Matt Green Talks Tattoo Math, Authenticity, Introversion and Hiking Adventures
Patrick Coste: Good day Matt! It’s been a while since we hiked the Sulphur Mountain eh?
Matt Green: OMG yeah! Way too long. How have you been?
PC: Geez, I’m the one who asks the hard questions here… Lol! I’ve been well and I’m really glad conventions are back!
But enough about me, let’s get right into this interview because I want to know all the details about the hike you recently attempted. First though, we’ll go with some more tattoo-related subjects where in my opinion, you’re very much understated at times.
So tell me Matt, how did you get into this tattoo business and how long have you been at it?
MG: I'll let you know that the tattoo industry is moving quite rapidly. I still feel like I'm the young one in the industry, but then things prove otherwise when you see how many people are coming up year after year. Maybe I’m becoming an old-timer, I guess.
I started my apprenticeship I believe… I actually had to ask my friend about it a few months ago because I don't know the official date, I moved around so much… But I think I started my apprenticeship in late 2010, like around fall in 2010. Yeah.
PC: So what was it all about? What was the reason you got into tattooing?
MG: There was a guy on Instagram who goes by @philgood_tattoo. My buddy Phil. We were friends for years. We used to work at the grocery store together and he used to be into graffiti and that really turned me on to the art.
First of all, drawing has never really been a huge hobby of mine. It's just something I tend to do, like in class and school and stuff, to pass the time. But when I get home at night, I'd go play video games with my friends, smoke weed like everybody else. I never really did art as a hobby until I met Phil and got into graffiti with him.
PC: How old were you at that time?
MG: Early twenties, like I don't know exactly. Probably 21, somewhere around 22 maybe? Yeah, because I'm gonna be 35. So 22/23… around there. Actually no, because I started the graffiti before tattooing. So let's say 21.
Anyway, we did graffiti a lot together and then we kind of lost track of each other. We haven't seen each other in quite some time. We used to be roommates. We met up at a graffiti contest one time and I said “What’s Up?” And he's like, “I started a tattoo apprenticeship”. I was like, “F**k off, I want to do that”. I wanna make money doing this because you know, at that point I was doing graffiti, I was doing art as a hobby for the first time in my life. So the idea of being able to make it lucrative was like, “F**K Yeah!”
PC: Hell yeah!
MG: Exactly. So I told him “If your mentor wants another apprentice, or if he knows someone who wants an apprentice, I'd really be down to do that”. You know, in retrospect I really didn't deserve my apprenticeship. Like, I didn't have much of a portfolio done and not much experience, but I've always had drive and willpower to learn. So, I got into it then. A couple of months later, he gave me a call and said “My boss wants to meet you”. I was working like, one street down, one block away from the shop, so I was like, “I'm there tomorrow.” The next day I walked in and said, “Yeah, yeah, I want to learn. He's like, “Okay, well you know, it's an apprenticeship. It’s full time, so you need to be here.” The next day I gave two weeks notice at my full-time job and never looked back.
PC: Really? Wow, must’ve made you feel good…
MG: Yeah, big time.
PC: That's a great start. You evolved and you're here now. To me, you're a hidden gem, your tattoos are solid, you know? You're not the guy that everybody's talking about... You’re quiet, but you’re plowing every day.
MG: I appreciate that. It's hard, you know? With social media people take it really rough. You get this complex of like, oh I could be doing more and everybody's doing more... Like I said, and to this day, drawing is still not my hobby.
I love my job and I commit to my clients 100% but you know, I currently don't have prints. I don't have t-shirts. I don't do flash very much because I do mostly custom tattoos, and part of me hates that I'm not more productive, you know? We always want to be more productive because you see people on Instagram doing more and you're like, I need to do more. But at the end of the day, there's other sh*t. I love other things in life too, you know? Spending time outdoors with my family, my dog, and all that stuff... So I don't know, maybe the timing isn’t right.
PC: …. A balance though, you know? When you work and you're happy every day. So it's not like “real” hard work, but still work. It's like you're on vacation every day, you enjoy every bit of it! I believe you need to love it to be happy...
MG: I really enjoyed that part for sure. But yeah, I used to want to not be the hidden gem, you know? I used to want to be the next James Tex or Steve Moore. I realized when I'd done a bunch of conventions and stuff and I looked up to these people, and I still look up to these people, but then I see how much attention they get and I'm like, I don't want that. I'm too introverted to be that famous. Even if it's only famous within the industry. These are not TV famous people, but at a convention, everybody talks to them. I can't be that guy for sure. As long as I'm booked with clients that like what I do and they love what I do and I get to do stuff that I enjoy doing? I really don't need the fame. So the hidden gem is… Thank you.
PC: You’re welcome and I mean it!
I know you have the respect of your peers. You were saying you had rough patches and stuff, but I bet you have good ones too, the ones you’ll remember for a while! Tell me a good story…
MG: Oh man, there's a lot of stuff. I remember meeting you was fucking awesome! Lol.
PC: Wait, whaaa?
MG: Yes! I really liked that moment in my life, like when we went to Banff and stuff. I look back very fondly on that all the time. That was when I was doing the convention circuit with Alex Duquette.
It was my second year in Calgary, so I was doing the convention with Alex and Hillary Jane. Jess was there and she actually moved right after, which was kind of cool. She met Louis who put us up for the night, great time. That was life changing for me.
I don't have too many big stories… I'm really a homebody. Even when I do conventions, I tend to keep quiet. I haven't done conventions for a few years now. They kind of stressed me out because I mostly do large scale tattoos and I don't have very much flash, so the pressure of having to finish something in one shot and booking ahead is always hard. I'm not super famous on Instagram, so getting clients ahead of time is really hard for me. That’s why I kind of took a break from conventions.
Even before the pandemic, I felt like the tattoo industry was moving so fast. Everything's changing.
Like, the popular stuff is the small trendy tattoos and large scale tattoos are becoming a little bit less common. I feel that way anyway. I don't know if it's true, but for the younger crowd it seems that a lot of American Traditional and fine line black stuff is in higher demand.
PC: It's trending for sure, but you know it’s like private shops. I know you switched to a private shop during the pandemic.
MG: Yeah, so I was working out of Blue Blood in Ottawa. I worked there for about three years, including during the quarantine period. I've known them for over a decade. I've known them since I was an apprentice, they were friends for a long time.
Before moving to Blue Blood, I was working at a place where it was a bit slow for me, and because the shop I was working at was really known for things like realism and geometric stuff I wasn't really picking up many clients outside of what I could get myself through Instagram or whatever. There wasn't much of a “walk-in” scene there for me or anything. So Blue Blood being a much more illustrative shop was definitely a good move for me and Ottawa is just busier in general, so that really helps.
When I joined Blue Blood, I told them that it was gonna be a temporary thing. It was only a matter of time before I wanted my own place because at that point I had already been tattooing for a decade, and you can only work for half your salary for so long before you want to move on to making 100% of what you put into the work.
So, then yeah, I've never really wanted a shop. I'm alone at my studio. I’m a bit of a neat freak and I've worked at multiple shops where you know, I’ve had to pick up stencil paper after everybody or whatever and I just like my things tidy. I also like to set a mood and environment for my clients.
I typically only put on softer lo-fi music or something and I keep it really chill. Nice and quiet and relaxing because tattoos fucking hurt. They suck. To me, if you can create an atmosphere that's more relaxed for the client, I feel like they can sit through longer sessions and enjoy the process a little bit more.
PC: It was, in a sense, obvious that it was the way for you to go.
MG: The private studio was the way for me to go and I don't even have any signage or anything like that, it's like super hidden away.
It's legit, like a business suite, but I have no sign, no neon “tattoo” on the door… I'm in the basement. I just send a picture of the entrance and address to my client before they show up and like, here's the door you gotta go to. It’s very discreet and it's nice.
It’s been my favourite spot over the years. It's funny, but I'm becoming more and more introverted and more and more anxious about meeting new people. I don't know, I struggle with it. I think all tattooers struggle with having clients come to you strictly for what you do, whereas a lot of people don't, you know? They're not really educated on the tattoo scene or whatever.
See, when I feel that you have to sell yourself, ‘this is what I do’, that becomes very stressful for me. Returning clients are my favourite because you know, you've already established a relationship and they feel comfortable with you. You're comfortable with them and you can just get straight to business.
PC: So you find your comfort zone even though it's a brand new thing sometimes, but then when it's over you feel better. Let's put it that way?
MG: Yeah depending on the person for sure, but a returning client is always a good one, right? We've already set the boundaries and we're comfortable with each other and projects don't stress me out. Typically, people stress me out. So, if that stress is gone, it’s the best and very important.
I think the industry is, I don't wanna say saturated, but there are a lot of tattooers out there. So I think that there's THE right tattooer for everybody!
I might not be the right person for everybody in return, and that's okay too, you know?
PC: 100%! Pleasing a customer is the best, but doing what you love AND pleasing clients too is priceless I’d say!
MG: Oh yeah! I don't want to say that I’m a jack-of-all-trades, but I definitely grew up in the industry where people are a bit more old-timers, right?
When I started tattooing, I did a bit of everything. I did my share of Tribal, tried Realism, I tried Traditional. I've done a little bit of everything and over time you learn to like what you like to create. It's funny because when I first started tattooing, I thought I was going to do, or what I wanted to do, was nothing but New School and Biomechanical, that was my inspiration back then.
PC: To name-drop a few, who were your inspirations back then?
MG: Joe Capobianco was definitely one of my favourites and you know, New School, stuff I really wanted to do. But over the years I really fell in love with mainly traditional Japanese stuff and large illustrations, yet simple. I used to hate American Traditional-style tattoos. I thought it was horrible. Now, I really appreciate and admire it, even if that's not exactly what I do.
PC: Ok, ok, you like Trad… we can keep talking, lol. But really, it ends up being a “Matt Green” you know?
MG: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Nowadays, I go back to Instagram with the algorithm and stuff. I believe you need to try to specialize a little bit more and find your one style that you want to do. I think that's what works most for people, if you stick to this one thing
PC: That’s neat. You could do anything but you prefer doing Japanese and Illustrative.
MG: I can't do Realism for shit. I cannot…
MG: I’m horrible at copying stuff. I'm really not good at that. I dabble in New School and do some more cartoony stuff. I really enjoy that as long as it's not based on characters from Disney or stuff like that. I've done a bit too much of that. I find it very restrictive for creativity but I like doing cartoony stuff, I do a bit of Japanese, I do a bit of American Traditional-ish.
I do stuff that's not really American Traditional. I use more lineweight, contrast and highlights and stuff that you don't typically do. I'm a little bit versatile and at the end of the day, labels are very limiting to tattooing. I think everything I do has a little bit of a mixture of styles.
PC: I truly like that and bold will hold, right? Doesn't have to be black and white. Super important. All tattoos have to be bold.
MG: It’s a very true statement and I'm actually working really hard right now and simplifying my stuff even further. More colours that are more solid, less blending. I really like stuff that you can read from across the room. That's my favourite stuff. It doesn't have to be super detailed. It just has to make a statement.
PC: A lot of people have told me that when you decorate and you make it ‘simpler’, it's not simpler. It's sometimes harder. You work harder to make it simpler.
MG: I struggled with that for years; “Put more black in your work”... You know, more solid black, but it's intimidating when you have to fill in a three inch square of pure black. You feel like you're wasting so much skin, but you have to step back from the piece to really appreciate it. When your nose is in it you're like, oh my God this is such a waste of space.
PC: I like your confidence, but also you’re not too hard on yourself...I see greatness in your work, but I bet it was always stunning work, right?
MG: Fake it till you make it, lol! But on a serious note, I'd say a good year and a half to two years into my career is when I started to feel more comfortable.
There was a time when I was setting up my machines in front of the client and my mentor walked up to me and said, “You don’t set up your machines in front of the client because you’re shaking way too bad and you're gonna stress the client out.”
I was trying to put the needle in the tube and I'd be shaking and so f**king stressed out. I think it's hilarious now, looking back on that stuff.
I do tend to get the shakes every now and then, and sometimes I’ll tell my client, “If you notice me shaking, don't worry, my lines are still straight.”
It's funny but when you're tattooing, your hands are actually more steady than if you're doing it with a pencil or something because you're in the skin, so you can have a little bit more resistance. But I'm not that bad. I only drink one coffee a day, lol.
PC: That’s a good one, lol! Aw man, I know you've been surrounded by great tattooers as well… What was a big turning point for you in your tattooing life?
MG: Hmmm... A big turning point for me was the second shop I worked for. I think when I look back, I was trying to do what my mentors were telling me to do and I guess I wasn't really feeling it. It was when Dan @dtales_art_tattoo shook me up one time, he's just like, “What are you doing? These needles… push them out more.” Do this, do that or like, “Don't be scared, you know? Be a little bit more rough.” And then it clicked for me. I was like, okay I get it now, and my tattoos immediately started to look much better at that point and then I had the confidence to move forward.
I think a big thing for a lot of apprentices that I've witnessed, is that they're too scared to make mistakes. I think that when you're able to let go within boundaries, and accept that nothing’s perfect, you're gonna get a lot more confident and faster with your tattooing and stuff. But if you try to make every single thing perfect, you end up just spending too much time on the tattoo or overworking things more.
If you go with your feelings a little bit more, it's better. I have this theory where I think a bad tattoo, like a good drawing badly tattooed, is usually easier to fix than a bad drawing that's well tattooed. I don't know if you follow me?
PC: Yeah, yeah… A bad drawing that’s well put in the skin is harder to fix than a tattoo that’s well designed but not as well put in the skin. Got it! Lol!
MG: That’s it. When I look back on a lot of my early work, a lot of the tattoos were well] tattooed, they're in there and I've seen some of them, they've aged and they're good tattoos. But I look at the drawing and like, holy that doesn't belong in the body! Like, I never should have done that because it looks really horrible in retrospect.
But on the other hand, if you do a super nice drawing and the lines are a little bit crooked or the shading is a little patchy, that's easy to fix, you know? You go back, you redo the tap to fix up the lines or whatever but the drawing is nice, so I feel that's more important.
PC: So after a few years when you go back, it's not a cover-up, it's just a refresh…
MG: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I’m not good at cover-ups and I get asked for them all the time. I usually send people to laser removal because I'm not comfortable with cover-ups at all. Horrible at them, lol.
I don't like this “blast over” trend either. Like, let's just do it over and who cares what comes through the tattoo, you know?
PC: Yeah, maybe you can do that with American Traditional, but other than that you can't have a beautiful Illustrative tattoo and have something popping out…
MG: Exactly and especially when a good 70% of what I do is Japanese, and with Japanese the background has a lot of skin tone, you know? Whether it's clouds or waves or whatever. That skin’s not tattooed, so you can't have something bleeding through.
PC: That's it. You're talking a lot about philosophies and you know I love it!
MG: Yeah. Well maybe it’s philosophy, but to me it's more mathematics.
PC: Oh yeah? Tell me more!
MG: I've always compared art to math. I think it's all about balance between shapes and balance between colours and contrast, and I think it's all mathematical
PC: I see, I see…
MG: You know, you don't want everything to be the same number, it's not gonna read well.
PC: I hear ya.
MG: Yeah, that's what it's called and that's part of the nature of the balance of it all. You know the mathematics they're talking about. That's pretty much how he explained it.
I think though, not everybody’s good at math but I have this, this is a pet peeve of mine. Like, I'll always take a compliment and somebody says, “Oh you know, you're very gifted.” I'm always like, “Thank you.” But part of me always hates the term “gifted” instead of talented because the gift is something you're born with, whereas talent is something you work at.
I really don't feel gifted at all. If I have a gift, it’s maybe the interest in art, so when you're interested in something you have, maybe you'll learn faster.
PC: What a great chat. It’s been good to catch up, Matt. What else do you do besides tattoos?
MG: I like gaming. I've been playing, I've been getting into shooters a little bit more again and I like to play like racing games and stuff. But, I don't game as many hours as I used to.
I tend to read up on gaming as much as I play, really. I'm really interested in the industry side of things. I think if it wasn't for video games and cartoons I probably wouldn't tattoo today. As a kid I was so into cartoons and video games that I would draw my ideas out on paper. I guess when I was a kid I actually wanted to make video games, but my parents talked me out of it. They were like, no it's too competitive blah blah blah...
I didn't get into that, but I'm happy because that seems like an industry that's way less stable, and it’s very corporate. I’m way too much of a free thinker to do that kind of stuff.
I think over the years of tattooing, it's really what made me into who I am today and there's no way in hell I could go back to working for someone, you know?
PC: Speaking of other passions, have you attempted any crazy hikes lately?
MG: Yeah, so it's known as the Rideau trail. It's an official trail that goes from the Parliament buildings in Ottawa all the way to Kingston, but it's not all like a backcountry trail.
Like, the first bit is the bike path along the river in Ottawa, right? Then after you go on to the bike path you get into a forest, but after that you're on to country roads, like literally the gravel on the side of the country road. Once you get to Smiths Falls, then you’ve got a couple of national parks. You eventually go through Frontenac Park, which would have been very nice. That’s like the second half of the trail if you're leaving from Ottawa. If you're going southbound, it's the second half that's the most pleasant, which I didn't even get close to.
I did 60 out of 325 km within two days, which is great. I've really underestimated how much I would be able to walk within such a short period, which was good but what I didn't take into consideration is that because I was going so fast, I could have eaten food along the trail easier than I thought. I had more access to food than I thought I would and I was carrying way too much weight for nothing.
In retrospect, I probably could have just re-supplied more heavily once I got to Smith Falls and started out on the hike. The thing is the first half, like I said, is pavement so my feet were extremely blistered up even if I was taping my toes and stuff with tape. I was really sore. I was actually at the end of my second day, and I was limping like crazy. I was walking like a penguin for the next two days.
PC: Holy! Ok, ok intense. I remember seeing you talking about it.
MG: So yeah… Really? You saw that? It would have been painful and it would have been hell. I’d realized after I got to that point I was like, “Okay, well maybe I'll just go to Smith Falls”, which is the halfway point. I was like, maybe I'll stop there, which would have been an extra three days on the trail and I was looking at the weather coming up. It was going to rain for the next three days. I was like, if rain is part of your trip in the middle of the trip and then you're gonna end with nice weather, then so be it. But if the final days of your trip will be nothing but rain, uh... why bother? Like, it hurts and then for it to be raining like that too…
PC: Well nothing was adding up to a great trip…
MG: Exactly. It actually ended up turning into a tornado watch, so I would have had to leave the trail regardless, even if I hadn't made the decision for the other reasons.
PC: You were basically hurt and decided to do it another time, basically?
MG: I don't think I'm gonna do the Rideau trail anymore. I've learned enough about backpacking and hiking and that trail, like I said, it's not very scenic. I think I'll just stick to trails actually near me. There are a bunch of nice trails, you know? Overnight trails and stuff and that's the kind of stuff I'm gonna aim for.
PC: One more thing! People don’t know that we became dog parents pretty much at the same time, lol!
MG: I’ve wanted a dog my whole life. I know dogs can be so much work. I went through training with it and research and like I say with everything I do in life, I always research the hell out of something before I jump in to make sure it's for me.
Dogs are the same thing, and I was like, you know what? I'm not the right fit right now, I know I can't give them the time they need. But I've always wanted one, and the turning point was last summer when I remembered that my whole career in tattooing, I always said that when I have my own shop, I'm gonna have a shop dog. I always said that, my whole freaking career and then it was like, not till six months into having my own place I realized, “Hey, I have my own place, I can totally have a dog if I want.”
So, that was it, I wasn't actively looking, I wasn't trying. I was trying to find the right fit for our family and a lot of people get the wrong breed for the wrong reasons.
PC: I searched intensively for my English Springer to make sure she was a good fit, but then when we saw her… awwwwwwwww… Instant love!
MG: I didn't actually look much. My girlfriend found her and she was offered to us. I’m like, “What kind of dog?” She's like, “A husky/lab.” I'm like, “Are you f**king nuts? I don't want a working breed” and this is a double working breed. Like… crazy.
BUT! I'm so happy that we decided to do it anyway just because I knew that even if it was a double working breed, it was going to be a good temperament for family life.
These are dogs that do really well with kids and they're eager to please. Despite the fact that she's a working breed, she loves to listen and do stuff. So it worked out really well. Her only problem is that if I ever bring her to work, she sheds a lot. If I do end up bringing her, I'm gonna have to vacuum like every day or every second day.
PC: So glad to hear. I have so much fun teaching her tricks and good behaviour. I love it…
MG: My dog, she's half-lab right? So she learned retrieving really quickly, but because I have kids it's hard for consistency, so she's not very good with ‘leaving it’ now. She'll go get it but then she won't give it to you right? She teases my kids all the time. She's like, “I have it… you can't have it”, and she'll run around the yard and have the kids chase her and that's her fun. Every time I want to play fetch with her, I have to retrain her to leave it.
PC: Yeah, but that's the beautiful part of it, you know?
MG: I struggle with that as a parent and as a dog dad. I'm always stressed out about something happening to them. I wasn't like that in life before, I was more like I didn't care about anything. I was like, whatever happens happens... But when I had my kids, a lot of things changed about that and I'm definitely more of a five ft. Now I'm always like, I don't want it to happen to my kids or my dog
PC: Oh I do hear you my man! We’ve gotta introduce our babies! Lol!
Matt, we’ve been at it for a few hours now, lol. I guess I missed you more than I thought! It’s been a long while! Before we go, thank you very much for your time. I want to see more of you around!
MG: Thank you Pat, it was a pleasure and yes, we might see each other in Ottawa! Cheers!