Spanto Forever: How Chris “Spanto” Printup Became A Streetwear Folk Hero

Born X Raised is more than a beloved Los Angeles streetwear brand. It's Chris “Spanto” Printup’s life story told through T-shirts.

Chris Spanto Printup holding his child with his wife Anna.
Complex Original (Image Courtesy of Born X Raised)
Chris Spanto Printup holding his child with his wife Anna.

The streets of Los Angeles came out to memorialize Chris "Spanto" Printup days after he tragically died at the age of 42 on June 28 following a car accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Graffiti writers spray-painted his name on everything from storefront gates to the L.A. River banks. Hundreds of Angelenos gathered near Spanto’s birthplace in Oakwood Park for a lowrider procession. Surfers pulled up to the Venice Breakwater beachfront for a paddle-out on the same shores that Spanto proudly defended as his home. Spanto’s death shook Los Angeles so much that Born X Raised co-founder Alex “2Tone” Erdmann described the response to Spanto's death as "Nipsey-level."

“That was one of the biggest paddle-outs I've ever seen. I was blown away when I came up and saw the crowd because, holy shit, it was massive,” 2Tone shares with Complex. “He was fully a man of the people and connected to everyone in that neighborhood. The ripple effect from his death, I've never seen anything like it. Someone told me they were translating his videos into Japanese so people there could understand who he was.”

Spanto’s passing comes nearly a decade after he launched Born X Raised with 2Tone in 2013. Together, they created a brand that Spanto described as a “cultural movement” and a “love letter” to the L.A. they grew up in during the ‘80s and ‘90s. But Spanto wasn’t just making T-shirts with Old English letters. Born X Raised was his life story. What started as a T-shirt birthed by his frustrations with gentrification blossomed into a platform that celebrated his folk heroes, his Indigenous heritage, and everything else that made him one of the most prolific ambassadors of L.A. and the Westside. And even though Spanto survived gangs, supermax prisons, and a four-and-a-half year battle with terminal cancer, 2Tone says he never imagined him not being a part of the brand. That’s because giving up was never an option for Spanto.  

“He fought, every fucking second. Spanto was a fighter through and through, 1000%.” says 2Tone. “If you ever came up against him, you knew that. And his reaction to everything that was getting thrown at him was ‘Fuck this, I'm going to punch through.’"

Spanto shirtless with Venice tattoos

Spanto was born on June 6, 1981 and raised within the Oakwood section of Venice inside the same house his great-grandparents purchased in the 1930s. As Spanto detailed in an interview with Throwing Fits, his great-grandmother was from the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona and his great-grandfather hailed from the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation in New York. They were among many Native Americans sent to federal boarding schools designed to eradicate their Indigenous heritage. They migrated to Venice less than 30 years after real estate developer Abbot Kinney opened the neighborhood in 1905. Spanto’s hometown, Oakwood aka “Ghost Town,” was a working-class neighborhood; originally inhabited by African American employees and migrant workers hired by Kinney to construct a neighborhood that the developer envisioned to be the “Coney Island of the Pacific.”  

“You know that ‘it’ thing or that star quality?’ Chris always had it.”—DJ Muggs

In an interview with Fuse, Spanto revealed growing up "artist poor" in a two-bedroom home with three brothers. His late father was the blues guitarist Butch Mudbone and his mother (Cheryl) was a writer, musician, and painter. His father left when he was 2, becoming a displaced musician on the Venice boardwalk, while his mother grappled with mental illness. Venice wasn't the picturesque resort Kinney envisioned or the gentrified tech bro enclave it is today. Instead, it was a place where subcultures like graffiti, skateboarding, and surfing converged at the bygone Venice Pavilion and where wearing Nike Cortezs could spark fights with gangs on the boardwalk. In 1994, the Los Angeles Sentinel described Spanto’s hometown of Oakwood to be "1.1-square-mile war zone," where 13 gang-related homicides took place a year before. 

“Oakwood Park [in the ‘90s] was a place where you could cop some dope and then walk over to Abbot Kinney to eat at a nice restaurant,” remembers the Los Angeles photographer Estevan Oriol, one of Spanto’s closest friends. “They were building a lot of new stuff near Abbot Kinney Boulevard, but there was also lots of gang activity with gangs like V[enice]13 and the Shoreline Crips that were super active during that time.” 

Spanto became a member of the Chicano gang Venice 13 by the time he attended Venice High School. As told by Spanto in his own Instagram posts, he spent much of his adolescent years going in and out of juvenile halls and county jails. “He was a live wire who was very active and really out there,” shares 2Tone. “I don't know any other way to say it, but if you know what I'm talking about, you know what I'm talking about.” But becoming a gang member was foundational for Spanto’s own personal sense of style. “My mom always kept me in old Converse and old Suicidal [Tendencies] shirts and vintage,” Spanto revealed in an interview with Coveteur. “One of the best parts about being a gang member back then was being able to dress like one. Because back then you couldn’t just wear a pair of white Reebok classics or a pair [of] fresh 501s, people would be like, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’” 

Spanto’s style as a young hustler stuck out to DJ Muggs, the Cypress Hill member and Soul Assassins founder who was one of Spanto's oldest acquaintances and knew him when he was just 14 years old. “He was always fashionable. Like when he was dressed in just his Levi's and white tee, everything was creased, ironed, clean and fly,” says Muggs. In an interview with Complex, Spanto said he was into brands like Polo, Nautica, and Donna Karan growing up. However, what drew Muggs to Spanto wasn’t his style, but the charisma he had at such a young age. 

“He was just a kid running around in the neighborhood, surfing, skating, gangbanging, writing on walls, and just out in the mix with all the older kids,” remembers Muggs, “You know that ‘it’ thing or that star quality?’ Some singers can sing, but they ain't got that star quality. Chris always had it.”

Spanto with his family at home in Venice.

Spanto had no formal training or background in fashion. Before starting Born X Raised he rigged stages for concerts as a member of the IATSE Local 33 union. As told to 2Tone on his podcast Powerful Truth Angels, Spanto also had no business plan or investors. He ideated the brand’s name, logo, and creative direction while finishing a yearlong supermax prison sentence. After being taunted by a corrections officer every day while he was in “the hole” (aka solitary confinement), Spanto wanted to find a new hustle besides dealing drugs.

“He had the ability to pull me out of my cell, cuff me, and leave me cuffed on the floor for like 24 hours,” recalls Spanto on the podcast. “This is not tight. When some big old fucking dork can tell me when I can eat, when I can sleep, when I can shit, and when I can use the phone. When I get out, I have to figure something else out because this isn’t working.”

Spanto started Born X Raised after leaving prison by screen-printing 36 T-shirts that he sold out the trunk of his car to Westside locals like Alejandro "Buchie" Rodriguez, co-founder of the Los Angeles menswear label BTFL. Rodriguez fondly recalls meeting Spanto at a Venice Fourth of July party in the early 2010s. Spanto, fresh out of prison, made a memorable entrance by greeting everyone with a white cockatoo on his shoulder. “To be honest, his personality never changed,” shares Rodriguez. “He was always just very charismatic and very excited about everything that he was doing.” During the party, Spanto walked Rodriguez to the trunk of his car to give him one of those first T-shirts, which featured a Native American head and a slogan reading “Gentrification is Genocide”—inspired by “Relocation is Genocide” graffiti Spanto saw when visiting his father at the Big Mountain Navajo Rez in Arizona. Spanto’s first graphic aptly expressed the discontent Venice natives like Rodriguez felt about the gentrification of their neighborhood, which also drew in the brand’s co-founder, 2Tone.

“From the very beginning I saw a genuine brand coming from a genuine person telling a genuine story.”—Chris Gibbs

“That's what got my attention because I was thinking the same thing. It's fucked up that I can't buy a house in my own neighborhood,” remembers 2Tone, who joined Born X Raised after directing a short film for Spanto to properly introduce the brand. “When we made our debut in 2013, nobody was saying anything [in streetwear]. That's why I jumped on.”

2Tone reminisces on those early days of Born X Raised. Back when he was running the brand from his apartment with just Spanto and Merlin “Merf” Osborne—another Venice local who invested $50,000 in the brand before his death in 2018. He still finds it crazy that three guys from Venice, a town not known for success stories, pulled it off. He remembers how he and Spanto would have coffee, walk around, tag their names, and think of endless ideas for Born X Raised. Aside from directing music videos and painting graffiti, 2Tone previously owned brands of his own, so he taught Spanto everything he knew about streetwear. His business partner soon became an inseparable friend.

“I must have had a midlife crisis because I was running around and acting like a maniac with him,” says 2Tone. “Everything felt brand-new. We started making these zines, Spanto just started tagging on billboards, and there was this crazy output of energy.”

The spark Spanto and 2Tone created with Born X Raised quickly turned into a fire that spread across Los Angeles. Months after they partnered, Born X Raised debuted at Union through a pop-up and collaborative collection that was released in June of 2013. In an email to Complex, Union’s owner Chris Gibbs explained why Born X Raised won him over quickly. 

“From the very beginning I saw a genuine brand coming from a genuine person telling a genuine story,” writes Gibbs. “There were a few people trying to ‘pose’ but nothing felt authentic. So when Spanto first showed up, I was excited because living in LA, I saw this great Chicano community that was super dope but not fully represented. I told him then and there that I thought Born X Raised could be that: the streetwear brand to represent LA.” 

That authentic representation of Los Angeles was apparent in Born X Raised earliest visuals and resonated with L.A. natives like Oriol and Rodriguez. When the brand shot its first film in Spanto’s family home, Oriol remembers Spanto asked him to photograph a child lying inside an empty bathtub to reference how parents shielded their children from drive-by shootings in the past. Spanto was so committed to storytelling that Oriol remembers Spanto volunteered to actually get jumped by gang members for the film. “They didn't hold back because it was him,” shares Oriol. “I don't care how ‘streetwear’ you think you are, I don’t know too many people who are down like that.” Rodriguez was one of Spanto’s eclectic friends to appear in The Town I Live In, the second film by Born X Raised that debuted at their Union pop-up. The film, which plays like an abridged visual bildungsroman of one's upbringing in Venice, enthralled Rodriguez because it spotlighted real Westside locals and it represented how quickly the brand grew.  

“Spanto made it look so easy from the outside but I know it wasn't. Because he busted his ass every day to do what he needed to do,” says Rodriguez. “I think people just started to become amazed by him after that.”  

Spanto with his family protesting for Indegenous people impacted by the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.

Born X Raised’s profile only grew after its debut at Union in 2013. That same year, Kendrick Lamar wore the brand while performing at Lollapalooza and in the music video for “Collard Greens” by Schoolboy Q. Two months after its launch at Union, it was stocked at Colette in Paris, Slam Jam in Italy, Supply in Australia, Headquarter in Mexico, and The Hideout in London. But as Spanto shared in his Powerful Truth Angels interview, he found out that he had cancer that same year and started chemotherapy shortly after celebrating his earliest wins with Born X Raised. 

“It’s like having your heart broken every single day,” said Spanto about chemotherapy in his Throwing Fits interview. “The constant limbo of being like: ‘You're alive, just kidding, you're dead.’”

Spanto was diagnosed with terminal T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia , a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer. A doctor told him he faced a 95% mortality rate and would have to start chemotherapy as soon as possible if he wanted to live. He told 2Tone on the Powerful Truth Angels podcast that he was unfazed by the doctor’s diagnosis and agreed to start treatment the next day despite knowing nothing about chemo. 

“I remember seeing him in the hospital and he would start pounding his chest, yelling and shit. ‘Okay, you're going to beat cancer,’ because I think that's what it takes. I think it’s willpower and he fought it through,” 2Tone emphasizes. “So he had to battle cancer, take chemotherapy, while trying to figure out and learn this business. He was staying afloat and doing the best he could to stay involved in it.” 

2Tone says that Spanto worked in Born X Raised offices every chance he could during those four-and-half-years he underwent chemotherapy. At times, he would disappear for weeks because he was too sick. There were moments when 2Tone would even design new drops with Spanto besides his hospital bed. “Some days he had incredible energy for someone so sick, others you could tell he was lagging,” writes Gibbs. “2Tone was obviously instrumental in those days. But Spanto was there and he was fighting for his life every day while also helping to build this brand.” 2Tone remembers how the treatments changed his partner physically. His head would grow bigger and smaller. His face would lose its color and turn white. Before chemo, Spanto weighed 205 pounds. A month later, he went down to 138 and lost all his hair. Yet, Spanto still mustered enough energy to come out to party while walking with a cane or to tag his name throughout Los Angeles. 

“He was a warrior, a beast, a savage and all these other words that people throw around so lightly. He just saw cancer as another challenge and was cool with it,” shares Oriol. “When he was getting chemo, he'd tell me ‘I feel weak. I feel sick. This is like the worst pain I've ever had or the most sick I've ever felt.’ You good homie? Do you need anything? All he would say is: ‘There's nothing nobody could do, I got to fight this myself.’” 

Despite the challenges they faced, Born X Raised continued to create moments during the years Spanto had cancer. In 2014, they initiated the first Sadie Hawkins Formals, an annual event for friends and family in Los Angeles. They dropped collaborations with footwear brands like Reebok and record labels like Top Dawg Entertainment. By 2016, Born X Raised’s Old English font snowballed into a larger fashion trend that led to Kanye West creating The Life of Pablo merch in a similar style. When Forever 21 was accused of copying West’s merch for a collection, Forever 21 cited Latino gang memorial shirts and Born X Raised as its reference points. 

“Their logo reminded me of how we went to army surplus stores to get iron-on felt Old English letters on our back. Where we put on our crew, our neighborhood, or our love for our old lady. They captured that era in modern times and it never goes out of style,” says Los Angeles graffiti artist and streetwear pioneer Mister Cartoon. “So I would just trip on the loyalty they received from the street. All these youngsters were feeling their sense of pride. Even if they were not from California, all of them were proud of where they were born and raised.”

“He had the ability to make you see beauty in things you wouldn't expect to see beauty in.”—Anna Printup

It was also around this time when Spanto’s friend Rodriguez was tapped to help design Born X Raised’s first cut-and-sew collections. Rodriguez remembers Spanto always being interested in high fashion and frequently spoke to him about designers like Rick Owens and niche Japanese labels. “We weren't re-creating the wheel, but focusing on things that he thought were important from his wardrobe, nostalgic to him, that fit into the Born X Raised lifestyle,” shares Rodriguez. “He really cared about all the details and he wanted it to be the best that he could do with the resources he had available. He wasn't just about making a shirt to make a shirt.” Together they designed their own unique hoodies for the label instead of blanks. They cooked up pleated tropical wool gabardine trousers and denim jackets with patches sourced from old Native American quilt blankets. The brand began designing everything from leather bomber jackets to Japanese twill shorts sewn in L.A. 

“He definitely wasn’t scared to wear designer clothes, but he incorporated it into a homie style, which traces back to the Pachuco of the 1940s.” shares Mister Cartoon about Spanto’s personal style. “He wasn't scared to go outside of the unspoken rules about the way homies dress. The rest of the world is just catching up to something that’s been happening here for generations.” 

But even though Born X Raised continued growing, it did not translate into financial stability for Spanto. By the time he finished chemo and became cancer-free in 2018, he accumulated over $100,000 in debt due to medical expenses, his credit score tanked to below 400, his car wouldn’t start, and he lived in a small apartment in South Central. But then he met his future wife Anna. “He always said I met him at the lowest point in his personal and professional life, and didn’t understand why I loved him, but I did right away,” Anna Printup, who first met Spanto while her own mother was undergoing chemo for breast cancer, wrote in an email interview with Complex. Whether it was his loud authentic laugh, his dark sense of humor, his love for power lines in Los Angeles, or the way he danced like a “hood Napoleon Dynamite,” Anna says she found everything about Spanto to be infectious. 

“He had the ability to make you see beauty in things you wouldn't expect to see beauty in,” notes Anna. “Once he heard a voice or one’s story that was being lost, he felt an incredible duty to use his platform to bring it to the forefront. That drove him along with his desire to take care of his family and the communities around him.”

On her first birthday she celebrated with Spanto, she remembers him making several batches of cornbread cake until he baked the perfect one to write out “Will you be my girlfriend?” The following year, he proposed to her the morning before he shot Born X Raised’s first campaign with Converse in 2018. A year later, he asked her to be his business partner. Spanto planned to build the rest of his life with Anna by his side. 

“We started to slowly work together on things, I started helping a lot with his career from home, with Born X Raised as well as a separate company we started together. We became a team,” shares Anna. “Got him health insurance, got a new car, got out of debt, he was able to buy the house he grew up in, moved out of that room, and we began our lives together. I then watched him grow into the most amazing father and businessman over the years. He really amazed me how far he came.”

Spanto holding his child

After Spanto beat cancer, Born X Raised only kept its momentum. As reported by WWD, the brand had 80 accounts globally, was showing collections to buyers during Paris Fashion Week, and hired approximately 10 employees by January 2019. Within the past five years, the label’s drawn nearly every major Los Angeles sports team as a collaborator, releasing collections with the Rams, Dodgers, Lakers, Raiders, and the Los Angeles Football Club. Last year, they even worked with Taco Bell to give 250,000 employees exclusive Born X Raised T-shirts and release a branded vegetarian meal that was available nationwide. 

"The sad part of this to me is that I think Spanto was just about to really come into the light on a global scale,” writes Gibbs. “For most of Born X Raised’s run over the last 10 years, it was mainly an L.A. brand. But the brand exploded in the last year or two and has become global.”

"He learned how to employ his charisma and personality to its fullest extent to get to every place that we've been.”—Alex 2Tone

Right before Spanto died, he unveiled two of Born X Raised's biggest collaborations to date. In early June, he released a collection with Levi’s inspired by his indigenous heritage that was dedicated to his late father Butch—who died in a car accident in January. The campaign for the collection was shot on the White Mountain Apache Reservation Spanto’s great grandfather grew up in and featured denim apparel with Native American motifs inspired by his father’s belongings. “He told me he kept crying that trip and he didn’t know why (Spanto is not a crier), but if I had to guess, he felt connected to his ancestors, the blood, and history that made him who he was,” wrote Anna. Days before Spanto died. Born X Raised unveiled a highly anticipated collaboration with Nike SB. 

“Honestly, I don’t think he ever did anything he wasn’t proud of, but I know he was really the most excited career-wise when he signed his deal for the Nike SB. I'll never forget the call from that day. He sounded like a little kid,” recalls Anna. Spanto first revealed news about the collaboration by gifting pairs to the entire 2023 graduating class of Venice High School. “Generations of his family went to Venice High School. Many of those kids look up to Spanto and he felt a responsibility to be there to help inspire them and their own dreams.” Whether it was using Born X Raised to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House or to support gang-intervention programs like L.A.’s Homeboy Industries, Spanto was passionate about philanthropy and Anna hopes to continue that for him. 

The last Born X Raised campaign Spanto touched, released posthumously in July, was for a collaboration with the L.A. Dodgers that spotlighted California’s charrería culture.

“Where was he headed? He was there already."—Tremaine Emory

“Towards the end, I think he really came into his own. It took him a while for him to feel like he had it locked in and confident because he came from a place where you don't know any of this,” reflects 2Tone. “The way that he interacted with people before wasn't currency in this new world. That didn't mean he wasn't a hard charger, because he was, but he learned how to employ his charisma and personality to its fullest extent to get to every place that we've been.” 

Spanto’s aura is why Oriol, a 57-year-old photographer who has shot some of Los Angeles' most prolific celebrities along with campaigns for brands like Nike, was always drawn to work with him more than other clients. Even though Spanto would call Oriol less than a week before he needed photos for a shoot that could take over 14 hours from start to finish, Oriol looks back fondly on those Born X Raised campaigns because it was more than an opportunity to represent L.A. It was a chance to create unforgettable memories with Spanto. He recalls seeing Spanto at his happiest when they photographed cars spinning donuts on the freeway for a collaboration with Modelo. 

“He said, ‘That was the fucking shit, I love this shit. I feel like a fucking kid again. This is how I used to feel when I was doing crazy-ass shit.’ And that's what keeps me alive, too,” Oriol reminisces. “It never felt like work when I was with Chris. It was just two friends doing cool shit while having the time of our lives.”

Above all, Spanto was a compassionate friend. The type of guy to text, “Hey, bro, I'm just letting you know, I love you, man” to DJ Muggs on a random weekday afternoon. He'd then knock on Muggs’ door at 7 the next morning, unannounced, to see if he would be down to get breakfast. A Harley motorcycle enthusiast who would text Oriol out of the blue to see if he wanted to bike along the California coast during the middle of a busy workday. A family man who would link with OGs like Mister Cartoon to talk about the future of streetwear and raising kids right after shooting a lookbook that captured Cartoon’s own son going to prom. A successful, but humble, entrepreneur who Rodriguez says made everyone feel special. A gentleman who greeted everyone at a launch party for a Levi’s collaboration with the same charisma he had at Rodriguez’s Fourth of July party a decade ago. A cancer survivor who checked in on friends, like Denim Tears' founder Tremaine Emory, when they were hospitalized with their own medical ailments.

“Where was he headed? He was there already. He was making clothing that he wanted to make based on the culture that he lived and loved.” shares Emory. “Where's a higher place to go than that?”

Chris Spanto Printup Born x Raised Levi's Lookbook photo.

In his last extensive interview with Throwing Fits, Spanto reflected on the last 10 years of Born X Raised and said he aspired to open a brick-and-mortar store, elevate the label’s cut-and-sew, and collaborate with a major fashion house. “It's funny because we would always tell him ‘You're us. You're our Louis and our Gucci,’” recounts DJ Muggs. “We're just waiting for that.” 

Spanto leaves behind his wife, three children, a sister, three brothers, his mother, stepmother, stepfather, his beloved grandparents, and countless stories yet to be told. The last conversation Emory remembers having with him were talks about a collaboration between Born X Raised and Denim Tears. Mister Cartoon says Spanto was looking to work with him on Born X Raised events in Thailand and Japan to increase its presence in Asia. Oriol remembers Spanto asked him if he was ready to finally release a Born X Raised capsule centered on the photographer’s work. They also spoke about Spanto changing the rims on the 1970s Monte Carlo he spent five years building so he could join the Pegasus lowrider club. The last time Oriol spoke to him was through a phone that 2Tone put up to his ear inside a hospital bedroom where he was surrounded by his friends and family.  

“I had been in a room before where people were in a coma, on life support, and they said they were able to hear people talking in their room. That supposedly helped them and pushed them to fight,” says Oriol. “All the doctors were telling him he wasn't going to make it. So I asked 2Tone if he could put the phone up to his ear and he said, 'Go ahead, you're on speaker.' I got to say bye.” 

Spanto Wearing a LA Rams custom Coach Spanto jersey.

2Tone never imagined being a part of Born X Raised when Spanto first approached him, nor has he given much thought about the brand hitting its 10-year mark. When he first met Spanto, he was initially interested in becoming a filmmaker, but the first commercial he made for Born x Raised drew him in as much as any motion picture.

He describes Born X Raised as a movie he directed with Spanto as his lead actor. Today, he seeks to fulfill the projects Spanto was working on while also maintaining Born X Raised’s integrity. He strongly believes that streetwear can make a statement and that Born X Raised was ahead of the curve with projecting a larger message through the genre. By doing that, he feels that Spanto became a folk hero for a certain demographic within streetwear that’s never been seen before. 2Tone knows he’s not Spanto and will not be able to do exactly what he did. But as his other half, he believes Born X Raised will continue to preserve. It will continue to tell stories that need to be told in L.A., and to platform and hire people that look like them. The brand will continue pushing for an honest and real representation of Los Angeles, as it always has, for years to come.

“I can do what I do and I think that it's going to be enough because the good thing about Born X Raised is that we've planted a flag, it's established, and the brand is built,” says 2Tone. “We don't have to prove what that means. We know and everybody knows. So now, I want to make everyone that's been involved in this brand successful. That's it. That's my plan.”

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