Outside Staples Center, a grim hustle for unlicensed vendors of Kobe R.I.P. shirts
Nearly a week after the death of Kobe Bryant, the ongoing vigil at Staples Center in honor of the basketball great showed no sign of abating. Mourners, day and night, have left purple-and-gold flowers, candles, caps, handwritten messages and in some cases their favorite pairs of basketball shoes across the expanse of L.A. Live’s XBox Plaza. On Wednesday, mariachis played “Amor Eterno.” On Thursday night, Aztec dancers appeared.
Along the edges of the downtown sports complex, just outside the boundary between private property and public sidewalk, are the T-shirt vendors.
They began showing up less than 24 hours after the helicopter crash that killed Bryant and eight other adults and children, including his daughter Gianna. The items they brought already carried Bryant’s years of life, 1978-2020, and fans were stopping and noticing.
“T-shirts, T-shirts,” one vendor yelled at the foot traffic across the street from the Staples Center late Tuesday night.
“How much?” a pair of L.A. guys walked up and asked, eyeing the vendor’s rows of black tees featuring Bryant’s face.
“Ten dollars,” responded vendor Gerardo Contreras, 25.
The young customers, in gold Bryant jerseys over white tees, looked to be street-smart shoppers. “Two for 18?” one asked with a smile. Contreras grunted a “yes” and sealed the sale.
A wearable memorial
T-shirts inevitably permeate a cultural happening as large as the death of a celebrity such as Bryant. On Friday, before the Lakers’ emotion-filled first game since the Sunday tragedy, the organization draped T-shirts bearing Bryant’s retired jersey Nos. 8 or 24 on every seat except two, Bryant and Gianna’s usual chairs, which got special treatment. It was a generous giveaway. At the online NBA store, official Bryant jerseys now sell for $300.
Contreras started silk-screening his own Bryant memorial tees at home as soon as he heard about the accident. “It happened on a Sunday. I have my own setup,” he said with some pride in explaining how quickly he made it out before a growing row of competitors along the sidewalks. “We made ours in a snap.”
The vendor has items in purple and gold, but his best seller is a somber black tee with a print of Bryant’s face and the phrase: In Loving Memory of Kobe Bryant, 1978-2020.
The back shows the basketball star in a familiar courtside embrace with his daughter Gianna, 13, who died in the crash, as well as the names of the other seven local victims who were friends or close associates: John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan.
But so-called R.I.P. shirts also arise to mark less newsworthy deaths: fathers, brothers, friends gone too soon.
It’s a grim hustle, Contreras acknowledged.
Like the thousands who have been streaming in and out of the complex, Contreras didn’t expect to be here. But since that first night, he’s set up shop on a sheet atop a grubby piece of sidewalk at Figueroa and Olympic, with his original — and unlicensed — T-shirt designs on display. Others have joined him.
“A fan I’m not, unfortunately,” Contreras said. “It might sound bad, but this is part of the work. This is what we do.”
Contreras is demure on the details of his operation. Since Bryant’s death, he’s been pulling in wads of small bills from sales, every afternoon into the late evening. He uses a shell of a low-tier cotton blend imported from China, but it does the job. He promised a lingering customer he’d cart out “other designs” as the week progressed.
“People are going to be making money out here regardless,” said one tee buyer, Fabian Villarreal II.
Contreras and other vendors said they know their goods are unlicensed. But he argues his business plays a role in how Los Angeles mourns.
When deaths of local heroes of great magnitude occur, the people of L.A. hold public memorials and all-day vigils. Angelenos also mourn with personal displays: tattoos, window decals on vehicles and most of all, T-shirts. They are a wearable memorial.
Contreras has sold memorial tees for all the big ones, and this town has certainly had practice in mourning. In the past, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Hussle and maybe lesser known but no less influential figures such as Jenny Rivera or Adan “Chalino” Sanchez, all generated memorial merchandise. The way Contreras sees it, people want his products in times like these.
Even under the city’s liberalizing rules related to the contentious issue of street vending, sidewalk merchants must apply and pay for an official vendor license through a permitting program that began Jan. 1. There are also no-vendor zones, and Staples Center is one of them.
On Friday, inspectors from the city of Los Angeles were out around the facility, asking several vendors to voluntarily move to the east side of Figueroa Street.
“There’s a buffer zone,” said Elena Stern, spokeswoman for the L.A. Public Works Department. “That buffer zone is off limits to permitted and unpermitted vendors.”
But overall, a heavy-handed enforcement operation has not materialized. Contreras, who is a native of Mexico City, is set up just outside Staples Center‘s no-vending buffer zone.
“They’re letting us work,” Contreras said of the police, displaying some of the trademark bravado of the Mexico City chilangos.
Waiting for a ‘parade’
Jason M., a vendor who declined to give his full last name, citing another job he keeps, said his shirts contribute to the mourning process. “It’s just the culture out here, it’s L.A.,” said the 20-year-old native of Inglewood. “L.A. is all about getting that hustle.”
He said he got his shirts with multicolor designs honoring Bryant’s life from a supplier and, like Contreras, sold his merchandise for $10.
“I play football,” Jason said. “I was able to apply that mentality that [Bryant] had: having a purpose, working hard, getting the right results.”
After Art Gozukuchikyan heard that Kobe Bryant had died in the hills above Los Angeles, he transformed into Artoon.
Rosa Miranda, a longtime L.A. vendor organizer who is deeply versed in the vendor geography of the city’s streets, described the R.I.P. shirt merchants as “vendedores de eventos,” or “event vendors.”
“That’s how they define themselves,” Miranda said, while describing the difficulties to get such vendors to join the networks that have advocated for full decriminalization before the City Council for more than a decade. Stern at the Public Works Department said the city has awarded more than 220 permits since the new application process began Jan. 1, but there are an estimated tens of thousands of L.A. vendors that populate sidewalks. An overall grace period is in place through June.
Contreras, the vendor on Figueroa, said he’s been hawking T-shirts after major tragedies since the death of Jackson in 2009. “This is the same,” he said, addressing the level of intensity in fan fervor for Bryant’s death at age 41.
“And with the rapper,” Contreras said of Hussle, who was shot in March 2019.
Contreras has arrived every day around 3 p.m., and stayed until 11 or later. He plans to be out here until the crowds thin out. “We don’t know when the parade will be,” he said.
As the night wore on, three friends from Lakewood and Cerritos stopped to check out Contreras’ black tees.
“It’s for my amigo,” Vangie Cervantes, 32, said to the street vendor. She decided to also get a shirt for her own collection. “I think it’s me keeping him in memory, keeping him alive,” she said. “Future, present, and past.”
There were balloons and jerseys, smiling teddy bears and scuffed basketballs. But the gut punches were delivered by notes that had been written on paper, cardboard, or greeting cards.
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