Javier Matias was enjoying a grilled cheese at a food truck one afternoon in 2014 when he made a split-second decision that would change the course of his life. He was 22, a bike-riding graffiti kid and former employee of the beloved Los Angeles streetwear brand The Hundreds, when he happened to spot the graffiti hotshot Jamal Gunn Becker walking across L.A. Trade-Tech’s campus, where Javier was enrolled as a fashion design student. On a whim, he followed Becker into a school building.
He ended up in a classroom adorned with colorful graphics, artful lettering, and governed by an eccentric instructor named Ralph “Doc” Guthrie, who would soon become his teacher and mentor. The space was dedicated to a craft rooted in and essential to Los Angeles culture: sign-painting. According to Javier, the sign-painting program at LATTC is among its oldest and one of only a few in the country. As Javier puts it, “Signs pay, they don’t cost,” and a drive through L.A.’s central neighborhoods provides enough evidence of sign-painting’s significance in the city, a place engineered for experiencing life at 30mph.
Today, four years after that chance encounter, Javier is a sign-painting master and the owner of a blossoming business, born in the living room of his childhood home. Mid City Signs’s clients range from homegrown, trendy streetwear brands like FTP and Midnight Studios to big-time enterprises like Coachella, Camp Flog Gnaw, and 300 Entertainment. On the sweltering late-June day that we meet at his house, Javier is reserved and laidback, breaking his cool only to excitedly describe the work he’s most proud of, or to get emotional about the impact that the sign-painting class has had on his life. A few days later at his studio in Lincoln Heights, where I meet his business partner, Julien Bleser, it becomes clear just how far he’s come: colorful painted signs adorn the walls, and high-tech machinery and atelier material clutter the space.
Growing up, did you know of anyone who did sign painting?
I just seen it around from growing up in Los Angeles. It was mostly, like, older Mexican dudes that I would see. They would be on ladders, painting. I never paid much mind to it until I walked into that class. At first, I was just thinking, Yo this would make my graffiti so much tighter. I’d be so sick.
How did you envision sign-painting to be a part of your graffiti practice?
All the letterforms I’d seen in [the class] were bolder and more legible. Graffiti isn’t really legible for most people, and that’s what I wanted to do. Like, Now everyone can read my shit. I was working at The Hundreds at the time, so I was mostly in Hollywood. There’s a lot of street art in that area.
How long did you work at The Hundreds?
Like, four years. All the employees [I’d worked with] then [had become] managers by the time I got out of school. So, [my sign painting work] started with [their] winter stuff. It’s called a winter splash. I started with the holiday windows, since those are easier to do. They’re not permanent. I did [the window at] Hall of Fame for my first one. My friend Jesse was the manager. He was like, “Just go for it. Just don’t get me fired, bro.” That was three or four years ago, right when I was starting. I just threw myself in the pool and tried to swim. From there, my other friend at HUF was like, “Yo, you did Jesse’s? Can you do mine?” I’m like, “Alright, yeah.” I did like four stores on the block.
What did it feel like to see your work out there?
It was tight to see my work, walking down the street where I used to work at. It felt really cool to be able to do it for my friends, just trying to get my name out. Eventually, when I was still in that learning phase, I did two stores right over here in Mid City — a bike shop and a video store. Those have been there for as long as I can remember. I know the mom at the bike shop [because] I know her son. We’re homies. I just told her, “Hey, can I paint your business? I would love to paint it. I’m not gonna charge you anything, I just want to do it.” That took me like two months to finish, because I didn’t know what I was doing, down to the different kinds of painting. Like, [I used] enamel [paint], which is more permanent. It was something I had never even worked with, but I just did it, and it ended up coming out pretty tight, from the outside. Eventually, I did the other [store], right next to it. Same thing, I told the dude like, “Hey can I paint your window?” That one took three weeks—a little faster.
What was the first big job that you got?
The biggest one, for sure, up to date was when [300 Entertainment] flew me out to New York. By that time I was in my third semester, and I already felt pretty comfortable. I was practicing a lot, like every day, trying to paint as much as I could. This living room used to be filled with paint. I just redid my mom’s living room. There was paint everywhere. I tried to scrape most of this shit off the floor.
So, this living room was your first sign-painting workspace?
Yeah, I repainted everything. I get this email from Elijah [Trinidad] and Arnold [Yun], who I’ve never heard of, like, “Yo, we’re from 300. We’d love to fly you out. We want you to paint our office. Can you do this, and this and this?” I was like, “Yeah! I did a couple of [mocks] of their mission statement. I did a Roman and a Gothic.
What was that like?
Dude, it was crazy. I only had four days to paint it. They had four big windows, and then there was another window inside. The sign pretty much covered all of it. The first two was their mission statement — I just did, like, a big, huge paragraph. It took a while. I had to lay out everything by hand and measure each line. I had to re-measure because it wouldn’t fit. I didn’t know all the other tricks yet. I just knew what I’d learned until that time.
The third day I was like, Fuck, I don’t think I’m going to be able to finish it. I called my teacher, like, “Doc, dude, I’m freaking out. I don’t think I can do this.” He’s like, “Nah, man. You got this. Take a deep breath. Go smoke a joint, whatever you do. Drink a beer. Relax. I taught you.” After that, I snapped out of it and got back to work. I think it was just a lot of mental shit. You kinda just gotta shake it off. If you really put your mind to it, I think you can really do anything. The power of the mind is just really that crazy.
And then, the coolest thing: There’s a little piggy bank in our class that Doc encourages you to put money in every time you get money from a job. It goes back to the school and the class, or they’ll donate it to a foundation or whatever. So as soon as I get back, I’m like, “Doc, I want to put some money in the bank.” So I put like $400, and he’s like, “What? What the hell. That’s the most anyone’s ever put.” Now, every now and then, whenever me and my homie [Julien] do a big job, we’ll kick down $200-300 to him.
There’s also a donor’s memorial, a shrine thing in the classroom with everyone’s name who donated [larger amounts] to the class. I’d always kid with him like, “Man, I’m gonna be up on there one day. How much do I need to drop? Tell me right now.” He’s like, “How does $10,000 sound?” I’m like, “$10,000! What the fuck? C’mon man. Work with me. I’m trying to get on there.” He’s like, “Nah, I know you’ve been donating to the class. Don’t trip. I’ll get you up there one day.” It wasn’t until the last time [we donated], [when] we recently painted Coachella, me and Julien, [that we got up on the memorial].
What did you do for Coachella?
We did a junk of menus for the festival. We did them all by hand. I think it was like 500 [signs]. Something crazy.
How long did that take?
A week. A lot of people liked it. What we did took longer than what they wanted but the end product was so much better. We would line shit up. We like to use rulers and make sure shit looks good.
This is all stuff you learned from the class?
Yeah, like tricking your eye and making shit look eye level. There’s a lot of weird little tricks. We did that and we got paid a fat-ass check. We just recently went to the class to donate some money. I put $400, Julien put $400. We gave it to Doc. He was like, “What? Again? What the fuck.” And he just let us put our name on the donor’s list. That’s another crazy accomplishment of mine. It’s like hall-of-fame. I was about to cry.
What was it like working on the Camp Flog Gnaw projects?
When I was working at The Hundreds, one of the tour managers hit me up and he’s like, “Yo we’re doing this Carnival. We’re building a ramp. Can you paint the ramp for us?” I’m like, “Yeah! That shit’s easy.” It was just one color. I was like, “I can do lettering, too, you know.” They’re like, “No, no. We just want you to paint it blue or pink.” So, I did it, got paid, whatever. Next year, they hit me up: “Yo, Jav, same ramps again. Same colors. But you think you could maybe do a graphic?” I’m like, “I can do letters too, you know. I can do lettering and all types of shit.” They’re like, “No, no. I think we just want a Vans logo, because they’re sponsoring it.” So I’m like “Alright, tight.” So then the next year, they’re like, “Alright, tight. We want you to do some actual graphics for us.” It was 20 8x8s. This was two years ago. 2016. That’s when they really started the brand, Camp Flog Gnaw.
Did they give you direction on the graphics? Or did you come up with them?
It was pretty cool, actually. Tyler [The Creator] drew them. First, they were like, “How are we gonna do this? Tyler has these drawings that he has that he wants to put up.” I got an old projector that my homie had, and was like, “Maybe he could draw it on the see-through film.” You know how they used to have in math class, that you could see the problems on? The little sheet paper that you draw on. So it was a super cool process the first time. Tyler came and drew on the paper. He drew all the characters and we projected them on a wall. It was a design straight from him. It was his hand-drawn [art]. For each one, we traced it and painted it. That’s one of the tricks that we learned. And then last year, they made it even more organized. We started planning 4 or 5 months [in advance]. This job, they wanted it done so fast, that I was like, “Dude, I need extra hands. Calling all homies! Who wants to help? I got this super top-secret project.”
Where do you get your work ethic from?
I think part of it’s from my teacher. Part of it’s from my mom, my heritage, and my community. At first, my mom was tripping, like, “Yo, that’s not a job.” I was working at Trader Joe’s for a while. I did it for a year. I was doing the chalkboards over there. I guess part of [the work ethic] is just working for yourself. That you’re your own boss. For the Flog Gnaw and Coachella [jobs], there were days when we were working on three hours of sleep. Some days, like when the actual festival started, we were partying all night, didn’t get sleep, and then had to go to work to fix minor shit and make corrections. I think it’s just the thought that you’re just working for yourself. You just gotta enjoy the ride. Like, I’ma work really hard for these two days. Then, after, I’m gonna chill even harder for the next two weeks. I could go take my girlfriend out, go buy something for my mom. I could kick down some money to Doc and the class. It just feels good. It’s a sense of empowerment. We were always kind of hustling, doing other shit that wasn’t really honest or legal. I was doing a junk of that shit, too, like stealing or whatever. Doc would just teach [us] about making an honest buck. At the time, I was like, Man, that’s bullshit. An honest buck [means] you gotta pay your taxes, you’re supporting the streets and the schools. I didn’t get it until now.
Are there any signs in LA that stand out to you as really well done or that inspire you?
Yeah, there’s this one that my teacher Doc painted that’s in Culver City. It’s an auto repair store. I’ve always recognized the sign, and it’s been there for a minute. It’s light blue and orange. It’s so simple and so clean. His sign has been rocking for a cool 15+ years.
In L.A., painted signs are such a fixture.
I think it’s super different because there’s a lot of different levels of sign painting here. The [painters at the] highest level, for me, are called the “wall dogs.” They’re the dudes that paint the advertisements downtown on the sides of buildings that are like, 60 feet tall. That’s like the ultimate level for me. Then, there’s the dudes that paint the bars with the gold-leafing, the fancier stuff. Then there’s the dudes like me, that do everything: wall jobs, boutiques, windows, vans, whatever. Then there’s this other weird group that are more self-taught. They’re like a generation of older, Mexican worker dudes. Whenever I see them painting, I always try to stop and talk to them. They’re just out there hustling, which is part of the game too. Because if you’re sleeping on the business, I guarantee there’s two or three other sign painters eyeing that same [job].
What do you envision for the future of Mid City Signs? What would be a dream project or collaboration?
I’m trying to be at that level where, if I’m not doing one of those big wall jobs downtown, I want my company to be getting those jobs. I want to start working with big agencies. We’re trying to get those big ass checks. The dream for me is to honestly just go bigger and go as big as I can. If I could paint the side of a building, that would be fucking awesome. There’s these three buildings in front of the Staples Center that these “wall dogs” always paint. Painting a Lakers ad would be cool. Something for the city.