John Matos is a pioneering graffiti writer who began his career as a graffiti artist in the early to mid 1970’s. Most know him as Crash, and he’s a living legend. We caught up with Crash in Singapore, where he was a guest at Culture Cartel, a street cultures indoor festival at the F1 Pit Lane and launching his collaboration with Stash on Casio’s G-Shock.
There’s no questioning the numbers. There’s the number of years he’s been painting (almost 50), the number of graffiti history books he’s in (all of them), or the number of notable collaborations he’s been a part of (innumerable: Kieth Harring, Hello Kitty, G-Shock, Eric Clapton…) But there’s one particular number we wanted to know more about, and that’s the number “one.”
Crash is known to write this number in his graffiti, with @crashone even being his Instagram username. And the fact is that different artists use the number to mean different things. Some use it to mean that they’re number one, others use it to state that they are some sort of lone-wolf, painting without a crew.
“Numbers have many meanings in graffiti. Tracy168 lived on 168th st” he says of another pioneer, and founder of WiLD STYLE. “Checker170 lived on 170th.” Crash added that the numbers also break up the design. “If you have a bunch of letters and you put a number in there, it becomes a style thing.”
“The reason I use ‘one’ is because I want everyone to know that I’m the only one. It’s like an ego thing.”Says Crash, 2019 at Culture Cartel
After bringing up the topic of lone-wolves, we began to talk about his early days and how he started out. It was such early days for the culture, so did he have someone who was teaching him?
“There’s always some kind of mentor-ship,” he recalls. “A young kid always tries to emulate a teenager. It’s ‘Oh, he’s cool!’ And maybe it just because he’s sixteen and I’m thirteen. So it was this one cat named kazoo143 who was in the building across the street from me,” he recalls, speaking of his childhood home in the Bronx projects. “I saw what he was doing and was like, ‘yo, what’s this?’ I was always doing drawings as a child, so I just put two and two together.”
So what about all those artists who have nobody in their life to engage with? There’s a whole wave of artists who get their influence from Instagram and social media, but aren’t involved in any crews.
“That’s our fault.” Admits Crash. “It started out you would learn with people, but then all of a sudden these books came out. [This guy’s] book and Martha Cooper’s book all about graff. So all these kids were like, ‘I can do that’ and head out to a wall and try it out.” It’s interesting how he saw all media as equal, not demonizing one over the other. “And now with internet, you could do a wall — or not even that — even a drawing on paper! Scan it it, draw it in photoshop.”
“They isolate themselves, which is strange because graffiti is very much community. You go painting with a crew or a bunch of guys and have a good time. When you go isolate yourself, it doesn’t do anything, you know? For you, yeah. But then what?”
Then what should artists who get stuck in that situation do? “Go to events like this,” he says referring to Culture Cartel.
Try to meet people and say ‘hey, you wanna do a wall together?’ It’s always about communication. You can tell each other ‘hey that style is really nice, those colors.’ Or ‘let’s do something else.’ And with that communication it keeps growing and expanding.Says Crash, 2019 at Culture Cartel
“There are always people who don’t wanna be involved. That’s on them. But in the long run, to work with other people is always better.”