The Boom Box Guy: Meet Jon Hatton of Rock City Thumps
August 20-26, 2018
By Becca Bona
If you ask Jon Hatton where he got the idea to create outside-of-the-box speakers – quite literally, speakers housed in suitcases, books and the like – he’ll tell you the idea wasn’t originally his. However, growing up in an artistic household, Hatton’s moniker as maker would lead to what he calls a “happy accident” of a career.
An artist’s beginnings
Hatton, a Central Arkansas native, grew up surrounded by tools and art materials. “I grew up in an art household,” he explains. “My mother is an art teacher, has been my entire life, and my father has been a woodworker – he can do anything. My dad is my rock, he can make anything out of anything and can fix anything.”
As a child, Hatton had constant access to strange materials, tools to tinker with, and a mess of creativity to string it all together. “I was able to get out there and tinker just to see what I could figure out,” he remembers.
And, throughout his life, Hatton would continually find a way to express himself. His mother, a muralist, got him into painting. When TOMS shoes first hit stores – the brand known for donating a pair for every pair bought – Hatton found himself painting a pair at a release party in Knoxville, Tenn.
“I was painting a set for myself,” he says, “and someone hired me on the spot to paint a pair for them.” He was content painting TOMS for quite some time, but eventually grew tired of the grind – as it took up to eight hours per set.
He needed something more to match his creative drive.
“Right before I started making the speakers, I got involved with Youth Home’s Eggshibition,” he remembers. For over 20 years, Youth Home’s Eggshibition has raised money to help fund the private non-profit mental health provider. The premise of the silent and live auction that occur during the event include eggs designed by participating artists.
“They give you this egg and they just say change it – that’s the only rule,” says Hatton. “It was an opportunity for me to push beyond the art that I knew.”
He got more and more elaborate with each egg, teaching himself to sculpt and eventually winning first prize four years in a row. His winning eggs were intricate and often involved movement, as he says, “The first year that I won, my egg blew smoke. Steam punk is my thing, so I made this egg that blew steam out of itself and it was copper and metal.”
Eventually, Hatton would switch his steam punk aesthetic over to speakers, albeit due to an unfortunate injury.
From artist to Boom Box Guy
Hatton first got the idea of speakers residing in unlikely places in California. While there, he discovered a vendor selling suitcases with speakers inside them. “I saw this really cool suitcase speaker and it was $1200, and I wanted one,” he remembers, “but I couldn’t ever afford it.” He held that thought in the back of his mind, thinking of an old suitcase he had on hand that would perfectly house a speaker.
Later he began working for a company building furniture, and one day, he injured his finger on the table saw.
“I had this big fat, chubby bandage on the end of my finger that I had to have there for seven months,” he recalls. “But I still needed something to do with my hands, so while I was sitting in front of my TV […] I thought to myself, I’m going to try to make one of those speakers.”
He did some research and tossed one together.
“[That first one] was not awesome,” he says, laughing, “it was not Bluetooth, but I took it to a party with me and everybody wanted to know where I got it.”
At that point, he realized he was onto something. Thus, he set out to make more. Over the years he’s gone in different directions and refined his processes.
“I started with luggage pieces and began selling them and it was really awesome, but I got kind of tired of doing the same old thing. I like to branch out, so I started making some of my own wooden boxes and putting speakers in other open pieces.”
For Hatton, creating a speaker isn’t just about quality of sound – he also aims to make something different and unique – something that tells a story.
“If it’s got open air space I’ll teach it how to sing,” he says. “If it has a cool space for a speaker then I will try to put a speaker in it and make it into functional art.”
Hatton soon discovered wooden enclosures were the best for sound quality, and begin to utilize the laser cutters at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub.
“They had laser cutters and 3D printers. Before that I used a jigsaw and cut really rough holes in my stuff. It took me forever to make my pieces, but then I got introduced to the laser cutter, and was able to cut perfect holes in perfect space.”
The new tools and technology afforded Hatton to take his work to the next level. A year and a half ago, he was even able to buy his own, which opened even more doors.
“Now I’m able to, if at 2 o’clock in the morning I get an idea, just go with it,” he says. He has crafted speakers with art deco designs, as well as replicated a tile pattern that inspired him in his grandmother’s house.
“I’m truly inspired by shapes,” he explains.
He also recently began crafting speakers out of books, saying, “It’s made in a way where it looks like a book – you could slide it onto your book shelf.”
He’s had fun refining that process as well as taking custom orders. One thing remains true, however, each piece is one-of-a-kind.
“[E]ven if I do a run of ten units, every single unit is going to have its own personality or its own wood grain or its own flaws that only I know about,” he says.
Rock City Thumps: beyond the speakers
Hatton participates in many craft shows such as Handmade in the Heights and other various regional craft shows. He also has items for sale at South Main Creative – an eclectic antique shop on South Main Street.
“Every customer facing business, it’s less about the item, and more about the interaction with the maker and the client,” he says. “[P]eople are not really buying your pieces, they’re buying parts of you.”
He’s recently branched out to offer smaller, fun gadgets at a lower price-range for fans. These items include hand-crafted mazes and themed wind-up music boxes. “I’m making them to try something new but to also be able to cater to an audience that doesn’t want to spend $150 on a piece,” he explains.
As far as Central Arkansas goes, Hatton is glad to call it home, and has high hopes for the future.
“I feel like there’s a low murmur of creativity happening and the more and more people that get involved with it – it gets louder,” he says. “There is so much happening here – if you look for it you’ll find it. Argenta and South Main – those are my favorite places.”
And while Hatton’s operation is still very small, he enjoys offering something a little different to Central Arkansas. Perhaps one day he’ll have a storefront, but in the meantime, he’ll continue to tinker and operate as The Boom Box Guy.
Finished Rock City Thumps pieces can be found at South Main Creative. Follow @RockCityThumps on Instagram to catch Hatton’s latest and updates. (Photos by Becca Bona and Courtesy of Rock City Thumps.)