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These Six Tattoo Artists Are Changing St. Louis, One Body at a Time 

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click to enlarge Matt Hodel likes to joke that Ragtime isn't the place for your first tattoo — but it's not really a joke. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Matt Hodel likes to joke that Ragtime isn't the place for your first tattoo — but it's not really a joke.

Matt Hodel

Ragtime Tattoo

Matt Hodel has already reached that point of creative flexibility and control at his shop, Ragtime Tattoo. It took years to get there, but he's found it.

Now 41, Hodel began working at a street shop on the Loop, Iron Age Tattoo and Piercing. "When I started tattooing, there was fourteen shops from O'Fallon, Illinois to O'Fallon, Missouri," he recalls. Not all were superb.

He liked Iron Age, and it taught him a lot. But he didn't like the pace involved with that set-up — the amount of nervous energy with walk-ins, the lack of flexibility, and the randomness of his days.

"You had five minutes to win their trust, to convince them you're not selling them a bag of goods, and get them out of there with a good tattoo. And then you have five more people on the list for that day," he says.

He dreamed of creating large, custom tattoos with clients who'd been tattooed a few times, knew what they wanted, and were willing to wait to let him make his art as perfect as possible. But that just wasn't possible in a street shop. "[Large, custom pieces] can't be that 'wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am' style of work," he says. "It was a lot like trying to built custom choppers at Meineke."

When he visited a friend in Austria, he found the answer: an appointment-only shop. After working at a south city parlor called Ragtime with its previous owner, Hodel inherited the shop and began crafting it into his own image. Now he says he has appointments booked months in advance.

He likes to joke that the shop isn't the place for your first tattoo — but it's not really a joke. The shop is for the planner, not the drop-in. If the six- to twelve-week wait period feels like too much, on top of that, some consultations require two appointments. The shop tries to limit business to the devoted seeker who wants just the right piece: with no advertisements and no phone, it operates by referral and "total word of mouth."

Hodel has also structured the space to combat a walk-in, ink up mentality — the nondescript, out-of-the-way shopfront doesn't even have a lobby.

At any time in his day, Hodel says, he could run to the store and grab a soda without worrying that a customer might do something dangerous. Part of this is because Hodel's on-the-downlow business model seems to be attracting exactly the sort he wants; many of his clients have been getting tattoos for as long as Hodel's been tattooing.

"I'm not gonna make someone who's been getting tattooed for twenty years sit in a lobby and wait like a little kid," he says.

Owning the shop has also given Hodel the ability to further cultivate his own style. "When you're in a street shop, you always wonder, is someone coming in for your flag or your shop's flag?" At Ragtime (which also operates on a space rental basis, similarly to Earth Alchemy), he urges his artists to "become the product."

Hodel does that himself by sitting down with a client and trying to develop a "strong visual language based on that person's personal experiences." He asks them to list emotions and ideas that they want wrapped into the tattoo. Hodel's work takes a similar aesthetic as Tower Classic, that thick black linework and bold colors, but he exaggerates and emboldens his designs — full-back dragons and ribcage snakes, seething with the emotions that his canvas demands.

Hodel has watched the St. Louis scene grow over the past two decades; he's at the point where he's started inking up children and grandchildren of his early clients.

He points to two particular figures who defined the local aesthetic before his time. Trader Bob's, which moved to its current location on South Jefferson in 1976, developed a particularly St. Louis spin on the traditional style, with one of its owners, Mitch Mitchell, taking the lead. And Brad Fink, the founder of Iron Age, locally pioneered the idea of "giving somebody something different every time they came in."

"Everyone who watched Brad unfold, it definitely set the precedent for how tattoos were supposed to be done in the Midwest," Hodel says. Hodel's work extends from that ethos.

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