WATCHES, SLEEP AND TATTOOS: AN INTERVIEW WITH MAXIME PLESCIA-BUCHI

18.08.2021, Interview
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If anyone can do it all, it is Maxime Plescia-Buchi. The world-renowned tattoo artist (though he wouldn’t call himself that) counts Kanye West, FKA Twigs and Adam Lambert amongst other prominent names to his clients. Even though tattooing is what the artist from Switzerland might be most known for, putting ink down on skin is only the tip of the ice berg of what Maxime is working on. As a designer, publisher and artist he built his brand Sang Bleu that encompasses branding, design, product, and a typography studio and works with the likes of New Balance, Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens and Hublot. In April, Maxime released yet another successful design with the Swiss watchmaker that he has been collaborating with for the last five years. The Big Bang Sang Bleu II Ceramic comes in three brand new colors and delivers on the popular sharp and modern architectural elements, just like its predecessors.

I caught the always-on-the-go multi tasker on this way to work to talk about Swiss watchmaking, a good night sleep, Tupac and social injustices.

You have been working with Hublot since 2016. How has your relationship with the brand evolved and what did you learn from your work with Hublot?

In the past, I never found larger corporations to be a place where I could fit in easily. I had previous experiences of working in corporate environments and was not really thriving in those. But when I started working with Hublot I was at a point in my life where I could sincerely find a greater purpose in playing along and really embrace that kind of thing. What you have to know about me is that I am a person’s person. I need to click with someone, I cannot just work for anyone. So I was lucky to have found that connection with several people (at Hublot) early on. Developing the final product has been a month-long process, but I already loved the first visuals of the product and thought “Okay, now we are talking!“. It became a virtuous cycle, an upwards spiral that made everyone feel comfortable on both sides. Hublot took a leap when working with someone that is not necessarily the type of partner that is common in the elite watch industry, even though I feel Hublot is a little more adventurous about these things. I gave 300 per cent to make this work and was super excited about this amazing opportunity. I guess it was a commercial success too, though I don’t know the details about that to be honest. So everything happened quite naturally when things started feeding and reinforcing themselves. 

So to sum up, in these six years I not only learned to tolerate, but also appreciate a corporate environment and truly started to understand what is feasible and what makes sense. I also understood the strategy and haze of the brand, the perfect design and promotional ways, the life cycle of a watch…That was all very interesting because when I design something, I consider the whole spectrum. Even though in this case I was not involved in marketing or whatever, it is important for me to understand how everything works because in my own company I do the whole thing myself.

The mandala seems to be a consistent element in your designs for Hublot. In the classical sense, mandalas are ritual symbols in Hinduism and Buddhism that represent the universe. What are your connotations of the mandala and why is it so present in your designs?

The term mandala itself means circle and I think that the context of working with watches just warranted to work with circles. I didn’t put anything beyond that in terms of symbolism. It is one of the most natural shapes, or maybe the least natural one. It just came natural to me to multiply to an axis that is defined by the mechanical nature of the watch. I find it more profound and relevant to see it not as a determination of some obscure conceptual and mystical kind of thing but really a direct overlapping of the forms I usually work with and the logic of what a clock is and how it works. So however baroque the outcome might look, I have a very modern approach to design. Even though this might not always mirror in the aesthetic, though modernism is not an aesthetic anyway as it is more an approach or mentality. So behind this is a symmetry of axis. To me it was important that a person can project themselves in the watch. I don’t want a watch that tells a story, I want a watch that tells your story. I want you to look at it and see a reflection of yourself. You are the one giving it a soul.

To many a watch is a status symbol. What is a watch to you?

The fact that watches can be a status symbol is not really up for debate, but they don’t have to be. My personal relationship with watches is a bit different because of my youth in Switzerland. My mother is from the Jura, birth place of watchmaking and I grew up next to Geneva, in Lausanne. So my relationship with watchmaking is probably comparable to the one someone born in Detroit might have with cars or someone from Munich with BMW. Doesn’t necessarily mean you can afford such a car, but you grew up with it and develop a relationship with the brand or product. Growing up, I knew a lot of people working in the watchmaking industry. It is hard labor, but people are really proud of it and if someone could afford a watch once in their lifetime – like my grandpa who was a local doctor and not wealthy by any means, but had a bit of a status in his town and wore a Rolex – then that was something very important and definitely something we would all talk about. The point is, I knew all of those big names in the watch industry because I was surrounded by them. When I was a kid it was the era of Swatch and Casio, all those digital watches that I could really relate to. My relationship with watches has always been strong and something that is meaningful. It is part of my identity and not just something I saw somewhere in Back to the Future or something. It has always been more than that. In Switzerland you have clocks in all train stations and the clock system is synchronized throughout the whole country. So when the second hand reaches 12, it stops for a second before starting to move again. The reason is that this is the exact moment when all clocks align with each other, so every minute they are fully synchronized. Isn’t that fascinating?

Another connection I have to watches is my love for hip hop culture, where watches are a super important status symbol.

Hublot isn’t the only company you have designed products for. I remember your sneaker design with New Balance for example. Is there any other company you are dying to work with in the future? Any dream product that needs your signature?

I am not obsessed with brands, though I am obsessed with my own brand of course. But what I am interested in is people coming together and creating something that is bigger than what they could have created individually. That is also what it was with me and Hublot: It was a perfect storm on many levels. I would love to work on architecture or even something more technical or scientific next, if I could. Possibly bringing a design vision to science, as would be much needed today with Covid. If we have to continue living with an increased presence of technology, it should be formally appealing and inspiring too. Moreover, I think creativity informs science much more than the other way around. But more realistically, I would love to push the Hublot venture to a next level and create an entire brand in collaboration with Hublot. I think that we have only began to explore the potential of such an association and it could become something stratospheric, given even more space and support!

You are a man of many skills and talents…you have been involved in your own arts and culture magazine, a street wear line, a creative agency, tattooing, the design of Hublot watches…still people seem to describe you as a very grounded person of quite power. How do you find peace and calm in-between projects? How do you gather and recharge your creative energies?

I think that I have inherently an ADD nature which I have managed to control and reign in a way where I am constantly recharging and going both at the same time. On top of that, I have children. And I am not talking one or two, I have three of them! So I am not recharging in the classical sense most of the time. What I do is I go in cycles or live through an overlap of cycles and I feel that is what most people do. I tattoo five days a week and on the weekends I have to do all the other stuff and then of course spend time with the family. So I really work seven days a week with no break at all. But I might do that for two weeks and then take a week off. It’s all about knowing when to take a break, which is super important for anyone who wants to do anything in their life: Know yourself! Your creativity is your capital and you can spend it more or less well. If you need eight hours of sleep at night, then get it. It’s not up to you. And I am a big sleeper! I work super hard and then I go to bed. Otherwise I am miserable. But I know that about me so I know I need to be productive in the day in order to get the rest I need at night. It is more important than it seems. Since I have kids, I also learned to appreciate power naps and it is truly working. I could go on about this forever, because it is so important. By the way I am going to start a podcast about this.

That is an amazing idea, we all need to hear about this! I feel especially in the creative field people are being squeezed out at a young age until they are burned out. Then they are left trying to live up to their 20 year old selves.

Absolutely! You are reconditioned to think that we need to succeed and do our best work in our twenties. It is completely stupid and on top of that it is not just an innocent thing. The whole system around artists – whether you are a young musician or whatever – pushes people to squeeze out their creative juice for years and then, if you are lucky, you succeeded enough to live off this but a lot of people are simply chewed up and spit out. This system relies on people giving their 100 per cent for ten years or so and then just be gone. Which can also work out for you if you are successful in a corporate environment and after ten years you don’t need to be creative anymore but rather tell other creative people what to do. I am sure this works fine for some people. But if you are someone who doesn’t see themselves in a corporate field then you need to understand that there is a different pace to manage and play your cards and an entirely different time line. For me, from a very young age it was clear that if I can reach the top of my career in my forties then I will be fine. I went to university, then art school, then I learned tattooing…so I really didn’t start my career before my early thirties. Now that I am in my forties I start picking the fruits that I planted years ago and in my fifties I will probably start to chill.

While we are talking about career paths…You have been described as a person of limitless vision in many previous articles. What is your future vision for you and your brand Sang Bleu?

I always considered my work as a constellation: I own tattoo studios (Sang Bleu Tattoo), a type design company (Swiss Typefaces), a publishing project (TTTISM), and then there are design projects like Hublot, that went from a little side thing to a major project, and finally my art practice as well. What I have been working on over the last two years with my associate Emmanuel Rey is to create a kind of meta-project representative of the overarching identity. We are already there more or less, now the seed has to grow. Very importantly, it will have to grow in accordance with our political and social values, environmental concerns etc. Which is extremely difficult as the “rules” of business and commerce still for the most part depend on the exploitation or abuse of nature and labour.

Speaking of art: First and foremost you are a tattoo artist with three successful studios in Zürich, London and L.A. and many prominent clients. Tell me more about your profession. How did you get to become one of the world’s most successful tattoo artists? What do you love about it the most?

First off, I am deeply in love and loyal to the practice and more importantly, the practitioners of tattooing. I think tattooing is by far the most interesting cultural artistic practice available today. It is something that does not resemble anything else. It is the Oedipus of artistic practices. Like I was saying about clicking with people at Hublot, tattooing always starts with an encounter of two people and them giving shape to that encounter. They each bring their own ideas and inspirations to the table and then progressively add thoughts, memories and experiences to the work. In the end, the result will reflect themselves. People often ask “What if I regret my tattoo?” and my answer is always that you will probably regret your tattoo at some point but that is natural. If not regret, at least question them like any life decision: you decided to date this person, or you said something to someone, studied this or that or bought this house… It is a cycle and a constant effort to make sense of your life path. And most likely you will answer those questions and be happy about the tattoos again, if you’re overall at peace with yourself and your life. But what is important is that tattoos are a powerful means for a person to actualize their body image at crucial moments of their life. Tattooing is a process as much as a result. And the process where the responsibility of the artist truly lies. What happens then is largely in your control and it will probably change the client’s life. I enjoy this challenge and responsibility. It allows me to focus.

My studios, my team, that I like to call „tiny happy dysfunctional family“, my entire approach to tattooing is a constant attempt to be as close to this approach as possible. Prior to learning to tattoo, i already trained as designer, artist, i did graffiti, i had a sense of commerce, i loved architecture, i studied psychology and anthropology. It all informed my understanding and practice of tattooing, and ultimately, the „only thing“ left for me to learn was to apply tattoos. While a lot of younger artists (than myself) may know how to draw very well or even to tattoo they still may need to learn how to manage and promote themselves. How to talk to clients, to manage their time or finances etc. I did things „backwards“, but I’m glad I did it this way.

On a more selfish level, there is a thrill in tattooing that I knew from graffiti and had never found again in other artistic fields. The physical aspect of it is exhilarating and ultimately one of the main reasons I am happy every day to go to my studio and get to tattoo.

Is there any person – dead or alive – whose skin you would like to tattoo?

Oh yeah…many! I’d love to tattoo Tupac because he is a very important cultural icon and one of the first rappers that had a lot of striking tattoos. With tattoos it was the same for me like it was with watches: I was already into it, but when I saw it represented in Hip Hop culture it became truly important to me and Tupac definitely played a huge role in my passion for both.

In Germany, tattoo studios have been closed for almost a year and are still operating limited. I don’t know how much more freedom you might have had in L.A., but how have you been spending this last year of quarantine and who have you been spending it with?

I was mostly busy moving to L.A. It is hard to say, because it really was an usual year. It would have been even without the pandemic. I’d say being forced not to tattoo gifted me with an extended period of time that gave me an opportunity to slow down and take a moment focusing on family and friends. Truly re-center. And i am thankful for that. 

Will the pandemic influence the way you live and work in the future? And if so, how?

It helped me on a personal level to connect, reinvest and rethink the way I communicate with people. Especially with friends and people that I care about, but also people in general. Maybe this is less due to the pandemic but more due to other things that are related to it. A lot of social issues have been brought up over the last year that made me, a privileged straight white male, work on my awareness of the things that people like me normally never get to experience. There has been a general awakening.  And however „woke“ I fancied myself before, I came to realize how very culturally conditioned this „wokeness“ was and mainly still based on a preconception of what „alterity“ is, instead of a true commitment to understanding, cooperation, and also owning up to the historical responsibilities our culture has towards the rest of the world. It has been something I have always worked on but this last year has been a huge push into the right direction. I think it is important that the pandemic allowed time to point out those issues, sometimes even to the point that it made me sick. The result is that an awakening has come out of it that is crucial and that should never stop. We are at a point where no one gets to pretend to be unaware any longer. So if there is anything during the pandemic that really changed, it’s that for me.

Interview by Ann-Kathrin Lietz
All Images: Curtesy of Hublot