MAXIME PLESCIA-BUCHI: RADICAL INKING
Maxime Plescia-Buchi did not meet many people with tattoos when he was growing up in rural Switzerland. “There were only three people I remember…” he says. Still, the guy with the crude anchor on his arm, the skater hippy who showed him as a wide-eyed teen how to stick and poke, and the man he glimpsed at the local pool with a topless mermaid inked on his skin all made a lasting impression.
As did one other moment: “I remember the first day I walked in front of a tattoo studio with my dad and he let me look inside... I was like, Wow, this is amazing."
For a decade, Plescia-Buchi has been making an indelible mark on both the bodies of his subjects and on tattooing as an art form. Working solely in black ink and combining clean, modern graphicism with references lifted from classical European art, his style is a distinctive departure from the medium’s popular aesthetics.
The scope of his success is impressive: he has studios in London and Zurich, has tattooed Kanye West, designed the temporary tats FKA Twigs wore to the 2016 Met Gala, made watches with Hublot, collaborated with Alexander McQueen offshoot McQ, and also produces clothing. As one of the first tattoo artists to harness and use the power of the internet to disseminate his work, his practice exists at the nexus between underground and dominant culture.
And then there’s Sang Bleu, the magazine he started in 2004. Despite the name’s noble associations, it was not founded on snobbish principles but instead acted as a published manifesto of Plescia-Buchi’s dynamic interests, an intellectual meeting point which united the worlds of fashion, art, photography, philosophy, subculture, tattoos and fetishism. Sang Bleu’s multi-dimensionality was a direct result of how Plescia-Buchi experienced life in London, arriving after graduating from studying graphic design in Switzerland and a stint working in Paris. The UK capital wasn’t somewhere you were only allowed to follow one tribe, it was also a place where experimentation was encouraged.
When I arrived in London I met these people who weren’t defined by one subculture, and that there was no shame about that.
This bricolage approach was different to that he’d experienced growing up in rural Switzerland, where it was more common to find your thing and stick with it. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Plescia-Buchi spent his teenage years feeling like something of an outsider. “Growing up I just didn’t fit in the system, in the society around me,” he says.
PLESCIA-BUCHI ARTWORKING ON HIS iPAD
While self-expression was encouraged at home thanks to politically left-wing parents who were of a generation that regarded creativity as “something important and beautiful”, their approach to life was pragmatic; they were professional, middle class people, and imagined the same for their son. “They didn’t come from artistic families, or know what the life of an artistic person was like,” Plescia-Buchi says. “There was always something a bit like, ‘Okay, that’s cool but it’s not a real profession.’”
The classroom didn’t hold much appeal, but what did capture his attention was the tidal wave of influences coming in from America. First it was the allure of skateboarding, then hip-hop, but the real epiphany happened when he first saw graffiti. “People would complain about it, but I thought it was amazing. It wasn’t art that you had to go study for years; someone just went and did it. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” Skateboarding may have carried with it an aura of rebellion, but “graffiti was straight up illegal.” Not that that put him off, it was a precursor to life as a tattooist.
I guess with graffiti it sealed the rebellious thing – the idea that this society was not really ready for what I wanted to do.
That I could find an outlet for my expression and my identity but it would have to be in something that is quintessentially radical, subversive maybe and potentially dangerous.
Graduating to using people rather than walls as the medium for his designs took some time, however. Seeing a friend – “someone like me” – getting tattooed by Filip Leu – “the best artist in the world” to Plescia-Buchi – was the catalyst. A few months later, he made his own appointment at Leu’s legendary family studio in Lausanne and began getting his whole back tattooed, a process which took three years to complete. One-day, during a session, Leu offered him something he didn’t expect – an apprenticeship.
I just randomly said that I love tattoos and I was in art school and I would be interested to learn. He said, ‘If you want to learn I’ll teach you.PLESCIA-BUCHI AT SANG BLEU, LONDON
Plescia-Buchi couldn’t believe his luck, but didn’t take up the offer immediately. Instead, he finished his degree and spending time in Paris, where he worked for fashion magazine Self Service, and then in London. “I never stopped thinking about it. It took me another two or three years to grow the balls and let go of anything that I’d worked hard for, to drop everything to be a tattooist.
He apprenticed between the ages of 27 and 29 with the Leu family, learning, he says, “how to strive for perfection in anything you do.” He knew the style of his teacher was not what he wanted to work in, and in London had come across Thomas Hooper and Duncan X, both of whom he credits unreservedly for their influence on him. “They were the only examples that I had,” he says.SANG BLEU, LONDON
But like his early influence of hip-hop, his style was an exercise in “sampling and quoting from” the influences that shaped him as a person. “I grew up with classic culture, surrounded by medieval ruins and cathedrals, Roman and gothic art, classic literature and modern art,” he says – all of which found their way into his work. It was important that Plescia-Buchi have a real emotional attachment to the pieces he was designing, combining his background and family ties with his studies rather than striving to work in a popular but not personally relevant style. “I didn’t know anything about Japanese culture and didn’t have much interest in it to be honest,” he says.
I didn’t have any sailors around me, so sailor tattoos were just as foreign and alien to me as Japanese tattoos.PLESCIA-BUCHI FINDING INSPIRATION
Instead, he focussed on “Free Mason Iconography, anything that was extremely European” – “things I really understood really well because I grew up around them, it was a culture that I knew about.” Combined with inspiration from the hyper detailed graphics and illustrative blackwork of Hooper and X, Plescia-Buchi had created his own trademark style.
Further marrying his aesthetic eye, interest in publishing and graphic design background, Plescia-Buchi began to make use of emergent social media platforms to promote his work – first it was MySpace, then Tumblr, and finally Instagram as @mxmtt, which today acts as an ever-evolving gallery space for his output.
Each platform allowed him to propagate his work to a community far wider than one that might exist around a tattoo shop, but it was the reblog-activated, discovery-friendly ecosystem of Tumblr – which he began posting to in 2010 – that had the biggest impact. “I was fascinated by new media, digital technology and a lot of people who were interested in what I was doing as a graphic designer, or photographer, or publisher were in that world,” he explains of his early adoption of social media. “Whereas the more traditional tattoo world weren’t as in it.”DETAILS AT SANG BLEU, LONDON
Despite his self-confessed “traditional left wing values” (and even time spent both on his city council and invested in alternative political movements in his youth), the business side of things that the Leu family impressed onto Plescia-Buchi was something he maintains was incredibly important. “There is no way to separate the commerce side with the artistic act,” he reflects on how he came to understand and appreciate the intimately transactional nature of tattooing. “You could not be a good tattooist without being a decent business person, for the simple reason that if you’re not good at selling yourself you’ll have no one to tattoo on.“
It’s not like you can go and buy canvases. You need to convince the canvases to come to you.
Today, he has no problems with that. While Sang Bleu was last published in 2012, in 2015 Plescia-Buchi formally founded an agency under the same name, which includes publishing, creative direction and fashion design. Earlier this year he released TTTism, a magazine exploring tattooing as an art form and means of self-expression, now in its second issue. His latest Sang Bleu collection has featured pieces made with Nike and Champion, and next year will see a book with renowned fashion and art publishers Laurence King.MAXIME PLESCIA-BUCHI BY ANDY MALONE, LONDON
If there’s one thing to take away from his renaissance man career, though, it’s that Plescia-Buchi has brought tattooing out from the shadows of being a side-line or fringe artistic practice, and brought it into the light. He’s forged his own language, inspiring others to do the same. That will be his legacy.
TEXT: Emma Hope Allwood
PHOTOGRAPHY: Andy Malone