PHOTOS BY Paul Flessland
Skeletal trees and white-washed roads plaster a North Fargo neighborhood on an ordinarily cold Friday the 13th. The clack of a retro door knocker is greeted by an eager dog and a relaxed man in a T-shirt and jeans.
His home studio, a brazen room painted all black, is eased by frames filled with curious scenes and creatures that reverberate a singular noise: Punchgut. Under a deer mount baptized in the stream of three cans of black spray paint, his soft presence cuts the roar of irreverence. Fame-stricken melodies of Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” play in the background as the local virtuoso attempts to summarize his work: a dark humor machine producing illustration, spray paint, collage, mixed-media and graphic design pieces.
“Black is cozy to me,” said Punchgut in the warm room lit by flares of colorful desk toys. “I kind of bounce all over the place with styles and stuff that I like. There’s stuff that I don’t feel comfortable at doing or I’m not good at it, or I haven’t put the time in. Oils are one of them, but I like my stuff a little bit messy when I do paintings.”
For Art’s Sake
Leaned over a bright green and pink wheel-less skateboard, he adds black to a monster sketch on the project he’ll be donating to the Hawk’s Nest, a local indoor skate park and skateboarding cooperative. Jabbing the tip of a paint pen into a piece of paper, he discusses different processes of transforming ideas into physical works of art.
“When I do illustrations, I like my line work to be clean, but when I get to make huge messes, that’s nice too. And I like to make stuff look really beat up and old,” he said.
With a lineup of precision artwork and experience in varied mediums, Punchgut displays a wholesome appreciation for his following and impact on the Fargo art community. “I’m fine with wherever it is. If it’s stapled up on telephone poles, which it had been for years, that part doesn’t matter to me. If just one person sees it, that’s okay,” he said.
“Once you get that reassurance that everything’s going to be all fine and you can still create, I think you have less restraints.”
His work reaches audiences online, on various places in alleys, in pop-up showings—such as his Wandering Ghost Gallery—and downtown bars with his unique mark seen in Würst Bier Hall and on bottle labels at Drekker Brewing Company. While he gains recognition in the community, Punchgut’s desire to express himself begins with a comfort in the tranquility of creation.
DREKKER BREWING COMPANY
“That’s all I really wanted to do. Sometimes I still question if that’s what I should be doing. I mean, over 40 and being an artist sounds weird sometimes, but I feel blessed that I got to go this far as being an artist,” he said.
Path To Punchgut
Before he was the artist known by one name, Punchgut was Matt Mastrud, a chaos-fueled troublemaker who rode BMX bikes and found solace in drawing with his two younger brothers. The root of his irreverence is an anxiety that can be felt in the horror he fuzzes with humor.
“I haven’t figured all of that out yet. I don’t know if I ever will,” Punchgut said about how anxiety influences his work. “I think it’s just something I have to do, even if I’m just doodling or drawing, to me that counts. Or taking pictures for references to use for something else. Even with social media and taking a picture for Instagram–just keeping that creative part, whatever it is, keep something moving with creativity. If that becomes stagnate I get really depressed.”
As with any art form, the experiences make the artist. But Punchgut has learned a thing or two from them, like sticking to sobriety and learning that his creativity isn’t dependent on alcohol.
“Once you get that reassurance that everything’s going to be all fine and you can still create, I think you have less restraints,” he expressed. “I’ve actually created a lot more sober than I have when I was using. And I’m willing to take a lot more chances. I wanted to stay in my safety bubble, ‘I’ve done this before, I’ve done this, I know I can do this.’ Now I’ll be like, ‘let’s see what happens.'”
Crafting A Community
A common thread connecting all artists is a harsh critique of their own work. Despite his insecurities, Punchgut retains a pure interest in other artists without opinion or ideology, only adoration. From musicians who are sewn into the process of his artistic expression to the artists he collaborates with, or memories of late souls who inspired his path such as Sharon Jones and Prince–he sees the inspiration behind the surface imagery.
“People are embracing him to represent their town, which is cool. He’s a good dude,” Punchgut said about Minneapolis-based artist Adam Turman, whom he worked with in an online collaborative group called Squad 19. “It’s good to see those people challenging themselves and it inspires you to do that yourself.” Among a vibrant group of creatives turning out inspired works in the area, Punchgut’s minimalism, dark overtones and eye-addicting swirls of nightmarish detail have made a popular mark on the growing urban art scene.
DREKKER BREWING COMPANY
“One of my goals would be to just relax the art scene and make it more inviting to people, so it’s not intimidating and they can go and enjoy it. I don’t like that art got intimidating. It should be laid back where people can go and have a couple drinks, if they’re capable to [laughs], and see what the people are creating locally,” he said.
WÜRST BIER HALL
Whether it’s a large spray-painted masterpiece, a beat up old dumpster or a simple doodle tucked away in stacks of crumpled paper, a Punchgut original evokes a jumbled mass of emotions and connects to audiences with a distinct style and appetite for comic relief.