Fashion Profile: MNKR BRAND & Matt Fellows
There’s an old Nick Cave song which starts, “Take a little walk to the edge of town and go across the tracks, Where the viaduct looms like a bird of doom, As it shifts and cracks.” A great eerie tune and almost the exact directions you need to follow if you want to visit Matt Fellows, originator and creative powerhouse behind MNKR BRAND. Nestled secretly between Los Angeles’ Chinatown and Mission Junction, within an artist’s community in a reclaimed and re-purposed Pabst brewery lies the snug hidey hole of magical things where Matt Fellows’ cauldrons of creative genius never comes off the boil. MNKR (pronounced “Mon-i-ker”) BRAND is the brainchild and first love of Matt Fellows, a truly humble, sharp-witted, determined and devastatingly creative artist living in LA. You might describe his work as unique, singular, distinctive, sui generis, one-of-a-kind, inimitable, instantly recognizable and clearly honed by the edges of time, practice and practice and practice and practice in perfecting his lines, mistakes and lessons learned, and that pervasive, unmistakable, enormous and obvious love for his craft. In short, Matt Fellows makes one king-hell of a t-shirt.
Like his work Matt himself is instantly recognizable. Fellows has a shy smile, a genuine twinkle of pure creative spark in his eye and a mop of blonde tangles riding above his face each of which, like the many plants in his studio, seems possessed of an intelligence all its own. He greets me warmly in the standard issue L. A. uniform of black jeans, black Van’s sneakers, and black windbreaker with the Black Scraps Tattoo logo of his tattoo studio in high contrast Plastisol across the back. His tone is respectful, measured, clear. The same economy to his beautifully stark, minimalist images is present in his thoughts, his answers to the swarms of questions I pitch at him, and his manner. With Matt Fellows as with MNKR BRAND, economy of line is everything. There simply is no waste in real beauty nor in a craft mastered.
He holds up a smallish long-sleeve tee in athletic heather grey, the raglan style sleeves and stitching suggests it was minted around the late 1980s or early 1990s, the one-color blue print on the front is a re-jigged CND sign with text cunningly squeezed into the gaps between the bars of the symbol. Fellows made this, his first printed t-shirt, for a contest in his sixth grade class. The assignment was to print a t-shirt to learn something of the manufacturing process behind everyday things. Fellows made the assignment into a work of remix art and although it doesn’t hold a candle to his current work it shows the genesis of something raw, true and aching to be. Matt holds the shirt aloft on its hanger the way one imagines Theseus held that golden thread which led him through the Minotaur’s lair. This artifact is MNKR’s genesis moment, this is one of the stone tablets of Matt Fellows’ becoming a true Californian artist of respect, repute and full-bore righteousness.
Like any creative endeavor, all dues must be paid, on time and in full—there is no cheating the muse. If Matt Fellows’ grey CND remix t-shirt is the starting point for his immersion in fashion, art, illustration and the creative sub-cultures of California then the next fifteen years—yes buddy, that’s F-I-F-T-E-E-N, are ones of hard slog and tough lessons learned under the perpetual refinement of one’s craft whilst living in places where, in Matt’s own words, “Homeless guys would literally shit on your doorstep… and you really had to watch out for needles and things like that y’ know,” and then Matt smiles the wry smile of someone who knows more than a little of dues paid in service of the muse. Pursuing art is not always a choice, it’s often a calling which cannot be ignored (or ignored at your peril) and for Fellows this seems doubly true. He describes his fledgling steps as a designer, brand originator and t-shirt creator through first selling t-shirts to a few friends, then to one or two stores, living in a fifteen by fifteen foot shed which doubled as his t-shirt factory, his home and his design-school-of-hard-knocks. If slow and steady wins the race then this is the part of the story where everyone but the slow are hitting their straps. Matt describes surviving through years of a meager, zero-profit, hand-to-mouth existence and hanging on to the tail of muse with fingernails, teeth and toes.
“Graphics,” he says, “was the whole thing for me then,” and he put down his love of illustration—those same singular illustrations you know and love him for— in favor of, as he says, “How many ways I could re-work a logo.” But the things we love best and deepest always have a way of coming back to us and by 2003 MNKR BRAND was born and Matt’s great love of illustration had found its steady outlet and, finally, Matt Fellows’ enormous talent was hitting something closer to its contemporary professional stride.
I ask him candidly how SpectraUSA fits into this t-shirt making history. Equally candidly Matt shares a story of his love for printing his art on those early, iconic American Apparel t-shirts. “I loved those tees,” he says, despairing at the demise the legendary L. A. fashion phenomenon. “But somewhere around that second or third bankruptcy the quality just fell out of them and I was just getting so frustrated… Then I found Spectra at one of the trade shows… Vegas I think… and I was just blown away. It was that same American Apparel quality but not super-expensive. I could even put the price up on some items, even though the Spectra shirts I was buying were cheaper—the quality was that good.” It’s the kind of hype you hear from marketers all the time, but Matt isn’t spinning, he is nothing but his sincere, measured self. Like so many in the t-shirt printing game, he’s paid his dues on quality too it seems.
“That [Spectra] quality was, literally, a sigh of relief,” he adds, pointing out three critical points he watches for in a t-shirt: Cost; Quality; and the Tear-away tags of SpectraUSA’s flagship shirts like the 3100 Cotton Perfection, and the 8600 Ladies’ Club Crew, which first caught his eye and then began to ring his, and his customers’, collective bells. “Before, I was literally cutting out every single stitched-in tag from my shirts,“ he laughs at this now, but it’s that hollow gallows laughter of anyone who has felt themselves going blind by the midnight-oil whilst chopping away at stitched-in tags will recognize instantly. Lessons learned. Experience gained. Improvements made. Mastery in process.
Matt’s right hand shines tellingly in the cool grey afternoon light on this utterly miserable Los Angeles day. It is raining tuna and hubcaps outside from an angry black sky but there’s still enough light to clearly see the smooth, shiny footprint of a fresh tattoo just beneath his knuckles. Matt Fellows’ hands are his livelihood but they are also where some of his story is written, in permanent Stick ’n Poke tattoo ink. Like all his designs even these minimal, simple, inked-in moments are brimming with humor and ingenuity. Like their owner they are slightly shy and self-effacing. You have to pay attention to these little details or you will miss them. Like so much of his life, Matt’s story rises up from his hands, from the earliest human drive to not only tell a story, but to illustrate it, and illustrate it well for others. Say what you will about the art of tattooing, take whatever moral position you must, but the evolutionary leap from cave paintings to body art—from writing a story to taking it with us—was, and still is, kind of a big deal for our species. As Matt starts to explain how, ever so excruciatingly slowly that his first love—illustration—began to occupy more and more of a central place in his life and his work I sit upright and start taking copious notes. The obvious talent he put down in favor of the more pressing demands of consumer-level graphics did not subside or wither. It became a seasonal thing for filling up down-time and out-of-production creativity. “Twice a year was around the most I could manage,” says Matt thinking hard about this muse and how he incorporated it more and more into both his life and his brands until it (and he) became MNKR BRAND. Tempered, without noise or hype, and ready for the world.
“And then I started tattooing,” he adds almost casually, as if it was the least important detail I should note down, “and now I have to draw,” he pauses a beat thinking about how much he does and he smiles, ”All the time.”
“I doesn’t sound like a job anymore, it sounds like you’ve become the work, or the work is you” I offer.
Matt Fellows nods knowing, respectful, measured nods. School-fees-all-paid-up nods. Raw talent glimpsing a hint of its reflection out of the corner of its eye.
Black Scraps Tattoo is rapidly becoming another outlet for Matt Fellows’ prodigious and much admired ability. “What an honor,” he says, “that someone would want to wear my work on their body.” And there it is again, this quiet sense of deep, abiding humility in him. I’ve seen it before in artists like Matt but seldom in any other than the truly great, folks who can connect others not to their vision but through the singularity of their vision because of its instant appeal.
If beauty, as Oscar Wilde suggested, is its own form of genius, then the unit of beauty has always been the line—be it the line from a Neruda poem which has the impossible power to utterly crush you, the linear dance of the voices across the notes of the Flower Duet or the utter, bone-bare simplicity of Fellows’ illustration. Whether they’re appearing on t-shirts or bare skin the effect is the same—at once striking, touching, and then not easily forgettable. Fellows’ genius lies in his ability to distill, distill and distill again to render a rarefied and pure simplicity. What is simple becomes simpler, cleaner, less… cluttered. “Analog” fails to capture the essence of this process entirely—Manual is a better word. It’s why, when exploring tattoo he chose the ancient Stick ‘n Poke (hand tattooing) technique. Folk vs Electric. It’s back to the cave wall. It’s back to an unhurried, simple, honest story-telling in as few lines as possible. An economy of stroke revealing a purity of thought to the point of naiveté which is where the toe hits the tightrope in the delightful balancing act of Matt Fellows’ MNKR BRAND art, his t-shirt designs, pins and ultimately his tattoos. The message is almost always in your face, 21st-century-coming-at-you-fast whilst the image channels a child-like innocence which is not only unmistakable, it is also clear that Matt is offering you a little glimpse of his soul. Although many now are trying to copy his inimitable style they are only wasting their time. You can’t copy soul. Unlike a Louis Vuitton handbag, soul is instantly recognizable, and equally recognizable when its a phony. Matt Fellows is by no means a phony, he is very much the real, pure and living deal. Ditto his slow train coming sleeper hit MNKR BRAND which is slowly but surely taking over retail racks city by astounded city.
Matt Fellows and MNKR BRAND are testament to the idea that doing what you love isn’t work and still remain the best way to ensure that you never have to have “a job.” As a high-school dropout the idea of getting a “solid job” seems to have been anathema to Matt from the start. Schools are not exactly legendary for being kind to artistic talent, nor are they the most nurturing environment for talents like Fellows’ where the simple elegance of his design can so easily be misunderstood or overlooked. Matt’s genius was to make his job is his life. He’s one of the lucky ones—he was born with it. It is in (and on) his hands. And now it is on t-shirts and, slightly more permanently, on bodies too. If Matt Fellows’ recent success with MNKR BRAND is anything to go by, it’ll probably be on you too—and soon, about that there can be no question, and you will find SpectraUSA’s pedigree and quality right behind MNKR BRAND every step of the way.