Skulls and smoking guns
“As a tattooer, I been working on developing a visual language over the years by creating a certain style and use of iconography.” Skulls, snakes, spiders, playing cards and love hearts, the visual language of artist and tattooist Bruno Levy offers a contemporary update on the medium’s classic European tattoo style. Born in Paris and based in New York Levy’s singular language has taken many forms: he was a pioneer in video scratching; has exhibited work at the Guggenheim, MCA and Bronx Museum; and has created music videos for The Walkmen and Modeselektor.
Now comes a new venture as Levy releases his own clothing capsule collection. Titled Cigarettes by Bruno Levy, the unisex offering translates Levy’s tattoo imagery across a selection of limited-edition pieces. In relaxed, casual silhouettes, skulls and smoking guns are knitted into cardigans inspired by Japanese souvenir jackets, while western-detail shirting, patterned joggers and long-sleeve graphic tops create a wardrobe informed by Levy’s own. Below, we speak to the artist about his move into clothing and transferable skills.
Alex James Taylor: Love the collection, Bruno. What made you turn your hand to fashion??
Bruno Levy: Thank you so much. I’ve always really loved clothes and had dabbled in making merchandise for different projects over the years, but I really wanted to take it to the next level. As a tattooer, I’ve been working on developing a visual language over the years by creating a certain style and use of iconography. I didn’t want to just place those images on a t-shirt and make merchandise, I wanted to make something utilising the skills I’ve learned – about how symbols are read on the body vs just using the symbols. The collection started with the cardigans and then it was more about fitting different pieces of the puzzle to create a style that matched my personal interest in fashion and what I like to wear.
AJT: What did you want the clothing to represent? Can you talk us through the aesthetic and styles?
BL: I’m inspired by a lot of things stylistically but music culture and the ‘bad boy’ image played a huge role in the aesthetics of the collection. I love images of punks from England in the 70s and 80s, old pictures of the mafia and classic American vintage. I believe clothing can make a person feel empowered in similar ways to a tattoo. I usually tattoo quite classic European iconography, ships, skulls, snakes etc, and these are seen culturally in a specific way. For example, when we see a spider tattooed on the top of someone’s head, we react to it a certain way. I tried to use my understanding of how these symbols worked and apply them to this medium. I want my clothing to invoke a sense of cool.
AJT: Can you take us through some of the motifs and imagery?
BL: The collection is centered around the cardigans, which are inspired by Sukajan or Japanese souvenir jackets. This item resonated a lot with tattoo history and my own interests in tattooing. It was created by war veterans to remember their service, and these jackets were customised for the individual with iconography from Japan. A lot of western tattooing has been influenced in the same way by soldiers and sailors coming home with ink commemorating their time served. The symbols on the souvenir jackets were very close to tattoo symbols – snakes, dragons, tigers, etc – and their placement on the jackets where not far from tattoo placements. These jackets spoke to me not only in an aesthetic sense, but also the idea of memorabilia and the idea of ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’. I wanted to create a twist on this classic design and make it mine, but also celebrate the history of these jackets. I chose designs that would evoke that same sense of nostalgia and carry the same energy as the original jackets.
AJT: Cardigans are a mainstay in the capsule, do you see a connection between stick-and-poke techniques and knitwear? The idea of using needles and an artisan craft aspect? There’s an interesting relationship there.
BL: I actually didn’t make the connection myself. I see it more with the simplicity of the design. We are so used to seeing high-resolution images, and have been striving technologically to render more and more information. I think we now associate the analogue with something of the past and it can become almost nostalgic. I think this is true in the rendering of a hand-poked tattoo, and in knit. When you are left with low resolution, you have to look at the overall image. How it reads from far but also how that image makes us feel. In someway, I believe less is more when it comes to certain designs. There is strength in an imperfectly rendered image.
AJT: Can you tell us a bit about the time you spent in Nepal learning tattooing skills from Mohan Gurung? What was that experience like?
BL: I lived in Nepal for about three and a half years. I went from teaching English in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, doing a fairly rigorous Tibetan Buddhist practice, to opening a restaurant and bar, to learning how to tattoo. Mohan was extremely kind and shared so much knowledge of tattooing with me. I have so much gratitude for everything he taught me. It was a very enriching period of my life because I was able to learn so much about myself and also acquire a lot of new skills. As a human, I strive to constantly evolve and grow. I love learning new things, it’s when I am most creative. My mind starts forming new connections and I become fully immersed in what I am doing. I think making this collection has been extremely fulfilling in similar ways to when I first started tattooing. The more I learn the more I think of things to make.
AJT: Do you see more clothing collections down the line?
BL: I have already started working on the next collection, which I am aiming to release around June. It’s based on similar ideas of style and aesthetics, but expands on these. I’m also really interested in working with vintage dead stock and making very limited runs of things sporadically.
Cigarettes by Bruno Levy drops on 31st January. Find more information here.
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