Celebrity portraits are common tattoo odes that pay tribute (whether seriously or ironically) to someone whom the wearer may not have met, but feels a connection to. What if the person being memorialized on one's body is not on the A-List, but instead, has been marginalized and often ignored by society? Tattooist Matt C. Ellis uses his particular skills in tattoo realism and offers clients a chance to make a connection with those who are forgotten, shedding light on the issues of poverty and homeless.
Matthew, who has been tattooing for 12 years, is working on a project that involves tattooing portraits of New York City homeless individuals on clients for free, and any money a client gives is donated to a homeless charity. I asked him about his project, which he graciously answered in this Q & A below:
What sparked this project and what keeps driving it? Is it a political statement or just a humanist act?
I started this project because I find the subject of homeless culture very intriguing. To have such a large percentage of our populace so overlooked; these persons are right outside our door but we continue to ignore the homeless. When I tattoo these portraits, I am trying to raise awareness for their plight and our culture's disregard and dehumanization of homeless individuals in our society. I tattoo these portraits for free, and 100% of any money that the client decides to give me is directly donated to a local NYC homeless charity.
When I was living in Miami, I developed friendships with many homeless persons, most of whom were war veterans. I became close to these people and developed a certain connection with them. One of the persons I particularly became close with was a local artist in the area, and through this friendship, I continued to make more friends that happened to be living homeless.
The experiences that I have had with some of these individuals is what I am trying to capture in my works of art. I am trying to portray a glimpse into the raw interaction between myself and these persons. Some of these personalities can be so beautiful and are overlooked in our culture, and I'm trying to look at this concept in a broader sense. This project is not just about homeless individuals, but how our culture lives -- the way that we take many of our comforts for granted. We place so much value on the material. We cherish material beauty and what we see on magazine covers and television. I find these homeless individuals to have more of a raw and powerful quality to themselves that is extremely intriguing.
Who are these people whose portraits you are tattooing?
The faces that I create these portraits from vary from homeless people that I have a close friendship with, to homeless persons that I have randomly encountered and approached. Each of these persons I converse with and take photos of, which I use as reference and inspiration for my artwork. When I approach an individual, I will walk up to the person and straightforwardly ask if I can take a few photos of them. Some of these individuals are taken aback and are cautious of my intent. I try to explain to them more about my project and what I am trying to accomplish. I go on to tell them my views about how I see an unfiltered beauty within them that cannot be found on the cover of a fashion magazine. About half of the people don't agree with me but appreciate my ideas. Many of the people I speak to outright deny my claims and cannot see the beauty within themselves.
Once the person I am speaking to becomes more comfortable with the idea of my project, I begin to take photos randomly. I do not ask the person to pose and I do not look through the viewfinder. I hold the camera at different angles and push the shutter button randomly, attempting to capture a glimpse of that moment experienced between us. I do not interview these persons, but rather "hang out" with them and try to capture an unfiltered, raw experience with this other human being.
For those who wear these portraits, what are their thoughts about immortalizing people whom they may not have a personal connection with?
People will get tattoo portraits of celebrities who they do not know personally and will not think twice about it. They may do this because they find the imagery beautiful or they admire the person. When a client is interested in getting one of my homeless portrait tattoos, they are usually drawn to the idea of the project, and they like the fact that there is a strong meaning behind the tattoo. It is a piece of art with a purpose and is also raising awareness. My clients like that they have something more than just an image on their skin. Art is about ideas and making people think. I am trying to help push my tattooing into a direction that is more fine art rather than solely illustration.
For more on Matt and his work, check his website and follow him on Instagram.