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Graffiti Artists Cashing In on Talents : Entrepreneurs: Taggers have taken their controversial handiwork to retail trade.

June 01, 1993|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You might say Eric Brunetti an W.Y. Wyrgatsch are rebelling. All the way to the bank.

They run a thriving graphics company in Los Angeles with a name that's unsuitable for these pages and would stun many.

But the way Brunetti honed the skills he uses to design T-shirts, album covers and other products is also likely to instantly alienate, if not outrage, a good chunk of the public: He tagged and bombed, as the graffiti jargon goes.

As a teen, Brunetti was caught and fined repeatedly for tagging. Undaunted, he graduated to graffiti "pieces," elaborate and colorful spray-can wall works.

After graduating from high school--where he focused on art--he got work drawing designs to adorn skateboards. That led to jobs painting commissioned graffiti pieces, and soon he was earning a living doing both.

Today, at 25, he commands several thousand dollars for a single wall work. He designs album covers for such top pop music stars as rapper Marky Mark and T-shirts, baseball caps and other apparel sold locally and in the Midwest, New York City, Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Italy and Germany.

Not that you will find his company's products at mainstream department stores. Its imagery includes a syringe, a bong and a wrenching photograph of a man holding a gun to another's head. But Brunetti and Wyrgatsch have to scramble to meet demand.

They recently received a shipment of 10,000 T-shirts (from a factory they pay to produce them) which retail for about $20 each. A week later, not one was left. "We get them in and they're gone," Brunetti said.

Purveyors of these products--typically boutiques offering an alternative to department store fare--say the T-shirts do go fast.

"I sold out at one of my stores in one day," said Erron Redoble, a buyer for Town and Country Recreations Inc., which runs four sportswear shops on Oahu, Hawaii.

Public anger over graffiti may be at an all-time high. Hardly any community is immune from it, and most big cities spend millions of dollars a year trying to eradicate it. Things have gone far beyond debates over whether graffiti is art or defacement.

But business is better than ever for Brunetti and other young, street-smart entrepreneurs who have taken the artistic proclivity they refined under the cover of darkness and outside of the law, and parlayed it into money-making ventures.

True, certain companies have sworn off T-shirts with graffiti-esque imagery. Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., and Stussy, Orange County-based sportswear companies, recently stopped marketing shirts depicting spray-can wielding writers, after receiving complaints from consumers.

R & S Trading Co., a Northern California firm that manufactured the Street Tags shirts Pacific Sunwear sold, has renamed the line S.T. and doesn't produce aerosol iconography anymore. Likewise, the Walt Disney Co.'s consumer-products unit put the kibosh on its "Goofiti" wear--featuring cartoon hound Goofy in front of a graffiti-adorned wall--when a national anti-graffiti organization objected.

But over the past year or so, sales of apparel designed by graffiti writers have rocketed at alternative boutiques, mainstream department stores and suburban malls.

Hector Rios, a.k.a. Hex, opened the busy Hip Hop Shop off Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue about two years ago. Since then, he has sold his T-shirts and caps there and elsewhere under the name Fat Cap, a reference to the plastic top of spray paint cans represented on many of his shirts.

Hex won't talk sales figures. But every week of the Christmas season, London Calling, a clothing store in the pristine Buena Park mall, received shipments of about 150 Fat Cap T-shirts. A few days after Santa left, a scant handful remained.

R & S Trading Co. employs about 30 graffiti writers (whose contracts are canceled if they do illegal graffiti) to design apparel, which is sold in such national chains as the Broadway department stores, according to Mark Hirschman, a partner of the Salinas-based firm. This year's projected sales for the apparel are between $3 million and $4 million, he said.

Aerosol aficionados aren't only making it in retail. They're traveling in show business and high society, as well as pop music circles.

Raul H. Gamboa of Glendale painted sets for such movies as 1992's "Reservoir Dogs," earning at least $500 per project, he said. He created graffiti-esque sets for "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," now in previews at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, and he spray-painted a work on canvas during a swank fund-raiser at Fashion Island. It was staged by the Newport Harbor Art Museum, which auctioned it off for $650.

Actually, according to Devon Brewer, a UC Irvine social science graduate student who has published studies on graffiti, graffiti writers have been finding ways to market their work since the early 1970s, which saw the first art gallery exhibition of "aerosol art" associated with hip hop, the international subculture also expressed in break-dancing and rap music.

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