It’s a millennial quandary: How do you design a piece of street art to become the ultimate selfie backdrop? Matty Mo, who goes by The Most Famous Artist, seems to have found the answer. His colorful, graphic murals can be found across the city—or by scrolling through anyone-who’s-anyone’s Instagram. With his new business, PostNative, Mo is continuing to explore how social media influencers can be used to promote art and businesses. We sat down with him to discuss viral advertising, online anonymity, and how everyone’s obsessed with step-and-repeat patterns.
How long have you been making art?
I’m 30 years old, so I’d say I’ve been an artist for 30 years. Before art, I was in advertising technology. I was at school at Stanford when Facebook, YouTube and all these platforms launched that were fundamentally different than the traditional banner and search advertising that had been so successful on the web. A bunch of college-age entrepreneurs, including myself, started building these tech platforms, got venture capital, and ended up selling some of them. That created a little bit of independence, and the ability to pursue dreams.
What’s your current relationship with social media and the Internet? It seems like a lot of your work references it, and, obviously, you use social media as a tool.
The premise of The Most Famous Artist is an exploration of how the Internet can be used to craft peoples’ perception of you as an artist, to develop a persona, and then to ultimately stimulate demand. I’m using my background in advertising technology and marketing, and my newfound love of creating objects with my hands to create a market for myself that’s unlike the traditional landscape of, “go to art school; have a gallery show; find a collector; have that collector put you in auction; pitch for museums; have a midcareer retrospective; and then retire.”
When did you get into street art?
I started collecting art in 2008, when I had my first success in the technology world. I was collecting a street artist called Ian Ross, who’s out of San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, Banksy’s film with Mr. Brainwash came out and it just seemed like such a cool, interesting thing. In an increasingly transparent world, brought about by social media and connectivity, we’re losing anonymity. Children born today aren’t ever going to be able to go back and say, “I don’t want to participate in this online thing.” The idea that you could become this masked Robin Hood-type character and have a digital footprint, but not have it attributed to you, was fascinating to me. I started The Most Famous Artist under that notion, but it’s evolved out of that.
I was going to say—you’re not really anonymous online.
No, and one thing I can say is that I’ve never created anything illegal. I’ve only created murals that have been commissioned or approved by building owners, because I don’t feel like going to jail is going to give me any street cred [Laughs]. I still have tons of respect for the kids that are putting up their names and trying to get out there, but I have a different way of getting up, which is having influencers on Instagram cross-promote my account, or having the right people on the right blogs talk about my account.
How did you get started with that?
I think it was 2012 or 2013, when I started to notice there was this new kind of celebrity emerging on Instagram. These influencers had huge followings and were otherwise unknown. Being involved in advertising, I’ve always been focused on this concept of arbitrage, buying cheap clicks and turning it into profits. I got to thinking about what kind of products could be gifted to these influencers that would ultimately drive people to discover your product, and then purchase your product. The underlying principle or the theme is that it has to be highly visual.
You mentioned that you hope that The Most Famous Artist will become a collective.
Ideally, I’m building out the infrastructure that enables an emerging class of creative entrepreneurs to move from hobbyist to professionals. That’s through having studio space, customer relationship management software, shipping and printing, revenue management, and influencer marketing in place. As I build out my project, I want to make these tools and strategies I’ve created available to other artists who then come into the portfolio and use the infrastructure I’ve created.
I found that in addition to the influencers, mural marketing is an incredibly effective way to drive awareness to an artist. Everyone with a cell phone is looking for the opportunity to take a picture of themselves somewhere, so why not pitch small businesses the concept of creating selfie- or photo-friendly murals that establish a brand identity online and then seed those murals with already influential people to kind of kickstart the discovery of those murals? In doing so, I stumbled into a fascinating business model in which is every new, emerging business out there needs some kind of brand identity that isn’t just a picture of their coffee cup or just a picture of their food.
What have you found makes people want to take a picture in front of a mural?
I have found that step-and-repeat patterns and colors are often very successful. I think if you put a hyper-realistic mural on one wall and next to it, a step-and-repeat pattern on another, the photographer inside of each one of us would want to take a photo in front of the patterned wall, because at any distance or any angle, it looks cool. With the hyper-realistic mural, you have to get the shot just right in order for the message to come through.
What was your first wall?
My first wall was the polka dot wall at The Springs downtown L.A. It’s about 80 feet long. I had never painted a mural before, so that was a learning experience. It took two days and was hugely successful for The Springs in that West Elm, and Banana Republic, and more than a dozen influential people—who have millions of followers—went and took pictures in front of that mural, thereby driving people to discover the place, which happens to be really cool.
My most successful mural was the #selfiewall in Venice. Several thousand photos taken and my Instagram grew by 10,000 followers in a month. That was when I really knew I hit something.
Do you envision a future where more artists are working with businesses in this way?
The short answer is yes, but as I study the advertising ecosystem, we’re returning more and more to tangible, experiential moments that translate into a story that spreads online. The mural can be the most cost-effective and straightforward manifestation of that concept. Whether you’re thinking about doing a stunt as a brand or a big outdoor advertising campaign, you could just start in a densely populated, really cool area with a bunch of kids with cell phones and have a viral hit on your hands out of nowhere.
So it’s all about placement and timing?
Placement, timing, making sure you’re intersecting with the cultural zeitgeist, and then the visual aesthetic. It has to be something that people haven’t seen before. That’s one challenge for me, as I build out my mural business, is to figure out how I can keep things fresh. It’s on me and other artists to figure out what else can be done.