Images by John Hook
In a minimally designed studio in downtown Honolulu, graphic designer Matthew Tapia is dressed plainly. He’s not tall, not small, and he blends in with his surroundings among worn books with titles like Dangerous Curves, The Creative Stroke, and American Wood Type. As he sits, engaged with his work, he describes nuances in design that typically go unnoticed. This attention to detail and distinct style are what make him a graphic designer sought after by multi-million dollar companies like Nike and Wired Magazine. Despite his unassuming demeanor, Tapia—who made a name for himself creating the bold graphics of Ecko Unltd. in New York City near the company’s height of popularity in 2004—comes across like a vivid palette, like a reflection of his art: smart, uncomplicated, and natural.
“I think I may have stepped in dog shit a couple of times,” he jokes, taking a break from sketching a snake meant to mimic Japanese stencil-dyeing on indigo fabric for the art festival Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i. “No, but I’ve been really lucky. Getting that job with Ecko was the second really lucky thing that happened to me.”
According to Tapia, his first stroke of luck was how he got into graphics in the first place. Tapia was born and raised in Hawai‘i and spent his youth bouncing around schools and from one parent to the other before ending up in the foster care system. “It was a rough time in my life,” he says. “I thought that schooling, especially for art, was unnecessary. I thought you either had what it took to be an artist or you didn’t.” Unable to stay inspired, Tapia dropped out of high school and began working at a car dealership. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when he met Kainoa McGee, who ran a small bodyboarding company, that his life took a turn for the better. “I told him how much I’d love to draw something for his brand,” says Tapia, who offered to do some sketches for free. “A month or so later, his business partner flew down and let me use his computer for designs. I taught myself how to use the program and was eventually able to buy my own computer. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would’ve gotten the experience to build on.”
Since returning home from New York City in 2009 to be closer to his two children, Tapia has built a solid foundation rooted in traditional and contemporary design, inspired by Ken Barber of House Industries, the modern-day powerhouse of type design. Currently, Tapia’s work includes consulting on small branding projects and creating brand identities for companies like New York-based 5boro and Nike-owned specialty stores like House of Hoops and Nike Yardline. He’s also working on two typefaces that will most likely take him years to complete due to the work that goes into creating an entire alphabet of characters. In his downtime, he enjoys lettering the most. “Lettering is created for a single instance of use,” he explains, “whereas typeface is a system where each letter has to look good regardless of the combination.”
In the same awed tones in which he speaks about lettering, he explains that he takes enormous pride in being from Hawai‘i. He is adamant about staying put, for now. “My kids live here,” the 34-year-old says. “Seeing them once a month wasn’t enough. I see myself here at least until they graduate.” The older, wiser Tapia now recognizes that a formal education would have helped him, and he hopes one day to go back. “I think education is the most important thing, because it teaches you how to structure things in a way that’s acceptable to the industry,” he says. “I wish I could afford the time to go back, but for now, I try to push myself through reading and being involved in the community.”
Setbacks aside, Tapia continues to look forward, designing his life around his good fortunes. Whether his success is due to his drive for creating beautiful letters, his natural talent for his craft, or simply his luck remains to be seen. Either way, what’s most important for Tapia is continuing to be both a successful artist and father; one who isn’t afraid to draw the line.
Follow Tapia on Instagram @matthewtapia.