Bugs may very well be the love child of Pablo Picasso and Tamara de Lempicka. For nearly 30 years, he’s been “painting on people with a tattoo machine,” creating a signature style that evokes the modern art masters and sets him apart as an innovator in the tattoo world. This French-born artist talks about London’s tattoo culture in ’80s—when he owned the legendary Evil From the Needle—his move to Los Angeles in 2005, and his love for gardening.
NKED: You have a unique style of tattooing. How do you describe it?
BUGS: My work is strongly influenced by cubism and art deco—a mix of both.
How did this style develop?
When I started tattooing, I was practicing in all different styles. I went through all the basics in the beginning. For many years, I was very into Celtic work. I did a lot of it back in the day, and eventually I got tired of it and realized I could do more in my tattooing. I was dying to use some color and slowly started looking to develop a more personal style. I had studied at fine art school for seven years in my town of Perpignan, France, and so I went back to what I really liked in my original art school education, which was art deco and cubism. One day, I came across a customer and he gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted on him. I drew something very abstract and put it on his skin, and that’s how it all started. The following month I did another piece and then another piece, and slowly I started getting used to drawing cubism as a form of tattoo expression. I began to develop that style and over time it became my trademark.
Because it was so new and no one was really doing it in tattooing, how was it received at that time?
I lost a lot of customers! I was so well-known for Celtic, and out of the blue I stopped doing it. I tried to explain that I wanted to do something original, and it was time for me to create my own style. But Celtic and cubism are so different, and I basically lost all of my customers. At the same time, I reached a new part of the tattoo scene, which was more educated and artistic. So I was happy about that. But it took a long time to actually develop a really big clientele because the style was obviously very new and most people were used to skulls, roses, and tribal.
Because there’s such a demand for your work now, how do you keep things fresh and find new ideas to answer the demand?
Well, it’s been about 14 or 15 years since I started doing my own style. I’ve been improving my style over these years and now it’s kind of strong and powerful. When people see my work on others, they recognize it right away. I reached what I was looking for. To keep it fresh is a lot of work. You take a lot of time to progress but to stay on top of your game is the hardest part. Every day I draw. I paint a lot. I practice, and the more I do it, I discover new things.
How do you find the balance between very angular design and the contours of the body?
That’s hard to explain. It has become natural to me, it’s the way I draw things. When it comes to designs like flowers or women—and there are a lot of women in my work—I try to avoid too much detail and information. I try, in just one outline, to show the silhouette of the body, for example.
What do you think is one of the biggest challenges?
It is to be creative every single time. Considering that all my work is custom and original, that’s where it becomes complicated. When you do flash, you can do the same design ten or a hundred times with little variation, but when it comes to my kind of work, people are expecting original art. It’s a lot of work. How many cubic women or flowers can I do? They all have to be different, in my style, but different. I never do the same tattoo twice.
When did you first pick up a tattoo machine? Were you apprenticed or self-taught?
I apprenticed myself. One day I came across an advert in a magazine to buy tattoo equipment, and I ordered the basic kit and started tattooing my friends. After a couple of years, I started to put on a decent outline and pack in colors properly, and then began to really focus on it and make it my career.
When did you begin to tattoo professionally?
I started in 1982, so it will be 30 years pretty soon. I was in the south of France, where I come from, and tattooed there for two years and then moved to London, where I worked in an apartment for a little while. In 1986 I decided to open my own studio in Camden Town: Evil From the Needle. I stayed there almost 20 years until moving to Los Angeles.
What was London’s tattoo scene like in the 1980s?
It was different than it is now. It was good and hard at the same time. There weren’t too many studios in London—it wasn’t that popular. On top of that, I’m French so the local tattoo artists saw me as competition. It wasn’t too much fun in the beginning. I had to work hard to establish my name and make my business run properly. The clientele was also different at the time. Now you see people in fashion, sports, acting—all kinds of different classes of people. Back then it was street people and troublemakers. More rock ‘n’ roll for sure.
Did you have any trouble in the shop?
Yeah, I had a bunch. Back in the day in Camden it was pretty rough. So, yeah, it happened quite a few times that people caused some trouble in the shop. You had to be the boss in your own shop and make sure no one was fucking around with you. But now with tattoos in the media and the TV shows, it’s a brand-new world.
What do you think about this change?
It’s good and bad. We’ve been dying for this change for many years. I was part of a group of people in the ’80s who wanted to reinvent tattooing, to do it in a more artistic, more elaborate way. We were dying to see tattoos more accepted. Back then if you had tattoos you were discriminated against and judged. People thought that you spent time in jail. The idea of who a tattooed person is has changed, and that’s a positive thing. On the other hand, people had more serious reasons to get tattooed. Now it is so open and fashionable, there are people getting tattooed and they don’t know why. They just do it because it’s cool.
What prompted you to move to Los Angeles in 2005?
After running Evil From the Needle in London for 20 years, I needed a change. I had a few years where I felt I wasn’t creative anymore and too wrapped up with managing the shop. I was tired of being the boss, arguing all the time with the artists, so I decided to get rid of the shop and change my life around. I was looking for a more mellow life, one where I could be more creative. I moved to L.A. for a fresh start. I also love the weather in L.A.
I started working at Tabu Tattoo, where I would do guest spots in the past. Tabu Tattoo was sold, and when Swag took it over [and changed the name to Tattoo Lounge], he asked me to stay. I was happy to carry on working with him, and here I am. I don’t own the shop, so I don’t have those responsibilities. I just tattoo.
We see you’ve also been doing some Japanese-inspired work, but with your particular style.
In the past few years, I’ve been to Japan a few times and was working with Shige. I love Japan. I love the culture and thought it would be interesting to incorporate some of the designs with a twist, like creating a geisha in cubic form. I’m not saying I’m doing Japanese cubic all the time, but for me it’s something new and different.
Is there a tattoo that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet?
Not really, because I pretty much do what I want. My customers are, most of the time, cool and really want me to create something for them. That’s always exciting, to have someone come to you and say, “Do whatever you want.” To reach this point is really an honor. I realize how lucky I am to be able to express myself on people like I do on canvas, and that’s basically how I approach my job: I’m painting on people with a tattoo machine.
That’s a big responsibility.
Of course it is. My customers trust me so much. It’s like collaboration; actually, it’s more like a bond between them and me. I’m excited to create an original work for someone and that person is excited to get tattooed by me. There’s a strong feeling there.
Because of that relationship, have there been times where you didn’t vibe with someone and refused to tattoo them?
It has happened quite a lot. I’m very straight and have told some people that I didn’t think they were the right person for me to tattoo because we did not have a connection. For example, if someone proposes a subject that I don’t feel good about, I have to say I’m sorry and turn it away. At the end of the day, I’m the one doing it and so I’m the one who decides who is going to get tattooed and how. I don’t follow people’s advice or restrictions. If there are any restrictions when I do my job, I don’t do it. I won’t be able to provide the quality, and I won’t satisfy myself. Especially with large-scale pieces like full sleeves or a back piece, you’re talking many sessions, many hours to work on this person; so if from the beginning there’s a bad vibe or connection, how can you provide quality work? It’s almost impossible. For me it’s important to feel good about the process from beginning to end.
Let’s talk about your painting. What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a new show that will be at Sacred Gallery in New York in May. The opening will be Thursday night right before the New York convention. I’m hoping to show 35 to 40 new paintings in different mediums, not just oil on canvas. Maybe there’ll be some painting on wood, watercolors on paper, and maybe some sculpture. I really want to show something strong and powerful.
You also sculpt?
I used to do it many years ago, and it’s really something I want to do again. I’m sketching new cubic women, starting small. I’m going to make them in bronze. Near my house is a foundry that deals with a lot of artists. I think it will be interesting to see my work in 3–D, to see my work freely with all the angles of my design. I don’t know if it will be popular or will sell, but I don’t care. I do it for me.
When you’re not creating art, what do you do for fun?
That’s my secret! [Laughs.] I just finished my car, a 1935 three-window coupe. I’ve been customizing my car for the past five years, drawing pretty much everything on it. I drew the interior, and created and casted all the knobs myself. It’s sort of art deco. I won a few car shows with it. I also really enjoy gardening and just walking around my yard. Gardening is very important to me. I need that break and peaceful moments to think about my tattoos and paintings—to try and create something different for people. I like it. It’s what I do.