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Text by Rik van Boeckel and Rob Webster

Photography: Tin Tin and Rob Webster

Tin-Tin is without a doubt the most famous French tattoo artist. His two shops are located in Paris at Rue Saint-Sébastien and Rue de Douai. We headed out from the Gare Du Nord railway station into a monumental traffic jam. Nobody speaks English or wants to explain the route, so the first thing we did was get a cab and show the driver a piece of paper with Tin-Tin's address.

Through the human zoo called Paris, the driver found his way to the shop located in the middle of the entertainment part of Paris, just outside the pumping aorta of Paris' night life. We passed the Moulin Rouge and Place Picante (Pigalle) where you can still see nice shows with beautiful ladies on stage. This is the place where you find sex, cemeteries and the master of French tattooing, Tin-Tin.

Once we arrived at Rue de Douai, we entered the studio. It had just opened. Tin-Tin was sitting at a table making drawings for the next customer. His companion, Cold Hand Luc, was busy setting up the equipment for the next tattoo. A warm welcome made us feel right at home. Blandine, the lovely shop manager, helped us find a spot to shoot some pictures of TinTin somewhere in the neighborhood. While this was going on, Tin-Tin was finishing a drawing of the Hulk.


We talked about the famous female French singer Dalida who died a couple of years ago. Dalida was a chansonnière and her kitschy radiation seemed to be a fine contrast to Tin-Tin. We wanted a photo of the two of them together, but the problem was Tin-Tin never met the girl alive. So we went to the cemetery to look for her grave.

Back in the studio the customer with the Hulk went away for a walk, so we had some time to do an additional interview before we started to put on some music, "Monster Man" by Iggy Pop. Tin-Tin did his monster shuffle, Luc finished his tattoo and we went upstairs to Tin-Tin's work area to do the interview. What a sight! Everywhere plastic and paper bags are stuffed with all kind of cartoon illustrations from Star Trek to Obelix, not to mention Batman and figures from those violent and sexy Japanese cartoon manga movies. "Well I haven't got the time to put all the drawings in place, but they do not run away," Tin-Tin said. It will probably look like a museum when all these cartoon figures are out of the bags and mounted. The shop downstairs has graffiti paintings of the word TATTOO in different languages (Latin, Arabic, Thai, Russian and more) around the ceiling. Tin-Tin began by describing himself.

"Tattooing, for me, is a passion. It's my life. I like what I do and I do it right." This states his humble attitude towards himself and others. According to Blandine, "Tin-Tin simply cannot stop."

Tin-Tin runs the shop together with Cold Hand Luc and Bruno who has apprenticed with Tin-Tin for six years. "When someone becomes my apprentice, it's like registering for the army," Tin Tin says. "We all work very hard here and we want to work together with people who fit in this place and operate at the same wavelength. Nobody pays for his apprenticeship. Bruno was already an outstanding tattoo artist before I met him. I had a free working place at that time in the back of the studio. So it was good that I waited until I found the right person."


Tin-Tin is controversial, like all artists who are blessed with a great talent. His images are extraordinary—bright colors with a rare perspective such as a backpiece of the underwater world, complete with fishes and a dolphin. It looks like an aquarium growing from someone's back. A tiger reminds me of a grim, laughing red devil. And a sweet colored bird seems to fly away from the skin. Under the hand of Tin-Tin, all creatures come alive. Looking at his tattoos, we asked him if he thinks he is a romantic. He simply answered, "What is that?"


In 1986, Tin-Tin started a tattoo shop in Toulouse, but he made his first tattoo two years earlier in Berlin during his military service. He stayed in Toulouse six years and returned to Paris eight years ago. We met him for the first time January, 1999 at Le Mondial du Tatoeage, the first convention he organized in Le Bataclan, a place for pop concerts in the north of Paris, not far from the Gare du Nord.


"Tin-Tin is my real name," he told us. "My first name is Tin and my second name is Tin. It's funny, right?" He started to laugh with one of the girls who was working at the convention. Then he told about his first experiences with tattooing. "I was getting tattooed by Marcel Vaillot who is in the jury of the Paris convention. I wanted to get further in tattooing, so, slowly I became an artist myself. When I started tattooing, I didn't start in the usual way. Everybody begins with copying flash designs, doing the traditional tattoos. My starting point was not the flash of Spaulding and Rogers, but paintings and art books. I was copying like everyone else but from different sources. I didn't want to buy catalogues full of flash. I just went to a bookshop across the street and copied from books with images I found there. I don't have a designer background, but I liked to draw when I was a kid. But until I started to tattoo, I had no reason to draw. Those books gave me the inspiration. I learned it all by myself."


We were still curious if there were any tattoo artists that inspired him. "As long as you look at someone's work who is a good artist, it will give you a big inspiration," he said. "It will be a good influence. As soon as I started, I began to visit the best in the world, like in 1987 I saw Kari Barba from Anaheim, California. I visited her. Just looking at her working for a month taught me a lot. It's better to learn by yourself looking at the best than being an apprentice of someone who is not good at all, who's teaching you shit and doesn't show you the right things. But I'm happy to be an apprentice of a great artist. Any good artist will inspire me."

Later we read in Tatouage Magazine (one of the main French tattoo magazines) that Tin-Tin has a preference for Filip Leu and American artists like Marcus Pacheco and Guy Aitchinson. Tin-Tin adds Paul Booth to this list. And although he is himself a very good artist, he still looks up to big names like Leu. Since 1992, Tin-Tin built his reputation by proving his talent and by working with the media.

"You can only be a good tattoo artist if you work a lot and if you have a passion. You have to have passion to work enough to be really good. If you are not, you won't make it. Tattooing demands exceptional discipline. I still work hard. I feel I'm still learning and progressing everyday. That's very important for me."


Tin-Tin has his own special ideas about free-hand tattooing. "Most of the time, I try to draw on paper. I begin drawing before I start to tattoo. I prepare from paper and put it in the stencil machine. The body dictates how to do it, and, as much as I can, I try to tattoo free hand." What Tin-Tin means is that he doesn't put the images he is drawing on paper directly to the skin. First he makes a sketch on paper, then he shows it to the customer—then he transfers the image at the skin. But still he considers that as free hand tattooing. The sketch gives him something to hold onto. "When I just copy a heart, it's not freehand, of course. When I tattoo a portrait, I try to copy as much as possible. I am just copying. You can't say that's a style. To be realistic is not a style. What I do, is make the portrait look very much like the original."


As the organizer of the Paris convention, Tin-Tin wanted something different from what a lot of other organizers produce. According to Tin-Tin, most convention producers do not invest enough money. "European conventions are more like concerts." At American conventions there is no music at all, so he does not put rock bands on the stage, for example. It's not that he doesn't like rock bands, rather, he wants to emphasize the art of tattooing as a major part of the modern lifestyle of young people in the new millennium. "I want something different, therefore, no rock & roll like at the most European conventions. The goal of the Paris convention is to make the convention world a little better, to make a good show for the public and especially a good show for the artists who are the main people to care for at a convention. I want to bring to the French audience the big names of tattooing, so that they can see what's possible on the skin."

According to Tin-Tin, tattooing in France is not much different from somewhere else. "The popular styles are the same as everywhere—like tribal. That's already been popular for six years."


We asked him how he would describe his own style. "I don't describe my own style. Other people do that. However, I am very versatile. So I do everything. I also do flash work and once in a while I make small tattoos. But I don't like to tattoo tribal or Celtic tattoos. It's not my stuff. I have some tribal work myself, but I don't feel that it is my duty to make tribal tattoos, although I like the way they look when they are done well. I don't want to specialize or lock myself into one style. I have nothing against people who are specialized, but I prefer to work on every style. That's why I like tattooing so much. I don't want to do the same everyday."

Roonui, a traditional artist from French Moorea, was working at the Tin-Tin's Paris convention. Often, tribal tattoos are taken away from their traditional background and just copied and imitated by people who are only interested in them as a kind of body decoration and not because of their original traditional significance. Artists like Roonui or Suluape Paulo brought the true traditional Polynesian tattoos to the Western world in the way it is proper, and that's why Tin-Tin invited them to Paris.


Tin-Tin talked about making original designs. "As much as possible, I make the designs myself. But I am not an exception, compared to other artists. You work in cooperation with the customer. I use the free-hand technique and also prepare designs on paper. I also take designs from someone else once in a while, when people ask me. I am not different in that way from other artists."

Which tattoo was Tin-Tin the most proud of? "The last tattoo I made," was his answer. "The next day I will be proud of the one I will make then." We wanted to hear a specific example, but he wouldn't give that. "It doesn't matter," he added, "because I am proud of everything I do."