Growing up in a village in Switzerland in the 80s, Maxime Plescia-Buchi’s first real experience of tattoos were the DIY ones that the local punk and goths branded themselves with. After developing a fascination with the art form and the subcultures surrounding it from afar, he began getting tattooed himself in his early 20s. He would flit between the worlds of psychology, fine art and graphic design, however, before finally settling down to apprentice under Swiss tattoo artist Filip Leu in 2006.
“I did want to take Leu up on it [earlier], but I also knew at that stage I needed to have a bit of focus as I was studying art already,” says Plescia-Buchi. “He said ‘finish your studies, do what you have to do, get back to me and we’ll see’, so that’s exactly what I did. Maybe three years later I called him, and the rest is history.”
Given Plescia-Buchi’s design background, you’d think that making the transition to tattoos would be a relatively straightforward one – or perhaps not. “There is a widespread misunderstanding that tattooing is something you can do easily using your graphic design skills, which is actually the opposite of the truth,” he says.
“A lot of the results are bad but it’s not because of the execution, it’s because of a misconception of what makes a good tattoo. Probably when it was drawn on a sheet of paper it was a pretty cool illustration, but it just doesn’t work [on the human body].”
Taking on tattooing in his 30s then, was a pretty steep learning curve. “When I learned to tattoo it was like starting all over again. The responsibility of tattooing someone is huge; there’s no rationale and in that sense it’s much closer to fine art [than graphic design],” he says.
To just call Plescia-Buchi a tattoo artist though would be more than a bit of an understatement. His tattoo studio Sang Bleu – which now has shops in both London and Zurich, and boasts celeb fans including Kanye West and FKA twigs – actually began life in 2006 as a print magazine about art, culture and subculture. “Sang Bleu was my attempt to bring all my interests into a form that could have interest for other people than me. It worked out well, but it worked out as a manifesto. Manifestos are not best sellers, they’re for people who want to find out about things within a cultural or political movement,” he says.
Just over a decade later, the Sang Bleu brand has grown to include a creative agency, a streetwear line that has collaborated with the likes of Nike and Sweaty Betty, and an ongoing partnership with Swiss watchmaker Hublot. Plescia-Buchi also wears various other guises, as the co-founder of type foundry Swiss Typefaces, which has worked with big-name fashion brands such as Balenciaga and Vogue, and perhaps most notably, running his publishing imprint TTTISM.
Pronounced ‘Tattooism’, the publisher began life as an Instagram account showcasing work by tattoo artists from around the world, with every post being carefully curated by Plescia-Buchi. As well as garnering over 400,000 followers on Instagram, the magazine is now on its third print issue and has published books on cult tattoo artists including former Sang Bleu resident Tati Compton.
The success of TTTISM so far can partly be put down to the increasing popularity and acceptance of tattoos in mainstream culture. New studios have opened on the UK’s high streets at a rapid pace (more than 1,000 tattoo studios compared to 402 in 2009, according to Courier) and today one in three young adults in the UK have gone under the needle.
The virality of social media platforms like Instagram have also added to the tattoo hype, helping to spread the word about DIY methods such as ‘stick and poke’ and democratise the art form. Stick and poke in particular has become an increasingly popular means of getting inked, eradicating the need for a tattoo machine altogether by using a (hopefully) sterilised needle and ink.
“What’s happening is that tattooing is going through a transition that you could compare to photography,” says Plescia-Buchi. “Sixty years ago photography was a new technique and certain people needed to appropriate and explore it so that the whole world could have an iPhone today. Tattooing is transitioning from something that is difficult to understand to within five to ten years [being] a no brainer for anyone. It could become as easy and obvious as taking a photo today.”
Instagram in particular is also a useful aid for bringing in new potential clients, acting as a virtual shop window for tattoo studios. “Tattoos have gone from something that is a big deal to something that nobody cares about. It’s not about being tattooed or not being tattooed, it’s about what you have on you,” says Plescia-Buchi. “In the next 10 to 15 years people will get tattooed or not get tattooed in the same way that people do or don’t wear a t-shirt. It’s just a personal preference.”
While the democratisation of tattooing can partly be seen as a good thing, bringing in a new generation of eager-to-learn tattoo artists and customers who are getting more experimental with their body art, Plescia-Buchi points out that it can also have its downsides.
In the same way that anyone can take a photo and stick it on their Instagram, for example, hypothetically anyone can create a tattoo these days. But that’s not to say that it will be a good one. “Tattoos have been growing faster than the information around them can follow,” says Plescia-Buchi. “I was observing a huge potential crisis ahead, because tattooing is an oral tradition. There are no books, no universities, no unions, it’s only one person telling the next person in a very ancient style apprenticeship. There’s a lot of beauty in this but the problem is that you don’t multiply the information.”
Part of the reason why Plescia-Buchi founded TTTISM in the first place was to help tackle this problem. “There was a weird face-off developing between the old and new generation, and Instagram was the spade digging that gap between the two. I was wondering how to bridge that, so I tried to do a multi-levelled effort by showing tattoos not based on my own tastes but judging them as objectively as possible,” he says.
Plescia-Buchi sees Sang Bleu and TTTISM’s role going forward as being the standard bearer for tattoos, and hopes to publish more academic books on the little-documented history of tattooing alongside the visually alluring publications he has become so well known for. “The problem is that there isn’t an industry, and this is the misconception that’s actually shared within the so-called ‘industry’. But there are individual endeavours that can go in that direction, and personally that’s what I’m trying to achieve with TTTISM.”