MUNICH — Peter Laubach used a tattoo needle for the first time when he was 11 years old. A friend asked him for a sailboat tattoo, offering him four Bavarian meat loaf sandwiches as payment. He earned his friend's appreciation and a sharp paternal slap for his efforts.
Now 60 years old, Laubach is a robust body painter with short graying hair and a mustache. Surrounded by beautifully arrayed tubes of colored ink, he receives his customers in his Rainbow Tattoo studio in Munich. Little has changed in his shop over the years — except for the customers who walk in the door. He still welcomes rockers from the last century, but now there are also construction workers, housewives, doctors and lawyers. Tattoos have become mainstream, whereas in Laubach's grandfather's day, they were a novel attraction.
Peter Laubach Sr. knew that when he opened a tattoo parlor in Cologne in 1920. It was also for his own use, as he covered his wife from head to toe with tattoos and hit the vaudeville circuit. It worked. Laubach's shows were sold out. People wanted to come and gaze with amazement at this curious rarity. He would tell audiences that his wife, whose stage name was Rosella, had been abducted by Indians in America and that they'd painted her whole body overnight. "It was, of course, a lie, but it was good for business," his grandson says.
An enlarged black-and-white photograph of his grandmother hanging in Laubach's studio is a reminder of the days when tattooing became a family tradition. The corpulent lady in a tight black dress is shown with her head resting on a tattooed arm, and she looks as if she's staring down, checking out her grandson's customers.
Tattoos go mainstream
At the start of Laubach's tattooing career in Munich, his grandmother's glance would have disproportionately fallen on shady types — bull-necked rockers and pimps. Thirty years ago, those were his only customers. At the time, a tattoo was something of a stigma, and a tattooer was commonly thought to be violent, with a criminal record.
So great were the neighborhood prejudices against the kind of customers he had back then that Laubach was kicked out of his first studio. Finding a new place proved tough. "What? A tattoo studio?!" were the words he heard from potential landlords. But that's changed.
Tattoos are now popular all across society, Laubach says. "Twenty-five percent of Germans have tattoos," he says. "Once I had a guy here who looked like a doctor — thin, shy, metal-rimmed glasses. The guy turned out to have tattoos on most of his body."
In the 31 years that he's been in business, Laubach has engraved well over 1,000 tattoos. His work space starts beyond a massive wooden counter. Engineers, bank directors and even pastors have passed through the swinging door reminiscent of a saloon entrance.
Along with the clientele, tattoo subjects have also changed. There are tattoo styles. "The hype with the Japanese characters is over," Laubach says as he smoothly passes his needle in rotating movements across the muscular upper arm of a customer. Right now 3-D tattoos and stars are popular.
Many people have been coming to him for years, sometimes several generations of a family. "I'm now tattooing the kids and grandkids of some of my clients," he says. His oldest regular customer is 86, and this year he had a portrait of his mother tattooed on his chest. In the guest book are famous faces. Soccer players have a particular weakness for tattoos, Laubach says. Miroslav Klose, the German professional who plays for Lazio, had him tattoo the names of his children on his upper thigh.
When Laubach pushes up the sleeves of his black sweatshirt, revealing powerful arms covered with tattoos in glowing colors, it's tough to guess his original skin color. Then again, a tattooer without tattoos would be a little strange, says Laubach — "kind of like an auto mechanic who doesn't drive."
His first tattoo, which he engraved on a lower thigh when he was 11, features a small mushroom. In the 49 years in between, untold numbers of embellishments have been added. He says he's stopped counting. "My whole body is one big tattoo. At some point you just stop noticing." His wife Susi is also covered with tattoos. In fact, their shared passion for tattoos is what brought them together. When they first met, "there she was lying on my table, and she wanted a rose tattoo." Fourteen days later they were married.
The tattoo taboos
In Laubach's studio, a customer can choose from more than 60,000 tattoos, most of them designed by Laubach himself. He will also do tattoos based on sketches customers bring him. But there are some client requests he doesn't accept. "On principle, I don't tattoo faces," he says. National Socialist symbols are also taboo. Adornments to the genital area cost double. Laubach has turned customers away when requests were too bizarre. One man wanted him to tattoo over in black ink a pink spot on his fighting dog's nose, he relates. "I sent him packing. I don't tattoo animals."
But a number of people have been saved from spending money on a plastic surgeon. "Sometimes I tattoo nipples on in cases where after an operation they've become disfigured or have moved," he says. Sometimes he even covers acne scars.
Years ago a customer came into the shop asking for a portrait of his girlfriend to be tattooed on his chest. A few weeks later he was back: He and his girlfriend had broken up. Laubach did his best to change the image. "I tried to turn her face into that of an Indian squaw. The end result may be unique: an Indian bride with a perm."
Laubach is also often asked to refresh tattoos people had done in their youth. "A while ago this man came in and said he wanted to have an old tattoo worked on. It was a sailboat." Laubach couldn't believe his eyes. He recognized his own work immediately. There before him was his very first customer, his former school friend, whose skin he had adorned when he was just 11 years old. That day was the first time they'd seen each other in decades. "The boat was looking the worse for wear. In fact, it looked more like a foldboat," Laubach says grinning.
When Peter Laubach retires, his family's 100-year tattooing tradition will most likely retire with him. He doesn't have a successor. But stopping work is not something the 60-year-old intends to do anytime soon. After all, his grandfather worked until he was 85, painting skin the way a painter paints canvases.