Photo of Matt by Marcus Holm, @amplifyphoto.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
Mattias "Matt" Andersson. I was born in Gothenburg, in 1982.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in a smaller town (a population of around 40 000) named Kungälv, just 20 minutes outside of Gothenburg. I lived in a house with my mother, father, and two sisters. I now live with my wife and two kids (six and three years old) as well as a cat and two rabbits.
Growing up I was a bit of a trouble maker, I guess. (Well, I was! Or, at least everybody else thought I was.) I played a lot of sports: football, hockey, boxing, handball, motocross, and so on. I also did things typical of kids who can’t keep calm or wait to get older. I began fighting at an early age, and had to change schools in the end; I started smoking at the age of 10, drinking at the age of 13. This ‘not-afraid’ mentality got me into some bad company. We were the kids that always had something up their sleeves. I sold cigarettes, porn magazines, knives to the kids that couldn’t or wouldn’t buy those things themselves. Knowing kids two to three years older was good for getting things.
I also did graffiti, skateboarded all day long, started a rock band—everything my friends and I thought was funny. I always worked hard—had my first job at 13 and have worked hard ever since. I’d do something for a while and then I’d get bored, whether it was my friends, my jobs, or other interests such as sports. I was always collecting something. If it wasn’t coins or stamps it was empty beer bottles or CDs or whatever. Then I had to find something new that was challenging and fun to do. I could never definitively decide what I really wanted to do.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I work out of my own (private) studio in Kungälv. I’ve never worked anywhere else.
How long have you been tattooing?
If you count when I first bought my machine to try out tattooing for fun, I did my first tattoo around 11 years ago. I did try to tattoo myself two to three years before that in Thailand. I asked the tattooer who had made a big dragon on my right arm if I could try to tattoo my own foot. That’s where it all started for me, becoming a tattooer.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I always loved tattoos from really early age. Growing up, among my relatives there were a few that had loads of tattoos. My favorite band, Iron Maiden, also had them. I thought that wearing those tattoos looked so fucking cool, and I remember that I sometimes dreamt of having loads and loads of ‘em on myself—something "bad and cool" that made me stand out among all the others. My father had two small tattoos that he got at age 16. So, for many years I said, "I wanna’ get tattooed when I’m 16." And I did: my father went with me and I got a panther head on top of my arm.
When I was around 20-21, I had just been released after an operation at the hospital that had gone terribly wrong. They didn’t do anything right in that operation, and I got so sick that it almost killed me. I was so ill that I had to stay home for some time. The insurance settlement from that faulty operation gave me a bit of money, which I used to travel alone to Thailand for six weeks with the goal of restoring some of my mental health. This was 2003. I’d always wanted a large tattoo on my arm, and while I was there I decided it was the right time. I got a huge dragon going up my whole arm and back, ending at my shoulder.
Although I already had around seven tattoos, this piece felt like a big step. I’d almost lost my life, so all of this talk I heard about how difficult it was to get a job with visible tattoos—I didn’t give a shit. The tattoo was spread out over two sessions, five and a half hours each. I continued to meet with the tattooer after the sessions were over—probably taking up some of his time! Later on, I went back and had him do some lettering: “memories” to commemorate the trip I’d made. It got me thinking that it would be fun to try tattooing myself. I asked the tattooer, “if I pay for it, can I tattoo myself?” He said I could and so I did! I tattooed a small star on the side of my foot and, after thinking it looked too girly, added lettering saying “don’t be cruel” beside the star.
That was it. The tattooer said that if I came back he would take me up to Bangkok to meet his friends and buy the gear necessary to do my own tattoos. Once I returned to Sweden I didn’t end up going back as I’d planned. Later, I met a guy in school—I’d been catching up on the work I’d missed, since the medical difficulties had forced me to drop out of—who also loved tattooing and had two sleeves. He had just started tattooing at his home on some friends. Around that time, it was my luck to find a guy that was closing his shop and selling all of his equipment. I bought it all for 2500€ and started tattooing. Soon after, Miami Ink started airing on TV and everybody wanted a tattoo. After years of saving and working something like 250 hours every month, I was able to open my own shop, Straydogstattoo.
I still draw almost every night after my wife goes to bed. I’m always learning and I still want to be the best I can be. But hours and hours of practice and guesswork got me to a point where, if 100 ways are wrong, in the end you know what’s right! Tattooing is everything I do, except hanging with my family. They come first, but tattooing is a strong second.
How did you learn the mechanics of tattooing?
I learned the mechanics by breaking the machines down, fixing them back up—trying this and that. Over and over again. I didn’t know shit at the start. But after constant experimentation, reading, and listening to the guys who knew all of the (then-mystical) information about tattooing, I figured out what I needed to know. Today, at the very least, I know how to fix my machines. I know what is wrong when one of them has a problem. Getting a good machine is easy, but tuning is key. Making it run like I want, that’s the tricky part that I could only learn with continual practice.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I have lots of influences: traditional tattoos, any iconography that has something to do with sailors—I’ve always liked that. Historically, the coolest tattoos were worn by sailors. They had all this meaning behind the tattoos and most people had no idea what they stood for. If I could, I’d turn back time and work on a boat in the early 1900s. All those stories I’ve listened to from friends like Doc Forest and Tattoo-Andy. They’re great storytellers and legends of Swedish tattooing. They can tell you all about the golden age of tattooing.
I drew a lot of comics when I was younger. I made my own comic books. In that sense, it’s not that weird that my tattoos and my style today is a mix of both kinds of imagery. It’s a mix of comic and traditional style—we could call it that. I always knew my style was going to tend towards the traditional. 100s and 100s of hours have got me to this point, and it’s here that I want to stay. I don’t want to change my style; I want to keep getting better and better in what I do.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I do have one. It wasn’t deliberate though. This guy, Dan, would come to my shop and get tattooed by guest artists. Then he got a piece from me. We talked for some time and then he asked, "have you ever thought of getting an apprentice?" I said, "well, I have when I need someone to clean the floor." We laughed a bit and that was it. Later on, he mentioned that he did graffiti and painted. I checked him out later that night on his Instagram and saw good potential. I wrote to him just for fun, "maybe you could be my apprentice," and he was stoked! Immediately I thought, “shit, what did I write to him? Now he thinks I’m serious!” Then I thought, “ah, what the hell.” First we decided to revisit it in two to three months, after he’d given it more thought. Five minutes later I wrote to him again, “fuck it, come to the shop next week.” And that’s where he is now!
What do you look for in a shop?
I look for tradition and mystique. Vintage stuff and a vintage atmosphere. Loads of flash everywhere—that’s how I like it. That’s how my shop is. I don’t get this white wall shit. It’s too fancy and clean. Tattooing was never clean. It’s a dirty business and it should look that way. When I say “dirty”, I’m not talking about hygiene, I’m talking about the aesthetic: knives, knuckledusters, antiques. I think the feeling is a big thing. You should feel like you’re in a tattoo shop and not at the hairdresser’s.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
If I had time! I’m interested in almost everything. I could live 500 years and never get bored.
Family is getting most of my time. Family is always more important than the rest. Compared to them, tattooing is nothing and if it wasn’t for them, my flame wouldn’t burn as much for tattooing. They give me strength. I’m happy to have the wife I have, accepting all the late nights I’m up drawing. I’m very thankful for that and love her very much for letting me do what I love to do. I still try not to see tattooing as my job. It’s my hobby and I get paid for it! Something I do want to get back to is training—I really miss that.
What inspires you generally?
New ideas really inspire me, humor in an image, smart thinking and classic stuff with a twist. I like people that add new and tiny changes to something that was already there. They keep me constantly thinking about how to create something new and fresh that still remains traditional and still makes sense in that idiom. More broadly, everything around me is a source of inspiration. Magazines, nature, comics, stand-up—everything can be linked to an image in tattooing.
Where can we find your work online? What are your handles on social media?
You can find my work at @straydogstattoo on Instagram. If it wasn’t for tattooing, I would never have anything to do with social media. It fucks people’s minds up, making everyone perform a perfect life for everyone else. We all have shitty parts and spots that we try to cover. We don’t want to post those on social media. For tattooing, it’s a great resource that allows tattooers to connect and influence each other. Sure, it also means that sometimes people steal my work, but in the end who gives a shit? I drew it. I don’t have time for drama. Let the queens have the drama.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
I always loved tattoo books and tattoo magazines. It’s a shame so many people are closing up their magazines. I like holding real stuff in my hands, stuff I can have in my home—not just on my phone. That said, new books are arriving still and magazines too, so it’s not dead yet. For tattooing, I think print culture will never be dead. We are old school and like to be able to touch our books and magazines. That’s how it should be.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
I would really like to travel. I get a lot of requests from tattooers around the world inviting me.
But I have a hard time leaving the kids at such a young age. I also don’t want to miss too much time with them. I’m very happy that I get many good artists from around the world to guest at my shop. It’s always super fun when they do—like Christmas for me.
There are some places I really wanna’ go. Noiseland Tattoo in Leicester is a friend’s place. Also Seven Doors Tattoo and Sang Bleu London are two shops I really want to go to. Maybe next year. I think that England is the next and first stop outside of Sweden. In Sweden, I’ve traveled to different conventions and to my friend Max Stålhammar's shop, Stockholm Classic.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I’m not sure. The only challenge I feel is a challenge with myself to keep up. So many people are so fucking good these days at tattooing. I don’t want to get lazy and relax. I want to try new machines, new techniques, new needles. I want to keep my game up and get better and better. That’s my only challenge.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I would like to see it evolve, but with a love for its history, traditions, and the artform that is tattooing. It’s important not to forget who was there first, to not piss the old fellas off, thinking tattooers these days are just a bunch of rockstar wannabees that sell out for anything. While one needs to evolve, tattooing has many ‘unwritten laws’ to follow. If we forget those laws, that will be the true end of tattooing. I think that tattooers should do what they want to do, and do it for the love of the artform, not because they want to be special. If you are doing what you were meant to do, then you are already special. Don’t fuck that all up just to be someone.
I think this train has started and won’t stop again. It will have its ups and downs, of course. I think we’ll see many people drop out of this business and many new people come in to it. I can see many new styles and think many more will be created. There is no limit anymore. We took it this far and we can take it further. Let’s go out and be kids in the backyard, doing what we do best—playing around, trying new stuff. Sometimes it will be good and sometimes it we’ll be bad, but we’ll learn from it either way while we are doing what we love: tattooing. What a great fucking thing!