Illustrator Matt Blease: stay eclectic, stay weird

In Culture, Interviews, London by Claire

Matt Blease is an illustrator in London who draws fun smart and weird things that are frequently about cycling. He’s done work for local London bike shop SBC Cycles and Brother Cycles, through to Rapha. I asked him about how skateboarding and comic books have influenced his style, going from skateboarding to riding bikes, and why he loves both.

Hey Matt. I know your work best through SBC cycles collaborations. How did that come about?

I met the SBC guys when they were at Kinoko in Golden Square (in fact when they were at Tokyo Fixed), so I kind of knew them vaguely from there. I was really stoked to hear that they’d set up their own shop and went to go and check it out. We ended up talking, went on a few rides together and then suddenly there’s a t-shirt and everyone’s into it. When it’s that easy you know it’s a good thing!

What’s so cool about SBC Cycles is the shop feels like a cross between an old 90s skate shop and a pirates cave. It doesn’t have that weird bike shop vibe. They’ve made so much of their own shop fittings. Whenever I go in I’ll see something I’ve not seen before, different weird little things hanging off the wall. It’s a super cool shop.

So basically you like higgledy-piggledy looking bike shops?

I think so. I think I get put off when it’s all a little too slick, can feel too clinical. That’s not really why I’m into cycling. I like the eclectic-ness of it all, Somewhere that isn’t taking it all too seriously.

What kind of cycling are you into?

Kind of all of it! I started out BMXing. My first bike was an 70’s Raleigh Burner – it was my big brother’s old bike. I remember thinking at the time, ‘this is the perfect bike’. Then in the 90s my parents bought me a cheap, steel mountain bike. I was really excited about it but I always went back to the BMX. It was just so fun and agile, a different kind of riding experience.

When I moved to Scotland I got into BMXing (and skateboarding) a little more seriously. I was riding all the time, building jumps and trails. It was a big big part of my teens. I started mountain biking a little later. My brother built and ran a Mountain Bike park in North Devon. I’d go there as often as I could. Lots of north shore style trails, wall rides and drops.

From then, I got into riding fixed, I really fell in love with the whole fixed thing for a few years. Then inevitably a road bike followed then a cross bike and a new hardtail and so on and so on! It’s great now, wherever I’m going riding I’ve got a bike for it. It’s not one particular discipline I’m obsessed with, I just love riding in general.

This is the same brother that you went cycling an obscene distance with across France and Belgium with?

Yeah. I don’t know what the total was in the end but we did 100+ miles a day, for about a week. We followed a Tour de Flanders route. We got a ferry over to Calais, cycled from Calais into Belgium, then picked up the Flanders route and then ended in Roubaix riding the velodrome. It was amazing. We were both on steel cross bikes, it was the longest ride I’ve done. My brother lives in Devon and I’m here [in London], we don’t really get to ride together that much. So we thought we’d plan a good long trip as an excuse to hang out.

It was amazing. Even though we probably took a few too many breaks, drank and ate too much along the way, I think we were being quite competitive with each other, it probably should have been at a slower pace.

We (I) also had 20-something punctures on the trip. I was just constantly getting flats. It was awful. There was a problem with inner rim of my wheel, there was a sharp section of the valve hole that kept slicing all my valves off.

We had to start sanding bits of my rim on the side of the road. But that’s the benefit of going away with a brother who is also a bike mechanic!

It was so challenging. The cobbles! I’d been trying to train beforehand but there is a distinct lack of 25-degree cobbled climbs in London to practice on!

Photo by Jowey Roden

Do you appreciate racing more as a side effect?

Yes, it’s definitely made me appreciate [racing] more since. Previously the competitive side of cycling had never really been something I was massively into. I hadn’t followed the sport that closely – I was more into riding my bike than watching it. But my eyes have definitely been opened. I’ve started to get quite into it

You’ve been doing illustrations for Rapha recently, too – tell me about the projects.

I’ve done a couple of projects with them for their Doppio Magazine, then last year I worked on the ‘More Than a Race’ campaign with them for the Tour. I was illustrating events from the race as it was happening. Everything was quite fast paced – you really had to have grasp of what was happening in the race.

I’ve just finished a new project for Rapha coming out next year which I’m super excited about. I think they’re some of the nicest illustrations I’ve done. They’re such an amazing brand to work for. Everyone there is so passionate about the sport.

I loved that half of it wasn’t even about the racing. It was about the crowds, or the vans, or something else.

I think that’s the thing about the Tour. Their whole positioning was about it ‘being more than a race’ is right – it’s so much more than that. It’s a spectacle, like a travelling circus or something.

It feels like exploration and maybe even mindfulness are themes when you focus on cycling.

Yeah, I think so. Someone recently described my work as ‘emotionally intelligent, mindful drawings.’ I was quite happy with that!

Do you think your work is becoming more cycle-focused and less about skateboarding? I was having a look through your older work, and wondered how it had changed.

Possibly. Although I hadn’t thought about that. I used to skate a lot, although over the last couple of years it’s been much less. I quit my job four years ago and went fully freelance as an illustrator. Since doing that, frustratingly the ‘fear’ began to set in – as in, what happens if I break my wrist skateboarding? I began to skate differently, stopped doing certain things. So I was still skating but I was being more cautious. Now I haven’t skated for six months or a year! When I draw, the work that comes out is just what I’m feeling, what I’m into, what is occupying my brain at the time.

Skateboarding carries so much more of a visual weight to it. Skateboarding changed who I am and where I went.

Skateboarding and cycling are both sports, but to me skateboarding carries so much more of a visual weight to it. Skateboarding changed who I am and where I went. I’ve got so much respect for skateboarding as a ‘thing’ because it had such a strong pull in my aesthetics growing up. It introduced me to different things and attitudes that I wouldn’t have experienced.

As a kid I was so hungry to consume the culture, buying the all the skate magazines I could, seeking out the skate shops, studying all the deck graphics and t-shirts… so aware of the ‘fuck off’ attitude that they had. You knew it was kind of bad and your parents didn’t really like it (my Dad was a Vicar!), that just made you like it even more. At the same time I was really into comic books, like 2000AD and Judge Dredd and stuff like that. So much of that illustrative style was used within the deck graphics, it was all really influential for me. I’d spend hours drawing ideas for t shirts and skateboard graphics.

All of that said, I’m a much better cyclist than skater! I respect skateboarding, but I love to cycle.

What bikes do you have?

I have a steel hardtail mountain bike – a Cotic Soul, which is a amazing bike. I have a Brother Kepler, which is what I rode to Belgium. I’ve got a Brother Swift and a Brother Reynolds Track bike – which is currently in bits at the studio. I’ve also got really nice Canyon road bike, and my S&M Dirtbike BMX which I’ve still got from when I was 17, which I’m never getting rid of. I’m kind of eyeing up my next bike, but need to figure out some storage solutions first!

T-shirt designs for Brothers Cycles

What are some of your favourite places that you’re found?

I’m always blown away whenever I go mountain-biking in Devon. Sometimes you can’t believe that you’re in the UK.

Photo by Jowey Roden

I’ve been really enjoying riding cross in the Surrey Hills. I’ve had some amazing days there where the weather has just been perfect, so crisp and the light’s been amazing. It’s also so easy to get to from London.

I really want something epic. My bro and I have been talking about doing a massive ride in America, early days but I’m getting quite excited about it.

Find Matt’s work on his Instagram, Twitter, website or shop.
ClaireIllustrator Matt Blease: stay eclectic, stay weird