Sang Bleu’s founder and director Maxime Buchi is a busy man. We stepped into his world and caught up with the renaissance man himself while he was tattooing a full back piece in their Los Angeles pop-up space, to chat about growing up, fitting in, fine art, and creating his own version of The Factory.
Maxime: Who wrote the questions?
Marc: I did. Did you get a chance to read them?
Did you hate them?
Yeah, I wanted to punch you actually. No, it’s like anyone who shows the slightest knowledge of what I do, I really appreciate because I get questions like, “Oh, so tell us who you are and what you do?” It’s like, fucking do your job and come with real questions. That’s how interviews should be.
I read a lot of interviews with you where I was like, “Why didn’t you ask more in that part?” People ask about a generic Kanye West thing. That’s the last thing I want to know about you as an artist or as a tattooist. That was where I was coming from with these questions and I was very nervous because I thought you might just hate all this. You might just think this is a bit pretentious.
I really appreciate every now and then when you get a really good interview and you’re like, “That’s so awesome.” The rest of the time I just copy/paste shit but if you get me in the right mood and in the right direction, I can get pretty deep on some stuff.
Let’s try then.
What was the shit you were really into coming up as a kid? Were you looking at mainly graffiti or were you looking at older artists?
I grew up in Switzerland. In Switzerland you’re surrounded by thousands of years of history: from cathedrals to modern or classic art, Roman ruins. And when it comes to art, you have classic art, modern art, contemporary art, obviously modernism and graphic design. Architecture is really important there, and then you have everything related to religion as well.
My grandma was Italian, so my mother was very influenced by the Italian side. Obviously Italy is the cradle of classic culture, so I really grew up with all of these influences at the same time, with very little understanding, for the better if you ask me. I grew up around these things without really knowing what they were, with a very, very superficial understanding of what is what historically because my parents loved art and were very enthusiastic. And I remember going to the Kunsthallen in Schaffhausen and places that my parents would take us to. They loved the idea of art but they didn’t know much; they were literary people. It’s more about literature, writing, sciences, so I didn’t know much to be honest, and then pretty early on the next major influence arrived which was American pop.
My parents were hippies, or the Swiss version of what hippies are and I grew up seeing punks when I was a kid in the ’80s so then there was always that really strong influence of American pop culture. And probably in the late ‘80s, someone gave me a skateboard and I started realizing that it was a culture that was something. I wasn’t very well integrated, socially speaking; I was a bit of a weirdo growing up in the countryside. It quickly became something that I put all my energy into and there were a couple of other skateboarders, but it was very difficult to get any sort of information. My uncle lived in the US and he was telling us that skateboarding was this subculture but we didn’t know, and we would have a phone call every two months with him. It cost a lot of money then and it was very bit-by-bit.
So you would say that your early influences were very spatial? You were into architecture and your surroundings, it was more of the environment that you were growing up in influencing your development as an artist? Because that’s kinda what skating really was as well…
Yeah, it was something that was not necessarily present as something we did in the family, but it was around. Skateboarding became the first thing I really appropriated for myself, that I could perform. And then I started realizing there were magazines, there was this whole aesthetic going on with it, and so that made me start having an interest in American culture more actively.
A few years later I heard rap for the first time, and everyone at that time had hard rock t-shirts, Iron Maiden and whatnot. I never really liked these things and I was too young to get into punk or too young to get into goth. It immediately clicked when I heard rap for the first time which might have been ’88 or ’89.
I was never heavily into sports, but I loved skateboarding. I was pretty good at it, but it was also really early on and we were quite limited in what we knew about skateboarding, the techniques. So when I realized that graffiti was something, I was like, “Whoa, that’s for me.” What’s interesting is that graffiti also catalyzed my interest in typography and imagery. I grew up reading children’s books that had classic engravings from Gustave Doré and people like that in them, so I loved imagery and I also had that influence from modernism and graphic shapes, so tagging and graffiti became amazing. Because skateboarding and graffiti were finally something that mediated happily my relationship to the environment that I didn’t feel really comfortable in as a kid. It was finally something that was obviously a bit confrontational, but that I had always perceived from my environment. That confrontation is something [because] I had never felt I really belonged, so it was like, “I might as well.”
I guess what I was trying to do is draw a line between you growing up doing graffiti, getting into skateboarding and hip hop, then going to art school and studying graphic design, and then to Sang Bleu. How do you feel about the decision to go to art school? What did that do to you as a graphic designer?
That’s a good question. I never really considered myself a graphic designer. I learned the skills, but pretty quickly after I graduated, I realized that the reality of that profession was not something that I could really be happy with.
Why is that?
For two reasons. One is an intrinsic reason: the nature of what graphic design is. The amount of managing the client is too high. The amount of frustration you’re facing with your creativity is linked to the other reason which also answers your question. I’m talking about what is taught; at no point did I realize what it would be. I might’ve reacted differently if I was told what it would be like at art school. Instead we are led to think that we would basically be artists and just do graphic stuff, and people would come and get us because we were so genius and so interesting and let us do whatever we want, and that’s obviously not the case. I felt really let down and frustrated in the reality of it. The irony is that intellectually, morally, I completely understood and understand.
From a graphic design standpoint, do you think having that foundation has helped you now in your tattoo shop, dealing with clients and having a brief, in a way?
No, not necessarily. I’ve always been a good sales person [laughs]. I’ve always enjoyed business.
That’s interesting because for a lot of people in the creative field, commerce is their biggest fear.
Of course, totally, but not in my case. I’m not going to get into really deep philosophical considerations regarding it. But I have to say, isn’t this the biggest hypocrisy-slash-scam that you are led to think when you work in an artistic field that commerce or business is something dirty and you shouldn’t worry too much about it? In the end, what it does is it makes people completely incapable and reliant on other people to sell what they do, which makes them inherently stuck and vulnerable and submissive to people who actually control the money and the business.
So a lot of people are very anxious regarding everything with money. Some people are like that naturally, but it’s also something that is part of the way we are conditioned to perceive art generally and perceive it to ourselves as creative people. And it’s something that is not just a beautiful and romantic idea; it’s an idea that serves a lot of people. So that’s something that I realized quite early on. Also because I grew up not very well socially-integrated and I got to observe all that shit. But the good thing is that I never felt loyal to a system that had never been especially good to me.
Is that why you’ve never really identified yourself as an artist? Because you feel like you’re just never in that world or gave a shit about that world?
I mean, I would totally identify myself as an artist, but we would have to define what an artist is first.
In interviews in the past, you talk about how you don’t identify yourself as an artist, you identify yourself more as a tattooist and that was always a little frustrating to me, because I think what you do here is actually more in line with what a traditional artist does than what a modern day artist does. There is a technique and process, you understudy…
Yeah, but there is a simple answer to this. I think that it’s also a personal position towards art, towards what tattooing is and what I do. An artist is a simple definition. To me, it’s someone who produces art. Art is what you find in museums and galleries, period. It can be good, it can be bad. Art is not something that’s good, art is something that’s in a museum.
That’s a pretty progressive stance on it…
Well it is that post-Duchamp definition that I accept, because it makes things a lot easier. So anyway, I’m not an artist because I don’t produce art. I don’t produce things that are in museums.
But I would say that what you do with Sang Bleu is so across all platforms. You have the gallery space, you have the publication, you have the clothing, all this stuff. For lack of a better term, you’ve made your own version of The Factory.
That is definitely some of the examples I’ve followed because my education is fine art. My education is all of these things. I am only interested to see how that applies nowadays. There is also a rhetorical thing that makes me want to say, “No, I’m not an artist,” because in the end, if I say, “Yes, I’m an artist,” then you start having to justify yourself and having to debate things. You position yourself in the fine art world and the fine art world doesn’t give a shit about me. I’m no one in that, so it’s a lot easier to just say I’m not. And I’m definitely interested in doing fine arts-related stuff but I will take my time and do it properly.
You’re just happy existing in the world that you exist in right now and creating what you create.
Yeah, exactly. I think that tattooing is a very specific thing.
I want to ask you about your pop-up in LA. You are fully booked out here, yet LA seems so different to Paris and London. It’s a different vibe, but your aesthetic here is doing really well. Do you think that is because of the internet?
What we do, what I’ve worked on for so many years, has been so influenced by American culture that it is compatible. It is a very American-inspired thing, which makes it compatible in an American context. Obviously the internet allows people to know about it. I’ve used the internet pretty heavily from the very beginning of the Sang Bleu project, from using MySpace to find contributors for the very first issue. That’s how I found the people because I didn’t know anyone; I had just arrived in London. That was how I found contributors worldwide. I always embraced that virtual social life to balance my not-too-convincing arrival in real life as a kid. The internet was something I embraced completely.
You were one of the first guys to really embrace Instagram and use it to your advantage as far as showing the work you were doing. What has the backlash in your community been and has that contributed or helped?
It’s difficult to answer because there isn’t a community. I have never been very good at working with social groups, but beyond that, tattooing is only a marginally coherent community and it’s even way less now than it was when I got into it, and even way less when I got into it than it was when I was growing up.
Tattooing is anything goes. When I started doing Sang Bleu Magazine, I was really scared that people would be like, “What the fuck is this? Who the fuck is this guy? Why is he trying to talk about it?” and judge and not support. And you know what? I got some of this and I also got a lot of support from people I didn’t expect support from. So in the end I found my community, and it was all good from the very beginning.
LA seems to be a very self-sufficient, very peculiar place, especially when it comes to tattooing because of the history with tattooing in LA. I want to be very respectful to the old school, because that’s what inspired me. There aren’t a lot of people I know here and I also have to do my own thing. I’m not a kid anymore. So, I come in here, I try to meet people, I try to show respect as much as I can, but then I do my thing. I have a family and I have my shop, and at this point I have a lot of projects. I do my thing.
Do you see yourself spending more time out here?
Yeah, yeah. We might open a shop here.
I know that you have a pretty strong musical taste and maybe not too many people know about that. It’s pretty diverse.
Music has saved me. In a sense that, when I was a kid it would allow me to go away, have that protected life away from that environment. I might do visual stuff but music is my passion.
It sounds like you just have more freedom to try more stuff. It seems like you fought really hard to get to this spot now where you don’t feel like you have expectations on what you need to do or what’s right, you can be totally free in the work.
Absolutely and that really is an amazing place to be.
Do you wish you had realized that earlier on? Or was it just part of the journey?
No, it happened as fast as it could happen. Of course if you could not go through the hardships you went through then, yeah maybe I wish. But I couldn’t imagine any better spot than where I am now, so at the same time I’ve got to be happy and embrace what got me here. So no, I’m just really happy and fulfilled. I don’t really know where it’s going, but I only see exciting prospects.
To see more of Maxime’s work, make sure you follow the below accounts.