It's an unusually chilly Friday afternoon when Alex Matus' van pulls up in front of my Newport Beach, California, home. She may have just completed the long drive down from Portland, Oregon, but Matus isn't sweating it — the nomadic tattooer is used to the miles and the climate changes.
In fact, she couldn't look any cooler as she climbs out of the nondescript white vehicle: sporting long hair, heavily tattooed arms and a denim vest with a Judas Priest Screaming for Vengeance back patch, a badass piece that she painted and stitched herself. The front of her vest is adorned with pins and patches from some of her favorite bands: Venom, Saxon, Rainbow, Midnight, Scorpions and Necrot. "I wear my Judas Priest cut religiously," she says. "People of all sorts come up to me and want to talk metal and bro down."
She wears the vest loudly and proudly, but she keeps her van low-key, asking that we not mention the make or model — that's because this isn't just her vehicle, it's also her home. She's been living in her van for the last six years and loving it. "Before the van, I was living in Oakland," Matus says. "I was working three jobs, getting fucking robbed every month, and just felt like I was constantly getting kicked in the teeth. Any money I made to get ahead, I just kept losing."
The biggest kick in the teeth came six years ago when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. In the span of a month, Matus developed a constant ocular migraine, suffered loss of muscle mass, became fatigued and started losing her hair. "I still get these connective tissue ruptures," she says. "I've been to the clinic several times and they just have no idea what's going on or how to deal with it. What's crazy is that I have a twin sister and she developed the same thing at the same time. And they can't figure out hers either."
After a series of frustrating doctor visits and lab tests, Matus — sick of getting robbed and barely scraping by — packed up her shit, gave her landlord notice and bought a van. "I was just done with nine-to-five jobs. I was over roommates and landlords," she says. "Today, my spirit is purely guided by heavy-metal shows and the weather."
These days, Matus travels from one badass concert to the next, stopping to go rock climbing or work in a tattoo shop along the way. It's a life shaped around what she calls her "holy trinity": "metal, rock climbing and art." "Tattooing affords me the ability to climb rocks and thrash my head all over the country," she says. "There are so many interconnected tattoo shops. I can basically go work at any shops that have extended an invitation and they are really supportive." With just a mention on Instagram that she will be appearing at a particular tattoo shop, people schedule their appointments with Matus. "Any day I get to tattoo a skull is a good day," she enthuses. "Honestly, anytime someone wants a skull, a wizard, or a wizard skull — my day is so great." After slinging a few fresh tattoos, Matus packs up and gets back to her quest for some noteworthy headbanging.
Like many metalheads, Matus' musical taste wasn't passed down genetically. "My parents listen to the worst music ever," she says. "My dad has Kenny G in his arsenal and my mom listens to show tunes. I grew up very sheltered. I had a pink room with white lace and I wasn't allowed to change it or put any posters up on my walls — it was brutal."
But her days in elevator-music purgatory came to an end when, at age 17, Matus left to study art and printmaking at University of Santa Cruz and quickly developed an affinity for metal. "I found heavy metal and then made a bunch of metalhead friends who shared an entirely new world of music with me," she recalls. "I started going to every show I could get to: Saviours, the Sword, Toxic Holocaust, Municipal Waste, Goatwhore, High on Fire, Yob, Witchcraft — there are so many. I was lucky to catch a lot of these bands at super tiny venues, which was really special."
During her time in Santa Cruz, Matus became known for her biker-art style of drawing, which she developed while studying Ukiyo-e (Japanese painting and woodblock prints) and watching anime. "I taught myself to draw like that as a kid," says Matus. "It's funny because when I'm tattooing and people ask where I learned, and I mention anime, that's either when the conversation completely stops or goes on forever. I'm also into so many illustrators like Ralph Bakshi, Alphonse Mucha and all the Art Nouveau stuff. I'm kind of a dork about it. I researched it all and eventually it coalesced into its own thing for me."
Her love of art eventually led her to tattooing. Matus completed a two-year apprenticeship in Berkeley, California, and then was mentored by friend Theo Mindell (also the singer of doom-metal group Orchid) from Spider Murphy's Tattoo in San Rafael. Mindell helped Matus realize her own style by advising her to tattoo in her Seventies psychedelic biker-patch drawing aesthetic. "I like to use a lot of black — it's powerful," she says. With Mindell's sound advice, Matus refined her tattoo style and folks began to come to her for it. On invitation, she did guest tattooing spots at renowned shops around the world including Idle Hand in San Francisco, Seven Doors in London, Scapegoat Tattoo in Portland, State of Grace in San Jose and Aloha Tattoos in Madrid.
Matus began her career as a freelance commercial artist 11 years ago after sending a CD of her artwork to surf/skate clothing brand RVCA. "I drew on the envelope, thinking they would have to look inside if I made it cool," she reveals. "They called me back and I've been doing freelance for them ever since. I've been to Japan, Hawaii and New York with them to showcase my art."
RVCA isn't her only client, however: She's also created artwork for bands, including Skeletonwitch, the Sword, the Shrine and Orchid — collaborations that grew organically out of her fandom. "I often go to metal shows by myself, headbang and then leave," explains Matus. "And I'm short so I always go straight to the front row and just thrash my face off. Eventually, bands took notice of me going nuts in the front row, and found out that I'm also an artist, which led to me doing artwork for them. ... I love tattooing, but my favorite thing to do is create artwork for metal bands."
When that opportunity doesn't avail itself, Matus indulges her love of metal and art in her self-published "heavy-metal travel zine" Stone Deaf, which showcases her drawings and photos as well as artwork by talented friends including Richey Beckett and Arik Roper.
Around the same time Matus was baptized in heavy metal, she was also introduced to the third pillar in her holy trinity: rock climbing. "There are a lot of similarities between metal and climbing cultures. Metal is very technical and there is always this prevailing group mentality of 'we are all in this together,'" she says. "We want everyone to be stoked and we do this together as brothers and sisters, which is, like, exactly what climbing is all about. A lot of it is puzzle-solving and often done in a group, where everyone is working together with a common goal of making it to the top."
Her love of rock climbing and the whole ethos around it played a significant role in her decision to move into a van, which she sees as a paradigm of the culture. "Actually, a lot of rock climbers live in vans," Matus explains. "They're out living that dirtbag lifestyle. Being part of a community where this is the norm, I figured I would just jump in, as well."
She adds, "And if you ask them what they do for a profession — it's crazy! A lot of these dirtbags are paramedics, engineers, astrophysicists, mathematicians and musicians. They have these incredible careers, but ultimately, they do those things so they can live this lifestyle of being a vagabond."
Not surprisingly, when Matus originally proposed the idea of living in a van to her family, they had their doubts. "They were skeptical and voiced how unsafe it was," she recalls. "But I was already living out of a Toyota Corolla at the time, which was much more exposed. And sleeping in the backseat of the Corolla, I think I've developed a little hump in my spine that's shaped like the seat divider. I call it Corolla-spine." She laughs. "With the van, at least I'm comfortable and can be discreet." Matus says she does her best not to harsh anyone's vibe with her mobile dwelling. "I roll in late and roll out early so I don't spook anyone," she says. "I try to be respectful and low impact because I really don't want to bum anyone out."
Of course, living in a van and being on constant heavy-metal adventures sounds awesome, but it's a lifestyle that comes with serious challenges, Matus admits. "There are days I don't get out of the van because I'm in too much pain," she says of dealing with her medical issues. "Sometimes my guts hurt and I just need a day to lie down. I take my time until I feel strong enough to tattoo or move on."
Autoimmune diseases can be difficult to treat because they affect people in different ways. "The best thing I can really do is eat healthy, which is not easy when I'm on the road. I spend a lot of time eating in Whole Foods parking lots," she says. "And when I'm really sick and alone in the middle of nowhere or stuck in a blizzard with no cell service, I sometimes question my sanity. My initial reaction might be to panic, but I always find my way out of a jam. I always know it's going to work out, simply because it has to."
Music helps keep her spirits up, too. Out on the road, Matus curates playlists for her travels based on the weather and the landscape. "When the weather is super powerful or shitty, I might need to listen to Necrot or Vastum or Bolt Thrower," she says. "I listen to a lot of death metal when I'm in a full-on blizzard or when it's just dumping rain." With all that experience, it only made sense that Gimme Radio (a 24/7 internet metal radio station) invited Matus to host her own show: Screaming for Van-geance. "I do my voice tracks from wherever I am — in a parking lot, at a roadside turnout, or from a show," Matus says. "And then I'll send them my playlists and they put it all together."
Where will she send her next playlist from? There's no telling where the road will lead Matus next, but she does have her favorite spots to roam. "I'm not going to give them all away," she says. "But I have been going back to Bishop, California, forever. I love it — the Eastern Sierra is beautiful. The Central Coast of California is magical. And I'm really stoked on New Mexico at the moment. I also go to Portland a lot and that's a great fucking heavy-metal town."
"Van life is constantly the best thing I've ever done in my life," she concludes, "the most amazing and most rewarding thing and something I can see myself continuing for the foreseeable future. I fucking love it."