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Got a valid passport? Have it transformed into an intricately inked work of art

Images courtesy of Léonard Combier.
Passports have stories to tell.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Léonard Combier wants to doodle all over your passport.

He calls his ink drawings “tattoos”: Using the living document of the passport, that universal certificate of personal identity, as his “skin,” the 24-year-old French illustrator etches bustling worlds full of aliens, goofy ghouls and eyeballs aplenty, incorporating immigration officials’ stamps into the design.

“I really like the idea of having my drawings on the most official document of someone I don’t know,” Combier tells Quartz.

Léonard Combier

Last month, he sent his work to the blog Doodlers Anonymous with an open invitation for anyone around the world to send him a passport. “If anyone wants to send me their passport by post, I would be very happy to draw on it,” Combier offered. He doesn’t charge anything for the service, but has one non-negotiable condition: The passports need to be valid.

A self-taught artist, Combier uses a very thin ink pen, and it usually takes him an entire day to finish each personalized drawing, in a style inspired by his love of outsider and tribal art. The drawings are characteristic of his oeuvre—packed canvases that portray a “chaotic universe of precision and absurdity.”

Outside of his passport work, Combier’s drawings and canvases sell for between 200 and 5,000 euros ($225 and $5,670) each. But his passport tattoos are a different kind of project: They don’t hang in galleries, but rather in strangers’ inner pockets and travel pouches, to be seen only by the passport’s holder and the officials who stamp it.

Léonard Combier
Léonard Combier

“I’ve received many requests asking me to draw on expired passports, but I’ve always declined,” Combier says. “For me, it’s very nice to know that the owner of the passport will have my drawing within reach for 10 years (while the passport is valid). It’s a bit like a tattoo.”

Léonard Combier
Léonard Combier

Combier embeds cheeky messages within his compositions that test the acuity and sense of humor of border patrol officers: ”Je suis trés fourbe!” (“I am very deceitful”) right below a visa photo, for example; or “Je n’ai pas le droit d’ecrire sur mon passeport, donc arretez moi et faites moi aller en prison tout suite” (“I do not have the right to write on my passport, so stop me and put me to prison right away”); or, plainly, ”Arrest me please, I want to go to jail now.”

Léonard Combier

Fair warning: Drawing on your passport could risk invalidating it. The official policy of the US Customs and Border Protection states that ”any document that has been altered, mutilated or otherwise changed by someone other than a government authority is not valid for travel into the United States,” according to a spokesman, Anthony Bucci, who reviewed Combier’s work.

Despite this, Combier says that not one traveler has ever been denied entry into any country using one of his tattooed passports. “Border patrol officers have questioned the passports, but not in the way that you’d expect,” he says. “First, they think it’s printed on the passport. When they realize it’s hand-drawn, they ask who did it, and then they say that they really like it.”

Some officials, while admiring the art themselves, have warned that others might not be so open-minded. “A friend of mine in France was advised to change his passport,” Combier says. “The customs officer said that he enjoyed the drawings, but he didn’t know how they would be received in China.”

Léonard Combier

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