Matt Hays didn't get his first tattoo until he was 25. But from then on, he was hooked on the art-form, a departure from his background in 3D animation and video production. Colorado native Hays has now been tattooing for more than six years, and currently works at Mammoth American. We caught up with Hays to talk about why he left the dark editing room, balancing work and family life, and the Denver tattoo community.
Westword: How long have you been living in Denver?
Matt Hays: I've been living in Denver for almost three years now. I grew up in the mountains, lived here for a few years when I was going to college, and then I moved back up to the mountains. William [Thidemann] offered me a position at Kaze, when it was still open, and it was a good chance to get out of a small mountain town and be among some other artists.
Are there a lot of tattoo shops up there?
Actually, there are. I had a shop up in Glenwood Springs for a while. When I came up, there were three other shops aside from ours. It's a funny thing that there's a ton of tattoo shops for such a small, little community. It's cool.
How long have you been tattooing?
I started my apprenticeship in 2008, so just over six years. I pretty much started tattooing right off the bat. Before I started tattooing I did video production and animation for about ten years. I just kind of got sick of sitting behind a computer and dealing with corporate life. I wanted to get to doing just artwork again. A lot of the animation and video stuff started moving more toward website stuff. I was programming a lot and staring at code. I had to get out of that.
How did you get into that kind of work?
When I was a kid I was always super into video games. Then when I saw Toy Story, when it very first came out. I was like, "That's what I want to do. I want to go work for Pixar." So that was my goal. I went to the Art Institute here in Denver. I got a bachelor's in animation and moved back up to the valley to the Carbondale-Glenwood area, planning on just getting my stuff together and going and getting a job at Pixar. I happened to have a pretty good job land in my lap, starting out filming extreme sports. That was pretty fun.
Then I started out with a company called Versatile Productions, which had been doing work in the Aspen valley for twenty-something years at that point. We got to do a lot of really cool projects. I worked for Good Morning America and ESPN a lot. I worked for John Oates, from Hall & Oates, shooting music videos and producing DVDs for him. It was definitely a really cool period of my life -- lots of really great experiences and learned a lot. But, like I said, after a while it just got to be too much of sitting by myself in a dark studio, surrounded by computers and nobody to talk to. It was nice to step away from that after a while and get to be in a field where I get to pursue my art and interact with people on a daily basis. It's awesome, the type of people you get to meet. Continue reading for more with Matt Hays.
So how did you go from working in production to tattooing?
About the time that I had been working for that company for about five years, I went through a period with a bad breakup and the whole sob story thing. I also played in a band, and the band seemed to be the only thing that stayed constant. Work kind of dropped off, and a whole lot of stuff started to get gloomy. That was actually when I got my first tattoo. I was kind of late in that game. I didn't get tattooed until I was 25. At that point -- I had liked tattoos, my brother was pretty well covered -- but when I got that first one it really started to pique my interest so I started to study more of the historical context and cultural context of it. It just became really fascinating and I decided it was something I would like to try. It seemed to me a good way to get out of computers and back into artwork again. I found a guy, also named Matt Hayes, oddly enough, who had done a lot of work on most of my friends. He had just moved back to Glenwood and I approached him about doing an apprenticeship and I was lucky enough that he said yes. So Matt Hayes and Matt Hays ran a shop up in Glenwood.
Did any of those skills from your past transfer into your artwork?
Definitely any of the actual hand drawing stuff transferred over. All my computer animation and video experience has definitely come in handy; even if it's not directly put to use in some form into tattooing, it gives me a different mindset to look at things from. Working in commercial art for so long, it's all about the client. So being able to work with clients has definitely helped.
Have you done any Pixar tattoos?
I haven't. Lately I've been doing a lot of comics and Star Wars stuff, but I haven't gotten to do any Pixar stuff yet.
What styles do you like to work in?
I don't think I've really fallen into any set style of my own yet. I guess for the last six years I've just been trying to focus on doing good tattoos. Lately I've been able to explore the art of it a little bit more and put a little bit more of me into it. I think that the freedom I've been given here, in this shop, it gives me the leeway to be an artist and not just copy something off of Pinterest or whatever. It's super cool. But, as far as style, I like doing everything from portraiture and realism to traditional Americana to kind of a little more illustrative, somewhere in between realism and traditional. Using my understanding of realism but basing it in traditional foundations has given me a more interesting, illustrative style. But I can't really say that I've necessarily dropped into one particular style of my own.
Do you work in any other media?
For the last four or five years I've been getting into oil painting quite a bit more. I have a really good friend from high school, Christian Rex Van Minnen, who is just a phenomenal painter. I was lucky enough to have him guide me and mentor me as far as painting.
Is it a busy life, being a tattoo artist?
It is definitely a busy life being a tattoo artist. I think that's probably the thing that I maybe struggle with the most, is being a family man and a tattoo artist. Trying to find the time to get everything done for work, and find the time to care of and hang out with my family and enjoy their company, and try to find the time to paint and do everything else. Time is always the issue. I certainly try to do the best I can, balancing a good, solid family life with a productive and progressive business life in tattooing. I certainly like to push myself as far as my art. I don't think anyone should ever stop trying to push and get better and learn more. That definitely consumes a lot of time, and sometimes the family doesn't always appreciate that. [Laughs.] But my wife is awesome, she's very understanding about all that. She's been with me since I quit doing video and started tattooing, so she kind of knew what I was getting into.
Anything else you want to mention?
I think being in Denver has been pretty great for my growth. Especially being that it's such a progressive town now in tattooing and other fields, too. It's definitely inspirational to be around that community of other artists and feed off of other people.
Does that make it competitive?
It does, but at the same time, Denver is not like a lot of cities. A lot of the good artists are all friends, and it's not as competitive as other cities. We get referrals from other tattoo artists around town all the time. I think that the Denver tattoo community is sort of unique. There's certainly something to be said for keeping the old-school traditions alive of kind of guarding your secrets, but it's also good that we have a good community of artists that are down to hang out and share their experiences with each other.
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For more information, visit Mammoth American online and follow Hays on Instagram @mattmhays.