Watch collecting has a tendency to span all walks of life; from banker or accountant, all the way through to some of the most niche professions imaginable. Our latest subject falls closer to the latter category, having made a name for himself tattooing clients who commission his artwork to be displayed on their skin, for life. We caught up with Verona-born, Mo Coppoletta (@mo_coppoletta) at his London-based tattoo parlour to talk about his introduction to the arts and collecting independent watches.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the countryside outside the city of Verona, up until the age of 27, after which I moved to London.
What was it like growing up over there?
It’s a very privileged part of Italy, so unfortunately I can’t pride myself in having a troubled background, turning it into art [laughs].
[Laughs] Right, so a reasonably typical upbringing then?
Yes, I would say it was a very smooth upbringing with nice friends and family with good values around me. There was a good sense of family sticking together in our household, with both parents, very typically Italian for the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
What was there to do as a kid in the countryside there?
Well, I didn’t draw, so I can’t even pride myself in that either [laughs]. The old story, “I was born with a pencil in my hand”
[Laughs] So, what did you do?
I did a lot of things. I played in bands, I collected antiques with my dad, all sorts. I did a year as a postman so I could buy a Harley Davidson, while I was studying…
Oh, wow. What was the plan with the Harley, because most people buy a Harley to escape something…
Well, sadly it fell through, I didn’t end up getting it. I realised at some point that the Harley just wasn’t for me. In fact, I don’t know why I even went through that Harley phase. I think maybe it was to do with this romanticised American dream, because it was the birthplace of all the music that I listened to, ever since I was seven or eight years old.
What sorts of things would you listen to?
All sorts of soul and jazz music. My dad was not a great musician, but he was always playing the right things around the house. The first thing I was exposed to was Otis Reading, and after that it was like a waterfall of music. Funnily enough, after the Harley Davidson phase passed, I started collecting Lambretta scooters. I’ve actually still got a Golden Special 1962, they’re amazing things...
When was is that you got into collecting scooters?
It was the early ‘90s because we had a huge scooter scene in Italy. I had joined a scooter club called the Gentleman’s Riders which I still have stickers from. We would ride around in big groups, around the lake and things like that.
Were you particularly academic at school, or more artistic?
Well, I was very average with grades and all of that, but I was alright. I was always interested in many other things, but I went through school and university, but funnily enough, I didn’t really draw at school, I didn’t really care about it at all.
You went on to study law, right?
Yes, that’s right. It was by default really. You finish college and you either become a doctor, or a lawyer or an accountant. To become a lawyer seemed like the easiest of the bunch, you could study from home and it seemed quite casual. Well, this wasn’t the case, I had an exam coming-up and I just left and didn’t take it. By this time, I had no interest and I had started tattooing.
So, your first exposure to the arts was very much through your father…
Yeah, through the music and our antique collecting.
"I grew up around a lot of antique dealers, there were loads of them in the ’80s and ‘90s, and that exposure to the arts gives you a certain visual training, even if you didn’t want it."
Right, and what antiques were you guys collecting?
My dad was dealing with anything he could find, really. Furniture mostly, but paintings, ceramics, glasses, things like that. I grew up around a lot of antique dealers, there were loads of them in the ’80s and ‘90s, and that exposure to the arts gives you a certain visual training, even if you didn’t want it.
Was this what your father did professionally speaking?
Yes, he was a dealer by trade.
So, at what point did you start drawing, ahead of tattooing?
I decided to start drawing when I got the ambition to become a tattoo artist, and I knew that if I wanted to do it at a certain level, known as custom-tattooing, I would have to become quite proficient. It was a different time then, because these days you can just google things to get your inspiration, whereas then, you would have to travel to conventions and buy books.
You type Hokusai dragon and a Hokusai dragon comes up. If you found a Hokusai book with two dragons inside, it was worth buying the whole book, spending £100 and studying it closely. I would go to Japan and buy mountains of stuff, shipping them back in boxes; books by the dozen.
Do you think there is more value in that approach versus the methods of today?
I would say so, because anything you struggle or work hard for, cements itself into your mind. I can remember every single piece of reference I've collected in my entire life and I defy any new artist, not just tattoo artists, to have the same level of recollection from using the internet. It’s like, can you remember every physical record sleeve you’ve ever owned, right?
But you don’t remember the artwork from Spotify.
"I was a huge fan of tattooing, huge, huge, huge!"
You barely even look at it…
It’s the same thing with books, I have some that are so rare that you couldn’t buy them, even if you wanted to. Every book I own is a piece of treasure to me and still, every time I approach a project, I will go through the same reference books but with a different view, more experience. You will always find details that you never noticed before. How many pictures do we take these days with our phones which we never look at, by comparison to the old printed ones we have in old boxes at home. I’m starting to sound old… [laughs].
Presumably you already had tattoos before you made the decision to become a tattoo artist?
Yes, of course, I was a huge fan of tattooing, huge, huge, huge!
What was the appeal for you?
Simply, it was cool. There was a new wave of tattoo artists back then who took the world by storm with their custom tattoo work. It was incredible, it felt like a revolution.
How did you make the decision to get your first one?
For me, it was part of the deal with being in a band [laughs].
[Laughs] Of course…
There wasn’t much significance behind it, but it was part of the look. These days they sell tattooing with powerful meanings behind each piece, which is cool, but most tattoos that have been done since the dawn of time have been done simply because they look cool. They make you look cool, or you think they make you look cool, and so it was just a pure body adornment.
Do you recall the first permanent mark you made on a client?
Oh, yeah, I do.
How was that?
You can try to do something small, something you’re sure about at first, but there is definitely no other way to learn properly than on a client’s skin. It’s like playing the guitar, or watchmaking, it’s like everything, it’s practice. Unfortunately with tattooing, you practice on real people’s skin [laughs].
It seems like the level of pressure is quite extreme…
If your mind is in it and that’s what you want to do, you find a way to do it. You have to be confident, but you prepare for that.
Let’s talk about watches. Tell me about your earliest exposure to watches?
Well, I was born in Italy in the ’70s [laughs]…
“Italy is a trend-setting nation, and was the first country to really go for the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso”
[Laughs] Right, so they were everywhere?
Yes, I mean Italy is all about watches, everyone had watches. Rolex and Breitling were particularly big back then. Italy is a trend-setting nation, and it was the first country to really go for the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, which was not received well by most. My father always had nice watches, but there were people around him wearing Vacheron Constantin in our small village.
Were there any opportunities to deal watches back then in the antique markets you visited with your father?
No, no, even back then everyone around there knew what certain things were. You’d never find a Rolex on a market stall [laughs]. Back then though, Daytonas were available for nothing. The Submariner was the one to have and I remember a friend saying, “well, I can’t afford that, so just give me that one.” Twenty years later, he’s ended-up with a Paul Newman. Mental.
That’s bonkers. What was the first watch you had?
I was sixteen and it was a Breitling Cosmonaute chronograph.
Quite a big case for a young man’s wrist…
Yeah, it was actually. That was the watch to have at that time, that or a Rolex and unfortunately I chose Breitling [laughs].
I should have chosen Rolex. Years later, watches have become a particular interest of mine and ever since then it has been…
Yeah, I think one of the first that I bought for myself later was the IWC Portugieser Chronograph. That’s still a beautiful watch, one of the best; I don’t know why I sold that actually. I think it was because I wanted to upgrade to an A. Lange & Sohne.
What is it that you find appealing about certain watches, are you more of an aesthete, than a technical buyer?
Well, it has to look good. It needs to be relevant both inside and out. Though, saying that, I did just buy a watch which is not great inside, but outside, it’s a beautiful design. Every watch has its own merit and you have to consider everything.
You’re quite a fan of independent watchmaking right?
Yes, F.P. Journe is all of these things, great both inside and out. In particular I love the Resonance complication, I think this complication defines why Journe is great. I would choose the Resonance over the Tourbillon in fact. The case design is so smooth, it’s like a pebble. In the beginning, I remember not liking these watches because of the over-verbal diarrhoea on the dial [laughs].
There is so much writing!
Journe seems like one of the only ones that could find a respectable balance for a busy dial…
Absolutely, because he has not only developed good watches, but has developed a huge personality. This is his trademark.
He seems to have the sensitivities of a graphic designer…
I mean, I couldn’t find a flaw in this. Ok, the crown for winding is quite inaccessible at the top of the case under the spring bar, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t wear bespoke shoes to be comfortable. It’s quite quirky and gives you a sense of what Journe himself is like, you know? He is not a smooth comfortable man himself, so if you want it, first you pay, then you suffer [laughs].
So, your work has crossed over into the watch world, was this ever an ambition?
I had wanted to do something watch-related, and I know a lot of people in that world, so it was only a matter of time before something happened. The first thing was with Romain Jerome in about 2010. It wasn’t necessarily an ambition, but it was fun to do. I’ve done a few things for other brands too over the years. There are a few things in the pipeline now too.
“There’s no vintage in my collection, no. It never really appealed to me...”
Just to touch on your personal collection again, are you much of a vintage fan?
There’s no vintage in my collection, no. It never really appealed to me, because when we talk about vintage, we mean Patek Philippe and Rolex, which don’t do it for me. If I had to collect vintage, it would be Vacheron Constantin or Cartier, I think. Watches from the ‘20s, ’30s, ’40s and ‘50s, there are some beautiful designs in this time. The problem with this is that once you dip your toe in the water, you’re gone. I’ve been putting it off I think.
You think that you’d get sucked down the rabbit hole with no return?
[Laughs] If you start, then it’s all over. It would never be Patek or Rolex for me, they just don’t move me. I don’t understand collecting models that have red writing, or an underline on the dial. I’m moved by a design, a craft, that sort of thing. I could probably collect pocket watches actually, because there is something moving to that sort of object. Rolex collecting is like stamp collecting to me, I don’t get the buzz.
Presumably you don’t pay much attention to the auction market then?
I do, for comedy material [laughs].
[Laughs] In what sense?
It’s just gone too far, it’s over-stretched.
What causes that, do you think?
It’s what's used to inflate Van Gogh collecting. It’s what inflates the car market today. It’s what's used to inflate collecting modern art. It’s a playground for people who need to buy stuff and feel as though they have a lot of disposable cash. The appreciation has gone far too vertically in my opinion.
What doesn’t convince me is that if you collect Faberge eggs or Van Gogh, it could go to £5 million, it could go to £3 million, £2 million, but at the end of the day, you’re left with a historically relevant piece of work. It seems like there is an intrinsic value to it and what seems to be catching the eye of a lot of collectors these days are things with no real intrinsic value, apart from the rarity of that particular piece.
But then what, it doesn’t move me? I mean what moves me, maybe doesn’t move somebody else, it doesn’t matter.
So you feel that faith in these things could just disappear overnight and the value falls through the floor?
I think it’s like the stock market. At one point, a stock could be worth millions and then something happens, and the value is gone. You couldn’t even sell it for pennies. It’s not tangible, so I find it hard to believe. I might be wrong though, because it keeps going up and up and up. I’m curious to see how much the next actor’s Rolex goes for at auction, but this is all speculation. If you want to talk about watchmaking, show me a mechanism which is maybe not as valuable as a double red, but at least we’re talking about something horologically relevant; all the rest is trainspotting.
[Laughs] A perfect place to end.
Tone it down please, I’ve got a lot of friends [laughs].
To learn more about Mo Coppoletta's work, please click here.