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Stability Through Mobility
A Blog by Matt Hodel
It never seemed a viable option to not travel.  Before the internet, tattoo magazines were the window to the rest of the industry. The biggest flaw was that by the time I had a copy of a new magazine, the work in it was old bones.  An artist had an article that was submitted three months prior and a  body of work that might have been done a year before that.  If I wanted to know what that artist was doing currently, I needed to pay them a visit.
I was fortunate enough to get in with a group of nomads that all had the travel bug.  Artistic Body Works in Cocoa Beach, Florida, owned by Ed Madigan, was a hub for the wayward tattoo artist.  He had an easy attitude and an open door.  You could show up unannounced and have a place to work.  There were roughly a dozen artists that were on rotation at Ed’s shop.  None of us were ever in the same room at the same time, but we all shared the same brotherhood.  This created a network for me to travel. We would share information and destinations.  If you were heading to California for the first time, call Ed and ask if he knew any contacts out West.
There were two main reasons to venture out:  The first was simple; a busy shop that had plenty of overflow.  A busy shop helped me pay for visits to places that I hadn’t seen and couldn’t have otherwise afforded; it could help me pay the bills.  I would also travel to be close to an artist or group of artists that really had something special going on.  Just being able to hang out at a progressive shop with talented artists was payment enough.
To get into either shop, you needed someone to vouch for you.  You also needed a decent portfolio.  These were my two tickets to life on the road.  I started traveling out of Iron Age more frequently and eventually took up traveling as a full time gig.  Stability through mobility is what I called it.  I spent a large part of my early career seeking out different talents from which to learn.  My quest took me to Brazil, Japan, Europe and a large part of the States.  I got to learn from some of the best, met new friends, watched their careers grow and met the smaller communities within the industry.
The opposite is sitting in one place too long and assuming you know the whats and the whys of your industry.  It’s the bubble effect.  As comfortable as it is to live in a bubble, working outside your comfort zone is the only true way to fully grow.
So think about this; you receive one machine from a guy in Florida and one machine from a guy in Minnesota.  You live in the Midwest.  Some days the Minnesota machine works great and other days the Florida machine works even better.  The problem is you can’t figure out why there isn’t any consistency. You pack your bags and pay each machine builder a visit. 
In Minnesota, everyone you tattoo has milky soft skin.  It’s like they have never spent a day at the beach.  The Minnesota machine works wonders up there.  It’s like shading with a marker!  Next you visit Florida.  Holy moses!  Everyday is like tattooing beef jerky.  The skin is so tough that tight three outlines work like razor blades.  The Florida machine is perfect for these conditions, and you have no problem banging out dolphins and palm trees all day.  With this information, you now know how to effectively use each machine and under what conditions.  Each time I worked in a different part of the world, a new piece of the puzzle was revealed.
In Japan I learned that I should be more organized.  I watched Sabado at Eccentric take great care in setting up appointments.  Every client had a file that contained legal paper work, contact information and a description of what they wanted and where.  Sabado also was very patient with his clients.  I watched him draw a very simple heart with wings for a lady; he filled three or four pages of a sketch book.  I think the client would have taken any of them, but Sabado could read her body language. He didn’t stop drawing until the correct heart and wings produced a smile of approval.  

When I worked in Japan, the clients did not talk much.  They told me a general idea of what they wanted but it was up to me to read the client’s vibe.  This was how I knew I was drawing on the right path.  I still use this today when I meet with a new client.  They are so nervous and excited that it becomes difficult to explain verbally what they are wanting to get.  Doing small thumb nail sketches during a consultation helps pull out their ideas.  It’s like using a forked stick to find water.  Eventually you zone in; and bingo, you and your client are on the same page. 

I liked working in Austria the most.  Max owns a shop in Bad Ischl, appropriately named Tattoos to the Max.  The shop did not open until 1pm, we were usually done with our appointments at 7 or 8 pm and the shop was closed Sunday and Monday.  This was really great for concentrating on our immediate clients.  New clients would be given an appointment and they seemed to respect how the shop operated.  

The normal way to get into a career field in Austria was to apprentice; even truck drivers apprenticed into their craft.  If you asked a stone maker a question about his craft and you were lucky enough to have him answer, you paid respect by paying attention.  Tattooing in Europe at that time, the clients had a strong respect for artists.  I treated them with appreciation in return.  This work environment was a far cry from a busy street shop that I grew up in.  I operate my shop today based on what Max taught me: the world will not end if you only work on two tattoos a day.  If you concentrate on serving the client, more are attracted to your work.

Currently I am splitting my time between St. Louis and New York City.  I still have the travel bug.  Matt Vancura works at Invisible NYC and I try to visit him often.  To me, New York City is the big leagues. It is a personal goal to build a clientele in both cities. This reduces the chance for me to slip into a bubble.  Sometimes when I’m at home, I feel really comfortable with my work and a trip to New York is instantly humbling.  It is said that success is when preparation meets opportunity.  If you don’t travel, you will never meet opportunities that are open to you.

I am still a small town guy from the Midwest.  My roots are here in St. Louis, and I call it home.  I work by appointment at Ragtime Tattoo and Invisible NYC.  Visit my web page for more information:  www.matthodeltattoo.com.

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