BOYLE HEIGHTS : T-Shirt Artists Have Designs on Future

Barbed wire seems to figure in artist Jaime Watter's designs that have made their way onto T-shirts sold under the Street Wize label from Seattle to San Diego.

The private company, founded in February, recruits artists and others from the Central City to create designs, and market, publicize and distribute its products. The company hopes to convey inner-city images to the outside world.

"Barbed wire is, to me, the inner-city," said Watter, 25, who is also a sculptor and recently had one of his works exhibited at a Downtown museum. "It seems we're in a prison. We're able to walk around and everything, but we're in a prison. What I draw is what I feel. It's what I see."

Although small and still unprofitable, Street Wize has sold hundreds of shirts that retail for $18. Some of the original members of the company have left for other interests while new ones have come on board.

Street Wize was started by Kyle Kazan, 26, a former special-education elementary schoolteacher who has left the company and is training at the Police Academy, and his assistant, Joey Pallares, 24.

The nine remaining partners meet twice a week at Hollenbeck Youth Center to share their designs and decide which ones will be printed on their shirts. The process, which takes about a month for each design, takes the artists and others involved in the project into the printing company to observe their work as it goes through the photography, printing and pressing processes.

They even fold the T-shirts coming out of the hot oven. Then marketing decisions and sales plans are made. Street Wize has a contract with Hot Topic, a store with outlets on the West Coast.

"There's a lot of talent in the inner-city," Pallares said. "A lot of (talented youths) are lost in the inner-city because they don't get exposed. We offer them an opportunity to get their artwork on a T-shirt."

Watter and artist Edgar Adame, 15, the company's original artists, receive a percentage of the company's profits. Others are paid $100 to $150 for a T-shirt design and $25 to $50 for a sticker design.

Adame designed a shirt that has the continents on a globe forming an eyeball, a design his friends call "Mad World."

"The eye is looking back at you, like saying, 'Look at what you're doing,' " said Adame, a student at Roosevelt High School. "Also you have to be watching your back all the time. You need an eyeball."

One problem the designers face is the misconception that being streetwise connotes something negative. Their work is sometimes wrongly labeled as tagwear , designs created by graffiti taggers.

"We know there's graffiti out there. We know there's gangbangers out there. But when we say streetwise, a lot of people have thought that has to do with all that," Pallares said.

"I grew up in Estrada Courts and I consider myself streetwise, yet we're not criminals. You never do get out of the inner-city because it's a state of being."

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