John “Crash” Matos has arguably had the most success in the art world of any of the writers that came out of the 70s and 80s graffiti subculture. Getting his name after crashing a high school computer, Crash, a Bronx native, began writing at age 13. “I started drawing my name over and over and over on my notebooks and scraps of paper, then eventually doing small walls in my neighborhood… That’s what usually happens with graff.” He waited two years from the first drawing before painting his first train.
As early as 1979, he became interested in canvas painting and in 1982 focused the majority of his time on it. His first gallery show was in 1983 with Sidney Janis. These days Crash doesn’t call himself a graffiti writer, he said, “that belongs to the streets, I’m just an artist who started doing graff and carried it inside… nothing more, nothing less.” What he is doing now is an extension of graffiti, an art inspired by the streets, and with great success. Since his move indoors his worked hasn’t changed dramatically. Graffiti influences can be seen in the lettering he still employs, the graphic quality, and the fragmented imagery he uses, but his canvases have a new depth and more complex representation than earlier train pieces. Common elements in his work are: the use of stars to show reflected light; the eye, which he calls “a window to someone’s soul”; references to the streets or the subway; and bright, flashy colors. Looking at these foundations and Crash’s work today, it is easy to see he has never lost the upbeat playfulness of his youth.
As many writers have progressed to legal surfaces, one component has always stayed the same, the spray paint. Nearly all of Crash’s work, even today, utilizes the same medium he has used for decades. Working on canvas presents a challenge for many writers, one that Crash resolves beautifully. When he was writing on the trains, he had a large area in which to work, using bodily movements to cover large areas with paint at once. Canvas doesn’t allow for such dramatic movement and demands expertise to create a more tight composition. Despite Crash’s shift to legal surfaces, he is still able to show off his work on the streets. A “production” is a term for legal graffiti. There are often walls in local areas dedicated to graffiti murals. When working on a production Crash often paints with a graffiti crew called Tatscru, a group of guys who all painted illegally at one point.
Many writers kept with the themes and designs developed during the graffiti movement in the 70s and 80s and Crash has made a killing from it. He has released limited edition Fender “Crash-o-casters,” spray painted guitars frequently used by Eric Clapton and John Mayor. He also released limited edition luggage by Tumi, each case signed and numbered as if it were a work of art on the wall. The idea of graffiti on luggage is not unlike that of the graffiti on subways, but now, his work is traveling around the world in overhead storage bins. Since moving from the trains, his works have become commodities. Now, Crash can be collected by graffiti enthusiasts, museums, and even people who just need a way to transport clothes when traveling. When decades earlier the Metro Transit Authority was tirelessly trying to create ways to remove Crash’s art from the subway cars, now just about anyone can own a Crash work.