Street Art: Form Is Emptiness, Emptiness Is Form

In 2012, a year after Jonathan Matas began a residency at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters — where he added images to walls, and even to Mark Zuckerberg's laptop — Matas received another ideal assignment. He was to paint the front of this prominent Mission house any way that he wanted. And so began an outdoor project that has gone through multiple incarnations, with letters, faces, figures, and colors that have piled atop each other like a Robert Rauschenberg collage.

The first incarnation of Form Is Emptiness, Emptiness Is Form, completed in late 2012, bathed the home's lower third with outlines of shapes on a white background, the yin to the top two-thirds' more colorful yang. Now, the lower third is more colorful than the section above — and not as obviously connected. Matas' free-flowing approach borrows from Buddhism, as does the title.

“That comes from the famous Buddha quote in the heart sutra,” says Matas, a Santa Cruz resident who was living in San Francisco in 2012. “The first time, the house was a unified thing. I had no idea I'd be doing an ongoing, evolutionary mural. It was blue into teal into white, top to bottom, using the words 'form' and 'emptiness,' and blending them into one another. I don't know if anybody could see it, but there was a profile of a face at the bottom. We normally associate the face with form. And the space around with emptiness, but I switched that, so the face was all made up of the word 'emptiness,' and the background was made up of the word 'form.' They blended into one another.”

When Matas first re-did the bottom part, after it was tagged with graffiti, he created images of figures looking at their mobile devices as they walked down the street, then added the tag “#happy holidays.” He's reworked the mural several times more.

“It seems,” he says, “to be turning into an ongoing mural.”

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