Twenty-five-year-old Matt Bailey of Cheltenham, England has gained international fame from his stark black and white illustrations oozing with cryptic one-liners. His haunting illustrations are tense with vulgar sensuality played out by the supple flesh of the living and the brittle bones of the dead.
While his panels initially started as illustrations, Bailey began transferring his pen and paper pieces to human skin and now is a tattoo artist at Parliament Tattoo.
I counted myself fortunate to sit down and exchange some words with Bailey across the cyber-sphere about his artwork, Instagram’s algorithm, his budding tattoo career and his opinion of the saturated market of blackwork.
Sum up your work in one sentence.
Matt Bailey: Self-indulgent skeletons and women.
When did you decide you wanted to be an artist?
MB: I don't know if it was that I decided, exactly. I do remember being around six, and someone at school challenged me to draw a better butterfly than he had made. Being naturally competitive, I did, and found that I enjoyed it.
You have a few figures that appear in variants throughout your work. Can you tell us a little more about this decision/is there a narrative behind these figures?
MB: There's not an express narrative for most of my characters. I have a little secret story for the Skeleton King, but I keep that to myself. At least, for the moment. I might tell it eventually.
Your work is marked by cheeky, cryptic one-liners. Describe your thought process on that creative decision and how you want your viewer to interact with those messages.
MB: While I was at university, I was debating with one of my tutors on whether the title of a piece can be included in a discussion about merits of the artwork itself. He was of the opinion that it could be, whereas I preferred to judge a piece by the artwork alone.
This prompted a long think from me. I didn't name my pieces, and most people I knew didn't. I posted artwork on Instagram and Tumblr, where titles had almost zero meaning. Half the people who see something on those sites don't bother to read even a little of the caption.
I do believe that the title of a piece can change how you perceive it however, and so I decided to start taking my own words, or more often using lyrics, to change how people see my work and make it more engaging in the process.
Congratulations on hitting 250k on Instagram! In your opinion, what aspect of your work resonates with people? What do you attribute this level of visibility and success?
MB: Thank you! Crazy number, right? I remember reading somewhere that human beings can only mentally visualize up to roughly 200 people as individuals, so a number that big blows my mind a little bit.
How I got to that number is a combination of factors, I suppose. Keeping my work focused and consistent ensures that people who like my type of work will enjoy most of my pieces. That further insures a level of user interaction (likes and comments), which I believe then rises your profile via Instagram's algorithm. All that means that more new people will see your work, your user base will grow, and the whole thing ends up snowballing.
The crux of that process, however, is putting out a good quality of work consistently. The secret is, it doesn't even have to be great work. There are hundreds of amazing artists on Instagram who just aren't getting noticed because they don't upload new content frequently enough. People consume any kind of media extremely quickly.
I produce an image that people enjoy for (maybe) a few moments on average on a daily basis. As long as the work is of a good quality and regular, people will keep coming back each day to see more. At least, I hope they will.
Blackwork illustration and tattooing has taken off over the last few years. How do you feel about a) being a part of this saturated market and b) how do you think you stand out in a sea of tattoo artists and illustrators?
MB: It's pretty easy to spot the tattooers who are just jumping on the trend through their boring tattoos marked by shoddy linework, and inconsistent black. Repetition of ideas is something that comes naturally to tattooing, and I think that what shows a good artist is being able to take a classic idea or image and give it their own stamp.
Ideally, that's how I'd like to stand out. I'm lucky to have been apprenticed by a shop (No Regrets, Cheltenham UK) that values quality over everything. Every artist working there produces extremely high-quality work within their own fields, and it's very humbling to be allowed the space to enrich myself, and my work.
What inspired you to start tattooing? How will this change or not change your work?
MB: If I'm honest? I thought it would make me money, and I thought that I could do it well. Since then, I've come to really enjoy the process and direct customer interaction. It's a much better way of involving people.
Learning to tattoo has already changed my work massively. To train as an apprentice, I was sat down with fake skin and a machine and told to trace geometric patterns for eight hours a day. It definitely makes you draw a straight line a bit easier.
What's next for you, stylistically or career-wise?
Hopefully, a lot more tattoos! I'm excited to expand more. Try new techniques and mediums. Eventually get out to the USA and stab ink into a lot of yankee flesh.