Angelo Baque Speaks on His Love for Graffiti, Awake NY’s Upcoming Flagship Store, and More

Awake NY founder Angelo Baque came to ComplexCon with a booth painted by Earsnot IRAK. Here he talks about his love for graffiti and the future of Awake NY.

Angelo Baque Awake NY Interview

Image via Getty

Angelo Baque Awake NY Interview

While security was tripping about graffiti legends like MQ tagging every wall inside the Long Beach Convention Center last week, Awake NY’s founder Angelo Baque was chilling at a booth covered in so much paint that it looked like a part of the Martinez Gallery in Uptown Manhattan. At its first-ever ComplexCon, Awake NY waved the flag for New York by exhibiting a booth covered wall-to-wall with fat tags and throw-ups by Kunle Martins—a.k.a. Earsnot of the IRAK graffiti crew. While some weren’t privy to the unsanctioned art occurring throughout the convention floor, graffiti is an artform Baque has long been infatuated with as a born and raised New Yorker. 

“I mean that was my first art gallery. My first museum,” says Baque when speaking about his love for New York City graffiti. “It wasn’t the Met or the MoMa but literally the streets and highways of New York.”

The booth was blessed with Martins’ art to commemorate the release of a ComplexCon exclusive collaboration between Awake NY and IRAK. It was one of many exciting drops offered by Awake NY at ComplexCon, as its booth also sold collabs with Girls Don’t Cry, Clarks, New Era, and more. However, like all things at Awake NY, the brand’s participation in ComplexCon was much bigger than just selling hyped merchandise. Aside from using ComplexCon to highlight the beauty of drippy mop tags and dusty fills, Baque also collaborated with singer-songwriter Cuco to release a long sleeve shirt where all proceeds went towards Jovenes Inc.—a charity located in Southeast Los Angeles that provides safe and stable housing for homeless youth. 

We found a moment during ComplexCon to catch up with Baque about Awake NY, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary and opening its first flagship store in the Lower East Side of Manhattan next year. He spoke about his vision for the upcoming flagship store, his love for graffiti, and building community through streetwear.

Why did you want to center your ComplexCon booth on Earsnot rather than some of these other major collabs you have going on?

The goal for me was to bring New York to Long Beach and I didn’t want to overthink the booth. I wanted to keep it true to who we are as a brand and not switch it up just because we’re going out of town. When we started Awake almost 10 years ago, and even when we really came out swinging in 2016, there weren’t really any other “New York, New York” brands. It’s revitalizing and reinvigorating seeing Kunle and IRAK come back out. They’re friends and we all grew up together. For me, it was no-brainer to bring Kunle out here and to help me design the booth.

While that relationship with Kunle runs deep, I’ve noticed the love you’ve shown to other New York writers in the past. JA One for the New Era campaign. JAKEE for the School of Hard Knocks campaign, and Shirt King Phade for many of Awake’s collaborations. It’s rare to find someone within this space who understands graffiti culture in New York on that level. Where did this love for graff start for you?

I have an older sister who’s six years older than me. Her first real boyfriend was a graffiti writer. He wrote BEW TPC and he was a big highway bomber in the late ‘80s. I was about eight years old. So, there was that influence and a lot of my family is still spread out amongst the five boroughs except for Staten Island—no disrespect to Staten Island. Each weekend, just being able to go to the South Bronx, Washington Heights, deep into Queens Village and South Side Queens, I was witnessing all these different handstyles, characters, and people depending on what neighborhood I was in.

Awake NY x IRAK ComplexCon Exclusive

Queens is at the heart of everything Awake does. A lot of graff heads know about the writers who smashed the 7 line, like NATO and BRUZ. But what writers were you rocking with as a young dude growing up by the J and A subway lines in South Richmond Hill?

Oh man, I don’t know if this is a politically correct tag now, but RAEP TCN. He was ahead of his time with his style. Let’s see. BEZ, HUGE, and 2NICE. All the FTR dudes like SN and SLASH. VE, may he rest in peace, of course. And if you’re talking about guys off the J line, the YKK crew was a huge influence—SKUF and KEZ 5 (rest in peace). NOXER.

It’s interesting when you think about that time period, ‘92 to ‘96. We were all teenagers and these dudes were really revolutionizing handstyles and throw-ups. They were really taking over starting from the end of the train era, really bringing in and ushering this new generation of street bombing. You had like SMITH and SANE in the late ‘80s. EASY and JOZ were giants and big heavyweights in street bombing. But then, you had literally like 14-year-olds stepping up and taking the torch. 

That’s crazy, man. I love to hear this because you clearly know your shit about graffiti. Did you ever write yourself?

Yeah, I wrote. I sucked, but I love just being a student of graffiti to this day. I still practice on napkins. I always think about that scene from Style Wars with SKEME and his mother where she’s talking to him about doodling. I think every girlfriend I’ve had always asks me what I was doodling. I still like to write in the air with my index finger like I’m writing on a wall. I’ve been doing this since I was eight years old, and it’s something that will never, ever, go away.

Obviously graffiti is a graphic art form, but it extends into the world of fashion in a lot of ways. Whether it was North Faces back then or Arc’teryx jackets now. I feel like Awake has really stepped up their cut and sew game in the past couple years. Does that culture ever inform your own designs in that realm?

I would say the spirit of graffiti does. It’s rebellious. It’s punk and it’s hip-hop. It’s essentially New York. My formative years, respectfully, are like the best years of New York City. Now, I think every generation thinks that their years are the best years of New York City. But if you think about what was happening in graffiti, art, music, and pop culture from ‘90 to ‘99, I don’t know man. I look around here at ComplexCon and I still see the influence of the early ‘90s. That, to me, is a big trip. I think working in the present is learning how to not be overly nostalgic. It’s about figuring out how to make those dots connect and make it feel contemporary and new. I think that that’s the real trick.

As someone who’s worked within this space for so long, how do you think fashion’s appetite for graffiti has evolved? I mean to put this more into perspective, Kunle just exhibited his own official Louis Vuitton trunk a couple weeks ago. I personally feel like that wouldn’t have been conceivable 10 years ago.

Rest in peace, Virgil. That was his vision, to be the conduit for all the things that influenced him. It’s unfortunate that there’s a lack of people like me in this space who have the same kind of DNA at this point. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or Houston. If you have a love for this, which is streetwear, it encompasses and embodies a lot. Skate, graffiti, hip-hop, and punk rock. 

If you’re a student of this, it’s obviously all going to make sense to you. So for me, it’s asking myself how to do something a little different at this point. How do you push yourself as a designer? How do you push yourself as a kid that’s collecting all this shit? Don’t be lazy. If you look around today, a lot of the things look the same. I just have an appreciation for not just fashion, but how one tries to be unique within this space.

Speaking about uniqueness, I feel like your brand and others like Denim Tears have really shifted the conversation around what streetwear could be. While streetwear has always been about putting dope creatives on, it seems to be more than just product for brands like yours. It’s about uplifting communities and making a larger impact within this space. Do you feel like there’s a larger push for that sort of ethos in the industry as a whole? Or are not many brands moving like that?

Not to bring up Virgil again, but before he passed away, he called us the “Native Tongues of streetwear.” Myself, Chris Gibbs over at Union LA, Tremaine [Emory] at Denim Tears, and No Vacancy Inn being these like-minded brands that know it’s not all about the commercialism of this industry. It’s about how we inspire the next generation. That’s what I was talking about to bring change and normalcy in what we do. That’s what makes me most proud about the work I’ve done in the last six years. It’s bringing this level of consciousness and thinking about community as the new norm in streetwear.

You can have the fuckery. I feel like we’re able to bring balance to that. It’s not all about flipping clothes or flipping sneakers. I’m going to make a T-shirt, but how can I make a difference with this T-shirt? How can I use this T-shirt to voice an opinion or bring light to a cause that I really believe in? You don’t have to be 44 years old to do that. You could be 14 years old, be printing your own T-shirt in your garage, and voice that.

The Ojas collab and Verdy stuff is dope. But one collab here that really intrigues me is Primer Rebelde De America. I’ve seen this brand bubbling in NYC. What can you tell me about it?

The guy behind that is Victor [Vegas] and I believe he was literally my first intern four or five years ago. That’s just a proud moment to see him come in. He literally was once sweeping our office floor and throwing the trash out. Through osmosis, from just hanging around me and the designers, he was inspired to start his own thing. Once again, Awake for me, the whole point is to have a platform for kids like Vegas. It’s not about how big is your brand or how many followers are fucking with what you’re doing. If I really believe in your vision and your ideas, let’s do something together.

Can you share anything about the upcoming New York City flagship opening on 62 Orchard and why you wanted to open it there?

Well, it’s going to be dope. I’ll tell you that right now. I can’t wait. Why I wanted to open up a store is because we need a community center right now. I feel like there’s a lack of spaces where a kid like me, or a kid from deep Queens, deep Bronx, or Brooklyn, can just hang out and chill. A place that feels like home. You could be weird, you could be yourself, and you’re not just doing it for the Gram. We needed to build a home for locals. More importantly, it gets us off Instagram by giving our customers a physical experience of what Awake is and what our world is.

Orchard Street is also popping right now, man. Being able to open up there is legendary. I remember I used to go down there to buy my suits for communion and school. There’s also a rich history of commerce and retail there heavily tied to an immigrant story that’s on par with our own as a brand.

What are your goals for 2023?

To just keep making cool shit, man. That’s all. I try not to get too ahead of myself. We got some cool shit coming up next year with the store opening up. Our next Carhartt collab’s about to pop off. Other than that, it’s to just keep supporting the community by keeping our feet on the ground and pushing forward.

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