Matthew S. Kennedy of California is the epitome of a self-made ceramicist. He has overcome huge personal obstacles to develop his uniquely beautiful tattooed pieces. Dubbed the “Clayslinger” by Tattoo Skin Art Magazine, Matt is a full-time working artist and makes his living with clay.
“I have been doing ceramics ever since my sponsor in AA told me to get a new hobby after I got sober July 7th 1995. I was playing pool for a living at the time—not very conducive to maintaining a sober lifestyle. He directed me to go get a toy potter’s wheel and see if I liked pottery. I followed his direction, asked for a real potter’s wheel for Christmas that year, and it has been on since then. ” —Matthew S. Kennedy
This busy and prolific artist lives in Atascadero, California.
Most of us set aside a reasonable space in our abode for ceramic art. However, Matt is passionate to the max about his work. He designated a one bedroom apartment space for living. His furnishings consist of a bed and two bean bags. The rest of the house is dedicated to his ceramic studio.
Though he doesn’t tattoo on skin, Matt has the utmost respect for the tattoo industry. He has worked in ceramics for twenty-three years.
Like most of us, he’s had his ups and downs. There have been times when he couldn’t get into his studio as often as he wished. But the guy is philosophical about bends in the road.
He says, “…Pottery or whatever, I guess, is a lot like riding a bike. You just don’t forget. In fact I find that when I take breaks, I actually get better when I come back to it. I believe that if you can see it in the mind, you will see it in person. It is the law of attraction. I am getting good at using the law of attraction. It’s fun when you start to get good at it. “
Matthew Kennedy’s Tattoo Pots
There are as many ways to decorate pots as there are artists to do the work. Matt tattoos his pottery, and the results are mesmerizing. He told us, “I was walking through a tattoo convention in Pomona California, and, as usual, I was thinking, “What can I use to set me apart in ceramics? What kind of new tool could I use?
“At that moment, I looked over and saw a tattoo machine dealer selling these $100.00 tattoo kits. I had been watching the show Miami Ink on TV, and I just thought, ‘let me give it a try.’ I brought (the kit) home and tried it. I knew from that point on this was my new style of art in ceramics. I have been playing with it ever since, but now get to delve into it every day.”
Matt says the process was huge learning curve. He spent many hours, over many months, to come up with his unique style. His journey introduced him to an incredible number of inks, graffiti pens and ceramic glazes. He experimented with masking issues, drying times and methods, clay bodies.
Matt is drawn to ceramics because of the neverending experimentation that an artist encounters. His biggest challenge, he says, is finding exactly the right processes for each type of piece. Matt specializes in urns, many of them burial urns, but he also makes vases, tiles, commemorative wall tiles, and beautiful bonsai pots. Each requires specific steps to perfect the size, the curves, the surface.
He feels most tattoo machines work similarly to each other, but he’s hooked on the one he found online.
“It’s the most comfortable to use for long periods of time,” he says.
It took work and effort to figure out the right timing for tattooing on a clay surface. If the clay is too wet, it takes a long time to remove material. If it is too dry, it will not give good texture and creates way too much clay dust.
Surprisingly, Matt sometimes uses tattoo ink on his pots. He also works with other inks, paints, and glazes — some applied before firing and some after.
Matt’s tattoo design coloring book
“I draw some of my own designs,” he explained. In fact, I have a coloring book I just published on Amazon.”
The Skinny on Matt’s Ceramics and All the Other Things He’s Busy With
Matt Kennedy uses Steve’s White, an earthenware clay body with only 5% shrinkage. He buys about 1,000 pounds at a time, and gets about 200 cremation and burial urns from that amount. He fires this bright white body to cone 04 or 06. As mentioned, he uses a variety of surface decorations from ink to glass powders, engineering just the right processes for each.
Matt explains that he does what a tattoo artist does, but on the skin of a pot instead of a person
He draws a paper design and makes a copy.
He smooths the paper onto the clay surface, much as potters do when monoprinting other types of art.
The next step is to outline the drawing with a ballpoint pen.
Once that’s done, Matt incises an outline into the clay with a v-tool.
After all this prep, it’s time to use his tattoo skills. With his tattoo machine, Matt carves into the clay on selected areas where he wants to remove clay to form texture and relief. It takes about four hours to tattoo six pots. The pieces are fired and then color is built up with various media.
Our featured artist also dabbles in agateware. He blends two colored clays together, layer by layer. When he cuts through or trims a pot, all the color variations are visible. For the one pictured here, he mixed blue mason stain into his white clay body and then layered that with white clay. He made the lid from an exotic wood called Purple Heart.
Matthew Kennedy is one of the most fascinating people we have interviewed for HandbuildersMonthly. His road has been bumpy and twisty, but his success demonstrates how perseverance can change lives. Matt’s work is distinctive and beautiful as well as functional. He was a pleasure to work with.