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June 17th, 2009 Katie Litvin | Featured Stories
 

Ink-Stained Wretch

Matt Gone hated his ailing body. Then he drew on it.

     
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IMAGE: JAROD OPPERMAN

Matt Gone considers himself an artist whose work is inked across his entire body.

Claiming to be “the most tattooed man in Portland,” Gone and his tattoos will be featured during an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum from June 20 to Sept. 6—Marking Portland: The Art of Tattoo.

Gone says 98 percent of him is tattooed, the only exception being his palms and gums because it would be painful and difficult to tattoo both areas. A head-to-toe tour of Gone, who got his first tattoo when he was 14, begins with the signature checkerboard pattern on his head and face and ends with a Church of Canterbury maze on his foot.

So, is he just an attention whore? Decide for yourself, but realize that without his tattoos, Gone says his life would be lonely.

Without living relatives or a girlfriend, Gone says his tattoos keep him from hating his body. He was born with an extremely rare birth defect, called Poland’s syndrome, that results in underdeveloped muscles on one side of his body. For Gone, that’s meant he experiences constant pain and is missing pectoral muscles and the lower biceps on the left side of his body.

Now 38, Gone moved to Portland four years ago from New Orleans because he thought he could have more success here at finding a new job and living normally with facial tattoos. He has worked as a cook at Marathon Taverna on West Burnside since.

He came to WW to answer questions about the exhibit, whether the face tattoos help or hurt his chances with women, and how Portlanders react when he walks down the street.

WW: What exactly are you going to be doing with the Portland Art Museum?

Matt Gone: I’ll have some pictures [of myself], I’ll be there physically on June 27…. Anyone with tattoos, if they are from Portland or have had their tattoo done in Portland, can submit a picture on Flickr. And a select few will be exhibited in the museum. It’s a way for people who live in Portland to put their tattoos in a museum.

Do you worry the exhibit could reveal someone who could take away your title of Most Tattooed in Portland?

Well, it’s not really a title; it’s just how it is. There are a couple people with full-body tattoos in Portland, but they probably don’t have their ears done and they definitely don’t have their face done. And then you get into the nasty bits, and they don’t have that done. So there are maybe 20 of us who are this covered. But the way that the tattooing culture is growing right now, next year it will be 40 people like me. The only title I really have, the thing that I do have over everyone in the world, is the fact that I have checkers. I claimed checkers for my theme. Anyone who does checkers is a copycat.

Why checkers, and why on your face?

Nobody’s ever done checkers. But they’re everywhere—they’re one of the most primitive patterns on the face of the earth. They’re a clean design, stylish and elegant…. Nobody could be offended by checkers. There couldn’t be another design on my face. Checkers are my theme. There was never an idea of doing something other than checkers.

Do women think the tattoos are a turn-on?

Hell, they’re the only way I get laid sometimes. [But] there are some women who get turned off, so it’s a double-edged sword. If you’re fully tattooed, you attract a really strange crowd of freaky women—star-fuckers and all these other women. The medical things, those kind of turn women off a bit more. Once they find out what I’ve been through, it kind of drives them away.

Aren’t you worried what you look like when you get older?

I’m 38, and chances are I’m not going to be [much] older. My 37th birthday was celebrated with the diagnosis that I’m missing a kidney and I have kidney disease. The chances are, I’ll be on dialysis 10 years from now. Right now, I’m working out and working on getting my skin saved for a museum. One day, my skin might be hanging somewhere in formaldehyde.

How’d you not know until 37 you didn’t have a kidney?

I didn’t have health insurance. And when I was born, they didn’t do ultrasounds on babies. I think they knew when I got sick one time at the hospital for something else. Supposedly I have a dad who’s alive, but my dad abandoned me, so he doesn’t exist to me. I was raised by my mother, and she might’ve known, but she didn’t tell me. She died when I was 16, so I never knew until I discovered this on my own.

Are there any tattoos you regret?

Yeah, I get them covered up. I had trouble on [my] face tattoo, and I had it redone. I originally had it done in nine days in London in 2005, and the guy didn’t do a very good job. I came here and Mary Jane Haake at Dermigraphics Tattoo retouched my face and tattooed over the screwed-up lines the guy did in London. She redid my entire face tattoo, did a couple layers over it and then worked on the head and touched that up. I don’t really regret any of them anymore. I mean, I’ve got a couple that look funny because they turned into scar tissue when I got sick.

Why’d you decide to come to Portland?

This was the place to go with a facial tattoo.

Huh?

Friends, portrayal in the media, gut feeling. This would be the place that has face tattoos, ’cause my boss wouldn’t let me get them in New Orleans. I thought Portland would be the place I’d have more success in getting a new job and having some kind of life with facial tattoos. My employer supports them; he doesn’t care.

Besides the positive reaction from your current boss, what’s the reaction of other people in Portland?

I had six reactions in the five blocks just walking here.

What were they?

Startlement, staring…one guy stopped and did that [pointing]. Little kids with their parents saying, “Look at that man! Look at that man!” People looking out windows, cars slowing down. I stop traffic—foot traffic and car traffic—when I walk down the street.

Do you like being the center of attention?

It’s more the love of mayhem. I like the dramatic disruption of my fully tattooed body, and I also like to show people that [individuals] with tattooed faces can exist in normal society. I’m short and have bad teeth, and I’m bald. But people stare at me—guys’ girlfriends stare at me.

Slideshow & Highlights

  • Gone’s friend, caregiver and tattoo artist, Mary Jane Haake, tattooed many different designs on him over the years, including retouching the checkerboard pattern on his face. Of the 250 checkers on his head, 55 are on his face. Haake started in October 2005 and finished three years later, wearing 50x magnification eyeglasses to align the checkers over Gone’s eyes.

  • The phoenix stretched across Gone’s neck is a tribute to one of his tattoo artists, Sailor Moses from Biloxi, Miss., who died in 1997. The artist designed the phoenix tails that wind down both of his legs. The phoenix is an important symbol to Gone, because of its ability to regenerate itself from flames.

  • The “hypercube” centered on his chest is the tattoo Gone says he finds most meaningful. He got the idea for the four-dimensional cube from his favorite movie, Insignificance, a 1985 film about Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity. In the center of the hypercube is a tattoo of a miniature human heart, aligned over Gone’s beating one.

  • Gone commemorates many milestones with tattoos, including his vasectomy. An explosive is inked on his pubic mound and a detonator wire around his scrotum. Gone jokes that the surgeon “cut the wires and defused the bomb.”

  • On his right calf is a rose tattoo. The tattoo artist asked that Gone adopt a cat instead of paying, after the tattoo didn’t heal properly. It turns out the “hardest cat to adopt,” named Josie, missing a tail and a couple of toes, cost about the same as the tattoo would have.

SEE IT: Marking Portland: The Art of Tattoo will explore the idea of tattoos as art and artifacts with lectures, films and special programs at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave. 10 am-5 pm Tuesday-Saturday, June 20-Sept. 9. $8-$10. portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/feature/Marking-Portland-The-Art-of-Tattoo.

 
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