You don’t often meet folks who are as passionate and driven as Johnny Mateu. The 28-year-old West Philadelphian isn’t just highly invested in his leather working, the man is bursting at the brim with general enthusiasm for life. He’s one of those “if it’s broke, let’s fix it and make it better” kind of people, and he’s certainly not afraid to dip his toes into something new.
Originally from Delaware County, Mateu made his way to the city to study digital media production at the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2006. Back in high school Johnny was dead set on working in the movie industry, whether that be by acting or film making. With years of skateboarding under his belt, he would spend much of his free time in college hanging out at Philly’s FDR Skate Park, where he filmed some videos for “Thrasher” magazine. “FDR is kind of like Peter Pan and The Lost Boys in Never Never Land,” he said. “I loved every minutes of that.” The D.I.Y. skate spot is entirely created and run by the skaters who regularly surf the concrete, and soon Mateu found his own place within the colony. “I got immediately sucked into that world, 110 percent.” He ended up spearheading the construction of two of the park’s major ramps, including a 13-foot tall, 36-foot wide bowl known as “The Castle.” Even though his father was a mechanic, he never saw himself as a maker of things, so his motivation to accomplish such a project came as a bit of a surprise. “When a question would come up like, ‘Would you ever want to build a cabinet?’ I was like hell no I would hate to do that!”
In 2010 Johnny started to dabble in chopper culture so he purchased his first Harley Davidson with the intention of stripping it down for customization. First on the list was getting rid of the bulky stock seat and finding something that was one of kind, of course it was then pointed out by his friend Josh that he could just make one of his own. That's where it began. He purchased his first $30 leather starter kit and made himself a one of a kind seat, just like he wanted. Four years later Johnny has really come to the sweet spot of his skill and craft. When he’s not in his home workshop, he takes on a day job that requires just as much technique and creativity as his hobby. At Flying Pig Frames near the Piazza, he specializes in constructing recycled and reclaimed materials into unique picture frames – everything from bike tires and beer cans to barn wood. “I think it’s really important for a young man to realize that you do have the power to create things.”
Johnny grabs a lot of inspiration for his leatherwork from the culture that spiked the craft: the good ol’ cowboys. “A lot of those traditional Western designs have stood the test of time just because they are that good,” he says. Knife holsters and travel satchels are just some of the traditional items Mateu has given a modern Americana update to. Tattoos also have a place in his work, as he's got some of his own to show for. He says the traditional style is great because of their simplicity, use of line, and applied shading techniques. All of his favorite things come to fruition in the form of unique wallets, belts, bags, and pretty much anything you ask him to do, because he’s likely up for a challenge. “In a world of mass-produced, plastic items, I think it’s important for things to be made the way that I’m doing them – one person just sitting down and creating something with passion, creativity and love.”