The French Connection - Needles Side Tattoo: Part 2

Published: 02 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 220, January, 2013

In last month’s Skin Deep we had the pleasure of sitting down with the splendidly moustached, Kev James, part of Xoil’s Needles Side tattoo revolutionaries. This time, we catch up with the third musketeer and long-time friend of Xoil, Toko Lören, another master of the eye-watering graphic tattoo style that the studio is gradually perfecting from their base in Thonon-les-Bains, France.

Xoil interjects some more background into the tale: “They all have different stories. Lören’s a friend of mine, we’ve been friends a long time and we’ve evolved together.” There are definite advantages to this, he thinks. “When you have a good atmosphere in the shop, it’s better for getting creative ideas. We’re all in the shop together and we share ideas, show each other designs and ask ‘what do you think about that?’ It’s good.”

When the team leaves the studio to take their seats at conventions or shops around the world, they’re acting as missionaries for the Needles Side’s way of tattooing. For Xoil that means creating a distinctive style, and developing a reputation for working in a certain way to achieve their dramatic results.

It’s hard to argue that the pieces falling from Lören’s needle aren’t dramatic. Yesterday he inked a waltzing couple onto a client’s arm, rendered in a scratchy Victoriana style. Only with one difference – the lady in the ballgown had a hound’s head. Next up is a portrait of a stern looking fellow with his head split open to reveal intricate scaffolding and layers of text. So, um, what are they all about? He shrugs cheerfully. The mystery, it seems, is part of it.

Choose your own adventure

“I don’t like it when people give me a design and say ‘do it in your own style’,” he says. “I prefer them to say ‘I’d like something to represent my relationship’, then I can illustrate it without showing things explicitly. If you know what the intention behind the tattoo is, you’ll be able to decode the design; or if you don’t know you might just think ‘oh, that’s a cool design’. The wearer has a choice about whether to explain the meaning or not. The foundation of art is in creating an emotion, then everyone is free to create their interpretation when they see the work.”

His tattoo art is far from indulging his own whimsy, individual though it is. For Lören, the interest lies in finding ways to depict aspects of people’s lives, not simply doodling whatever takes his fancy on their skin. “If I did what I wanted, I’d be doing something for me, not for you!” Instead, he illustrates slices of life, whether that’s an abstract idea a client has about the workings of their head, or how their relationship with their partner came about. The collector chooses to explain what the design means – or not. “They can keep it to themselves or share it, it depends. It’s their personality and their life; it’s important to keep something that’s your own.”

Sink or swim

His own choice, to become a tattoo artist, came after a decade-long career as a graphic designer working in advertising agencies. “I still am a graphic designer, really,” he says, pointing out that his tattoos are created using Photoshop and Illustrator (the term ‘Photoshop’ is sometimes used as shorthand for the graphic style in some circles). However, the medium has certainly changed, and it all began when a friend asked why he didn’t tattoo.

“They said to me, ‘you know all the hygiene stuff, you know the skin, you know how to make crazy designs, why don’t you tattoo?’ I was a long way off in my head from thinking about being a tattoo artist, in my mind it was something too big and unsuitable for me,” he recalls.

Nonetheless, in the end he found himself tattooing, and found that the designs he was already creating translated well onto the skin. “I was drawing every day when I met someone who had a tattoo shop. There was an artist there who offered to teach me a few things,” he says of the beginnings of his career. “Ten days after that he left! So the manager said ‘are you sure you can tattoo?’”

Some men may have bolted for the door at this point. Others might have dived in there. Lören, it seems, was nothing if not pragmatic about the decision. “My ex-wife was pregnant at the time, and I thought ‘I’ve got nine months to become a tattoo artist, and a good one, because I’m going to have a son and I must be able to feed him.’”

Just like that, he began his life behind the needle. He was picking up appointments immediately before he really knew what he was doing, but he didn’t want to let the tattoo shop owner down. “The first time was very hard,” he admits, “I was in a rush. Maybe I did some bad things at the start, but after
a while it was OK and I started to like it.”


It was a shaky start. However, the road to Needles Side actually began a long way back in his past, before he’d even picked up a tattoo machine. Once he had, it seemed inevitable that he would find his way there. “Xoil is a friend from my youth, I’ve known him for a long while; and he gave me my first tattoo,” says Lören. When his future mentor asked him to join his team, Lören was uncertain at first. “I told him he might not want me as I’d only just started,” he explains, but Xoil saw things differently. “He said he wanted me to come and join him because I was ready, in his eyes, to train and come and work in his shop.”

It was a big change, but ultimately a worthwhile one. “Working in the shop has helped me to develop. It’s a great position to be in: the shop I was working in previously was a very classical one in Northern France, customers used to want lots of tribal and things like that.”

Sticking within the lines of already established tattoo styles was a struggle for Lören, not in terms of technical ability, but because he would always want to tell his clients that their ideas for designs didn’t actually suit them and could be much more personal. “I would want to say, no, I know what you want more than you do!”

Unsurprisingly, arriving at Xoil’s studio was a liberating experience. “It was an important moment. People came for my style, not for anything else. It was a good decision, and working with other artists who have a similar style to me is very cool because there’s always something to learn, or to get involved with.”

We return to the idea of an art collective [see last issue], a group of tattoo artists united by a common style attempting to create something wholly new. It could be a manifesto-driven, mould-breaking approach to shatter conventions. Or, as Xoil puts it, “I just think it’s a really good idea. I don’t know if it’s an unusual or usual approach! I really want it to be the kind of shop where when you meet artists who have worked there, you’ll know they’ll be very good and very unique.”


Perhaps this will be the greatest sign that the shop has succeeded – that you’ll know someone has worked or served as an apprentice at Needles Side just by looking at their work. Xoil hopes that the collective approach will help the style develop and self-perpetuate, as artists help one another grow. “In the end it won’t just be me [teaching and developing the style], it will be everyone in the shop. I want to create an attitude that everyone there can teach you something if you come to visit; and also that you’ll be able to teach everyone. I want it to be a very sharing environment.”

It’s still early days for the graphic movement when you set it against the many thousands of years of tattooing that has gone before it, and for now, Xoil sees himself as a reluctant figurehead. “I guess I’m the driving force behind this,” he says, explaining that he’s putting himself in this position to give new artists the breaks he didn’t have. “I’ve been tattooing for 13 years; when I arrived no one would teach me, everyone was laughing at me and I had no help.”

Now, he says, there’s a sense that people are willing to share knowledge and skills, and are more open-minded. “I know I didn’t waste my time by having to teach myself though, I gained different skills. But I guess you learn faster if you have someone saying ‘do this, don’t do it like that’. I want to make it easier; some artists are really talented but just never meet the right people.”

Hence attending conventions and sending his boys out on the road to spread to word in the good old fashioned, flesh-pressing way, converting collectors and meeting like-minded artists. Lören thinks it’s working. “People are becoming more open, it’s better for the graphic style now than it was even two years ago. I think it’s because we’ve created a lot of new work and we’ve tried to teach people.”

He’s passionate about broadening people’s horizons when it comes to the variety of body art available to them, and talks about clients who have previously come into the shop wanting traditional designs. “I’d say ‘sure, I can do that design, but I can also show you what else is possible’. When people saw what we could do, they were amazed.”


Amazement is one reaction, but you’ve probably also heard some of the reservations people have about the graphic style, and Lören addresses one of them without prompting. “People always ask about the colour, whether or not it’ll need to be touched up in a few years. No! It’s not a problem, it’ll stay like this. You don’t know what we can do, so let me show you!”

It’s about educating people, according to Lören, showing them exactly what can be achieved in the graphic style – the rewards for the artists being, of course, that the more people come to accept their style, the more work they can do and the further back they can drive the boundaries. It’s an uphill battle thanks in part to the French media, he claims. “People just want the same thing everyone else has, that they see in magazines. Tattoo magazines never show graphic work in France, people just see something on a celebrity and say ‘I want the same piece’. No, you don’t; you’re not the same as them!”

Small frustrations like this aside, it’s still been a rewarding ride so far for the man who first fell in love with tattoos when he saw pieces created by Bez (“his work made me think ‘wow, that’s really art!’ He was the first to do something really different, who made me think about tattoos as art”) and who has a relaxed attitude to his own collection of skinwear. “For me, tattoos don’t have to be impressive, some of mine are souvenirs of meeting an artist and asking them to tattoo me as a reminder of the time we spent together. I don’t really mind what they mean, I like to let artists do whatever design they want, I offer them a little bit of my skin.”

In the future he hopes to have a piece by his son, although he’s currently four so Lören intends to wait a few more years yet. “Sometimes he’ll pretend to tattoo, he’ll take a pen to my hand and make the noise [makes buzzing sound], or he’ll wipe the skin with a tissue and say ‘are you OK?’ He’s very cool with it, he’s starting to make some good designs!”

Of course, he laughs, his son might well rebel against tattooing when he reaches his teenage years, and think his dad’s profession is ‘ridiculous’. But for now, it pays the bills even if it can be demanding at times. “Sometimes we spend 60 hours a week working, and it’s hard work, drawing at night and tattooing during the day; and I’m a single parent.”

There are many rewards as well, though. The greatest is the artistic freedom, he says, especially when compared to being a corporate graphic designer. “Clients would say they liked my designs, but they weren’t going to use them or wanted to change them. I’d advise them, but they were the ones paying and you’d go along with it because if you didn’t you could lose a lot of money. Now, being a tattoo artist, the art comes first and if a client doesn’t like a design, so what?” Another shrug. “I’ll lose a few hundred pounds.”

With that freedom comes satisfaction. “I’m more of an artist now than I ever was before. The graphic design work I was doing wasn’t art, it was marketing work. But what I do now is art.” He returns to work, tweaking a design that will later become the opened up head of an Edwardian gent. It certainly looks like art to us.

Xoil surveys his team at work as the day gets busier, looking satisfied. “It’s a perfect point for tattooing right now,” he says. “The graphic moment is just starting, and it will grow and will get really big; it will be a different, proper new movement.” Crowds are gathering around his artists. “It’s a great time for tattooing, for sure.”

Behind the ink

Here’s the tale behind one of Lören’s most distinctive tattoos…

“The craziest tattoo I have ever done was on Manue, a young woman from Germany. Manue arrived one day at Needles Side and told me that she had fallen in love with my style; when she saw my Facebook page she took her truck and came directly to us.

“It was very strange, she didn’t call or send an email. She just arrived and asked me if I was available the following day. She was a lucky lady, I didn’t have an appointment for the next day. She wanted lines which left from her toes to her fingertips; I ended up creating her ‘crazy lines’ on almost half of her body.

“It was nearly a nine-hour session, and during that time she didn’t move and never complained. It was her first tattoo.”

Needles Side TaTtOo

13, Av. des Allobroges,
+33 4 50 71 68 50


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Toko