We are always here. We never get there. ‘There’ does not exist outside of illusion. ‘Here’ is never the same place. Life, like the art of Jonathan Matas, is always in process. Travel with us through his world of dreams and meditation manifesting itself on the street and in his studio art. From bombing along the Caltrain tracks while visiting the Bay Area as a teenager where one friend in his crew wrote the word “Hack”, to recently creating art inside of Facebook, the company that has embraced the culture of “hack,” here is Jonathan Matas.
We first noticed Jonathan’s work in the Mission on a building across from 780 Cafe and then again on my friend’s laptop. I wanted to know more about the man behind the amazing abstract letters that from afar make up a beautiful whole and up close look like individual pieces that don’t have reason other than to exist.
When did you start making street art? What was it that got you started?
I have been painting and drawing at least since I was a baby and I started doing graffiti in ’99, when I was about 15. It was the bombers that I saw getting up a lot in Seattle that inspired me at that time, especially from KYT and TITS crew. Also, at that time graffiti was still pretty connected to hip hop culture. I think that’s changed quite a bit, but I’m not totally sure. I’d go to a hip hop show and there would be graffiti writers drawing in each other’s blackbooks, MCs in ciphers and bboys and bgirls sessioning. Everybody was freestyling (improvising) in their art form at least a little bit or completely. That left a big impression.
I started a graffiti crew with my friend Matt Smith who was a freestyling genius with whatever his mind touched. He sadly passed away some years ago. Our crew was mostly doing traditional graffiti, but our crew was a little bit weird and experimental and did some stuff that would now be called ‘street art.’ We crushed Seattle quite a bit for awhile, writing a certain mathematical symbol representing infinity. (Not to be confused with some writers putting it up today).
One guy in my crew wrote “Consume Less, Live More” and the two of us printed out tons of little “Pro-Good” and “Anti-Bad” stickers. We each took stacks of one or the other and battled around the city to see who could put up the most. I’m now just realizing that I was starting to play with aspects of non-duality around that time.
I understand you have an art and design background? Can you elaborate on that a bit? Are you a full time commercial artist?
I went to art school in Vancouver, BC, where I spent more time and energy as a political activist on and off campus than doing schoolwork (but that’s another story). When I look back, I strongly feel that the art education I received in college was so sterile and left little lasting imprint when compared to the raw creativity, collaboration and talent that I was immersed in growing up in Seattle. The notion that art school is when you get away from your shitty high school scene and get to be yourself and meet other like-minded individuals feels very foreign to me. In high school, my closest friends were an eclectic mix of really talented graffiti writers, MCs, bboys and bgirls, skaters, punks, straight-edge anarchist vegan dumpster divers, jazz musicians, African drummers, Capoeiristas, and hyper-creative kleptomaniacs.
Yes, today I am blessed to be a full time artist doing what I truly love.
The first time I spotted your work it was on a friend’s laptop cover. The second time it was on a wall. What type of piece do you typically do? What mediums do you work in?
The laptop painting is a new thing, but it really makes sense. That’s a new canvas to explore. I’ve done three so far, the first being for Mark Zuckerberg (pictured above). I work in all kinds of media from little watercolors on paper to big walls with spray paint, house paint, enamel and what have you. I also love doing live painting/performance art and that’s an area I really want to explore further.
I hear that you have been a Facebook Artist in Residence. It has become somewhat of this mysterious thing in the street art community. We have artists saying they were in residence at Facebook who then later I found out were not officially and others who really were. It sounds like it is much more than popping into Facebook and hitting up a wall. Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved in that and what that actually entails?
I started as an artist in residence at Facebook a year ago, in January 2011. Mark Zuckerberg invited me to come in and do the wall that’s seen from his glass conference room and whatever other walls I wanted to paint. It was an amazingly open environment to be creative in and having art being created on the campus is really inspiring for people at work.
The artist in residence program was embryonic at the time, but it has become much more official at this point. When I started painting there it was just myself, SF artist Jet Martinez was doing a wall, and David Choe and DVS had just swept though and painted a bunch of stuff over a weekend. I can’t really speak to what the program entails today, but there is a guy named Drew Bennett who’s now curating it and he has widened its scope to include people making sculptures and more conceptual, interactive projects.
When you paint whole buildings do you work by yourself or collaborate with other artists?
These days I usually paint by myself. I love collaboration, but I also love working alone.
What is the biggest piece you have ever done?
I think my biggest piece is a big wall in Ithaca, New York that I called “On the Master’s Horse.” It was commissioned by the city to commemorate Ithaca’s Underground Railroad and Abolitionist history.
Where do you get your inspiration? Do you sketch out what will go up on a building before hand or do you just do it?
I’m constantly trying to plan,
Then watch my plan get overthrown by the beautiful demons of spontaneity.
Then I try being spontaneous,
Only to watch concepts of what I am doing begin to converge and decide they are a plan.
Then I plan to make a plan and abandon the plan as necessary,
You can see the contradictory nature of that.
Then I try neither planning nor not planning,
And realize I’m cornered in this conceptual box and that there is only one way out.
Every once in a while, I’m just making art. That is why I like being put on the spot, without any time to think about what I am doing or not doing.
Do you know what has been your most popular or longest running street piece?
I’m not really sure how to measure the popularity of a piece, but the longest running mural I can think of is on a coffeeshop called Trabant in Seattle’s University District. I did it in 2005 or so. I have some old trains and tags running around too.
This van by Jonathan resonates with a lot of people. It is the most submitted vehicle on our blog. Several people have sent in photos of this truck driving around San Francisco.
Is there a message you are trying to convey in your art? You tend to incorporate words and/or letterforms into your pieces. Do they have special meaning for each particular piece? When did you start working in this way?
Every piece is a bit different, since they are made in different moments with different intentions or lack of intentions, but there is an ongoing theme of non-duality, or not-two-ness in my art.
The first image I made by solely out of repeating words was a little more than a year ago. It was a ballpoint pen drawing with the word “dreaming.” The idea came from beginning to understand that dreams are nothing other than projections of one’s own mind. A so-called ‘dream character’ or any subject that the dreamer perceives to be externally-existing dissolves with a single moment of recognition that it is a projection of the mind. There is absolutely nothing keeping the dream going besides the next thought’s arising coupled with the unquestioning belief in it’s solidity.
When we see a drawing of a face made by layering the word ‘dreaming’, we immediately label it as a person and start coming up with all sorts of ideas about that person. Under examination though, that person dissolves into words, the words dissolve into letters, the letters dissolve into individual pen marks, the pen marks dissolve into their particular elements and so on, until we are down to the smallest scientifically recordable elementary particle. Even the smallest particle can be divided into parts. This kind of logic shows us that ultimately, there is no actual existence to the perceived person in the drawing. There’s not even any existence to the drawing whatsoever. At the same time, of course we can see a drawing, so it does exist. So the drawing is about the indivisibility between existence and non-existence. In Mahayana Buddhism, this is referred to as the “Two Truths,” which is the name of one of my pieces at Facebook HQ.
Much more than just some lofty conceptual art, creating these pieces is really a type of meditation practice that is helpful in letting go of taking day dreams and night dreams so seriously. When I am writing the word “dreaming” over and over again, I am reminding myself that this is only a dream. When I get lost in a daydream or a night dream and lose my presence, I tell myself I am dreaming.
I also like to make work that is beautiful and inspiring in some way regardless of whether my intended meaning is known to the viewer or not.
Do you have an upcoming project or show you want me to let people know about?
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