I don’t think this interview with Matt “Manface” McCormick needs much by way of introduction, but I do want to drop in a few things about the 28 year old artist that might surprise you: He’s a pretty big book nerd whose favorite book is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (he’s also the one responsible for my very favorite tattoo, a heart with a banner that says BOOKS in it), he’s a classically trained ballet dancer, and he was playing Sting throughout the duration of this hour long interview. (One of those things isn’t true, but it’s definitely not the thing about Sting. Dude fucking LOVES Sting).
Here’s the interview:
So Matt, let’s start from the very beginning. Little Matt McCormick
Oh very very beginning, ok.
Were you always an artistic kid? Were you always drawing from young memory?
My dad’s a painter and always made a living as a painter and my mom’s a photographer so I grew up in an artistic household so it was always around. I grew up in my dad’s studio for the first bunch of years. We lived in Pacifica, which is near San Francisco, until I was about five, but he had a big studio down in the Dogpatch area of San Francisco, which is now really nice…
Yeah it was closer to Hunter’s Point but it was like this huge studio and my earliest memories were of being in that studio. My mom had her darkroom in the front and then a big office room and then this massive, he did backdrops for a little while until I was like maybe 10.
Backdrops for what?
Television, photo shoots, he’d have these break deals with photographers sometimes like if they were shooting, like he’d make backdrops for like the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. So he’d do this cool photo of them on a backdrop. Like the night before I was born they had gotten backstage passes to a Grateful Dead show because of a backdrop trade. My mom was there and she left the show to go to the hospital.
Do you like the Grateful Dead?
I love them.
That’s good, it’d be weird if you hated them.
I wasn’t that crazy about them for high school and childhood like with most of the music because I was rebelling. I didn’t like The Beatles and all that shit because I grew up on it, but now that’s all I listen to. Like Neil Young everyday.
Did you take art classes as a child? Or did you do art because you were around it all the time?
I always did art in school and in high school there was this class were you could trade one of your day time classes, so one class you took everyday you could trade it for this one night class called “The Artist Voice” from like 6-9 pm. Basically it was just an excuse to hang out with girls and like, do art. I was cool with my art teacher so I just kind of fucked around. But I did a lot of stuff, like I went back to the class a couple years after and there was still all these drawings on the ceilings and the walls that I had done. She let me paint a bunch of the panels on the ceilings.
Wow, that’s some San Francisco shit.
Haha. Well, Marin County. We moved from Pacifica to Marin when I started school. Then my dad eventually got rid of the studio in the city and built a studio in our house. He remodeled the whole house and made this massive studio on the roof. You could see the city and all of Marin and shit. It’s on top of this big hill so it was pretty ideal, especially for him because he’s a landscape California contemporary painter.
Did you graduate high school?
I did graduate high school. By the end of high school I only had four classes a day because I took that art class, then I took art classes in college at the College of Marin. So I would get out at lunch time everyday then I’d just go to Tower Records and read magazines for a couple of hours then go smoke weed or some shit.
Did you go to college?
I moved to Seattle for a couple of years, telling my parents I was going to go to junior college or some shit, but I just partied and fucking hung out. I did art. I had an art show up there with my friend Kyle. We put together a show and I used to do a lot of portraits of friends but I was still really partying a lot. I came back to San Francisco and went to the city college for a year and a half and I did well in the beginning and then I stopped giving a shit and I don’t know if I dropped out or just stopped going but the semester ended and I stopped. But then I went to New York to visit a bunch of friends and my brother and I fell in love with New York and I was like “All right i’m moving back here.” I did an art show in San Francisco on Haight Street and it was all portraits of friends and Haight Street icons like rockers and shit like that. So I sold a bunch of that and took the money and moved to New York and then lived there for a long time.
Would you say your style when you were younger like, 18/19/20, is similar to your style now or did it change kind of drastically?
It’s just grown a lot. As far as fine art goes it’s a lot different, but all the Cholo stuff that I do, I like to tattoo and I do that stuff because I love that stuff, I don’t think theres a future in that for me in a fine art sense, but I grew up loving that shit so I always did that kind of stuff. There were definitely hits of examples of that early on. But I love doing portraits, I do tons of faces and portraits and shit. I don’t really do that as much anymore but I love doing it.
How did you first get exposed to that cholo, gangster, (I don’t know what you’re supposed to call it) kind of art?
My mom’s from the central valley like Stockton, and I would go out there and my cousin was kind of a white chola girl and she was into that shit. I started really paying attention to that style and that’s why when I decided I wanted to get a tattoo, I loved those black and grey cholo tattoos…
How old were you when you got your first tattoo?
What was it?
A fucking bike spoke on my arm, because I rode a lot of BMX bikes when I was a kid, so I had my whole crew of friends and that’s what we all did so we all got the tattoos on our arms. So yeah that’s kind of where that came from and I was always really into it and I slowly learned. You grow up in California and see that shit.
Yeah. But you don’t really incorporate that into your fine art?
No. For me that’s just something I really love but one, I’m not actually Mexican so I don’t feel like I really have the right to sell that as me. But I give a lot of respect to the culture, that’s why I try to respect the culture. I won’t tattoo any Aztec written stuff or Mayan or anything really Mexican related. I try to keep it more American Chicano and stuff that I was actually raised around. More of the dog-town surfer, cholo culture is more realistic to me.
So you lived in New York for several years and you were doing art while you were there as well.
Yeah I was doing art and I started tattooing a little bit while I was up there. I worked at a nightclub for five years so that lifestyle really took over.
What made you decide to move away from New York back to LA?
Well I would come to LA all the time. By the end of living in New York I would come to LA every three months to visit and I guess part of me really missed California but also my partying habits were too out of control out there and I was doing a lot of drugs and getting pretty dark. So I just kind of hit the wall and was like “All right I need to do something because this isn’t going to work out.” Or, this won’t be good if I keep on this path. One of my friends was like “Dude you’re not going to be happy if you continue like this.” So that resonated and I had a trip to come home and see my parents in San Francisco and I just packed up my whole apartment, at least what I could take. Then just moved over night. And I came home for three weeks then went to LA for a month and a half then back to New York to film a movie that my friend was making.
You acted in it?
I acted in a movie.
Is this movie readily viewable?
Sam Hayes (the director) and Gia Coppola are going to be coming out here for a premiere of one of her films then that film I think in June.
Do you have a big part? Like a speaking one, with lots of speaking?
Yeah they took the storyline of Tortilla Flats and reworked it to be about three white guys in upstate New York, kind of in a timeless time. And if you know the book, there’s a main guy, and then his two friends he gets into all this stuff with, and I played one of the two friends. I don’t think I initially was supposed to have all these speaking parts, but I was really method acting. In the story they are a bunch of winos and drunks so I was drunk the whole time. It was a continuation on the self-destructive path; I continued that for a while but finally cleaned up my act.
Do you think you would do more acting? Did you like it?
I think I’m too tattooed to be an actor. I don’t want to play like prisoners and shit. But it was fun, I had a lot of fun doing it. I’ve done a film with him before. A short we had done two years or a year before that with that chick Paz De La Huerta. It was a bunch of us, we did that, yeah I don’t know. If things come up i’m not opposed to it, I guess it’s got to be right. It’s not something I’m actively searching to do.
So when you moved back to LA after cleaning up your act at some point.
I cleaned up my act a couple years after haha.
You were traveling a lot when you first came here right?
Yeah well I worked on Fairfax for like a year, at The Hundreds of all places. My friend Alex (aka Alexander Spit) worked there and he was like, “Yo I’m leaving so you can just take my spot.” So it was a guaranteed job and I worked there and then I had spoken to our other friend Brick (Stowell) who was tour managing for Odd Future and Tyler, the Creator and all those guys at the time and he kind of was like “Yo I’d love to bring you on the road with us.” So I kind of put in some time in Fairfax until he found a position for me with them.
What were you doing?
I was just co-tour managing with him. And what it actually was I had helped designed the stage for Tyler’s first tour where we basically just recreated his first album cover. And yeah I started doing that which is awesome. I got to travel the world. They covered everything, I got to see a lot in a short time.
Do you think any of that traveling had any impact on any of your art? You were saying most of your influence came when you were living in New York…
I had a lot of friends who were working artists out there and a lot of friends who were involved in galleries and that kind of stuff, and I kind of immersed myself in that world and took it upon myself to learn about art history. My dad taught me about the masters and all that stuff when I was younger but I was really interested in more contemporary stuff so I just kind of went to tons of museums and bought tons of fucking books and found what I really like and for me I got really into people like Richard Prince and Rauschenberg and all these kind of people from the late 40s and 50s and 60s, kind of more abstract, different stuff, and so I try to take a little bit of that. Obviously I paint and illustrate tangible things where you’re like “that’s that” but I’m slowly trying to make things more abstract. I’d love to make more abstract work but I can’t come and do that. I want to work my way more into abstract or stuff along those lines. But at the same time I do whatever just comes to me, not to sound cheesy and generic. A lot of stuff of I’ve been doing are kind of dream-state memory paintings, memories where I will pick a story from my past and put a bunch of pieces or shots or flashes from my memory and paint stuff from those kind of stories. But then I leave it kind of ambiguous so that someone can create whatever story they want from it.
So you when you say stories from your past do you mean actual stories that you lived through or stories and narratives that you remember?
Yeah it’s a lot of stuff from time between when I left home. From when I lived in Seattle and New York and when I was on the road, different things. And a lot of the new stuff i’ve been doing is very Western themed, kind of more when I mentioned the dream-state because I guess from a lot of the music I grew up listening to there is an obsession with Western culture. Obviously I’m not a cowboy, but I like the whole idea of the Cowboy and the Southwest. I like the imagery.
What is it about it? The freedom?
Yeah the freedom and just the raw lifestyle of making everything from what you have around you. So I try to create art from whatever I can acquire easily.
Like living off the land, or art-ing off the land.
Yeah! Art-ing off the land, definitely.
Do you find your art changed in any way from when you were partying to when you got sober?
Yeah, it got better (laughs).
In what way?
I actually focused and tried. That’s a thing I think a lot of people get scared of. Like “Oh so much of my music and art was based on when I was fucked up and I did it when I was high” or whatever and I didn’t really do that. I kind of did it, but it was cheap and crap and it wasn’t focused. When I first got sober I just sat. I went to my parents for four months and I just sat in a room drawing all day until I got better until now when I can actually come up with an idea and put down a story or a whatever to explain what i’m trying to tell. I couldn’t do that before. Before I was just looking at images and copying images of something I like, so there wasn’t any depth to it it was just flat, where as now I feel like i’m becoming more. I don’t think i’m nearly at where I eventually want to be at. I don’t think you hit your strive until you’re in your 40s.
You have to live.
Yeah there’s a lot more stuff I need to experience.
Do you find that when people are getting fucked up it’s more escapism but when you’re not you can actually tap into your real self?
I don’t think it’s for everyone but I think for me it is like that. I’m sure it’s more of a struggle with musicians, I have a lot of friends who play music and are in that transition and they’re really scared they won’t be able to produce the same work. But for me, I’m able to think now. I was so bogged down with worrying about being at the “cool” party and seeing people. I went from having to go out every single night and seeing so many people to now just being at home all the time.
Yeah it’s also just growing up as well.
Yeah that’s definitely part of it.
When would you say you took the tattooing thing more seriously? Because it sounds like you were dabbling in it every since you were living in New York when you were starting to tattoo friends and stuff but now you’re really sought after and people make appointments in advance and this and that.
I started doing it in New York and I got it in my head that I want to do it. It started out with my friend saying “you should do tattoos” because I always loved getting tattooed and all that stuff so I bought everything and started fucking around with it and then I sort of fell off. Then in a moment of clarity I wanted to do it even more so I kind of approached trying to get an apprenticeship. I didn’t have the means to work for free anymore for a long time and pay for my life and also learn, and so I wasn’t getting anyone that was offering like a real apprenticeship so it was pretty discouraging at first, so I kind of did it more and more. I had all these security guards that I worked with at the club so I would tattoo them and started doing that.
Then I came out here and I started tattooing kids from around Fairfax, and I actually cleaned up and started tattooing all the musicians I was working with and they would post it on the internet and people would kind of get at me. And then I got back from a tour and I already had a space out here I was painting and drawing and working out of and I put on the internet that I was going to take appointments and I got booked for two months right off the bat so then I just started doing that and I started paying for things. I had this moment where I was like – all right I can go back and continue touring or I can follow my dream.
As cheesy as it sounds I was really stuck, like “What do I do? I don’t know” and I just went with it and it’s been fine. Every time I have doubts about it something happens where it’s like, oh you should be doing this, whether it’s fine arts or when something comes up, whether it’s a job or someone asks me to design something for them or getting more tattoo appointments or some kind of praise, something always comes along that keeps me going. And now it’s like I’ve made friends in the tattoo world and I have been able to network with people and go travel and work in shops all over and it’s a lot less discouraging. It’s cool, you open up the world and it’s really awesome. What’s awesome about that is I can do that as job but to me it just feels like the same thing as if i’m just drawing everyday.
It’s still art.
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of negativity in the art world as tattooing being the low-brow medium and I understand it to an extent but I feel like there’s a lot of people pushing the envelope with doing different stuff and not the same things you see everyday and in the end of the day you’re still working with a medium and creating imagery. Yeah if you’re just copying designs everyone’s seen I guess that’s a little less but all artists kind of copy, it’s all one in the same.
Do you find it difficult at all to balance doing the tattooing because people really want you to do it all the time there’s need with spending time focusing on your fine art and the work in on that?
I mean that’s why I don’t really have much of social life as I once had but that’s what I want. I kind of just stay here. And that’s the cool thing about having my own private studio and tattoo space, I can kind of do it when I want to do it. When I go somewhere to tattoo, yeah i’m booked and i’m tattooing all day and i’m not doing much of anything else but when i’m home in LA, or now I just got a studio in New York, I’ll have more time to do that stuff and I live where I work so i’ll do a tattoo for a couple hours and they’ll leave and i’ll walk back in my room work on a painting, I can jump between. It’s kind of combined into one work space. I think if I was lazier and didn’t have to do it I would get caught up but yeah it all blends into one.
Can you speak a little now to the work you created for this group show in New York?
I took from these kind of simple charcoal drawings I’ve been doing, like the Western stuff, and then including quotes that I find that kind of create a story line, these broken hearted story lines and stuff like that. A lot of Neil Young influence. What’s cool is that people will then ask me to tattoo those kind of images now and I love doing those because you don’t see tattoos that really look like that that often. So yeah, this stuff goes back to that dream state and cowboy kind of stuff that represents this kind of idealized lifestyle of what I mentioned earlier. The pieces in my last art show were all charcoal drawings on roughed up paper, and then the one in New York there are canvasses and there’s some actual story painting with water colors, and then there are some simple cigarette paintings that all kind of blend into each other and it’s like a reality-to-memories-to-dream-state story. I’m really trying to create a story line.
What else do you have coming up?
I’m talking to a friend, Othello Garbaccio, about doing a two man show in New York later this year. I’m setting up the studio in New York so I can go and work up there.
Have the bi-coastal cowboy life?
Yeah it’s been my dream forever. So just doing that. It’s really hard for me to plan super far in advance because I don’t know where I want to be as far as traveling and that kind of stuff so I try to keep it really open. But yeah, I just like sitting in here and painting and shit. Whenever the right offers come along or opportunities I like to jump on those if they fit. That’s kind of what’s coming up…