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Canned Energy : Graffiti King Who Found a Way to Make His Talent Pay Explains the Lure of Bare Walls

August 31, 1989|SPENCER S. HSU | Times Staff Writer

Matthew C. Dunn has done some "burningest" pieces in his time, but his days as a Los Angeles graffiti king are, for the most part, behind him.

The 26-year-old Venice resident now holds a grown-up's job as a computer graphics designer. Graffiti are strictly a sideline these days, and a commercial one at that--his work has appeared in advertisements in Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and L.A. Style magazines.

And now, Dunn, who boasts of having once stolen 75 cans of spray paint at a time, will "burn" a graffiti "piece" on your baby's bedroom wall--for a price.

Ties to Streets

"I'm a gang of one," said Dunn, brash and affable. "I've always done pretty much what I wanted."

To encounter Dunn is to encounter a grown-up version of the hundreds of graffiti "taggers" and gang-member look-alikes who roam Los Angeles each night, engaging in an activity that will cost the Southern California Rapid Transit District alone $8 million this year in cleanup costs for its buses and buildings. But grown up or not, he retains strong ties to the street and remembers with affection the nights of his youth spent with his graffiti crew.

"We did it for fun and fame," said Dunn, dressed in sweat-top and knee-split jeans after a day of computer design work at a Beverly Hills travel agency. And, although he has shaken the habit--turning instead to steady work, a girlfriend and a lucrative graffiti-painting hobby--he sees little evidence that many other painters will soon follow.

Dunn grew up in a middle-class Westside neighborhood and attended Culver City High School and Santa Monica College. There, he toyed with the punk-rock movement, break-dancing and rap music. Members of his old graffiti group still work in music, art and dance across California and in New York.

Sitting at a kitchen table in the Venice house he shares with two roommates and their dog, Dunn leafs through his portfolio, a set of Polaroid photographs and a pile of his graffiti sketch books, the vital ledgers he used to measure his life's work as recently as two years ago.

"Some people live for this," he said, showing dozens, then hundreds of pages of sketches, highly stylized, broadly imaginative, bursting with color. Some are whimsical, some menacing.

"They spend their days racking (stealing) paint, sketching pieces. There are graffiti conventions, underground newspapers," he said. Dunn remembers how, fresh out of Culver City High School in 1980, he worked ideas for his book of drawings in cars, at work, at friends' homes, anywhere he had an instant. Then came nights spent searching for concrete canvases.

Dunn, who has enrolled in several art courses but never completed one, says he was drawn by "the finished product," the artistic impact of the graffiti.

Energy and Impact

"You break letters into bits, you change the whole style of a letter, you whack it out, you really exaggerate its curves or harden its corners, you slice it up, add thickness, put arrows through it or give it motion," he said.

"You make it bust ," he concluded. "Bust," it becomes clear, is a central concept of graffiti art; it refers to the energy of the completed work, and the impact it has on a viewer.

"There's an energy to that (spray) can," he insisted, hands shaking with intensity and eyes staring at a remote point, "It's carried out to that paint. It's part of that experience."

It is an experience, he says, that is hard to let go.

"I was hooked," he confessed. And even now, Dunn says, he has an occasional relapse; just two months he was out on a midnight burn, which was interrupted by the arrival of police.

But in his bedroom there is evidence that Dunn has moved to different concerns. On the wall is a spray-painted 4-by-6-foot self-portrait on canvas. "I haven't decided if I'm going to sell it," he said.

He has fewer reservations about parting with other, less personal works. In his first venture into commercial art, he sold a work for a case of beer. This year, he launched a personal venture called Coolart--involving the home delivery of graffiti. For somewhere between $25 and several hundred dollars, depending on the size and complexity of the job, he will paint a wall, a room, a storefront or the side of a garage. Together with his work for advertisers, Dunn says his painting has netted him between $6,000 and $7,000 so far this year.

His television and print credits include backdrops for music videos and advertisements for H. J. Heinz Co.'s Steak-Umm microwaveable snack and TDK Electronics Corp. (the latter netted him $2,000). A work on an 8-by-10-foot piece of denim brought $700, although Dunn learned that the item later sold for $10,000 to a group of clothing designers interested in the look, he says.

But most young graffiti crew members paint only out of competition, ego, and fascination. "They don't care" about money or what society thinks, Dunn says. "They want the exposure, they want to be up, they want the approval of their fellow artists."

Broken Homes

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