By Meredith Guinness
It’s a long way from the train yards of the South Bronx to the galleries of Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, even Brooklyn. But one man has gone the distance, in an art form that is at once sophisticated, nuanced – and in your face.
Born in 1961, John “Crash” Matos started spray-painting subway cars in the Metropolitan Transit Authority rail yards near his home in the Betances Housing Project when he was just 13. Then he was doing it for sheer fun – and for the danger. Remember: It was still a few years before Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started by spray-painting his tag, SAMO, on buildings in lower Manhattan, would become the darling of the 1980s art world.
“I didn’t realize that graffiti would be the center of my life until about 1978,” said Matos, who took his nickname from a computer glitch in school. “That was when I started to realize that there was more to graffiti than I had originally thought.”
Quite a bit more, in fact. “People would say graffiti started as vandalism,” said Dr. Diana Mille, director of Fairfield’s Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery, which presented a retrospective of Matos’ work in February. “But it’s really public art. It was about the artists making their names, their tags. It was about getting art out of the gallery and into the street, to show that art could be public. It could be anywhere.”
Matos’ art became so popular that it found its way from the street back into the gallery. His bright and expressive work is at home in some of the world’s top museums and art spaces.
And over the years it has made a natural progression from subway car to canvas to hand-painted pottery and even guitars. In 1996, Matos presented legendary guitarist Eric Clapton with the first of his “Crashocasters,” Fender Stratocasters hand-painted by the artist. Clapton was so taken by the gift he used the instrument on his 2001 tour and has gladly accepted four more. Fender Musical Instruments later commissioned a line of 50 Crashocasters, which also caught the eye of former Fairfield resident and Grammy winner John Mayer.
Shortly before the Walsh retrospective opened in late January, Matos met with five teenagers from Bridgeport’s Central and Bassick high schools. Together, the students and the down-to-earth artist created a collaborative mural to serve as a cornerstone of the exhibition.
“This was a unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these students who are thinking of pursuing careers in the arts,” said Dr. Mille. “To work with an artist of such repute so closely, to see what it means to be an artist? That’s invaluable.”
The timing of the retrospective was perfect for Fairfield. The University has three areas of focus for the academic year, two of which center on activism and Latin America. “Graffiti is a form of activism,” said Dr. Mille, “and is definitely within the multicultural frame.” To that end, several art professors and Meredith Marquez of the Office of Student Diversity encouraged art students and peer mentors to attend the opening with their friends.
The exhibition meant even more to one student – Matos’ daughter, Anna Matos ’11. Growing up, Anna spent many days entertaining herself with pastels and canvas in a corner of her dad’s studio, while he listened to music and created his massive works. For her, the exhibition was “a big photo album of my childhood.
“You can call him ‘a street kid who got lucky,'” she said of her father, “but I have always seen my dad as someone who had a vision and went with it – regardless of where he came from or how he did it.”
Questions for “Crash”
When you start in an art form like graffiti art that carries with it a certain level of danger and risk, what’s it like to work in a studio? Does it take away or add to your work that you’re not going to get “caught” anymore?
Studio work is very different from actually painting in a train yard. The amount of danger is obviously much less, and the amount of stress in being caught is gone. It actually has made growth of the art form accelerate.
What are your thoughts on graffiti as art vs. graffiti as vandalism?
Graffiti belongs in the streets, and what I am doing now is really not graffiti, but an art form that derives from graffiti.
Have you ever had a ‘day job’ to support your art? If so, what sorts of things have you done?
I have had day jobs to support my work, from working in restaurants, to working as a day or evening dispatcher for a tow company, eventually going out on calls. Work is work.