Eric Clapton’s Fender Stratocaster, Crash-3: Interview with Artist John “CRASH” Matos
by Tom Watson
Eric Patrick Clapton. Born 1945, Surrey, England. John “CRASH” Matos. Born 1961, South Bronx, New York. Clapton grows up on rock, blues and the electric guitar. CRASH grows up on comics, graffiti and cans of spray paint.
Eric Clapton. World-famous musician.
CRASH. World-famous painter.
Is fame their common bond?
No. What brought the two together in 1996 was their respect for a shared language.
Whether it’s Rodin’s stone sculptures in a Paris museum, Clapton’s bar-room blues in London, or CRASH’s subway graffiti in New York City, the presence of artistic self-expression unites vastly different styles of communication under one simple term.
On June 24, 2004, Eric Clapton’s Fender Stratocaster, “Crash-3” will be one of the 56 Clapton guitars to be auctioned in Christie’s Crossroads Guitar Auction ~ Eric Clapton and Friends for the Crossroads Centre.
This isn’t an instrument gathering dust in Clapton’s closet. He’s currently using it on tour and played it in his March 15, 2004, Royal Albert Hall concert.
Below is an interview with the artist whose work appears on the body of Crash-3, and the other Clapton “graffiti” Stratocasters: CRASH.
Interview with John “CRASH” Matos
Tom Watson for the Strat Collector News Desk: Born and raised in NYC?
CRASH: South Bronx – 1961.
SCND: The early years?
CRASH: Seven kids in my family with me right smack dab in the middle. Family’s originally from the Carribean island of Puerto Rico. Neighborhood was one of young gangs. Tough kids. Mostly Hispanic and black.
I was branded a “gifted” student. Been painting since the age of two. Never went to a specialized school – it was great not having to carry that load as a youth, know what I mean? Took minimal art classes. My family couldn’t afford private lessons, so I pretty much learned from TV, comic books, and the once-a-year school trips to the museum.
SCND: Formal art training?
CRASH: No formal training except for a year in City College where I took up commercial art, but that lasted maybe nine months. Teachers were sort of cowards, just sat there collecting their pay.
SCND: Why subway graffiti?
CRASH: I was always aware of graffiti. Growing up in my ‘hood, you noticed what’s around you, and graff was the design. Started when I was 13, and the trains were the best place to get “showcased”. I actually picked up doing graffiti from the older kids in my neighborhood, guys like KAZOO143, CEN2 (RIP), EASE707, and others. They put my feet firmly in a place where I would eventually learn the art of spray painting.
SCND: Why “CRASH”?
CRASH: My name, CRASH, came from my first year in high school. I was learning about business careers and chose computer programming as my major. “Crash” is a term for a computer breakdown, as we all know these days.
SCND: Graffiti something you did alone?
CRASH: Graffiti, in my mind, is a type of art that excels when done in group form. I’ve done a bunch of one person shows, but I enjoy the groups much more – there is such a dynamic when we converge and paint as a group. Pretty powerful shit, man.
SCND: Ever arrested or hassled by authorities?
CRASH: Never been arrested for graffiti, but hassled enough to lay low from the police. And yes, I’ve been chased enough to try out for Olympic competition.
SCND: Bad graffiti moments?
CRASH: Either getting run over by passing trains or getting almost electrocuted were the scariest thing that could happen to you. Well, except for running into rival gangs and fighting.
SCND: Your family know about the graffiti? Their reaction?
CRASH: Like all good kids, we never told our parents what we were doing. But I tell you what, eventually you need to tell them, just in case you get arrested so you can get bailed out, or left there overnight to “learn your lesson”. When they found out I was doing graffiti they were surprised, but they accepted it as soon as they saw how good we were.
SCND: How long? Still do it?
CRASH: Painted underground for five years, which I think is normal. You get older and it gets more difficult, running around and trying to maintain a life, so it’s much more geared for fearless teenagers. Me, I’m done, but it’s not like I don’t get the itch from time to time.
SCND: First gallery show when you’re 19 or 20. How do you go from street art to art galleries?
CRASH: The leap into the whole gallery thing was much scarier than painting on the subways. People looked at me and turned their noses up ’cause of the “non-intellectual” aspects of my work. But hey, I showed them. Most of the critics that were putting me down are either teaching gym somewhere or they eventually saw that I was for real. In any event, I showed them wrong and hey, I’m still here swinging.
The first show came from my meeting another artist out of Hartford, CT, who had this nice non-profit space, and he offered the place to me and another artist, Lady Pink, and we pretty much did the paintings right on the gallery walls. Totally cool.
SCND: One or more shows a year since 1981. Represented by serious dealers. Selling. How did art become a career?
CRASH: I’ve been very blessed to have had a considerable amount of success. I mean, to be able to have solo exhibitions pretty much every year is powerful, and I thank God for the privilege. I have good relationships with other artists as they see that I have no fear with subject matter, and the money issue never really comes up. I just paint what is, in my mind, important to me, and they respect that. Collectors see that it’s for real and that I don’t cater to them, so they also respect that.
So, it’s all good… so far.
SCND: How have underground artists reacted to your success?
CRASH: Graff guys that are practicing underground either respect what I do or see me as a sell-out. But, as I’ve said before, when you are able to take care of your kids, live off what you love, and be true to yourself, well, they understand very quickly. You just have to be patient and let them see and learn for themselves. We never have done this alone, so we have to share the knowledge.
SCND: What do you tell young street artists?
CRASH: Never give up. You have to really fight, because of the stereotypes that urban arts bring. Don’t be afraid to want to learn – meaning, read, look around and immerse yourself in things that you would not normally get yourself into. It will open your mind and your heart.
SCND: You work out of a studio located at [deleted]?
CRASH: No, that’s where I live. My studio is in the South Bronx. So delete that part of the question. Don’t need a bunch of brothers coming over and harassing… know what I mean?
SCND: How did the Clapton guitars come about?
CRASH: I first met Eric in New York when he was here for a big Grammy showcase. He was also in town to videotape street murals and other things for a project he was finishing. He wanted to know if anyone could show him around, show him the streets – some of the “underground” sites. Someone I know suggested me. He gave me a call.
The painting of the Fender has a simple history. Eric had sort of asked me about doing something on a Fender back in ’96 or ’97, but with both of our schedules it was difficult. Then – one bright summer morning – I just had the urge to do one. I was able to contact Eric’s guitar wiz, Lee Dickson, and he made arrangements with Fender to have an unfinished body flown to me.
Man, when I got it, it was so beautiful I almost felt too intimidated to paint on it. But I did, and the rest, as they say, is history. There it was. As an artist, you always try to outdo yourself, so with each Fender, I tried different things – colors, designs, etc. They are quite interesting, for sure.
SCND: And Crash-3?
CRASH: The creation of “Crash-3”, again, was a simple concept. I still laugh at the names of the pieces. Eric names them, and just the idea that we are sort of collaborating on these… just humbles me to no end. Anyway, I wanted to create a design that would be challenging – so that it could stand out alone in a corner or look really cool if someone was rocking it. They are made to look like they move by themselves, sort of like an action painting. Also, the “rips” in the top of the body were to sort of replicate the aerodynamic designs on some of the models of performance cars that Eric loves, most notably, Ferraris.
SCND: Question from Strat Collector News reader, Kevin K: “I noticed that the black shape around the controls on “Crash-3” is similar to the shape of the control plate on a guitar called the “Control Plate Stratocaster” pictured in the 2004 Fender Custom Shop calendar. Is the similarity coincidental or intentional?”
CRASH: The black shape around the controls was the idea of Fender Custom Shop Senior Master Builder Mark Kendrick, who put the guitar into “finished” mode for me. He had the idea, brought it out, and it just totally completed and complemented the guitar – it actually makes it!
SCND: Have you painted guitars for anyone else? Do you accept commissions from the public to paint guitars?
CRASH: There are a very select few, maybe ten in total. I always run the commission proposals past Eric. After all, these are his signature models that I use, so I run them by him, and if it’s a go, then I move. If not, no way.
It’s a respect thing.
[Images (from top to bottom): “Breaking Curfew” by CRASH, 2001. 60″x60″, spray paint on canvas. Image courtesy of CRASH. “The Crasher” by CRASH, 1980. Spray paint on subway train. Image courtesy of CRASH. “Misspent Youth” by CRASH, 2001. 60″x60″, spray paint on canvas. Image courtesy of CRASH. Recent, 2004, photograph of CRASH, courtesy of CRASH. “The Dancers” by CRASH, 2002. 20″x20″, acrylic, spray paint and silk screen on canvas. Image courtesy of CRASH. 1998 Photo of CRASH by Lisa Kahane, courtesy of CRASH. “Crash-3” by CRASH, 2003. Spray paint on a Fender Stratocaster. Image courtesy of Christie’s. Eric Clapton playing Crash-3 during the “One Generation 4 Another” concert on March 15, 2004, at the Royal Albert Concert Hall, London, UK. Photo by Maya Bunschoten, courtesy of www.whereseric.com, (Where’s ERIC! – The Eric Clapton Fan Club Website).
All images copyright CRASH, except: “Crash-3”, copyright 2004, Jill Furmanovsky/Star File, and photo of Eric Clapton in concert, copyright 2004, Maya Bunschoten. All rights reserved.]