You Are Beautiful: The Matthew Hoffman Interview

Words by Matthew Vanatta

The history of street art is drenched in lore and legacy. Like many art forms, street art has its masters and has transcended its humble beginnings and become something that has seeped into the mainstream leaving an undeniable mark on modern art.

Street art throughout the 1980’s was most widely associated with the large vivid pieces that were part of every major urban environment, most noticeably New York City where writing, bombing, and tagging everything in site was part of the culture. What developed was a number of crews and prominent writers that were taking their work to new heights both literally and figuratively.

Also during this era emerged a number of prominent artists that were finding success in both the street art and pop art world. These artists while making public art were also using their work to spread a social message, the most notable artist of this era is the highly revered Keith Haring, who while gaining critical acclaim was also creating large-scale street art that touched on important social issues such as the 1980’s drug epidemic and gay rights. These artists were using street art to shift the collective conscious, they had a message, and they knew that tucking their work inside of stuffy galleries wouldn’t give them the reach they desired.

Chicago’s Matthew Hoffman falls in this lineage, while Hoffman’s work is certainly street art it is less graffiti bravado and more social messaging. Hoffman is a visual artist and designer who started printing You Are Beautiful on stickers and sharing them in public spaces as a reminder to the residents of Chicago that even in this fast-paced digital world that they could stop for a brief moment and be reminded of their intrinsic beauty. Hoffman’s work has evolved into a number of public works including large-scale installations. He has been featured in the New York Times and Oprah and is work has been commissioned by large companies like Facebook and Apple.

Since its inception, Hoffman’s You Are Beautiful stickers project has sold more than 4 million stickers, as customers from across the world have participated in the project. He continues to work on large-scale art and design projects across the country and recently opened his own retail and creative agency space in Chicago. We caught up with Hoffman to talk about his humble Midwest beginnings, using art for positive messaging, and what it’s like to be approached by the Oprah.

Lead Photo: You Are Beautiful

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Ohio and lived there until I was in 6th grade and then we moved to Indiana, where I also went to college. Right after college, I moved to Chicago. Basically just moving to the next state over every time.

How did you initially get into art and design, was it something that was part of your household?

I was always a crafter and making things. I would say it was definitely more in the craft world. My aunt made ceramics so there was definitely a vibe that it was cool to make things. It didn’t really click with me until my senior year of high school though when I was forced to take an art class in order to get an honors diploma, which my Mom was adamant that I get. So I took a graphic arts class and I learned how to airbrush and how to take pictures and make prints. They had an Apple T3 and it was my first time learning how to use all of the software, that year really changed my life. I had originally applied for college undeclared and by the middle of that year, I knew I had to go to college for art.

My parents were super supportive, but my Dad encouraged me to get a degree that would allow me to get a job and so I got my degree in graphic design, which really served me well.

Photo: You Are Beautiful

Did any particular medium stand out to you at the time or did you always have a multidisciplinary approach to your work?

I think from that course that photography and being able to create things on the computer really stood out. However, in middle school, we had the trades classes like metal shop and woodworking and I love woodshop, and I made a lot of really practical things. When I went to college a lot of people thought I was a sculpture major because I was making a lot of sculptures and doing a lot of installations. It was sort of what allowed me to combine my love of woodworking and graphic design together.

What was the next step after college did you hop into a fulltime job right away?

I was still living in Indiana but was looking to move to Chicago. I answered an advertisement in the paper for a publications firm on the North Side of Chicago, and I ended up getting the job. I was there for 11 years and it was really my only job. I was working with great people in a great environment, but the work itself was a little dull, so I would use my creative energy on nights and weekends and that’s how I started working on all of these other projects.

It worked out really well in the beginning because I was able to fund it before it started generating its own revenue. Then I eventually transitioned into working on my projects full time. And now we have a small team and are moving into our own space.

Photo: You Are Beautiful

I feel like that’s a common theme for creative professionals, was it important to have a side project while working a less creatively fulfilling job?

Yeah, I feel like I wanted to creatively explore things on my own. Everyone that I work with now I hope that they have and I try to help nurture the side projects that they have going on. I try to make sure that everyone has time, energy, and money to work on their own side projects. Everyone on our team is really invested in what we are doing, but it’s important to have other outlets that are truly unique to each person’s individual expression.

Why did you choose to go to Chicago instead of Los Angeles or New York?

I like the Midwest. I like the people and the values and I always just wanted to move to Chicago. I remember seeing the skyline for the first time on a road trip from Indiana and my stomach just dropped, it’s just this amazing city in the middle of the Midwest and I liked the idea of being close to my family. Once I got here I realized it was the perfect city because you can just make whatever you want to make happen here happen. The cost of living here is accessible and there are a lot of opportunities here, there is a perfect balance here of access to what you need and the ability to find your own path.

Did you feel like you were able to plug into a creative community right of way or did you have to cultivate a community?

Well, I’m not the most social person so I didn’t necessarily fall into a community right away, but when I moved here in 2002 it was an amazing time for street and sticker art and I wanted to be a part of that. I was making my own stickers and there were a lot of other sticker artists around the world and we would send each other stickers and then document them with Flicker and art blogs to show that we were putting up their stickers in our own city. So I had this large community but it was a digital community not necessarily a local community.

Photo: Roger Spark

Why did you choose to use your art as a vehicle for positive messaging instead of using a graffiti moniker or defined characters like a lot of other street artists?

I guess for me I had moved from a small town to living in on my own in an urban environment that was filled with all of this noise and distraction and it was sort of overwhelming. So using my own experience I tried to create something that could possibly change the attitude of the people interacting with the art, I wanted to give something to the viewer as opposed to just focus on self-promotion.

Street art and graffiti can have a bit of machismo or a competitive vibe, did you experience any backlash from the street art community in terms of the positive messaging?

I don’t know what every single person’s reaction was but once I proved myself by continuing to evolve and do things in a bigger and more interesting way it really took hold. I also tried to keep it really anonymous for the first 7 or 8 years, and I really loved that because your ego isn’t a part of it and people can just enjoy the message. I think having pieces pop up without any way to track it back to the original source gave it a lot of power in the beginning.

Photo: You Are Beautiful

How did it evolve from being just stickers into large scale installations?

Well really since the beginning I was doing small-scale installations. I would make fridge magnets and just small things I could quickly put up, but they would get stolen or quickly disappear. So I started to make bigger things and those also quickly disappeared. So I was like well I better make these things giant so they are unstealable, so we started making letters out of 4 x 8 sheets of plywood. We went on a tour and put those pieces up in a few different locations including Chicago and in New York and LA. Those lasted over a year. So that’s where I really learned the lesson of scale. In the next month or so we will print the 5 millionth sticker so there’s scale in these tiny little stickers that can create this tiny little moment that’s personal tot eh viewer and then there’s also this scale of size that’s so big that you can’t ignore it. there’s something about both of those scales that is really interesting to me.

What inspired you to evolve out of anonymity?

Two things happened, as it was growing and I was meeting and collaborating with new people it just sort of organically became more and more publicly known that I was behind it. Then someone sort of inadvertently outed me, which wasn’t a huge outing but it was the first time someone had publicly linked me to the work. Shortly after that Oprah’s people reached out about doing a piece on the project, but they were very clear that it would have to be about the human story behind it and that it was a passion project. They felt it was important for people to understand that, so people could understand the intention behind it, that it wasn’t some advertising campaign or something. If the previous outing hasn’t already happened I would have turned it down, but since the cat was already out of the bag I agreed to do it.

Photo: You Are Beautiful

Did the Oprah appearance have a significant impact on your business?

(Laughs). Yes, a lot of people call it the Oprah cure. It was really great, but I wasn’t prepared. When it happened I only had a couple hundred stickers sitting on my shelf in my room and I didn’t really have a way that you could order and pay for shipping. I was using more of a suggested donation type of set up and the morning that it aired I actually had to take the site down because there were like six thousand of those order in the first few minutes. I had n way to reach out to all of these people and communicate that I wouldn’t be able to get them their stickers until I could figure out a way to get more printed. I feel like most of my life I’ve learned things the hard way and now we are prepared to handle those kinds of situations. There’s a lot of trust when buying something online so we worked hard to make sure that everyone has a positive experience so they don’t lose belief in the positive messaging behind the stickers.

What are you currently working on and what’s the future look like for the company?

My main goal is to get more positive messages out there. I feel like there are so many fences and so many walls in this world and that it’s a great opportunity for them to say something positive. Last year we ran a Kickstarter to help fund installation in every state, so right now we are working on those pieces and trying to work with local community groups or governments to find locations for the pieces. I don’t want these pieces to be so centralized as I think everyone deserves to have some positive messaging in their lives. We also just finally got our own space, which is our first official headquarters as before it was all run out of my garage. We will do everything there from making the actual pieces there to having a small gallery and retail space in the front. We are currently rehabbing it but I’m hoping it can become a space where there is a lot of collaborations and a lot of community building that takes place. We are hoping to be all moved in by early August.

Photo: You Are Beautiful

Awesome, where can people find out more about what you are doing?

They can check out my personal website, which is just they can check out some of my personal work that falls outside of the You Are Beautiful project. And they can check out the You Are Beautiful site to get stickers or check out what we are working on. Hopefully, in the next couple months, people will also be able to come by the storefront in the Avondale neighborhood in Chicago.

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