By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
Matthew Moore just opened Forecastle Tattoos on State Street in Bangor, but he hesitates to call it a “tattoo shop.” To the Brewer native who spent nearly two decades away from home, it’s an art studio — one fueled by a brain that was forever changed after a near-death battle with meningitis transformed how he visualizes his art.
Moore always had natural talent with his artwork, but when his grades suffered in junior high, his teachers repeatedly disciplined him for doodling in class. One teacher, Tom Burby, saw the importance of his art and encouraged that doodling.
“He changed my whole schooling career,” Moore recalled. “He… set down a whole pad of paper and pencils and said, ‘Go nuts.’ I guess he figured that was part of the way I learned.”
Other teachers followed suit, and “my grades shot straight up,” Moore said.
But an art career wasn’t in his grand plan. Three days out of high school in 1996, he joined the Army, intending to play the sousaphone in an Army band. He’d played tuba in high school.
“I was a band geek,” he said.
But while processing for enlistment, he saw a video about the Army’s airborne division, with soldiers jumping out of planes, and he was hooked. Once he aced that training, he was about to hop on a bus to head to the 82nd Airborne when a quartet of Black Berets showed up asking who was interested in going through the Army Ranger Indoctrination Program — sort of the prologue to identify those likely to handle the grueling Ranger training. Moore jumped at the chance, and before he knew it he’d completed Ranger school. It was “64 days of living hell,” Moore said.
But the real living hell was yet to come.
Near-death and rebirth
In 2000, while training West Point cadets in a land-navigation program, Moore spent more than two months getting bitten by mosquitoes and ticks. Then the headaches began. Soon he was taking hefty doses of Motrin, but it didn’t help. The headaches worsened.
The tipping point was the day he walked down to get the mail. Every step felt like someone pounding at the back of his head, and his sense of time was gone; the 400-foot walk took him two hours. He went to the hospital that day, and a series of spinal taps confirmed that he had meningitis.
“It almost took my life,” he said. “It almost grabbed me.”
Moore lingered close to death, with waking periods often filled with bouts of partial paralysis as the disease continued ravaging his spinal cord. When he eventually recovered, he was a changed man.
Meningitis victims endure side effects from brain damage to permanent paralysis. Moore discovered he was unable to recall certain words, such as the names of colors. He can see a color, know the color, even visualize the word for the color, but he can’t say it. These episodes last for a few seconds before he overcomes them.
But that isn’t the strangest side effect.
“The best part is my paintings ever since,” he said. “They’ve become amazingly easy after that. Something triggered off in my brain.”
Like any artist, he visualizes what he wants to create, but he sees it in a different way now. Imagine that every colored shape on an image is on its own clear transparency; stack them, and you can see the finished product. Moore not only sees his finished image, but visualizes all the layers of color that combine to make that image.
Not only is his work more photo-realistic now, but his post-meningitis creative center is always “on” in ways it wasn’t before.
“I’m constantly drawing in my headl like right now, I’m constantly drawing the room and you and everything else,” he said. “That’s all happening all at the same time.”
It’s almost fitting that a tattoo artist known for incredible depictions of superheroes — he has images of such characters as Iron Man, Batman, Hellboy, and Rogue on his Web site — has developed what seems almost like a superpower.
But it can impact him in other ways, especially when he’s mentally drawing people. Frequently, he’ll see an expression, a feature, or even a line on someone’s face, and he’s consumed by the desire to recreate it. Call it his Kryptonite.
“I have to paint it,” he said. “And if I don’t, it’ll spin me off into this weird insomnia.”
Moore left the military in 2004 and planned to go to paramedic school on the G.I. Bill. He relocated to the New Orleans area, and soon a friend impressed with his artistic skills connected him with a tattoo artist.
Moore had tattoos of his own, but he’d never considered tattooing as an outlet for his artwork. But he was quickly hooked and figured he’d be a natural.
“I thought I was a stronger artist when I started tattooing, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got this,’” he recalled. “Then I did my first one, and I was like, “I don’t got this.’”
He quickly became proficient as he mastered the techniques. He tattoos like he paints, only with different tools. Now, seven years after his first tattooing experience, he makes tattoo art that is as vivid and realistic as his oils and watercolors.
And after 17 years away from Maine, he returned about two months ago. He’d visited last fall with his Tennesseean wife, who fell in love with the state. So did Moore, all over again.
“I realized I took [Maine] for granted, and I truly missed being home,” he said.
He had a tattoo shop and art studio clearly in mind, and soon rented the vacant space on State Street next to Frati’s Pawn Shop. He spent several weeks renovating it — transforming it, like so much in his life, into a work of art.
“I want people to come in and be like ‘this is a studio, this is not a tattoo shop,’” he said. “This is a place for artwork.”
There’s the secretary desk (circa 1869) and the glass-doored cabinet (circa 1870) that he found at the Big Chicken Barn in Ellsworth; they store his tattooing inks and equipment next to his tattoo table.
He sits on an old claw-foot chair, and he used wood recycled from his grandmother’s piano as part of his front desk and speaker shelves. Out of those speakers flow the smooth sounds of 1920s and 1930s music, New Orleans style. He’s begun adorning the walls with prints of his work, and soon he’ll be adding some of his framed paintings.
Forecastle Tattoos has been open just since mid-May, and he’s already booked pretty solid for tattoo work. Soon, he’ll launch art classes on Sundays, with levels from beginner to advanced. And he’s been invited to participate in the upcoming Paint Bangor event, where local artists will produce Bangor-centric works of art.
“People are starting to see my artwork, and it’s starting to spread very quickly,” Moore said. “They realize my vision, which is to put artwork on people. I really care about how permanent it is on them.”
Forecastle Tattoo is located at 65 State St. in Bangor. Visit ForecastleTattoo.com to learn more.