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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015


True to the Letter 
Story By: Shannon Wianecki
Photos By: Sue Hudelson

As unique as a fingerprint, a person’s penmanship offers clues to his identity. It hints at how imaginative or logical the author is; it could even indicate whether he suffers from high blood pressure or Parkinson’s disease. Handwriting is to the written word what inflection is to speech: It conveys emotion, emphasis and identity. Yet in this technology-rife, pixelated era, the vast majority of letters now roll out of laser jet printers, smooth and generic. To express our seven billion personalities, we choose from a handful of fonts. In this environment a thirst for hand-lettering has grown. 

Cue Matthew Tapia, stage right. He doesn’t just possess excellent penmanship, he’s one of the top lettering artists in the nation. His motto might as well be ‘Have pencil, will travel.’ His toolbox is a small tin with pencils, pens and a compass, instruments he uses to craft the logos and identities for some of the planet’s most influential companies.

Like most keiki (kids) born and raised on O‘ahu, Tapia grew up steeped in surf culture. He and his friends wore trunks and tees splashed with graphics as bold as the athletes who tackled the thundering waves at Pipeline and Waimea Bay. Tapia wasn’t much into sports, but he loved to draw. He filled notebooks with imaginative characters and his name written thirty different ways —each more creative than the last. He fantasized about one day seeing his artwork popularized by big-name surf brands.

Tapia was an independent kid who matured quickly; by 17 he had dropped out of high school, moved out on his own and was working full time. By 19 he was married and expecting his first son. He supported his young family with odd jobs—working the midnight shift at Longs Drugs, putting in hours as a security guard and at a car dealership. Dreams of an art career began to recede, as if with the out-going tide.

Before they disappeared entirely, Tapia got a call from a friend. Could he draw a few graphics for Fumanchu, a boutique streetwear brand? Out came Tapia’s pencil box and with it a flurry of stylized dragons, Kung Fu fighters and hand-drawn fonts. To prepare his designs for reproduction, Tapia needed a computer. Though he belongs to Generation X—the ignominious label slapped on those born at the advent of the digital age—Tapia is a late adopter; he didn’t own a computer or even know how to use one until 2000. For Fumanchu he borrowed his boss’ desktop and taught himself Photoshop and Illustrator, the basics of computer-based design.

He discovered he had a true knack for graphic design. Before long he’d fufilled his dream: He was selling his artwork to Hurley, Split and Billabong. Far from being the pinnacle of his professional arc, though, it was just the beginning.