A Warrior for the Soul of Hayward 

While Cal State trustees yearned for a city of fat cats and hipsters, Matt Hamlet traded his SF fast life for the gritty Hayward of his youth.

Okay, so maybe the California State University trustees had a point when they voted last week to rebrand Cal State Hayward as Cal State East Bay. Sure, campus enrollment is three thousand less than it ought to be. And the school raises a fraction of the funds its sister campuses pull in. The trustees can even plausibly attribute these problems to Hayward's rep as a hard-luck town of warehouses and working-class suburbs, as a campus administrator did in a recent Los Angeles Times story, and claim that renaming the campus could catch a little bit of that Berkeley cachet. But you know what? Fuck 'em. Fuck their six-figure salaries, their appointments to presidential commissions on youth violence, and their Chardonnay-and-cheese receptions with the governor. Fuck 'em all the way back to the law offices and wineries they came from. And don't think I've left you out, trustee Roberta Achtenberg. Fuck you, too.

Someone's gotta stand up for Hayward the way it is, not the way the trustees wish it could be: the Hayward that drinks too much, fixes cars in the front yard, and watches the world pass by from the stoop. And fortunately, that someone exists.

His name is Matt Hamlet. He has seen the tony world of the Financial District, power lunches, and broadband technology -- all the glory "CSU East Bay" administrators covet. And he has chucked it all in the trash to come back to the hometown he loves -- even if some in Hayward wish he hadn't.

Russell City Tattoo and Piercing isn't exactly the sort of business Hayward's civic leaders would like to occupy the corner of C Street and Mission Boulevard, right in the heart of downtown. But then again, neither is the pawnshop on the first floor. A useless pool table missing its velvet surface and, for that matter, balls and cue sticks, confronts customers as they walk up the stairs. White kids adorned with ink and studs fiddle with their piercing tools on the couch or slouch against the glass countertop, waiting for their next appointment. As the Pet Shop Boys play on the radio, Hamlet wanders past the corrugated tin partitions that separate the tattoo cubicles and shows off his home, a brick loft behind the parlor. Hamlet owns property in Montclair, but living behind the store is just more convenient. The less time spent on the road, he says, the more time to drink beer after work.

Matt Hamlet was born and raised in Hayward -- "the crank capital of the United States," he jokes -- where he attended public school and bounced around Chabot College. He financed his education by tattooing people, and matriculated through UC Extension and finally UC Berkeley, where he majored first in fine arts and then settled on architecture. But Berkeley appealed to Hamlet only so far; the touristy feel of Telegraph Avenue was too much for him, he says, and the tattoo shops he found there were filled with hipster snobs. "They have a 'you're not as cool as I am' attitude," he says. "We just like the tattoos; we just want to create some good art."

Pushed by his mother to make something of his life, Hamlet secured a two-year internship at a downtown San Francisco architecture firm. He married his girlfriend, who worked for an escrow business, and became a successful real-estate speculator, buying property in Oakland and Las Vegas. Eventually, he would work as a staff architect for Gensler Architecture Design and Planning. He commuted to the Financial District, wore a suit, and drew a serious salary.

But something never felt quite right. Hamlet couldn't take the gray-flannel suit life, and never felt at home in the world of high-rises and the metropolis. He was a Hayward boy, and he just wanted to ink for a living. After five years, Hamlet quit architecture for good. He is still proud of the work he did, but that life is gone. "I did a lot of stuff," he recalls. "You know Zhone Technologies, the building across the street from the Coliseum? I did Building Three on that. ... It was really cool. I get calls asking me to come back. But I'm just not a suit-and-tie kind of guy. I like staying up till two in the morning drawing."

In August, Hamlet opened his shop and named it after Russell City, the old unincorporated stretch of Hayward that used to be dotted with juke joints and blues clubs in the war years. He's 32, short and compact underneath the black hoodie that covers the tats on his arms and chest. As his staff of sleepy-eyed white boys finger their lip piercings or flip through portfolios, he twitches and fiddles with a bag of Doritos. The Hayward city fathers may love Russell City for the yuppie customers their eponymous blues festival draws in every July 4 weekend, but Hamlet says that when it came to his tattoo parlor, they did everything they could to keep this local boy from making good.

"The Chamber of Commerce fought me," he says. "The feeling I got was they felt as though we would be detrimental to the downtown. We would bring a bad element, cause a bad element, and probably rape their children. Burn their crops. I don't know." A chamber representative declined to be quoted, but denied opposing the tattoo shop. In any case, Hamlet claims that whatever opposition he encountered just fed the punk-rock contrarian in him, and he determined to open his shop, if only to spite the uptight jerks who tried to keep him out.

After getting a taste of the larger world, Hamlet has come back home, to his mother's chagrin. "My mom, I swear she was Jewish, 'cause she does guilt so well," he jokes. "She introduces me as, 'This is my son Matt, he used to be an architect, now he's a tattooist.'"

The view from Russell City Tattoo encompasses the new City Hall, the Albertsons, and a multistory parking garage currently under construction -- the downtown Hayward of the future. Hamlet stalks over to the window, stabs a finger at the garage, and snarls that this is how the city is losing its soul. There used to be a line of beautiful old Victorians there, he says, but the city ripped them out in its quest to build a new Hayward, one that looks just like every other suburb in the greater East Bay. Hayward is neck-deep in history -- history that includes Hamlet and his childhood friends. But Hamlet says that everyone, even the Cal State University system, seems to regard this history as something to be ashamed of.

"Hayward needs to decide its path," he says. "Which do they want to be? Do they want to be a hip, cultural town, or do they do they want to be a whitewashed, whitebread, white town? Hayward's becoming Walnut Creek. I don't want to live in Walnut Creek. I want to walk down the street and see some classic buildings, some rundown buildings."

Matt Hamlet has seen the kind of community the city council and the starry-eyed officials who run the college want Hayward to be, and he has decided it's not for him. CSU East Bay may court tech money by pretending not to be surrounded by proletarian schmos; meanwhile, Hamlet will stick around and stink up the joint. He's the man who says yes to the real Hayward, even when everyone else is saying no.

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