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How Tattooing Has Become an Aesthetic Power Source in Fashion

Oct 26 2019

Sang Bleu Founder Maxime Büchi Speaks Out on Tattooing’s Role as a Subcultural Lingua Franca

Maxime Büchi is the man who made sense of tattooing’s contemporary relevance. Arriving in mid-2000s East London as a graphic designer with a love of fashion and publishing, he discovered a world where diverse subcultures and creative disciplines could overlap in a cohesive way. Tattoos were the common thread tying these radical groups together—an underground cabal that powered the grittier side of design, and an antidote to fast fashion’s throwaway ethics. Here was something scary and real that demanded thought. Tattooing’s irrepressible nature and DIY attitude was becoming the powerful creative influence it is today.

Swiss-born Büchi launched magazine in 2004 as a publication that would represent this new convergence of fine art, fashion, music, and tattooing in a way that had never been attempted before. More than 10 years on, and with the 37-year-old having effectively recontextualized the visual language and cultural identity of tattooing, has evolved from printed matter into an entity somewhere between a brand and a movement.From a collaboration with Hublot watches to designing the temporary tattoos FKA Twigs wore to the Met Gala, as well as tattooing celebrities such as Kanye West, Büchi now oversees a world that includes his Sang Bleu studios in London and Zurich, a publishing house, and the Sang Bleu Physical fashion label, alongside the online magazine and his TTTism digital channels. “The mainstream is becoming aware of the visual and innovative power of tattooing, as well as the symbolic and intellectual aspects,” he says. “There’s a fascination but no one knows how to integrate it, and coming from between these worlds I’m perfectly placed to facilitate this back and forth, and make a living in the process.”As he prepared to go on paternity leave, Buchi and I spoke about the wider influence of tattooing on design, and what makes it the last true subculture.

How did you initially become interested in tattoo culture?Your own style of tattooing seems very technical and has a precise, almost architectural feel to it. Can you trace that back to your Swiss upbringing?

I grew up fascinated with tattoos, but they were never really interesting for me culturally. There was very little tattooing in skating at the time, and none in hip-hop really. It was for rock and roll guys, not my world. It was only at art school that I opened my mind and felt I didn’t have to be so loyal to subcultures. I started to reappropriate the idea of getting tattooed, so I could be a hip-hop guy and still be into tattooing. I could make it coherent because I was open to arts in general. Then graffiti brought the attitude—if you want to do it, just go out and do it. It gave me that mentality, a hip-hop mentality. And I now apply that to everything I do.My uncle was an architect, and the modernist heritage is obviously very strong in Switzerland, but I just like the aesthetic of technicality. I enjoy the language, especially at the convergence of ancient cultures with ultra-modern or ultra-contemporary signs and computer-generated shapes. At the end of the day, geometry is a visual expression of mathematics, and mathematics are the theoretical system or science or discipline that describes the purist form of how the human brain and life works. Anything geometric will be the purest expression of the human mind, and that’s what I’m trying to achieve. Not something that is only relevant for a few years. Something that is eternal.

You were involved with hip-hop and skateboarding in the 80s and 90s, and that early contact with subcultures in a way became the foundations for . But did exploring them through magazines spark your fascination with publishing?Did your love of fashion grow out of that same street-level interest in the look of different youth movements?

There was no Internet, so magazines were my only window on the cultures I had such a passion for in my childhood. Skate and hip-hop magazines were also hard to get ahold of. My father is a journalist, and I grew up around books. The press in general is important in Switzerland for historical reasons, so publishing was something I was always interested in, but it became relevant because it was my only access to subcultures. It was crucial from an aesthetic and content point of view.This was the time of urban tribes, and I was fascinated with how people dressed. It felt like everyone had to identify as part of a group and stick to it. You had to wear specific brands, and be either a goth, or a hard rock guy, etc. So my interest in the aesthetics grew out of a need to learn to navigate these worlds for social survival purposes. I was obsessed with the look of the cultures I belonged to, but it wasn’t really fashion. My love of fashion grew out of my interest in typography and the graphic design of the style magazines I looked at in art school when I was learning about content publishing.

So art school is where subcultures and fashion started coming together with publishing for you?What was it about London at that time that felt so unique?

I was into post-fanzine stuff, independent London-based magazines, and titles published in the Netherlands. That’s how graphic arts and fashion really overlapped, and I started to understand more about how magazines worked. I found a copy of in a petrol station outside Amsterdam, and it got me into experimental formats. And I started to realize that I wanted to create content as well as design it. I got the opportunity to work for in Paris and started working out who was important and who did what. I enjoyed the clothes and making sense of the images. So I understood content and how to put together a magazine, but I got very bored in Paris. Then a friend from London called and invited me over.I quickly met a group of people, including Lotta Volkova and Alban Adam, who were from the fashion world. But what was interesting was that a lot of these people were tattooed. This wasn’t luxury fashion. People were just doing stuff and not being judgmental. Everything was going on—like a happy mess. People just focused on being creative. I liked the graphic expression of this, and it was a huge revelation that it was possible to bring all these things together in a fun but also coherent way. When I started meeting these people and living the East London life in the mid-2000s, I realized that it was actually possible to connect all these different interests I had. I was a graphic designer doing print, but I was never satisfied with doing only one thing, and I had been getting tattooed for a while and felt frustrated by how limited the scope of tattooing and tattoo publications were. There was no magazine to represent people in fine arts and fashion who liked tattoos, or people who had different cultural backgrounds to the usual biker and rockabilly thing. So I created a magazine that was completely egocentric, in that it presented my world in terms of all of these things brought together.

It must have been like finding your spiritual home then, in as far as this was somewhere that subcultures and identities could be blurred without feeling like you were betraying them?Lotta Volkova was quoted in recently saying that there were no subcultures anymore, and that it’s all about the remix today. Is that something you subscribe to? Because it seems to fit Sang Bleu pretty well.

The boundaries had already started blurring in a way they hadn’t in the 90s because of the Internet and globalized culture. Things that had been around for 15 or 20 years like goth, metal, and hip-hop that had been institutionalized were suddenly being integrated into art, fashion, and business. People didn’t need to fight so hard for the identity of each of these cultures, and they were starting to feel free and open to crossing over. It didn’t feel like you were compromising by listening to rap if you were into industrial music. But tattooing was the one culture that was way behind and still needed to go through that cultural, social, and mainstream integration in the way that other subcultures had decades earlier. So I knew it was a good starting point.To an extent. But I would disagree in the sense that if there is a last subculture, then it is tattooing. That’s what is about. At this stage it’s on its way to the mainstream. The irony of is that even though I was creating a lot of the content myself, I actually felt that we could have done the magazine using existing material. It’s not remixing—more like curating, or re-editing. So much has been produced already. And with the Internet at our disposal, we don’t need anything more. Like today we went to the Gucci store. You want to do a campaign for Gucci? Take an obscure campaign from the 70s and just clean it up and no one would know. Even if they did it would be fine. You don’t need another photographer and another shoot. This is really interesting and something that is so today, and that is very .

So what do you think about the way brands like Vetements and Gucci approach reappropriation in fashion terms as a response to what people want to wear today?Who are the other brands out there doing this?

I don’t know enough about Vetements to talk about them, but when major brands like Gucci do it, often it feels like they are reacting to a cycle that brings back the 70s or 80s every five years. So to be honest it feels more sincere with Vetements, and a true response to what the designers and their audience are into, more connected to real lifestyle. This Gucci collection in particular is very literal, even though it is beautifully done. I’m much more interested in fashion as a full-blown artistic expression. I like it when there is a real understanding and connection with brand identity and heritage. And what I saw today at Gucci didn’t feel like the heritage of Gucci at all. Whereas when I see Vetements I feel like it’s real—and I know Lotta and can tell there is a true connection with the spirit that these people represent. So I can definitely identify with this.Cottweiler is interesting because it represents exactly what interests me about fashion nowadays. It’s a label that perfectly understands how culture is appropriated and controlled. So what they deliver is real fashion, not just pure cool. Something people can identify with.

Since tattooing brought all these different movements and cultures together in the early days of , have you seen tattoo culture have a big influence on the wider design world in general?You talk about tattooing being the last subculture, but as that changes, how do you maintain an element of radicalism?

Absolutely, that’s why arrived at the right time and in the right place, and was maybe instrumental to an extent. We’re still in the process of tattoo culture being really integrated and accepted as a prominent thing in visual culture and artistic culture in general. But it’s really interesting because at this stage the industry behind tattooing is still the wild wild West. It’s huge with very little regulation. It’s very amateurish, and everyone does whatever he or she wants. But that’s what makes it so interesting—because anyone can be a tattooist. Grab a machine, grab a needle, and you can do a tattoo. Not many things are as powerful. Music is, but it has been completely controlled and exploited, but tattooing is still scary and fascinating. At the end of the day I don’t think it can be controlled and become part of the machine, but who knows—maybe eventually.The beauty is that I don’t think that can go away. Tattooing itself is too weird a thing. It’s penetrating the skin and it’s permanent. It’s too weird to ever go completely mainstream or commercial, so I’m not worried. I think the very essence of what tattooing is guarantees its edge. It goes so far against what a lot of people consider taboo and strange. Tattooing in my opinion is not at risk in the near future of becoming just a thing you do without caring. It’s still scary and challenging.