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
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.