Maxime Buchi Talks Tattooing Kanye West, Sang Bleu, and His New London Shop

Tattoo artist and global creative Maxime Buchi talks tattoos, his current projects, and designing with Kanye West.

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Complex Original

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To say Maxime Buchi is a busy man is an understatement. The multi-hyphenate artist is a jack-of-all-trades and remains adept in all of them. Among his talents: tattooing, creative direction, clothing design, and editorial direction, plenty of which he utilizes with his world traveling, art book-meets-tattoo archive Sang Bleu, and the recently opened London tattoo shop that shares its name. If you're not interested in art or ink, you can geek out over the typefaces he and his colleagues created under the Swiss Typefaces banner. This includes client work for big time names like Rick Owens, Balenciaga, and Damir Doma.

Recently, Kanye West hit up Buchi's London shop for a tattoo honoring his daughter and his mother's birthdays. We spoke to Buchi about his work, the many forms of Sang Bleu, and collaborating with West. It's not just his work with Mr. West that should put Buchi on your radar either. The London-based tattoo artist is hard at work crafting new designs of his own—whether the canvas is celebrity skin or fabric.

How long has your tattoo shop, Sang Bleu, been open?

It’s been about 6 months.

It seems in that short amount of time, you’ve made an amazing mark on London's creative scene. What are you seeking to do with your tattoo shop that you couldn’t do when working on your own?

I think creating a shop is a way to show that your vision is not just your own vision, but that it goes beyond. It was not really related to myself being a tattoo artist. It’s related to the project Sang Bleu, which is a project that I started years ago—I was not even a tattooist back then. I put together a magazine called Sang Bleu, and a platform, and a community, and what I wanted with the shop is to give all of this a headquarters if you know what I mean.

It’s a tattoo shop, but we also have an art gallery. I have the offices of Sang Bleu there, we do publishing, we do clothing and design. That’s what the shop in London is about.

What made you choose London for this first Sang Bleu location?

I’ve lived in London for ten years. I moved from Switzerland to Paris briefly, and then I moved to London about ten years ago. I’ve been living there and I’ve been working in the U.S. a fair amount. I’m currently working on opening a shop in L.A. as well, but the London one is where I am, so it was logical first step to start it there.

You mentioned there’s an art gallery there, you’re doing tattoos there, and obviously there's the Sang Bleu publication. With all of that happening, what’s the most fulfilling part for you?

For me, the fact that [the shop] can exist is fulfilling; the fact that it not only exists, but it’s thriving. I’ve been working on a few different things and working so hard on making them look better as a coherent project. You know, opening the shop was to show that all of the things are actually of the same idea and that is what’s fulfilling to me.

When people come to the shop—when anyone comes to the shop—so often people have told me, "Wow. That’s exactly what I wanted to find after following you for years. I come to [the Sang Bleu shop] and I realize that everything is there.”

This is what’s fulfilling to me—to give a sensibility to something that has been really abstract for ten years.

To talk about Sang Bleu, the print magazine, is that still in production or is that on hiatus?

Oh it’s still in production. It’s sort of fragmented into online. We mostly publish on the website and we are working on a big book about tattooing—more like a proper coffee table book. We’re also working on the seventh issue of the magazine, so everything still goes on, from the online version to the paper/print magazine. But I took the time to make sure that I adapted the format and the essence of the print magazine. 

There’s been a major crisis in general press, not only economically but in the identity of the very essence of what printed press is. I didn’t want to continue it [the print version of Sang Bleu] just for the sake of continuing it. It’s not a formula. I’m only interested in doing something because it’s relevant, and so I took my time with it. But we are still going on, the magazine is absolutely going on, and every time we do it we reevaluate and re-conceptualize what it should be, and what will be relevant for some time.

Looking at your work, you clearly have a particular style. How would you describe it?

That’s a tough one. I don’t like pigeonholing myself. I would say that I’m looking for a new classicism. Something that is not just experimental for the sake of experimenting; something that is not just fancy and trendy. At the same time, I am always looking for something new, but I’m only interested in something new because it’s needed; because it’s relevant. Regardless, it needs something that has origins and a history behind it.

What I’m drawing inspiration from is a lot of classic architecture, engravings, and European or western iconography. It's part of our culture and it’s timeless. That’s what I’m interested in. From life, to signs, to astrophysics, or from classic to contemporary architecture—those are things I'm going to use.

But some of it is to create something that people are passionate for. I’ll draw inspiration from any field from photography to politics, to science, to fashion and create something that is mine. I will look for references and inspiration in any field because that’s where people’s minds are. I’m trying to find where people’s minds are.

This is what you're doing with Sang Bleu as a publication? The intersection of concepts?


You tattooed Kanye West recently. How did that happen? Did he tell you what kind of tattoo he wanted? Was there any back and forth on the tattoo concept?

I had been in touch with Kanye for quite a while actually, we met maybe a year and a half ago. Way before the Yeezus tour, he did two shows in London, probably around spring 2014. I actually tattooed Virgil [Abloh] who had been in touch with me already for quite a while. So I tattooed Virgil and he took—I gave him—a copy of Sang Bleu, and he gave the copy of Sang Bleu to Kanye.

So Kanye called me and he wanted to talk about the magazine and to meet up. When we did meet up, I showed him my tattoo work and he was like, "I want to get tattooed by you," and that was all about a year a half ago.

Since then, we’ve been going back and forth, a lot of brainstorming, a lot of showing references. Obviously in that time he went through the production of his album, and then had North, and it was never really the right time. I’m also traveling like crazy and wasn’t able to match other people's schedules. It took a while.

I got a text message a week ago like, “Are you going to be in London?” It was Virgil. Virgil texted me: “Kanye’s in London for the BRITs and he’s wondering if you have time to catch up.” I was in L.A. at the time, but I was going to be in London for one day, so we agreed to do it then. He just let me know he wanted to work on something related to the family—that was the main theme. He was thinking about two different placements, and we went back and forth. I designed some things and he said he’d be down at the shop at midnight. Kanye arrived at midnight, and we did the thing.

So it’s a tattoo that was a year and a half in the making?

Yeah I would say so! [Laughs]

The design itself—it was really interesting—the design itself was figured out in 15 minutes. Kanye did a lot the design and the art directing. We really worked together. What’s really interesting is that we had been talking about this thing for a long time, so I already knew how he worked. He has a very personal, specific way of working. We had already worked out the way we can communicate.

The design itself actually came out quite quickly, but it was a whole "how do we align these stars [schedules]." That took a year and a half. But what was good, was that because we had been in touch for so long, when we started working it went really fast. Everybody was feeling confident, you know what I mean? We knew that we would come up with something.

For the final design, did Kanye just come into the shop, have a brief conversation and you two completed the design right then? Or did he walk into Sang Bleu and already have the design completed from a previous conversation with you?

We had been going back and forth with sketches for like two days, but actually, what we eventually did what was pretty different. When he came in, we took a couple of hours—maybe two to three hours—of just trying stuff, fitting the stencil on him, just dealing with that stuff. He was feeling pretty comfortable with the placement, and well, the idea was always the same, but it took a few different forms.

What was really interesting was that we looked at a book from engraver Albrecht Dü​rer, who's a classic engraver. That’s one of my main inspirations, I use his work to inspire my work all the time. He saw the lettering that was in those traditional engravings and he was like, “What about something more like this?” I was like, “Yeah that’s spot on. That’s exactly what I think will work for you and the style that I work in.”

All of a sudden we just worked from there really quickly. Kanye wanted the letters to be really tight together which I thought was a really good idea. He really put in a lot of input design-wise, especially on the letters, which ended up being numbers. We chose numbers transcribed in lower case Roman numerals, which is fairly unusual, and it’s totally a collaboration. That was really a tough thing, I would have never come up with it myself. He totally masterminded the entire thing.


So it was a long-term conversation between you and Kanye, but the choice to do it in lowercase numerals, that was decided on the day he got tattooed?

Absolutely. The design itself was entirely designed that night. [The tattoo's concept] stayed true to the vein that I work in. I was never expecting for him to get so much into exactly what I like, so that was perfect, the way it worked out.

What was the process like while you were tattooing him? Did you guys talk, or was is it stoic and quiet?

It was cool, it was very easy. He came with Kim, as well, who helped take his mind off the pain. It was really late too, about 5 a.m., so we were all pretty tired. We had a bit of a chat, but I was mainly just concentrating and paying to attention to what I was doing and focusing on that.

He was working on the computer with Kim really. They were going through some images. Before the tattoo, we had a chat and we went through some photo shoot images that he did for his clothing and stuff.

Did he mention his adidas collection at all while you were with him?

Yeah. We looked at some beautiful things, and I can't say too much, but I was mind-blown. Especially because I had seen early stages about a year and a half ago. We went furniture shopping in Paris, and we talked a lot about art and design that day in Paris last year, so it's interesting to see what he got from that. The photos he showed me were really beautiful. He's on some really interesting stuff.

I know that you did a collaboration with McQueen in 2013. Do you have any plans to do anymore fashion contributions or collections?

Yeah, I’m currently working with Boris Bidjan Saberi and his 11 line, which is very exciting. We’re working on a capsule collection. I’m also really trying to focus on my own clothing project, it's called Sang Bleu VTM. I’ve been slowly but surely getting together some stuff for that. It’s started as merch for the shop, but it’s been selling really well in stores. I'm just not trying to spread myself too thin, but the Boris collaboration is very exciting. It should be coming out in the summer.


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