Graffiti Artists Make Their Mark in the T-Shirt Market


In a vast design studio that echoes with hip-hop music and reeks of paint, Carlos (Heaven 1) Munoz wields a can of Krylon like an expert.

He sprays a base coat of flat white on a plywood display booth. His friend and fellow graffiti artist David (Sike) Martinez follows with an overlay of rich gold-colored paint. Together they are creating the kind of street art that motorists, city managers and police officers love to hate.

Their plan is to put their designs not only on the booth but also on the T-shirted backs of teen-agers across the nation.

The drawings of Munoz, Martinez and half a dozen others are being sold on T-shirts and shorts by an upstart surf-wear company, One On One in Laguna Beach. President Mark Hirschman says the urban graffiti designs epitomize the street-oriented look that has swept the industry lately.

For the professional graffiti artists, he created the UHL label--Urban Hidden Literature. That's a nice way of saying graffiti. Younger artists were enlisted to make drawings for a Tags in Rags label aimed at teen-agers. Hirschman says he expects the two lines together to produce as much as $4 million in first-year sales.

The same graffiti artists who are designing the clothing line were brought into the Fountain Valley design studio Wednesday to decorate a trade-show booth for the Action Sports Beach Expo in San Diego next week, which is expected to draw 650 exhibitors and 10,000 retail buyers.

The walls of the booth were made to look like the concrete crash wall of a freeway median, complete with plywood panels on top. The team then went to work, plastering them with graffiti art.

Hirschman said he was drawn to the graffiti look a few years ago when he saw the mark of Chaka, Los Angeles' most prolific "tagger," all over the city. He later saw a newspaper article on how Chaka and the others were becoming professional artists, and he started signing them up.

Chaka, whose real name is Daniel Ramos, is now serving a one-year jail term for violating probation on a vandalism conviction. Hirschman said the artist signed his contract in jail.

The artists' job is to come up with drawings that can be used on the baggy shorts, floppy shirts and backward-facing baseball caps that once were associated with urban gangsters and now have become a hot look among mainstream teen-age boys. When Hirschman left Gotcha Sportswear in Irvine to start his own company, he says, he saw the potential for incorporating graffiti looks into clothes.

The colorful designs also mesh well with the digital imaging technique he uses to produce sharper images than conventional silk-screening. Each artist incorporates his own personal graffiti style into the clothing designs, most of which involve complicated, colorful drawings with hidden words and images.

One On One's older artists are paid a 6% commission on sales, while the younger ones generally get 25 cents for each garment sold. They also must agree never to return to painting graffiti in the streets and to confine their efforts to thick artists' books from which Hirschman selects the best of their designs.

The artists speak their own language. Munoz, 23, explains that the booth painting involves "bombing," or creating a giant mural, as opposed to a quick "throw-up." The high school dropout from East Los Angeles says that, at his tagging peak about five years ago, he was using as many as 50 cans of spray paint a week.

But simply plastering a name on a wall got boring, Munoz says, so he starting doing more elaborate work. His talent began to draw notice, and he was commissioned to paint murals. "My murals are anti-gun because I don't like guns because they kill my friends," he said.

Rob (Fixate) Fracisco of Mission Viejo, one of the artists contributing to the Tags in Rags label, said the project promises to "hit a wider audience" than any message scrawled on a wall.

"If it's on a wall," he said, "people see it as an eyesore. But if it's on a shirt, it gets respect."

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