, so obviously that would limit the exchange. Or the customer might be undecided, confused, or just mistaken. But I feel able to deal with most situations and most people, even if it means turning a person away.

“A person comes as what they are, but you must make a tattoo for what they will be. And each person will be many different people in their lifetime. The piece must please each one of those, or as many as possible. I’ve managed to establish a certain image for myself; the kinds of things I like and do, so that I will attract people with a certain taste, certain references, which is half of the work. Nowadays, when they get in touch, most customers have already selected you after a long process of researching the artist that matches their needs the best. It makes things a lot easier for many of us. Nevertheless, we need to maintain certain dark zones. People need to be able to project things on us. It is part of our role too. Getting a tattoo must be a very special experience. If we reveal ourselves completely, the magic is lost.”  

Arriving at The Diner in Shoreditch, I approach MxM’s actual tattooing.  “I was a kid in the ’80s so I grew up liking that high-contrast graphic environment; the reds and the blacks. I’ll sometimes use other colours, but for me I’m particularly interested in the structure of things. Possibly it’s to do with my Swiss upbringing, but I’m interested in what’s stripped down and durable. That’s why I like tribal still.”

For MxM, there are some obvious references, people that he has looked up to since before he even started tattooing. He feels that he owes his style to them, but would also like to think he has his own take. In 2004/2005 when MxM had just moved to London, he discovered Thomas Hooper’s work which struck something very close to him, especially for his way of integrating a wider Western art history to his tattooing practice. MxM had seen the whole Japanese/ Oriental style of tattooing when he was in Switzerland, and despite loving it, didn’t feel that it was an approach he would take himself because he felt he didn’t understand it, that he didn’t belong to it.

Getting tattooed by Filip Leu was an amazing experience for him, and then going on to apprentice under him. Through Filip, MxM learnt a lot about how to deal with the body, how to place things, how to think of the body as a moving 3D surface; and he learnt a lot about technique too, but also about the history and culture of tattooing. Still, style-wise he really felt closer to the work of Duncan X and Hooper.  

“In many ways the main influences would be Filip and Rinzing (Rinzing was Filip’s apprentice before me and was working there when I became an apprentice). I consider him my tattoo-brother. They made me, deep inside. But style-wise, the Into You family represented something I felt a lot closer to, in terms of the tattoos that I could produce myself; so Tomas Tomas, Duncan X, Thomas Hooper who worked there, then at Frith Street before moving to New York. Jondix is another one of my main references.

“But I also like a lot of the traditional stuff. Javier Rodriguez was always someone who I admired a lot on many levels, for the absolute simplicity and strength of his work. They would be my main references. Then of course, Liam Sparkes, my other tattoo-brother; he’s someone I’ve worked alongside a lot in the last couple of years. We’ve travelled, partied. The others I mentioned are my mentors, my idols.  But Liam and I work on the same level. He has been tattooing for the same length of time as me; we share lots of references and tastes, but we have different takes on them. Working with him helped me define myself.”

MxM is also the editor of Sang Bleu, an independent arts and cultural magazine. “It is a manifestation of me, something that has helped me put things in perspective. Gather all the things I like and all my references, in a semi-coherent way. When I was a kid a lot of people would say I was scattered, so it was a way to show myself and the world, that it all somehow has a middle, a crossing, a centre point.”

As we get seated, MxM shares his final thoughts on tattooing. “I think what you observe in tattooing these days is only one effect of a much deeper shift that is going on in our society at the moment. In many ways, we are coming back to mediaeval-like schemes and structures. Reason and light are backing up, and magic and darkness are growing.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they are taking over, but hopefully balancing each other to reach a healthy middle. Bodies are matter, and matter is not eternal. A body is mortal and flawed, but fun too. Body image is a locus of social pressure and tattoos are like shields against it. When you are tattooed, you are not fat or skinny anymore, small or big… you are tattooed. And what you have tattooed on you is not what mother nature made you, it is what you decide for yourself. That is also part of the reason why tattoos are so addictive. That feeling of power over nature, society. Self-determinism.”

Tattooing at:

Sacred Yantra Tattoo
Lausanne, CH

Eastriver Tattoo,
Brooklyn, USA

Into You
London, UK

For Other Booking:mxmtat2@gmail.com

Credits

Text: Tom Abbott; Photography: MxM

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