Interview by Roger Gastman
John CRASH Matos and Chris DAZE Ellis have been painting and exhibiting since 1980. In the late 1970s they rose through the ranks of the subway graffiti movement to become underground stars. The two artists have the distinction of consistently showing their works around the globe for nearly 40 years; this includes major museum shows as well as elite private collections. During that same span, CRASH and DAZE have consistently pushed the envelope with large-scale mural works, never denying their graffiti roots and in many cases celebrating them. CRASH and DAZE have developed their own distinct styles and directions but remain as close as ever. All these years later they still share a studio.
When did you two meet?
DAZE: We met in 1977 at 149th Street and Grand Concourse, which was the Writers Bench at that time. There was a whole group of guys that hung out there on a daily basis after school. CRASH was hanging out there and I was hanging out there and we’re just watching trains go by. You find, “Oh that guy, he was here yesterday,” and then tomorrow . . . and it forms this group.
CRASH: We were just watching trains. It sounds weird saying that, when you sit there watching trains go by. The more you see someone the more you talk to them.
You all were painting A LOT of trains. Did you do any other regular childhood activities?
CRASH: I did. I played Class A ball when I was 14, and I was painting then. I played housing-league basketball while I was painting. Graffiti was our main focus, but if someone would come by and say, “Let’s play some ball,” we would play some ball.
DAZE: I played basketball, I played paddleball. I’d go all over the city playing handball. I really liked those things. But honestly, graffiti takes over your life and it becomes your whole life at a certain point. You find that every minute of the day you’re doing something that’s related to that, the writing. You could be drawing, hanging out at the Bench, refueling paint, taking photos, politicking with other people.
Did you both have a moment where you were like, “This is my life, this is what I’m doing”?
CRASH: You don’t think about it at the time. But then all of a sudden I was graduating high school, thinking, “What am I going to do? I don’t want to go to college . . . OK, this is what I’m going to do.” You start realizing it. That life moment hits. But here’s what I want to do. I want to paint. And it became very, very vivid to me that this is what I want to do.
DAZE: There was a moment where I would see guys going out to discos at night. Getting dressed up and paying more attention to the clothes that they wore, all that stuff. I’m thinking, “Wow, I’m so far away from that," that I can’t do that and this [art] at the same time. That was the moment where I realized it was my whole life. It was exciting.
By 1980, you’ve been involved in art and graffiti for a good handful of years and it’s taken over your life. Around this time you start to get involved in Fashion MODA and the GAS show. What impact does that have?
CRASH: Fashion MODA was close to my house, so I checked it out a few times. I met Jane Dickson and she was working on the “City Maze” installation. She asked me to come in and paint it. NOC 167 was staying with me at the time, so I said, “Let’s go ahead and paint.” So he would come and paint and do a couple of things on the maze. Then Joe Lewis, the director, came up to me and asked me, “Oh, do you want to do a solo show? Do you want to paint up in here?” At the time I was painting with a crew, so I thought that was a much better fit. A bunch of top writers showed up and painted and that was the show. Later on it went to the New Museum. Over the years I went on to do other things at Fashion MODA.
CRASH retired in 1980, but DAZE, you kept painting trains. How did that affect your work?
DAZE: There was a period where I was going to make paintings on canvas and show in galleries a little bit. But I was still painting trains. I was trying to do both things simultaneously. Eventually it became too hard to do both of those things because they require an enormous amount of devotion and at the same time you’re starting to grow up, you’re starting to get a little bit older. You’re starting to have your first thoughts about what your future might be. I got more and more into the studio work but I never turned my back on the graffiti completely. But I realized that I hit most of my goals and there was a next generation coming up on the subways.
You were doing art in school, so maybe transitioning to art in a gallery wasn’t as crazy a thought as it was to some of the other artists coming off the subways?
DAZE: For me, the best part about going to art school was being around other artists, not the classes.
Do you remember making the first pieces that hung for the public?
DAZE: We just evolved into it. I remember the first paintings that I did at the Sam Esses Studio that FUTURA 2000 and ZEPHYR curated. Those were the first couple of paintings that I ever did using spray paint on canvas. And I thought, “Wow, this is interesting to do this,” because you’re not working on a public surface, you’re not working on something that’s going to be moving within all the constraints of looking over your shoulder. You’re taking your time and trying to be creative. I really liked that idea.
CRASH: We didn’t have a studio when we started. My first paintings were done on the roof of the Betances Projects where I lived. It wasn’t a conscious decision to move into that; it was just an expansion of what we were doing on the subways but on canvas.
By the early ’80s, galleries are in swing, the culture’s big. Something new is on the horizon that gets labeled as street art. Was it as lumped together then as it is now? Back then you were called graffiti, not street artists, as people probably want to call you now.
CRASH: The street-art model came later, from the Lower East Side. It was interesting because it wasn’t graffiti — it was just pure art. It wasn’t what we were doing. It was a whole different thing.
Someone that stood out was John Fekner. He made very political statements with stencils, but he didn’t consider himself a street artist; he was just an artist doing something illegal with spray paint and stencils. A bit later you had a lot of kids pretending, a lot of art-school kids starting to do stencils and more painting on paper. We were never ever, ever, ever called street artists by any means at that time. We were just straight-up graffiti.
DAZE: It’s hard to believe now, but all of that was kind of lumped together. You look back at the early shows and you’ll see like me, CRASH, FUTURA, ZEPHYR, PINK and DONDI. We’re showing with Jenny Holzer, John Fekner, Jean-Michel, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. It very much reflects the scene that was going on at that moment, but it was years later before people were able to untangle all that and differentiate groups, who was who.
Nowadays if you call a graffiti writer a street artist, they want to punch you in the face. Street art and graffiti really meant one thing, and to be respected at it you did a lot of illegal work. Now it’s just this big thing. You two have lived both of those worlds and never left them. What do you see now versus then?
DAZE: I think people look at street art now as a stepping stone into the art world without taking the time to realize that if you’re a real street artist, you should have to pay your dues just like anything else. You’re going to have to go out there and find your own spot and make your own opportunities and you’re just going to have to be devoted. You can’t just paint 10 legal walls and all of a sudden you’re a street artist. I mean, what is that? And then have your first gallery show and never paint another mural again in life? I see people doing that.
CRASH: I think a lot of the people out there now are doing something on the street and just looking for the galleries. It’s the trend.
DAZE: I also think that people look at Banksy and they think there’s a formula to what he did, without realizing he started out as a graffiti writer paying his dues. His work evolved into what it is now.
How have you all been able to maintain through the years? I know there have been ups and downs.
DAZE: A good work ethic is what saved us. We had a working-class attitude about what we did and we got in there, we got our hands dirty and just did the work. We didn’t think about the possible rewards as much as the work.
CRASH: In the late ’80s when the art world was really at a bad place, we were practically all working jobs to support ourselves and to continue what we were doing. It wasn’t like we were in it and then we started trying to walk away. No, this was ours and there was no way we were going to just leave that for some hardships. You have to stick it out.
In the ’80s you were showing in New York at Sidney Janis Gallery. What was that like? You’re making paintings, they’re selling, you’re going to Europe, you’re art stars.
CRASH: The art-star thing, it wasn’t all it was meant to be. We struggled. People were looking at us like, “You’re just from the streets and you do graffiti.” They thought it wasn’t going to stick. But being an artist wasn’t a fad for us. This was what we were born into and then doing graffiti was just an extension of that and it just evolved to what it is. It wasn’t easy.
DAZE: It was an exciting time to be a part of. At the same time, I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable with it because I always looked at my career as something that was going to be a slow path and not just overnight. We were working hard, we were traveling a lot, but we were coming back to the Bronx and working in our studio at the end of the day.
What’s the experience, though, of being in a nice gallery like that? What are the ups and downs?
DAZE: I really didn’t know anything about it at the time. I didn’t know who Sidney Janis was at all; I didn’t know anything about his history. We were introduced to him by the collectors Dolores Neumann and Hubert Neumann. I didn’t really realize that he had represented Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, Yves Klein and George Segal. I didn’t really know much about his history, which I think helped me a bit.
What’s it like getting checks for your paintings? Was that just mind-blowing at the time?
CRASH: I would say half the money went right back into the work. We had to get paint and supplies and get cracking because it had to keep going. It was rewarding in one sense, but there was still this question of what does that mean, you know? Is this going to end? Is it not going to end?
DAZE: It felt good. It still feels good. We always took a portion of the money that we made and put it back into our work. We got a studio early on, which is probably the smartest move ever. That’s what we did, and I think that was great because we didn’t have to rely on anyone else. We were independent. And people had a place now where they could come see us.
That leads into something important. You two were always fairly giving through the years with your studio, with visiting artists, and supportive of everyone and not blocked off and making it just “me, me, me.”
CRASH: Well, graffiti is like that. The whole graffiti scene it was always about crews. I always felt that the stronger the crew, the more powerful graffiti is. I always remembered when I heard about when LEE and the Fabulous Five painted the whole train. That was a phenomenal feat. Whenever there’s a big strong unit, you’re going to have a better sense of what’s going on.
Your work is very different, yet you’re still often grouped together. What are the similarities in your work that I don’t see?
CRASH: The similarities are that we still use letters as a constant in the paintings. We could always do something different, but graffiti is in our blood and we don’t shrug that off, we don’t ignore it. It’s who we are. Our similarities are lyrical. Even though the paintings are different, there’s always a sense of movement that you don’t see from every artist.
DAZE: Like CRASH said, there’s still remnants of lettering in our work. It’s not the central focus for me, but it’s still there a little bit, whether it’s a tag, part of a letter or a piece. We also both use eyes here and there. It could mean something different for us. But that’s a similarity for us also. But overall our works have branched off and it’s not the same thing. It’s very different and defines who we are individually.
But it still works so well together, I almost expect you two to be together but be separate.
DAZE: It works most together when we’re working on a mural. Our approach to a mural is much different from the studio work. CRASH will come to the wall with a sketch that I’ve never seen, and I’ll come with a sketch that he’s never seen, and we’ll be looking at it for the first time in front of the wall and we’ll just make it work. There’s a level of spontaneity that we have that we just improvise, like a musician.
CRASH: Which a lot of street artists can’t do. That’s the thing with graffiti and street artists. I’ve been in situations where the graffiti artist has started painting and some of the cans don’t work — they’re frozen or whatever, so they make do and change it. Street artists, for the most part, if something doesn’t function, they can’t finish what they’re doing. They cannot think on their feet. It happens all the time. I’ve seen it and that’s one of the big differences.
You’ve been able to work your ideals and thoughts into your works without screaming a specific theme, where it’s “Hey, here’s a group show, everybody needs to paint a shoe.” You still work yourself into it and are able to be you without dating a painting.
DAZE: It’s hard. For me, a lot of what I do is very urban. And I could be painting a scene about the beach at Coney Island and somehow it’s still kind of urban. A lot of it has to do with New York but not exclusively New York. I’ve done paintings that were just based on travels that I had in other cities.
CRASH: I consciously try to stay away from what’s happening around us specifically because I don’t think people want to live with a reminder of what happened with 9/11; I don’t want to paint the Twin Towers just to paint them. The painting can be dark, but it doesn’t have to be specifically an image of something. With what’s going on today with politics, you don’t have to say anything about Trump, but the painting will reflect it because of what you’re feeling.
I paint very Pop — I love Pop Art. James Rosenquist is my favorite artist. I paint in that style, which is collage-y. I want paintings to play like eight different elements of what’s happened and what’s happening, but not necessarily comment on it. I try, on purpose, not to do some things that specific. What I’m feeling is what will be voiced through the art. It comes from years of doing it. We’ve been doing this for 40+ years. We’ve developed that sensibility of how to communicate through paintings.
Through these 40+ years, there’ve been some incredible journeys, some experiences around the world. Are there a couple experiences for each of you that just stand out as “This is why I do it”?
CRASH: For me, my kids are the biggest reason why I stick through it. I’ve come to realize what we’ve been doing is important. We’ve had people come up to us and say, “What you’ve done has changed my life” or “You’ve saved my life because . . .” To hear that about your work, all I can think is “wow.”
DAZE: I’ve had some really great moments and some really bad ones. The bad ones, honestly, you never forget them, but at the same time you can’t let them hold you down or hold you back. They’re important because you learn from them and they enable you to continue and get over it. But you should never let it hold you back.
It’s easy to pick out moments that were amazing. Your first solo exhibition in a foreign country and the way it was received, or even the first painting that you sold, things like that. Those are great. But it’s handling those obstacles that really define who you are as a person, because I’ve seen a lot of people that have this moment of success in the beginning and then it gets harder and then they don’t know how to handle it.
CRASH: One of the coolest moments for me was the first time I went to Paris and Keith Haring and I painted together at a museum for a show. It was five French artists and five American artists. Keith was working on a mural with chalk and I was on the other side painting with black paint on a white wall, and then at one point we met on the wall and we sort of just like merged. Kind of cool.
Keith was a real giving person. He knew his place and what he was doing, but he was more than happy to work with us and to share with us.
DAZE: Keith was a great example because he would get all this art-world acclaim. He’d be selling to some of the biggest collectors in the world, but at the same time he would go to some little school in Iowa and paint a mural with kids. I learned from his example that it’s great to receive all these accolades but it’s also important to give back to your community. Which is why we paint murals now.
When you’re at a dinner party, your kids’ school, anywhere — what do you like to be called?
DAZE: People say, “Oh, he’s a painter.” I like that because it embraces every label.
CRASH: I often hear “They’re painters, from the Bronx.” I like that. We are painters.
Images shown (top to bottom):
CRASH Panel Piece, Late 1970s Courtesy of CRASH
Daze Panel Piece, Late 1970s Courtesy Daze
CRASH & DAZE in the Bronx, 1983 Photo © Martha Cooper
Opening at Graffiti Above ground gallery, 1981 Photo © Martha Cooper
No Tell Motel, Oil on Canvas, 1994, 54ʺ × 72ʺ by DAZE .Collection of Miguel Linares.
Battle Weary, Acrylic and Spray on Canvas 2018, 72" × 84ʺ by CRASH.