Lazy afternoon in Birmensdorf, Zürich. I’m here to interview Matt Powers in his shop, Tradition Tattoo. We attempted to do this two days ago when we met up in the Kontiki Bar in the Niederdorf, but got much too drunk and merry with friends. Matt has coloured me with his needles for over 40 hours in the last two years. He has become a close friend and is one of few who I trust completely. He has an intense personality and has fought many battles. Matt has much to say, but isn’t the biggest talker when it comes to his own story. Especially if it’s meant for publication. So we decided to set up a relaxing and almost therapeutic atmosphere. He laid down on his working table, I got comfortable on the dentist chair next to him, incense burning, easy-listening music and our hour of therapy began.
TIM: To start off, let me ask you what a few things are that people interested in the world of tattooing should know about you?
Matt Powers: I think you’d be better off answering that one than I am.
T: Probably, I just want to give you a shot before that. But if you want to skip it we can come back to it later.
M: Yeah. You know, I like good conversation. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to it.
T: What was the first thing related to tattooing that you remember?
M: Bikers at my dad’s bar/restaurant in the States. When I was about five or six years old. After school I would go there and my mom would come pick me up later. So I was there quite a bit. Got to know the locals and let all of the impressions sink in. It was an environment that I really dug. I don’t think my dad was too fond of me hanging out there, but for me it was great.
T: What was your first tattoo?
M: A bulldog when I was 15 years old. I wanted to get it done by an old, ex-con biker who had his shop on the seedy side of town. He was notorious for tattooing minors. Not everyone, but we bugged the guy for about a week until he agreed. But he went to jail that night and his wife ended up doing the tattoos for all of us. Not very good, but pretty cheap.
T: Where did tattooing go for you from there?
M: Well, once I got my first one I was hooked. I’d always been drawing in notebooks, on leather jackets and stuff. I had friends who had given tattooing a shot, but it didn’t work out for them. So they gave me their equipment to work with. Another friend ordered a ‘tattooing kit’ from one of the old biker rags, which was a tattoo magazine. ‘Outlaw Biker Review’, I believe it was. 120 bucks. Lot of money at the time, but when I got it, it was a really well put together. Very rudimentary. The needle was taped on to a cocktail straw that you put on to the rotary. I hacked out a good dozen or more like that until it fell apart. So then eventually the biker who had gone back to jail was released and I got equipment from him. That’s how it all got rolling.
T: What did your parents think about this?
M: Honestly, they were pretty cool with it and let me tattoo friends in my room until I spilled ink on the carpet. Then I had to move out to the garage. They were not overly supportive, but they weren’t against it either.
T: What kinds of styles intrigued you from the start?
M: Skulls. I loved skulls.
T: Early heroes?
M: Danny Williams, Guy Aitchison, Cory Ferguson. A couple of years later, Filip Leu. He was a very big inspiration in the early years for me. He was totally covered in American tattoo magazines in the early 90’s. He was living in New York and San Francisco and was definitely the best thing out there.
T: At what point did you know that you wanted tattooing to be your profession?
M: When I finally got my first shop gig some time in 1991. There I learned how to tattoo quick. Not very good, but I certainly owe my speed skills to that. There were 9 of us tattooing at once for 14 hours a day. Was like a factory.
T: What goes on in your mind while you’re working?
M: All kinds of weird things going on in there. I’m pretty introverted a lot of the time while I’m tattooing, but that depends on the customer too. Sometimes I’m quite talkative, but it’s mostly the customer who will have to keep the conversation going. I like to concentrate on my work.
T: What happens when you have customers that you really don’t like?
M: You have to make do with what you got. I’ve done really good work on people who I dread coming through the door. Then there are the people who make the whole process complicated. Design, placement, colour combinations, whatever. You know, there is no such thing as an easy tattoo. I like to go with the flow and see how it all ends up. It can be a tricky profession.
T: Did you ever purposely fuck up a tattoo?
M: Yeah. This awful girl once wanted a ‘love’ kanji, but I changed it to ‘pig’. I felt pretty guilty about it afterwards. No, actually I didn’t.
T: What do you hate to tattoo?
M: What bugs me out style wise is Tribals. I try to stay versatile, but that’s really not my thing. Many people don’t put a whole lot of thought into what they want to get and why. Very few go and look for a suitable tattooer for what they want. But hell, if you want it, I’ll do it.
T: Are you an artist or a craftsman.
M: A craftsman.
M: You’ll have to ask the contemporary art world that question…
T: Do you copy the designs that people ask you to do one to one, or do you get involved in what you think the final piece should look like?
M: I get involved. I’d say a good ninety percent of the time it’s an original design done by me. Bring in your idea and I’ll change it my way. But of course I do direct copies as well. Many times people are open for suggestions. Others are really apprehensive about changes in their design, but when done they say that it’s much better than they would have expected.
T: Is trust an issue?
M: Of course. There is always a certain distance the first time. But many of my customers come again and eventually I do it my way. It’s weird though because people have complete trust when they give their car to the garage to fix, but here they think I don’t know what I’m doing. By now I know what works and what doesn’t, but if you insist that it looks like shit, be my guest. But when I can afford to turn people away because what they want is so shitty, then that’s what I do. If I don’t want my name attached to it, you won’t get it.
T: The contact you have with people is very personal and intimate. Enjoyable?
M: Not always. It can be very intense because tattooing is all about self-identification. That’s as personal as it gets. Sometimes it’s great to be a part of that and other times it can be very taxing. There is a lot of pain and sadness out there and at times that direct confrontation is a bit too much.
T: Where will tattooing be ten years from now?
M: Well, the whole underground / outsider part of it died when Reality T.V. grabbed a hold of it. You’ve got millionaire tattooers now. That was unheard of a decade ago. They’re not making that money with their work, but through marketing and corporate sponsorship. It’s kind of losing its relevance for self-expression. It’s just trends now. People are walking around with pieces that 20 years ago would have gotten you into some serious trouble if you were wearing those. Now no one even has the slightest notion of what it used to stand for. Teardrops, spider web on the elbow, Mi Vida Loca. It’s all over the place. But as long as my clients still come around and I have work to do, I don’t really care. It’s a new time now. Never been like this before. So we’ll have to just wait and see. Tattooing has been around for a very long time. But in this form, it’s still very young.
T: Your tattooing started in the States and you moved around a lot. What were the highlights and what sucked?
M: The worst place was Michigan City, Indiana. The fucking armpit of Gary, Indiana which is the armpit of the Mid-West. The most inspiring was New York. The people, the tattooers, atmosphere, the life, the sounds. I lived there for two years and loved it. The coolest thing about it was becoming friends with Steve Boltz. We lived together and butted heads a lot, but it was excellent.
T: You were there at the time of 9/11. What impact did that have on you?
M: The whole thing wasn’t frightening at the time. It was far too surreal. From where we lived I could only see one of the buildings because there was so much smoke. We knew nothing about planes or anything like that at that point. I thought it was a bomb. When we heard about the first plane we thought it was an accident, but by the second it was sounding pretty fishy. Then terrorism arrived on the scene. Everywhere. But the emotions really came out at the first anniversary. I didn’t know anybody who was in the towers, but I lived around thousands of people who did. You could feel their pain and loss in the air. It was a very sad time.
T: So it all began in the US where you worked for many years. Then came Europe. Let’s delve into that a little bit.
M: It was going to be either Hawaii or Europe. I really didn’t feel like trading an island for an island at that time. It was just post 9/11 so I decided to go check out Europe. Started in Berlin and was there for four months. It sucked. I was there alone, didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language and 99% of the tattoos I did in that time were Tribals. Frustrating, but I definitely learned how to draw up Tribals. It would be cool to be there now, but back then it was a huge culture shock. So I bought a car, drove around Germany, went to France, Switzerland, Spain, England and Northern Ireland for about three months. It was wild to be in places that I only knew from the History Channel and suddenly I was really there. I travelled from place to place working in shops, hotels, houses, anywhere. England wasn’t really my place. The people were too much like Americans, but Northern Ireland was very intense. Lot of fighting between the Protestants and Catholics when I was there. Went to a gathering one night. Everyone throwing stones, kids had been shot the night before, later on a church was burned down. It was such a bizarre situation. These people living in this struggle every day. Looking back on it now it really feels like it was all meant to be. Because in the end of it all I met my wife and came here.
T: How did that happen?
M: We met at a concert in Strasbourg. She was there with a friend. I was coming through France and while I was getting gas I saw a flyer for a concert and decided to hang out. Show was pretty cool, but most of the time we spent talking. Then I went back to Berlin, got my stuff and came to Zürich. Looked for a shop for a long time. Finally I met Mick, but he couldn’t hook me up with a place where I could work at the time. Eventually I found a place, but the owner there wanted to sell it to me six months later for some ridiculous amount of money. So I skipped out and opened my own place in Birmensdorf. All went quite slow at first, but steadily picked up. But I’m on the last leg here now and am busier than I’ve ever been. I’m closing in about two months to work in a street shop in Zürich City. There is just too much stuff to deal with outside of tattooing when you have your own shop.
T: How long have you been in Switzerland?
M: 6 years.
T: Are you happy here?
M: Love it.
M: I like the people, the country, the atmosphere and I like the way that people conduct their lives. It’s clean and correct. Functioning co-existence. The people have values and morals and stick to them. In many other countries, people like that are the minority. I like the fact that most people stop at the street to wait for the light to turn green before they cross. I’m happy here. I like the consequence of the structure. But Switzerland is changing and I think that pretty soon it will be like everywhere else. Of course I miss a lot of the lazy luxuries from home. It would be nice sometimes to go to a big ass grocery store on a Sunday and pick out the barbecue meats. But by now I’ve gotten used to it.
T: What are your views on the Obama Era? Do you feel involved here or is it too far away?
M: I think if you’re in the US or not, doesn’t matter. Everyone in the World today is involved and dealing with it. Yet I don’t believe that people have much of a say in anything. And what was the choice? This entire election was based on Male vs. Female, Black vs. White. That’s too basic. But simplicity is the only thing left to move the masses.
T: The USA and Europe. Differences and similarities?
M: I still see many differences. But the way things are going here with the EU it’s just a matter of time until it’s all the same. And I don’t think it’s a very good place because we’re the bottom step of the ladder. Tools, stepping-stones, consumers, labourers, etc. Maybe someone really is working towards that final destination. And until they’ve reached their goal it will all get worse. But maybe not.
T: What kind of world are you bringing your son into?
M: You know, I’m hoping for the best and expecting the worst.
T: What are your goals?
M: To do the best I can for my family. My children certainly are the best thing I ever did in my life.
T: If and when your son wants his first tattoo, do you want to be the one doing it for him?
M: No. I’d prefer to look at a piece on him that he got from someone that’s better than me.
T: If you could pick any time period you wanted to live in, when would that be?
M: The 50’s. That was a time of change and new beginnings. There was rebellion and creativity and so much came out of it. But I would love to check out the renaissance time or the 1920’s as well. But the 20’s had prohibition and since I like a good drink, maybe not. But even today is a time of change. Not just technological, but social too.
T: Let’s speak about music. What role does that have in your life?
M: Music is the most important thing in my life next to my family and tattooing. Should have become a rock star instead of trying to do this, but I’m not really all that instrumentally inclined.
T: What kind of music?
M: Everything. Anything that’s got something to it. Substance, life, impact. It all started with KISS and Ozzy. Couldn’t get much cooler than them at the time. But now it’s everything. Sometimes I think that the people I work on in the shop are in more pain because of the music than the needle. I used to listen to heavy stuff in the shop, but I turned away from that because it often made me feel stressed. Now I’m doing more easy listening at work. Anything from modern-day Hip-Hop to 1950’s Vietnamese Go-Go music. I like diversity and the eclectic. The wild thing is that when you listen without judging it all suddenly fits together really well. When I was a kid I wanted to be the guitarist. The cool guy, but today I think it would be drums. That’s the beat. That’s what gives the music life and soul.
T: If you were to find yourself on a deserted island with nothing but a CD Player and headphones, which one CD would you take along?
M: ‘Pick Your King’ by ‘Poison Idea’.
T: Last question, which brings me back to the first question..
M: I’m not really mad even though I look mad.
T: Time’s up. See you next week, Matt.
Interview courtesy of ‘Sang Bleu‘ magazine.