Dixie Highway - Matthew J. Hockaday at Dixie Tattoo Company

Published: 05 January, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 207, January, 2012

With the barrage of tattoo artists and shops popping up on what seems like every other street corner, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discover tattooers with a few surprises still hidden up their sleeves. So when someone like Matthew J. Hockaday comes around, it’s happy days.

A few minutes into a conversation with Hockaday and it becomes evident that not all hope is lost, that perhaps there still are some artists in the industry who actually have a one of a kind story to tell that does not, for example, involve getting tattooed in a kitchen at the youngest age possible.

“Actually, I never had a tattoo until after I had already been tattooing for about six months. I didn’t wanna fuck up my body,” laughs Hockaday, admitting a fact that is somehow oddly impressive in today’s commercialised tattoo environment. “I was just sick of odd jobs, like delivering pizza and drilling wells.”
Growing up with a father who “had many tattoos from his Navy days” meant Hockaday was surrounded by, and aware of, tattooing from early on in his life, but as he openly says, at that time, he didn’t appreciate the art form for what it was. “Only after I saw my brother getting some good work did I realize that real artists were doing great art on skin,” he says.

An artistic force to be reckoned with, Hockaday is somewhat of a master of all forms, from canvas to paper to skin and even airbrushing. In fact, this past year he even had the chance to airbrush a helmet for Mike Tyson for an American television show, Same Name.

A ‘traditional’ artist first, painting for several years before he ever picked up a tattoo machine, there was no real eureka moment, no light bulb going off, in which Hockaday decided to pursue tattooing full-time. It just kind of happened as part of a natural progression and as the result of a search to find a way to have a steady paycheck without a menial job. The discovery of tattooing’s full artistic potential only came later.

“I just liked making money and doing art all day,” he says. “I didn’t take it that seriously for a while, it was just copying flash for three to four tattoos a day, just get the customer in and out. It wasn’t until later that I started getting more tattoos by better artists and asking questions and learning so much that I really began to love the medium.”

But even if it was just all about the flash at the very beginning, that didn’t, by any means, make Hockaday’s first experience tattooing any less stressful. As he recalls it, “I was so scared! I had a big biker over my shoulder and I was tattooing a Cancer symbol that was, like, perfectly oval and all 3D looking on my best friend.”

Hockaday has come a long way since that first symbol and now spends his days creating countless unique works of art on skin, most notably delivering unbelievably skilled portraits and other impeccably realistic designs.

“I love doing portraits and realism, it’s so technical and, yeah, I really have to be present mentally for that kind of work,” he enthuses. “There is something about doing a portrait that is very personal, but it can be more stressful because you really wanna do your best to get the likeness that the customer expects.”

Whether it’s a cherished family member, a beloved cultural icon like Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, or a rather striking tiger walking across someone’s forearm, Hockaday’s attention to every detail, no matter how small, and masterful use of shading give his creations depth and a true sense of life. The resulting tattoos are what I would almost describe as photographs on skin, so closely do they resemble the subjects they are striving to depict.
This is not to say that Hockaday is an artist who doesn’t enjoy taking on any variety of differing styles that may come his way; alternating between full color and black and grey or playing with different canvases, each individual art form subtly influences and intertwines with the others he pursues.  

“I feel like each medium feeds off the other. Like when I do ink drawings, I usually do them similar to the way I do a tattoo or do them for a tattoo,” he says. But then again, the non-tattoo works usually do have a special perk. “When I do oil painting, I usually get a chance to be a bit more free and express what I want and not what a customer wants.”

Nowadays, Hockaday is working as one of four artists at Dixie Tattoo Co., alongside James Reed, R.J. Munger and Rob Lloyd. Located in Waterford, Michigan, the relatively small town that the shop calls home is about 35 miles Northwest of Detroit and has a population close to 72,000.

It’s only been a couple of years that Hockaday has been tattooing out of Dixie Tattoo Co. and, as he recounts, there were some considerable bumps in the road to confront before he found himself where he is today.

“I had been in that area for, like, six years when I split from the shop I was at to open a shop with my friend John. And, long story short, that didn’t work out, so after two years, the crew and I decided to take over another shop in the area. That’s where we’ve been for the last two years. It’s a great crew of really talented artists and we all have different styles.”

With so much time spent tattooing, it goes without saying that an odd request must surely pop up occasionally, and for Hockaday, although it happened several years back, his strangest tattoo experience to date has never quite left him and may be rather difficult to surpass.

“This was about six years ago, I had a kid and his mom come in the shop and he brought me a picture of a manga girl on her knees, leaning back, and a cat was licking her crotch. The kid was like 16 and his mom signed for him. He cried the whole time while his mother sat beside him and comforted his pain – the whole thing was strange!” he laughs.

But although that sounds like quite the exciting session if you ask me, when it comes to a dream appointment, the ultimate client at the top of Hockaday’s list is none other than one of the quirkiest men around, Johnny Depp.

“He’s one of my favorite actors and I really would like to get his take on life and art,” he says. And given free reign over Depp’s skin, he’d opt for nothing less than “a portrait of him as Hunter S. Thompson, of course.”

Considering Depp was a fan and long-time friend of the equally unique and fascinating journalist and author, it sounds like it may be time for Mister Depp to get on over to Dixie Tattoo Co. to add a permanent homage to Thompson to his tattoo collection.

Spending his free time with his daughter and playing golf – “if I wasn’t into art I would most likely pursue professional golf” – Hockaday is keen to point out that, no matter what, his artwork is never left too far behind, explaining, “life and art, they are both the same to me.”

The driven artist that is Matthew J. Hockaday has undoubtedly evolved greatly since his early years in the industry, which were filled with flash and uncertainties about the legitimacy of tattooing as an art form. With 11 years of tattooing and 15 years of painting making up his repertoire, it’s safe to say he has solidified himself as a master of portraiture and realism.

Which only really leaves one question: What’s the most surprising thing that Hockaday can reveal about himself? After a moment, he laughs, “I was working security back in college and got to get high with the Grateful Dead!”

Tattooing in Waterford

When asked if the city of Waterford has any effects on his creativity and the work he puts out, Hockaday admits, “If anything, it would be in a bad way because it’s a nice town, but not that artsy. But I live in an area just outside of Detroit that is very hip and a great place to get inspired!”

Tattoo Trends in Waterford

Who better to raise the question of Waterford’s tattoo trends to than Hockaday, who has spent the past six years working in the area? “Not really. I guess I don’t really pay much attention, [but] I think trends are similar wherever you go – more people getting sleeves and larger tattoos. It’s better than tribal armbands and kanji!”

Family Support

Families can sometimes be on the fence about tattooing, but not in this artist’s case. “If anything, my family was really supportive. I worked on my brother many times and I think my mom and dad were just happy that I was making money doing something I enjoyed.”

Dixie Tattoo Co.

5324 Dixie Highway
MI 48329


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Matthew Hockaday