Before Banksy burst onto the scene, John Fekner raised a few eyebrows with stencil graffiti that adorned sections of New York City in the mid-1970s. As with most street art, it was anonymous—though people knew his name by word of mouth—and meant as environmental and social commentary. One of Fekner's most prominent pieces, the words "Wheels Over Indian Trails" painted neatly across the Pulaski Bridge to Queens Midtown Tunnel, provided a reminder of American genocide to people as they passed by. It stayed untouched from 1979 to 1990, when Fekner decided it no longer had an impact.
Missoula stencil artist Larkin Matoon makes his mark on canvas rather than city property, but for the most part his gritty comic style and subject matter keeps with the tradition of artists like Fekner, Blek Le Rat, Jef Aerosol and Banksy. One piece Matoon stenciled is taken from a still of the Brazilian crime drama City of God showing a young boy wielding a handgun. He has several portraits of weathered old men rendered from a French photography series. There are also pieces that seem strictly Montana—a John Deere tractor, for instance—and random ones like a stencil of the Glitch Mob and a portrait of Al Swearengen from the television series "Deadwood." He likes making stencils of iconic people, but not iconic images.
"Early on I did an Al Pacino but it wasn't a Scarface [image]," he says. "It was a picture of Al Pacino from Esquire where he was sitting on a car. It was a complicated one, way beyond my ability. But I wanted it to be someone people recognized."
Up close, Matoon's pieces look like tiny dots. That pixelated appearance is part of his long process. To make it happen, he takes a photograph and blows it up, often so large that it has to be divided into several pages of 8x10 copier paper. Piecing the pages together, the face appears—the cheek and, perhaps, the nose and eyes. Once it's all fashioned into place, he hand-draws every little pixelation. Finally, he takes a razor to it and cuts the lines to turn it into an intricate stencil.
"The act of cutting, people have different methods," he says. "I would rather do all the little pieces and then connect them. Other guys will take a face and break it up into islands, whereas mine is minuscule dots."
Matoon grew up in Missoula and joined the Navy in 2000. He was stationed in Georgia and then, after 9/11, in Bahrain. He drew compulsively then, but he threw everything away. Nothing was permanent. The only exceptions were the designs he drew for a friend's clothing company, Ambition, which he would package up and send back to the United States.
After he returned from the Middle East in 2003, Matoon discovered Banksy, the British graffiti artist whose darkly humorous and striking free-drawn stencil paintings later became the subject of acclaimed 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop. Matoon started experimenting with comic book guides, cutting out characters and tracing them in the sunlight.
"I would take a picture of this girl and a picture of wings and I would tape them together and put them in my window sill and just draw them out," he says. "It was totally random—no rhyme or reason for the stuff I used to do. I could only do stencils during the day because the only window I had was facing [the sun] during lunchtime."
Now that he's honed his style, the main problem for Matoon is figuring out how to be efficient without compromising his artistic process. One of his larger canvases took 165 hours to complete. If he charged for all the time he put into his work, he says, the pieces would be outrageously expensive.
"I'm doing something close to what a painter could do but I'm charging double because it took longer? I can't do that," he says. "If I could do it faster I would—short of having a machine do it for me."
To show how he creates his work, Matoon films the stenciling process. He uses stop-motion effect so that the hours of work feel compressed into a speedy few minutes, and he posts the videos on his website, 28razors.com.
Matoon has a certain humbleness to him. He admires artists who draw original pieces, but that's not his thing. He'd rather find someone else's image he loves and recreate it.
"I dabble at everything and I'm good at one thing," he says. "When it comes to taking photos I have to be able to produce the kind of thing that's worth me cutting, and I can't take those photos. So I look to professionals."
There are drawbacks. For one thing, the image isn't solely his. His most noteworthy stencils, for example, come from a couple different French photography series—intimate black-and-whites that evoke the portraits on the walls of Charlie B's bar. He found the series on Flickr and, after asking permission from the photographer, started turning the portraits into stencils. But realized he wasn't alone.
"I learned that other stencil artists around the world had also done the same one," he says. "I started to see all these versions and I had this moment of doubt like, 'Do I want to do something that someone else has done?' Then I started thinking, as a stencil artist I have to recognize what kind of artist I am. I take images that exist and recreate them, so I have to run the risk of someone else using them."
In the high-art world, artists aren't always keen on such fluid collaboration and co-opting. No matter. Stencil and graffiti artists have always been a different breed. And in an age where remixing, reappropriation, mash-up and sampling has become par for the course in the music world, the visual art community isn't far behind.
Larkin Matoon's stencil show opens at Blaque Owl Tattoo, 307 N. Higgins Ave., with a First Friday reception July 5, at 5 PM with music by TAK 45. Free. Go to 28razors.com.