One of the best stores to be in during New York Fashion Week was Dover Street Market in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. Although several events were held throughout the week, there was nothing like the crowd that gathered inside the shop's T-shirt space last Saturday.
People stood in a line that stretched to the very back of the store’s basement to meet and greet with artist Kunle F. Martins. He is better known as the tagger Earsnot, a founding member of the prolific New York City graffiti crew IRAK. The scene looked like something from an underground graffiti institution in New York like the Hugo Martinez Gallery in West Harlem. While hypebeasts were rushing to get to the Tom Sachs x Nike installation on the third floor, graff heads flooded the basement with blackbooks, stickers, and newly released pieces of IRAK clothing for Earsnot to sign. Earsnot set up an IRAK installation in the basement, which consisted of a wall filled with over 200 of his tags, written back to back, with a drippy Krink marker.
“When I started to do the [IRAK] line again, one of the first places I wanted to sell to was Dover Street,” says Earsnot, who first relaunched IRAK at retailers like Supreme and DSM’s T-Shirt Space last year. “I wasn't even sure if I wanted to keep making clothes. I was pretty sure that nobody was going to buy this and it was just going to be this thing that my friends wanted. I would have been happy if that was going to be the case. But it sold out and everybody seems to be really jazzed about it.”
One fan of the brand has been Virgil Abloh, who arrived at Nike's 2020 Forum runway show earlier last week wearing a black snapback bearing the IRAK box logo–when the hat was released for IRAK’s online drop this Thursday, the hat sold out in less than 24 hours. Although a Virgil cosign would be considered a breakout moment for most clothing brands, IRAK has already established itself as a lasting touchstone within New York City culture. Outside of graffiti, the work of IRAK members has permeated streetwear, music, sneaker culture, fine art, and more. We sat down with Earsnot to talk about the history of IRAK, trading art with Virgil Abloh, working at Alife, IRAK’s upcoming Adidas sneaker, the people who inspire his visceral portraits, and more.
Not too many brands get to have a built out installation at Dover Street Market. Was it hard to convince them to just grill the fuck out of this wall in the T-Shirt space?
Dover's a really great store and I’ve already built this close network of creatives in New York so I knew some people who worked here. My friends, like Avi Gold of Better Gift Shop, were already building installations at DSM. I was talking to DSM a few months ago and they brought up the idea of doing an installation.
I was super grateful for that and felt like I had to step it up to the next level. Who doesn't want to be a part of Dover Street Market? You had these really illmatic retail experiences at Comme des Garcons and Barneys in the '80s and '90s. I used to work for Alife, which was really into creating spaces and experiences with shopping. It’s combining art with fashion and that's kind of where I come from. It just made sense for everybody and I'm very lucky and grateful that they were interested.
As a fan of IRAK, just seeing those T-shirts in Dover Street Market and Supreme got me so hyped. What fueled the decision to fully revive the brand last year?
I had a friend who was doing a project with Adidas and another company. I made sneakers with Adidas in 2007 and 2008. A lot of the people who work for Adidas now were kids then, and they were super psyched on that collab. So Adidas reached out and they wanted to do another project. They floated this idea to me about making some T-shirts to come out with the sneakers.
The shoe hasn't come out yet, but when Adidas wanted to revive that project that we did together I thought, "Well if they're interested and they think it's worthwhile, maybe I can move a couple of T-shirts in the meantime." Now the T-shirts have become something.
Some people who are reading this article might not be too familiar about this crew you founded as a teenage runaway in New York. And those who do know about IRAK, know that this crew went beyond just being a group of prolific taggers. Art made by IRAK members has been exhibited in museums like the Whitney and the MoCa. You even helped make the cover art for Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album. How would you describe what IRAK is and how it formed?
When I think of IRAK, I think about us as young teenagers in the '90s fucking shit up and connecting with each other on a deep creative level.That was basically what brought us together. Yeah, there are a lot of kids writing graffiti and wanting to fuck shit up. But we also had this understanding of the creative process. We were intrigued by art history, contemporary art, and realized that we had access to all of this information because we’re in New York. We were overwhelmed by the inspiration that we found everywhere. That was the main thing that connected us, but we were all into different things.
IRAK was definitely an eclectic crew. Members like Ryan McGinley are incredible photographers. Other members like SEMZ bombed the streets and made folk music.
Everyone was so unique that it was almost impossible to not want to hang out with them. I was interested in what Dash Snow was interested in. Dash was interested in what I was interested in. Through graffiti and just hanging out, we educated each other on a lot of things. There are some people who you hang out with that are just super boring. I have nothing against people like that, but we were kind of like sponges. As a group, we needed to constantly learn more and shared this need to contribute. It was a time when things began turning over from analog to digital. It was a totally different time compared to now, where everybody has cellphones and are looking at what people did on Instagram before you even saw them.
It was interesting to go through that transition with all of these people. That's kind of what I feel like IRAK is. We made this journey together to wherever we are now. I don't really think anyone our age really understands where we are because it's constantly changing. Younger people might feel more comfortable with the constant evolution of modern day. But we very much grew up in '80s/'90s New York and it just seems like things are changing super fast now. It's cool and we are used to it, but you're always a child of the world that you were born into.
I'm sure many people were introduced to IRAK recently because of Virgil Abloh rocking that IRAK hat. Do you know how that hat got into his hands and has he ever reached out to you guys before?
Virgil and Drake used to come hang around Alife back in the day. For the second year in a row, I was involved in Rob Pruitt's flea market at the Karma Bookstore in Downtown Manhattan. I had some hand painted IRAK logo paintings and Virgil's assistant reached out to the bookstore about buying one. They wanted a specific one and it happened to be the only one left. At the flea market, I'll usually trade art with other artists because it just seems like a fair and good way to get art. So instead of just selling it to Virgil, I suggested that we trade art, which is what we ended up doing. So I sent him that painting and a red IRAK hat. He sent me something which was really awesome. I think it was kind of a disproportional trade because he sent me this elaborate piece of art he made that's hanging in my studio right now.
But the hat he wore which everybody saw was not the hat I sent him, which is awesome, because that means he got it on his own. We have been in correspondence for the last couple of months because of that art trade. He's a really nice guy and I can see why he's successful.
Virgil has shown a lot of love to New York City graffiti over the years. Last year, he invited Jest to paint the runway of Louis Vuitton. I was always curious, how and when did you start working for Rob Cristofaro at Alife?
Back in '99, they were opening the store and there were less people in New York. Less people into sneakers and less places to get stuff. There were five cool stores in New York and they were all very niche. In order to get cool sneakers back then, you had to travel to either Canada, the U.K., or Japan. There were a very small group of people who traded sneakers and flew them around to different parts of the world. In New York the graffiti community was smaller, too. Jest is a very infamous New York City graffiti writer. By having our ears to the street, no pun intended, we heard that Jest was opening a store.
Alife had this totally forward-thinking, next-level, thing going on. I was immediately drawn to it. Back then, I was still racking for money and going to jail every six months. Not that I'm proud of it, but when you look at how much crime I was committing, it was a pretty good jail-to-crime ratio. I was totally drawn to their space and they asked me to work there. I kind of didn't want to because it would bring in less money than stealing stuff. But I really liked being around that space.
There was something special about the people who shopped there and I learned a lot about making things. There was so much to learn and Alife became a great outlet for creativity. There were tons of artists who made products like KAWS, ESPO and Elf Carlucci. Artists like Todd James had shows there. All these people, like Futura, were already making shit. I wanted to be like that. I didn’t want this graffiti thing to have all been for nothing. I felt there was something bigger and Alife helped access that. If I just stick around here, I can maybe access something else that's bigger than just tagging on the street and getting arrested.
I guess that's what motivated you primarily to start designing clothes back then right?
A magazine came out that wanted some IRAK clothes to use in a photo shoot or something. I think we embroidered a sweatshirt with Old English letters. Then they asked what's up with the IRAK line and when it was going to come out. So I decided to make some T-shirts because people kept asking about it. I made a couple of T-shirts and sold them at Alife. I really wanted to make it all by myself. Craig “KR” Costello was a really big inspiration. I told him I didn't know how to use Adobe Illustrator and he told me to "just get stoned, sit there, and play with it." That's how the IRAK line came about. Those first T-shirts kind of went under the radar and definitely went to just my friends. We sold a couple at Alife, but it wasn't this money-making scheme with a business plan.
How did people respond to the clothing at first? Obviously tagging a wall is different from screenprinting a tag on a T-shirt. There were brands started by writers like PNB Nation by West and Recon by Futura. But I feel like IRAK was one of the first brands to push their own crew through clothing.
Right, and back then, with the exception of the people that you mentioned, it wouldn't have been well received to try and sell your tag on a shirt to people. There wasn't this audience of people, other than graffiti writers, who were interested in graffiti in general. Graffiti is now this whole aesthetic that people are receptive to on a huge level. Murals, clothing, and everything else is a part of the lexicon. Everybody's down. Back then, when KR made Krink markers and ink, people were like, "Well can’t I just go to a hardware store, steal paint, and dilute it myself? Why do I need to buy Krink markers?" I'll be honest, even back then, I was like, "I don't know man, I don't know if people are gonna buy markers because everyone just steals stuff." But seeing KR stick to his vision was really inspirational. Artists like KR, Barry McGee, Steve "ESPO" Powers, Rob Cristofaro, and Futura, are some of my greatest inspirations because I saw how they were able to apply themselves.
How did that Adidas sneaker come about in 2007/2008?
Oh, there was this dude that worked for Adidas. He was so nice and really awesome because he knew about IRAK somehow. He asked if I wanted to make a colorway for a shoe and I said sure. I gave him some really rugged, ghetto-ass, Adobe Illustrator files that were not clean at all. I didn't use any layers and it looked crazy because I kept drawing over the same thing. I gave him two colorways, and they came out; I didn't know or care about how it was going to be received, I was just going off on what I personally liked.
I was so grateful for that opportunity. It's all the people who believed in me more than I believed in myself. They give you the courage to do things that you're not really sure you can do. Everyone needs encouragement and I love doing that for other people now because it was done for me. If I can do that for other people, then it makes life worth living.
I know that sounds corny but making a lot of money, being really famous, and all the things that I wanted 20 years ago—not that I've gotten them—but I kind of intuitively know now that it's not going to bring me happiness. A lot of people I know have died. It's about what you leave behind. If I can reach people and change their lives for the better, then that's really amazing. It brings me so much peace and serenity. Affecting other people positively and encouraging them to do what they need to do or want to do, is so amazing. I get a lot of those kinds of messages on Instagram, which makes me feel really good. So I'm really not worried. Let me just take these small steps and make sure I'm being the best me I can be right now.
I've always been a fan of your collaborations in general. I always wanted to know about the making of the Supreme x Comme des Garcons collection from Fall/Winter 2018.
I love working for Supreme and James. He's a really smart dude who loves working with people who are authentic, creative, and have been doing their thing. For years, I'm sure I was received as this guy who's like super rough around the edges and hard to be around. James was always super friendly. It was always people who weren't scared of me that encouraged me a lot. I was always giving Supreme artwork here and there. For that collaboration, they asked me to rewrite something that was inside a blackbook I gave them. I was super blown away and I couldn't believe it. I thought it looked amazing and they did a great job with it. My friend Nick worked on it, who is a really good friend of mine and a designer at Supreme. Just being able to work with both of them was super awesome.
One of the first T-shirts that came out last season coincided with this rainbow Earsnot tag that was painted on Delancey and Suffolk. That was one of my favorite murals to see up in New York last year. In the documentary Infamy you talk a lot about breaking stereotypes as a gay graffiti writer. How do you think that's changed in 2020?
In the '90s, everyone used to call each other "faggot" and those were fighting words. It was like, "I'm gonna call you a faggot and if you don't want to fight me, then that means you are gay". It was this whole weird, stupid, macho thing. Skating was like that. Graffiti was like that. High school and junior high was like that. That was just the way that we grew up. But as all these different scenes started to meld with one another, people started to realize how much value individual people had. So I guess over time, people just kind of trimmed the fat. A younger generation of people growing up now focus on what's important. The skills you have and what you're bringing to the table. Are you good? Can you kick flip this ten-set right here, right now? Do you have style? Can you put together an outfit? Do you even art? If you're good, you're good. If you can relate to what I'm trying to say right now, we can relate. I want to be around people who aren't exactly like me, it just makes my life more interesting.
Obviously people are still homophobic. But it's more a reflection of what they are and aren't exposed to. I kind of knew at an early age if people have a problem with gays, it's not really about literally me being gay. They don't even know me. It's like me being mad about someone on the subway who wants to stand right by the door and won't let me get onto the train car because they want to be the first one off the train. I'm mad at that person, but that's me, too. I totally judge people before I know them. Of course teenage graffiti writers and skateboarders are going to be like, "I don't fucking know what that shit is and I don't fucking like it." Yeah. We're all like that. There's a little bit of that in all of us.
But it's really awesome and amazing to see how much it's changed over the years. How accepting people are and how people are willing to just see people for deeper qualities. I am happy to encourage people to be themselves, be happy, spread love, spready joy, and let the light shine through you.
One of these T-shirts in the latest drop is a reference to A Bigger Splash by David Hockney. I notice you've been exhibiting some great portraits recently at galleries Downtown like 56 Henry, the Jeffrey Stark gallery, and Shoot The Lobster. I've heard about some of the graffiti artists who've inspired your handstyle. But what fine artists have influenced your artwork and what's it like to transition from graffiti to drawing portraits?
Even before I got into graffiti I was into drawing, making portraits, and other stuff like that. So that was kind of my first love. I wanted to be a draftsman, someone who could just sit and draw what he saw. My father was an artist who went to Pratt, he used to make all sorts of African art paintings and sculptures when I was younger. My mother always told me that I was an artist who had that creative spirit inside me, too. If it wasn't for my mother encouraging me when I was younger, I wouldn't have that sort of identity. I feel like she built that up in me, so I'm eternally grateful to my parents for that. I didn't apply to LaGuardia High School and I have this huge resentment about that because I always felt that I should have been attending an art high school. I ended up attending a math and science school at Manhattan Center and got into graffiti immediately because I wanted to fuck shit up and break rules.
When I ran away and started hanging out downtown with my friends Area (Joey Crack), Ben (KS), Dash, and my friend Donald Eric, they looked at movies, fine art, and grew up in downtown Manhattan with a different set of experiences and exposure that I didn't. They kind of knew about fine art in a different way and I was so into that. I needed to know what they knew because they could kind of decipher shit that I saw. I realized that most art is who the artist is. It’s not necessarily about what you're looking at, but who made it and why. That's really ill. But I also have the appreciation for just looking at something and having an immediate connection to it. I love going to museums, art shows, learning about art, seeing art with people who know nothing about art, and seeing art with people who know “everything” about art. Basically, so many artists are dope. Just off the top of my head, Charles White, Ed Clark, Kara Walker, Barry McGee, Steve Powers, Elizabeth Peyton, Ralph Steadman, R. Crumb, Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, all the artists I’ve done portraits of that guide me on a daily basis, and many more I can't name right this second. This is a very abbreviated list and if I kept naming more artists it would be a crazy long one.
You pointed out that the first time you got that graffiti “high” from hitting a big spot, was on the the Gateway to SoHo piece by the corner of Houston and Broadway with Rehab. A spot where everyone sees your name and says “Yo! That’s Earsnot!” Do you feel the same high at a gallery opening or when you see kids wearing your T-shirts?
When I did that spot, people who did graffiti said "Yo, I saw that spot you hit." People I didn't know were coming up to me like "Yo, you're Earsnot?" And then, there were people who didn't even write graffiti that were like, "Yo, you did that?" That initial high is amazing. But what I get from doing art shows is that when I have an opening, people come out. People who I haven't seen in 10 or 20 years all come out to this gallery in one place at one time. The work that I have hanging on those walls, I can be working on it in a room alone for months. I go through waves of emotions while I'm making this stuff. Doubt, excitement, and frustration. The end result of all that is bringing all these people together. It's insane the level of just happiness and joy that I get from having all these people at the site.
I am super grateful that anyone shows up for anything because the amount of satisfaction that you get from canceling plans and not showing up is insane as an adult. So the fact that people follow through and actually show up for something is insane. I am overwhelmed by it. It brings me way more joy than that first time I wrote graffiti in a spot where people recognized me. It's almost like doing a drug and getting high for the first time. You’re chasing that high and being an addict for the rest of your life, but you’re never ever getting back to the first time.
I didn't know that it could be better and be even more fulfilling. What inspires me to make these portraits are the people in my life. There's so much to who I am and how I perceive the world that when recreating these people, I have this responsibility to show who means a lot to me and who helps me decode the world in general. It just helps me understand who I am in the world. Having that responsibility, doing that, having people come out to see that, just reinforces that I am not alone. It's not about me getting rich or becoming famous. It's just about giving back to people what I've already received, which is love and inspiration. If I could give that back, it's awesome.
Kunle Martins show at 56 Henry 'What’s Up Fam?' is open to the public until March 8th, 2020.