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Matty Jankowski, RIP

There was a posting on Facebook on Saturday, January 12th, by Joe Maynard, an old friend, saying that a buddy of ours, Matty Jankowski, had just passed away in Florida. It was a very moving tribute, and it also contained a lot of information about his past, and where his life had gone to after he had moved south. I had been in touch with Matty often a few years ago, mostly via long distance phone calls, when I was writing an article about him for Clayton Patterson’s forthcoming history of tattoos and tattooing. Matty was central to this culture, as well as being a part of so many other alternative scenes. He was also a hell of a nice guy, and will be missed.

What follows is the article I wrote with his assistance:

Matty Jankowski was one of the original Unbearables. I met him in the early ‘80s when we were hanging out at Tin Pan Alley, a Times Square dive bar on 49th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. bart plantenga, a WFMU DJ had told him about us when Matty was on his radio show. The other ‘members’ were Max Blagg, who insists to this day that he was only there to hit on Maggie, the bar’s owner; Mike Golden, the editor of Smoke Signals magazine, which still exists as an online presence; Peter Lamborn Wilson, who had written the influential Anarchist tract TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone) under the pseudonym Hakim Bey, and me. I was a bookstore manager. The store I was working in at that time was New Morning Books, a shop owned by High Times Magazine, in pre-gentrified Soho. It was my job to sell everyone’s books and magazines, and make us all famous – or infamous, if you will.

Matty Jankowski

Between beers we were all bemoaning the state of American culture; the Beats were mostly no more, and we weren’t sure what was over the horizon. Matty was a breath of fresh air. The title of his magazine, Perpetual Motion, kind of sums him up. He published it under the aegis of Circle Arts, a 501 3C non-profit organization. Circle Arts was presided over by Dagen Julty. It had officers and regular meetings where someone took minutes. Matty eventually became president, a position he held for a number of years. He and bart knew each other from the early ‘70s through the Anarchist Switchboard, and bart had him on his July 4th program to perform an exorcism. Allen Ginsberg and the Fugs were on that same show.

To backtrack a bit, Matty Jankowski was born and raised in Brooklyn; that made him a true Brooklyn boy – and he never lost that edge. He lived on the corner of 12th Street and Fourth Avenue; what’s called ‘the bottom of the slope.’ Everyone in that neighborhood was in a gang – he even remembered a girl gang playing stickball in tight sweaters.

When he was in the 6th and 7th grade he was associated with a gang, too. It was called ‘crosses.’ They used car antennas (car radios needed them back then), baseball bats and zipguns as weapons. And, as a gang, they all wanted body markings to identify them as belonging to the group. Matty obliged them using accounting pencils; pencils used to keep track of stuff in business. There were red ones and blue ones. Matty drew crosses on their T-shirts, and then on their bodies.

Getting these early tattoos was a rite of passage; there really wasn’t anything else the gang members could do to set themselves apart from the other hoods. It was also important to get them because they were illegal. You could get busted for having them. Matty would draw them in a store called Tony’s in Carnarsie.

Matty got his first tattoo in 1968 – a butterfly on his wrist. His girlfriend got the same one on her ass. Matty respected her decision, but he wanted his to show – it got him respect.

In 1967 Matty washed out of the Air Force – they found his weed during an inspection. This happened in Wichita, Kansas, where he had a young girlfriend, so he wasn’t in any rush to get back east. Matty was always looking for interesting pieces of metal to make found sculptures with, and the job he managed to snag in Wichita provided him with a lot of interesting materials; he ended up working as a welder’s assistant in a huge warehouse type building making oil refinery parts. The mother of his new employers told him to take as many parts as he needed for his work, so he did. It turned out that his employers were the Koch brothers, and their company was Koch Engineering. Matty still has six of the metal sculptures he made during this period.

By 1969 Matty Jankowski was back home where the drug scene had become big time — Matty danced carefully around it. Through Phoenix House, he joined a drug rehab program. He went to the Phoenix School of Design – but things didn’t work out for him there. He did get a job working in a non-profit drug rehab center in Williamsburg on the corner of Grand and Bedford. He eventually became the assistant director of the program. Roughly around this time he started doing silkscreen in a studio on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.

Matty Jankowski was also a part of the Mail Art movement, an art movement based on the principle of sending small scale works of art through the postal service. Many of the participants decorated their envelopes wildly, and some attempted to create their own postage stamps. One of the first Mail Art shows was at the Anarchist Switchboard, which was between 1st Avenue and Avenue A in the Lower East Side, in the early ‘70s – Matty had work in that show – and it was at this same show that he met bart plantenga.

By 1974 Matty was doing tattoos in an antique shop on Atlantic Avenue, still in Brooklyn. He had partnered with Steve Gertz. Matty bought supplies, ink and stuff, in Albany, as everything relating to tattoo art was illegal in New York City. He called their business ‘Electric Art Tattoo.’

Matty and the performance artist Monty Cantsin did a number of events together in the late ‘70s. One of them was a show at the old Knitting Factory on Houston Street in 1978, where they were told that they were not allowed to use fire, but they did anyway. They coated the bottom of steam irons with rubber cement, set them on fire and then held them upside down, shooting flames to the ceiling. The joint was jam packed, so none of the bouncers could get through the crowd to stop them.

Monty Cantsin also did a show at Westbeth, in the West Village, which Matty videoed. Monty cut himself, then auctioned off some of his own blood; the bids starting at .75 cents, and then went down to .50 cents. The title of this performance was ‘Tentative Skin Exchange’, because one of the people participating was named ‘Tentative.’

Among other events that Matty did at this time was a fund raiser at Danceteria with Syd Straw for a mural project on Houston Street. The show was a great success, but the project never got off the ground.

Matty founded the Body Archive in 1990 – it was a two story garage building in the meat packing district. He turned a dispatcher’s office into the actual archive, and used the rooftop for performances on the weekends. The rent was $200.00 a month. The address was #9 on Ninth Avenue.

At about this time Wes Wood, an ex-English teacher who owned Unimax, checked out the Body Archive. Wes was making ink in his basement in the Lower East Side, and wanted to set up a tattoo emporium. He decided to call his emporium ‘Sacred.’ The trial run of the first edition of Sacred was on Broadway, also around 1990. The second edition was on Canal at West Broadway. This one included a basement and the main floor. Matty’s show, ‘Body as ritual, The Human Canvas,’ was in the basement of the original Sacred.

First tattoo convention was at Roseland 15 years ago – half of the costs were paid for by Steve Bonge and Butch Garcia – you had to ask them about everything before making any decisions. Wes Wood’s Unimax Supply Company provided the other half. They hired a girl to be the announcer, but she backed out, so Matty became the announcer. He announced for ten years up to 2004.

One final note: Matty has been listed as #76 of the most important 101 tattoo artists of all time.

There will be a memorial for Matty at Lucky (168 Avenue B in New York City) this Saturday, January 19th, from 4:00pm – 7:00pm.

–Ron Kolm


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