Staying at home is not a massive change for a tattoo artist who leads an ordered and disciplined life. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman who is candid and amused, locked down on the outskirts of Nicosia
On the Instagram page (leboob17) of Lefki Savvidou, also known as ‘Lé Boob’, tucked among the pics of tattooed limbs and droll, often-cryptic cartoons, there’s a post dated March 12, a date we would now designate as post-coronavirus but pre-lockdown: a note scrawled in black felt-tip marker, with an artful little smudge where a word was corrected and two emoji-fied boobs by way of signature. The message: I WAS STAYING AT HOME BEFORE IT WAS COOL.
It’s true, she was. “Actually, my lifestyle is exactly the same right now,” laughs Lefki, Skyping from her home in Deftera just outside Nicosia. “My tattoo studio is out back, so the only time I’d go out of the house [before the lockdown] was when I would meet up with friends.” The only real change is that she’s now in charge of a public Facebook group called ‘Covid-19: The 45-Day Challenge’ (the number refers to the period from March 15, when a state of emergency was first declared, to April 30), which has rather unexpectedly blown up to include over 1,400 members from about 30 countries – though in fact that’s not the only change, nor would it be fair to paint Lefki as some kind of hermit. “I’m a very social person – when I feel like it… I’m very affectionate with the people I care about, and I need that affection and closeness. It hits me hard, now that I can’t see them”. She’s no recluse. She does enjoy staying home, though.
If she lived in Brooklyn, we’d undoubtedly call her a hipster. Since she lives in Deftera, it’s hard to apply that definition with the same confidence – but the lifestyle fits, at least at first glance. She makes her living as a tattoo artist (though her style is “not really mainstream”) and spends the remaining time making art, most of it text-based. The house is a glorious old house – actually her grandma’s old house – with a massive yard planted with trees, olive and citrus and prickly pear. “This is my record room,” says Lefki, giving me a virtual tour of the place, and indicates a collection of vinyl records (actually her mum’s); I recognise a Rick Astley album, and suddenly feel very old. Hanging on the living-room wall is an even more eye-catching display: around half a dozen skateboards painted in a kind of baroque black-and-white, all bold lines and gaudy patterns.
“I had a few of my friends from the UK and Germany and Norway come down one year, and we all just stayed here and painted decks,” explains Lefki when I ask about the boards. “It was such a good time! We were about five people – me from Cyprus, Alex and Abby from the UK, there was Fred from Oslo and Johanna from Munich… I do miss those folks, I really love them.” One may surmise that a text-based artist who calls herself ‘Lé Boob’ would have more in common with Fred from Oslo and Johanna from Munich than the rather bourgeois society of Nicosia. If she lived in London or Berlin, she could have that bohemian life all the time, I point out.
“Yeah, but that’s the thing – I don’t want it all the time… Because it throws me off track. It causes too much anxiety, I think.” Isn’t it also more stimulating, though? She shakes her head: “For me, ideas come when everything has settled down. And then, when the idea clicks it just starts – y’know, going faster and faster. It goes crazy – but it goes crazy with my things, it’s not busy with other things.”
That’s the advantage of staying home, of course; it’s easier to find – or discover – your own secret rhythm. Lockdown is revealing new possibilities, and affecting different people in different ways; some are climbing the walls, or vegging on the couch watching Netflix – but those with rich inner lives are becoming re-acquainted with themselves in ways that may even persist once we get back to ‘normal’. “A lot of people are going to have a hard time going back,” muses Lefki. “They’re going to try and find new jobs.” It’s a time when her own, quote-unquote ‘alternative’ lifestyle is looking increasingly viable, even sensible. “I do truly believe that we shouldn’t work more than four hours a day,” she tells me. “Do your thing, and leave time for the brain to do whatever the fuck it needs to do.”
It took her a while to reach that conclusion. She came back from uni in 2013 (she studied Illustration at Middlesex University), started doing tattoos and also got a job at Phileleftheros, designing web graphics. “I didn’t know how to do graphics, I just learned so I could get a nine-to-five job. And that’s when I learned I do not want to have a nine-to-five job, ever again!” She lasted two years, then worked as a home cook for about six months – another unconventional arrangement, cooking meals five days a week for a couple with busy jobs and no cooking skills; Lefki loves to cook, and her homemade bread is something of a legend – then transitioned into full-time tattoo artist, though ‘full-time’ is perhaps a misnomer. Her style, as already mentioned, isn’t mainstream; it’s known in the tattoo world as “the ignorant style of tattooing,” she explains (I do a bit of Googling; it looks like the tattoo equivalent of a Jim Jarmusch film, deadpan-funny and very dry), and may have initially emerged through the “French underground graffiti scene”. I didn’t even know there was a French graffiti scene, let alone an underground one.
She inks a couple of clients a week, give or take, making around €1,000 a month – which is actually quite an acceptable sum for someone who lives alone, doesn’t pay rent, and mostly stayed home even before it was cool. Even pre-Covid, she’d go out once a week, twice at most, and always just for drinks. Lefki doesn’t like restaurants much – “I think the food sucks” – nor does she like going out late, nor does she like it when a place is too loud. She’s turning 30 in a few days, but has the exacting standards of a much older person.
Not that she’s grumpy, exactly; her take on life (at least in interview mode) is candid and amused, in no way negative. But it has to be done her way – if only for the sake of her own mental health. “I’ve had issues with anxiety all my life, and depression… I’ve had anxiety all my life – and I don’t mean, like, ‘I’m stressed’, I mean a full-blown, six-hour anxiety attack, panic attack. For years, ever since I was 10”. She was a high-energy kid, forever doing stuff – karate, basketball, badminton – to channel that energy. She was also often angry, though not at her family; her parents, the romantic union of a mapmaker and a meteorologist (less romantically, they both had good civil-service jobs), mostly allowed Lefki and her older sister to experiment and do what they wanted. The sister also coined her current nom de plume, when Lefki was about 17 and developed mysterious lumps in her left breast, requiring biopsies and minor surgery; “You’re going to le boob doctor!” joked Sis. The lumps turned out to be nothing serious, but the phrase stuck.
Still, she was – and remains – rather volatile. “I’ve had a few months here and there in my life when I was, like, in bed, for a week or a month,” she recalls. The first year of high school was “on and off” for about three months; before that, she went through a bad phase around the age of 10, which she blames on separation anxiety when her mum was posted to Larnaca, then there was another bad phase when she came back from the UK. Change and uncertainty are triggers for Lefki, which is why she needs her life to be ordered and disciplined. Getting into martial arts (wing chun and MMA) has really helped – and of course making art helps too, it’s therapeutic. Right now, with the virus, “I can’t get my mind to draw” – so instead she writes, whether fiction or poems or diary entries, just to get it out of her system. “I think everyone who does art does it for a reason,” she opines. “They need to do it, whether it’s good or bad.”
This, I suspect, is the crux of the matter. Ms. Boob doesn’t share everything she creates with the world, quite the opposite; she estimates she’s shown about two per cent of her oeuvre. She had a solo exhibition in October 2018 (‘It’s Not You, It’s the 21st Century’), and a minor triumph some years ago when a US company called Bucketfeet which “took designs from artists and put them on shoes” bought one of her designs, which they happened to find on Instagram; for a while, she recalls, she was getting photos from all over the world, “people from Japan, people from Alaska, people from Spain, everyone was wearing this shoe I had my drawing on”. Mostly, however, she creates for herself, art being “the one thing no-one can take away from me”, often staying up late to finish something – then, having done it, just as often putting it aside. “I imagine you still living in this house in 10 years’ time, surrounded by piles of hoarded stuff,” I joke, and she smiles as if to say ‘Well, it’s possible’.
Where would she actually like to be in 10 years’ time?
Lefki pauses, thinking about it. She’d like to have a book published, she replies at last. She’d like to be fully supported by her art. She’d also like for gay marriage to be legal in Cyprus, so she can have a child. (She is indeed gay, though it seems – refreshingly – to be no big deal.) She definitely wouldn’t want to be single forever – though let’s be clear: “If I had to choose between being single and doing art, or being in a relationship and not doing my art, I would definitely stay single! Otherwise I’d go insane – because it’d be like leaving a huge part of myself behind. I mean, I wouldn’t be myself anyway.”
In a way, she’s an unlikely candidate as the founder of ‘Covid-19: The 45-Day Challenge’ – though I guess it makes sense that a woman who creates so prodigiously should’ve decided to create a Facebook group to support mental health during the lockdown. The group isn’t terribly unique, just a place to post, the main rule being that you’re not allowed to post anything coronavirus-related (“Unless it’s like a meme! Memes are allowed, funny stuff is welcome!”) – but it’s bloomed into a popular destination, with people sharing tips, requesting help (a guy who makes hand sanitiser is looking for someone to ship it, she says; “So I’ll post that in the group”) and generally being there for each other. The fact that this buzzing, impromptu community was created by a stay-at-home, rather solitary person is a lovely irony in a generally un-lovely time.
When will that time be over? And what happens then? Will things change, post-corona? “I hope they will,” replies Lefki cautiously. “Maybe like at first, for a month or two we’ll be like: ‘Oh yeah, we learned to appreciate things, and learned what’s important, and cut out things in our lives!’.” It won’t last, though; people find excuses to avoid facing up to their issues, it’s the world we live in. “No-one wants to put in the effort,” she sighs. “And I get pissed off – I mean, when I see people complaining… Just deal with your shit and work it out!” she chides those prevaricating people. “OK, it’s gonna be unpleasant. Work it out, though.” Lefki shakes her head, the reflexive individualism that’s perhaps her most salient trait – the ceaseless self-expression, the energy, the well-ordered life geared to her own specifications – coming to the fore. “If you want to do something, just do it. Don’t try and find an excuse.”
No excuses here; and meanwhile ‘Lé Boob’ keeps on boobing, waiting for the time when people will want to get tattooed again (so she’ll have some money coming in) – though it’s not just money, it’s never just about the money. She does miss people, seeing them, touching them. Often, she recalls with a smile, in the early summer – before it gets too hot – she’ll invite some friends over, and bake some of her famous fresh bread. Then they’ll slather it with olive oil from her own olives, add some pickles and a bottle of wine – and just sit in the sun enjoying life, as we all once did, and will do again. In your face, Covid!