Matt Wessen is, among other things, an insanely creative person. One might be tempted to say it runs in the family: his grandfather was a renowned WWII photographer, his grandmother was a gifted musician for soldiers of the war, and nowadays, his brother headlines Coachella. But Wessen’s work is singular; he creates inspired art in all types of media. At times, his creative perspective conflicts with the relatively recent shift to a digitally-driven artistic landscape. But from those tensions arise inspiration for much of his work.
Let’s start with his surfing: he got his start riding a Robbie Dick board at Sunset Boulevard, “the worst wave in the entire world.” He learned his way around a wave with the help of his dad and from surfing mentor, Brick. He eventually dropped out of school and started surfing every day, which provided him with the inspiration to make his first feature film. It showcased the freedom of Western suburban youth characteristic of the 80’s and 90’s, during which kids were free to do as they please. “It was kind of like ‘Jackass’ before ‘Jackass’ came out… wild waves, wild kids growing up in L.A., doing crazy things and being stupid.”
19-year-old Wessen and friends premiered the film, called “Hooligans,” to a sold-out audience at the Pussycat Theater. The next day, his crew was contacted by Warner Brothers who expressed interest in working together for another project. Parents got involved, agents got involved, and then the collaboration fell apart. Wessen bookmarks the experience as his first lesson: “100% of 0 is 0.”
The tension between creating art to enjoy the process versus creating art as a kind of preservation is an important point of friction in Wessen’s artistry. Today, Wessen doesn’t have a copy of that first feature film. Actually, it was never totally finished. The last two segments were erased the day of the premiere. “I just like documenting life. I have a lot of film that's just the weird shit in life.”
With the advent of digital photography (and cards that can hold 8,000 photos), an element of being present with the camera has fallen by the wayside. “There’s something special about telling someone, ‘Alright kid, here's 10 rolls of medium format. You only have 360 photos that you're able to take, and you won’t be able to see them until they’re developed.’” Shooting in medium format forces the differentiation between knowing when to shoot and knowing when to see the moment and savor it.
Interestingly, there still aren’t a ton of documented stories in surf culture. Even in today’s digital world, there aren’t many books or blogs that capture the verbal heirlooms that are passed down from generation to generation. “I’ve spent a lot of time listening to old surfers talk about their experiences… it feels more like the tradition of Native American stories. I’ve heard the same story from so many people, from so many different perspectives. The difference between you buying one over another is because of what that person stands for.”
This type of undocumented, personal storytelling is characteristic of another point of friction in Wessen’s artistic paradigm: a deep respect and nostalgia for the influence of the Underground and a desire to preserve it. On one hand, the Underground is defined by its mystery, by its “if you know, you know” attitude. On the other, Wessen wants to preserve the creative magic that comes from such a place by documenting it for generations to come.
“I always grew up with the underground as the influence. In the 90s, you would receive instructions to drive to some gas station 100 miles away and buy a Diet Dr. Pepper. Taped to the can, there’d be directions to a rave in the forest. Those types of things were, to me, the coolest.” And that’s how Wessen continues to aspire to be as an artist today: “Growing up with the influence of the underground, I always wanted to peak when I'm 75. If you look at all the greats in history, they died broke because no one bought shit.”
Wessen’s currently working on a project with a figurehead of a major Underground movement: the Godfather of Dogtown, Skip Emblem. The aim of the project is to capture the essence of Skip and chronicle his life. “He was a brainchild behind the Dogtown movement. He broke the mold and created a ripple effect that changed everything.” Skip’s following is unique in that it’s characterized by “such strong emotional attachment that it makes grown men cry.” Wessen’s desire to immortalize Skip through art, photography, and words comes from the realization that society won’t give anyone much credit for what happens outside the realm of the public eye: “There’s no written analytics, there are no stats like in baseball.”
No matter how much one tries to avoid any kind of self-promotion, in today’s socially-driven world it can be hard to attract new projects and clients without some kind of online presence. “My girl is very tech-y, and she basically told me that I’d never work again unless I put myself on social media. I tried to go without it as long as possible, but this past December I finally got an Instagram. It's amazing how judgmental the world is based on this one impression.”
Despite his somewhat elusive online presence (a Google search won’t prove to be very fruitful), Wessen has his hands full with various projects. “As long as I’m having fun, and I believe in IT, whatever it is, I’m happy.” Safe to say that if he’s still planning on peaking at 75, the world can expect a steady stream of art inspired by the documentation of life. The world is probably going to have to dig for it, though. And in terms of Instagram, he is still active. But you’ll have to find him yourself.