We had the good fortune of connecting with Matthew McKinley Hays and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Matthew McKinley, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
I knew early on that I wanted to make art for a living, so I never envisioned myself in a career that wasn’t creative. After art school I spent about 10 years as an animator and video producer and while that was certainly a fun and creative career, I found myself looking for something that allowed for more creative freedom and expression. That ultimately led me to alter my career choice and pursue another passion, which is tattooing. The creative freedom and the ability to connect with my clients on a more personal level through my interpretation and execution of their ideas has been more satisfying than I ever thought a career could be…even a creative one. Now, after 13 years since I made my first tattoo, I’m just as excited about tattooing as I was then if not more so.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I don’t think the path of an artist is ever an easy path to follow. It’s usually full of question, doubt, self-loathing and struggle mixed with discovery, confidence, ego and accomplishment. My path has really been no different. I, and my family along with me, had to make a lot of hard decisions and endure a lot of tough times, but we’ve also enjoyed a lot of freedom and good times from those choices. My first big leap of faith came in 2008, right as the country was going into financial crisis, when I made the decision to change course away from my career in video production and animation to pursue tattooing full time. I faced a decent amount of criticism and doubt from some of my family and friends, but ultimately I had made up my mind that I was going to do and I did it. I left a 10 year career and a great salary to make absolutely nothing for a few years. Haha! But it was absolutely worth it, because what I gained in return was a whole new path through life that offered me so much more personal satisfaction than sitting behind a computer. And thank goodness my wife, whom I had only been dating for a year at this point, had a good job and wanted to put up with me, because she got us through those first couple years of my apprenticeship when I wasn’t getting paid. I had a pretty traditional apprenticeship and although thankfully I don’t have some of the apprentice horror stories I’ve heard, my mentor wasn’t easy on me. There were a lot of times during those first couple years that I was sure I was going to fail and I almost quit a couple times. As tough as my mentor was on me he was also super supportive as well. He took a bet on me and he wanted me to succeed, so I knew that his strict standards and tough love were only going to make me better. And it did, very much so. by breaking me down and building me back up he gave me the tools and the right foundation to keep my dream of tattooing from toppling. The choice to relocate to Denver in 2012 was another big risk/big opportunity that almost backfired in the beginning as well. My wife and I had just had our first child and I was offered the chance to move to Denver to work at Kaze Gallery & Tattoo. It was a great chance to get out of my small town and into the greater tattoo world, but this time it was my turn to take care of the family since my wife wasn’t working because of the baby. That was tough during that first year since I didn’t really have any clientele to speak of in Denver and Kaze was more or less an appointment only studio. There were a couple walk-ins, but they were pretty few and far between. There were a lot of days just sitting around drawing. But eventually I started to build a clientele and things started getting better. I started going to conventions and making connections around the world and began to start carving out a small niche for myself in Denver. In 2014 the building was sold out from underneath us and Kaze Gallery had to close it’s doors everyone there went in different directions. In hindsight I feel that may have been a blessing in disguise because out of the split Denver gained three new great shops that better suited their artist’s preferences than Kaze did. This was the point at which I helped William Thidemann open up Mammoth American Tattoo, which I count as one of the highlights of my career up to this point. Even though I’m no longer in Denver, I still try to get down to Mammoth American on a semi-regular basis. I’m super proud to be a part of that shop still. In 2018, now with two awesome sons, my family and I decided to move back up to Glenwood Springs and raise our kids in the Roaring Fork Valley. I now have a private studio in Glenwood where I can focus on giving my clients the best tattoo experience that I can and pushing my artwork and tattooing to new levels while being able to find better balance between work and life. Through all the tough times and all the good times thus far, the thing that’s kept me pushing to progress has been keeping my eye on the long game and having the dedication and perseverance to see it through. Nothing worth striving for is ever easy, but if you’re always pushing towards the long goal then the little victories add up and the bumps don’t seem as jarring.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
The Roaring Fork Valley is an amazing place to visit and recreate, so if I had a friend in town for a week there’s no way we’d be able to get in everything there is to do. But there are some definite must-do things if you’re visiting me for a week. In the summer we’d definitely be taking a raft trip either on the Roaring Fork or the Colorado rivers. If you’re visiting in the winter then we’ll definitely make our way up to Sunlight Ski Area. Redstone would be another must-do on the list. It’s always great to stroll the Redstone Blvd. and grab some pizza at Propaganda Pie. We’d certainly do some BBQ at home, but we’d have to do breakfast at the Village Smithy in Carbondale at least once. It’s been my favorite breakfast spot since I was a kid. And we’d likely do a sushi night at Izakaya Carbondale. The Iron Mountain Hot Springs would be the place to be after a day on the slopes or the river. And there’s plenty of great hiking and mtn. biking trails around if my guests want to get out in the mountains. There’s just so many things to do in this area that the real challenge is deciding on one!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the help, guidance and support of a few specific people. Firstly, I owe a lot of credit to my mentor, Matt E. Hayes. He took a gamble by apprenticing somebody with the same name and by doing so gave me a whole new creative path through life. Secondly, I must give credit to William Thidemann and the crew at Mammoth American Tattoo. He bet on me shortly after my apprenticeship and offered me a place to work in Denver. That opportunity allowed me to grow and thrive in the greater tattoo community and to create personal connections across the globe that I never would have dreamed possible. Finally and most importantly, I would be nowhere without the love and support of my beautiful family. The unwavering support and encouragement that I’ve received from my wife Brynn has been paramount since day one and my children have taught me to keep a young mind and to expand my creative thought process by reminding me that there are no impossibilities in what can be created in art.