Matt Kerley hates you.
No, really. Matt Kerley hates you. It said so right on the pins and shirts that he’s had in his store. Personally, I found the man who creates such undeniably powerful artwork to be one really cool dude, and not once did he ever say he hated me (not within ear shot).
His illustration work is so… so god-damn bizarre! Kerley conjures up clean hard-hitting images, with such purpose and precise line work that they immediately grab hold of your brain and squeeze. And then, out of the corner of your eye, you notice some writing scrawled off on the side. After you read it, the text and image begin to meld, and what initially seemed to be just a bunch of random words suddenly makes sense. Almost immediately you get this rising feeling in your gut, like the floor has just dropped out from under you. Powerful stuff, from a super talented artist.
Kerley’s work in tattoos is just as astounding; go on and check out some of the examples below. In fact, why don’t we all head down there right now and get this interview started. Matt Kerley might hate you, but I bet when you get to the end of this interview you’ll come to the same conclusion that I did: Matt Kerley’s one really cool dude.
Actually, I moved back to North Carolina from Chicago. I lived in Brooklyn before Chicago though. I’ve bounced around and traveled for the last few years after leaving North Carolina initially. I lived in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and then Chicago. I wanted to move to the Asheville, NC because its quiet. I was just tired of the people and commotion of major cities. Also, I wanted to concentrate more on painting and drawing again. So I travel and tattoo on weekends to cities that are close to where I live.
While growing up, what was it about “art” that grabbed your attention? Were you aware at the time that this was something you would pursue for the rest of your life?
I’ve drawn ever since I can remember, really. My older brother was sick my whole life. So while we were in and out of hospitals I would always be given a pad of paper and pencils to draw to keep me occupied.
Drawing was the only thing that really got me any attention as an introverted weirdo kid. As a young kid I got into comic books and skateboard art. So my attention quickly became centered in the art of comic books. My earliest memories as a kid was sitting around my grandparents houses drawing Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, etc. The first art book I was ever given was “How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way”. That’s where I first learned proportions and foreshortening which I still use today. That and underground comics and cartoons at a very young age subconsciously honed my gnarly way of looking at art.
What steered you towards tattooing, and when did you start down that path?
In high school I use to go to the local newsstands when my mom went to the grocery store. Back then they had all the tattoo magazines in the porn section which was terrible. But luckily a good friend of mine got a job there. I was able to sit and look at all the tattoo magazines that I wanted.
In high school I would draw comics and tattoo inspired flash. All of it was pretty terrible really. When I graduated high school I still wanted to draw comics. So I got into the Joe Kubert school of Graphic Art in Dover, NJ. But last minute I changed my mind and went to East Carolina University to get a BFA in painting. I ended up getting a double BFA in Painting and Sculpture.
When I was in the art program, one of my instructors named Bill Dermody was apprenticing to be a tattooer. I had always wanted to get tattooed since I was 18 but was too intimidated by the shops in my area. So I never got one before I met Bill. Bill ended up doing my first few tattoos. Then I got tattooed at a few conventions and would enter tattoo flash into contest and won first place at the first few I entered. The owner of the shop offered me an apprenticeship while I was still in school. So by the time I was out of college I was tattooing full time.
I was pretty much at the right place at the right time really.
At times, your tattoo work brings to mind one of my favorite artists, Basil Wolverton, so I’m curious as to who some of your favorite artists were during your formative years.
That’s one of the biggest compliments you could ever give me. I love everything that Wolverton ever touched. He was way ahead of his time in every aspect.
Growing up I was inspired by old Jim Philips graphics, underground comics like Robert Crumb, and old cartoons like “The Brothers Grunt”. In college I was more inspired by contemporary sculptors and painters such as Basquiat, Henry Moore, David Smith, Rauschemberg, Bernini, Bosch, etc. But at the same time, I was reading Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes books, and listening to punk rock when Raymond Pettibon was on everything I’ve ever held dear.
When I graduated college and was studying the art of tattooing, I was introduced to artists such as Ed Hardy, Daniel Higgs, Dave Lum, and Jeff Rassier. All of which, on top of a fine art and punk rock background, have helped me develop the style I have now.
Your first book, “Cone, Sphere, Cube” was created while on the road when you toured the USA from one city to the next. How did your new book “Further, Farther, Further” come together?
Well I started “Cone, Sphere, Cube” when I was living in Philadelphia. I wasn’t able to paint tattoo flash where I was staying but I wanted to keep up with ideas I had. So I kept a moleskin of ink drawings that I could do in coffee shops and stuff. Eventually that became what is known as “Cone, Sphere, Cube”. ”Further, Farther Further” was made after I left Philadelphia, traveled a bit more around the US, and then completed when I lived in Brooklyn, NY.
These were more refined illustrations in the same Clowes/Pettibon style of ink and brush drawings.
I started to jot down little one liners of songs or quotes I could hear while I was drawing. To me, it was to solidify my environment I was in at that exact moment. To hopefully put the viewer in that moment that I was in when I drew that page.
I drew, laid out, and published both books on my own. I try to be as DIY as possible. I personally ship out every book, flash set, t-shirt etc that I sell. Both books are 100 pages of black and white illustrations. I’ve revisited some ideas in both books for paintings and tattoos.
Your work in pen and ink utilizes very powerful color choices, and you’ve mentioned using snippets of lyrics and quotes within each piece. To me, they function as a sort of narration over the piece itself; to be interpreted by each viewer in completely different ways. Do the drawings always come first, or have there been times where you had a phrase or description in your head before you even got started?
After I did both of the books I really liked how the wording seemed to help with the power of the image. I think it relates directly to my comic book background. A lot of times the phrases are very vague and ambiguous. I think it helps the viewer narrate the image in different ways depending on how they see the image and read the words.
Almost every time the illustration comes first. Then, while drawing, the phrase comes to mind while I’m thinking about whatever the image evokes in my head. Although, lately I’ve been doing the reverse: jotting down single sentences or ideas for phrases on scraps of paper, and then later adapting them to images in my head.
For me, I think of everything when I work on a piece. I think about the wording, the overall image layout, and the color theory. Everything is thought out while I’m working.
Are there any new artists out there today that you’re really digging?
In the last 10 years I have completely surrounded myself with artists of different kinds, and I’m lucky to take away pieces of each of them in some way. I’m part of the art collective Swamp Wizards and we encourage each other to develop each others work with critiques and gallery shows. And we’re just getting started! Its going to be a good year for the Swamp Wizards.
As far as tattooing goes I can see a very strong influence in a surreal or “Weirdo” art movement. My favorite tattooers are Daniel Higgs, Jeff Rassier, Josh Howard, Robert Ryan, Danny Reed, just to name a few. Each one, I feel like, comes from a similar background as me.
Every day I look at tattooers, illustrators, sculptors, comic artists, poets etc. Everything inspires or sparks a thought that can be used for something eventually.
I recently interviewed the artist Gorgeous George, and it sounded to me like you two are good friends. How did you guys get introduced?
George is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We first met at art school in early 2000s. We were both in the painting program together. I switched to concentrate on sculpture but we always stayed friends. In addition to art, we built Frankenstein rat rod bicycles together, and terrorized that small town we lived in. We were in bands together as well. He played bass and I played guitar in a honkytonk band and a couple of short lived punk bands.
He’s one of the best dudes I’ve ever known, and one of the most driven artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling a friend.
You just teamed up with Shirts and Destroy to release a line of your designs. How did this collaboration come together?
I’ve always been a huge fan of the label. When I was in school I was really into Doomriders and would buy their merch from Shirts & Destroy. And then when I was into tattoos I respected every artist that made shirts through that company.
When I lived in Brooklyn I would try and stop by the store front, but for whatever reason, it never worked out. I was either there too early or they were closed for whatever reason. So I was never able to meet Ryan and the other folks face to face. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I met Ryan via the interwebz. When Ryan sent me an email about doing shirts with them, I was extremely excited. In the last year or so I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with several companies that I’ve looked up to for a long time.
So what’s next in the pipeline? Are there any new products or appearances we should watch out for?
Yeah, there’s a lot of really great things in the works for the near future. There’s only a few things I can talk about right now though. I was just asked to draw the next pro deck for Peter Ramondetta. Hopefully that will be the gateway for other work with Deluxe in SF. I just got done doing some design work for Affliction clothing, Holy Mountain Printing, and True Black Clothing.
I’m going to be releasing my own line of shirts tentatively called Heart Drops Clothing Co.
I’m working on a third book. This one will be all of the color series I’ve been doing. The book will be called “The Damned” and it should be out early 2014. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a publisher this time around; it’s too much work for me at the moment to layout and publish everything on my own these days.
As far as tattooing, I’ll be doing a few conventions and traveling around the east coast mainly. I’ll probably be doing a month long westcoast trip too. Keep an eye out for tour dates everybody!
On Doom Cycle, every interview to date has ended with this question, so let’s keep the tradition going: If you could travel through time, where would you go?
That’s a tricky question. I want to say the ’50s so I could pick the brains of some very rad artists that I admire, or I’d say New York in the ’80s, so I could eat trash can burgers with Basquiat, see Danzig sing with the Misfits, and punch Rollins in the dick, all in the same day. I’ll go with option B: the ’80s.
If I could, I’d like to do a quick list of thank yous.
Absolutely, Matt. Go right on ahead.
I’d like to thank anyone and everyone that purchases a book, painting, print, or t-shirt from me. Also, anyone that gets tattooed by me. Without you, I wouldn’t be able to travel and live my life as I do, and I am forever grateful.
Everyone at every tattoo shop that has ever let me do a guest spot, or bought me dinner, took me into their homes, or gave me a bed to sleep on while I was traveling. The overwhelming human kindness made me realize that not everyone is a bag of shit.
I’d like to thank Danny at Holy Mountain Printing for always being a good dude. Everyone at Seventh Dagger for helping me get started on design work.
Lastly, Thanks to the Swamp Wizards for being my brothers.
Thanks a bunch, Matt, for taking the time out of your schedule to speak with me here on Doom Cycle. Most of us only know an artist through their work, so when an opportunity comes along to hear from the artist themselves, it’s really damn cool! Thanks again, Matt! You rock!