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(Frontpage 100)

The Nine Lives of Cali Thornhill DeWitt

  • Words: Thom Bettridge

  • Photography: Kevin Amato

In this FRONTPAGE interview, we catch up with the man, the artist, the legend that is Cali Thornhill DeWitt - who among other projects, is dropping a seriously incredible Vault by Vans collaboration.

In a world where everything is bought, sold, or otherwise available for public consumption, Cali Thornhill DeWitt is the closest thing we have to a folk hero.

In 2014, my boss at the time asked me to get in touch with someone named Caramel Bobby who was making memorial sweatshirts for dead celebrities using iron-on gothic letters. I DM’d Caramel Bobby, and he gave me an email under alias Teenage Tears, and we proceeded to conduct an interview over G-chat which began with the words: “There are a lot of fake names, code names, and secret societies within my crew.” This was my first conversation with the man who I would later know as Cali Thornhill DeWitt.

Two years later, the sweatshirts we chatted about would become the blueprint for Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” tour merch, a global phenomenon that sparked line-ups around the world and set forth a renaissance for the genre of concert merchandise. Only people who knew Cali recognized the hand within Kanye’s anonymous brain trust who had created this idea, and for his part, the Los Angeles-based artist preferred things that way: “It's one of those things where at the time, maybe I could've embraced it harder… But it's not really my style to do that.”

And it’s not like Cali was in need of a co-sign. In the intervening years, he’s exhibited internationally as a visual artist, published books, and founded the cult label Saint Michael in collaboration with Readymade designer Yuta Hosokawa, a project that has creatively snowballed, as many things in Cali’s universe do, from a text thread to a fashion label to a remix of that same label with Denim Tears’s Tremaine Emory called Saint Tears.

As we talk about the state of the world today — a world that looks more and more like the dystopian collages of burning cars, spilled pill bottles, and coffins that are a signature of Cali’s work — what Cali seems to lament most is the death of privacy. And for his part, he’s someone who has seen what it means to operate within the deep web of the creative world, whether that be as a witness to the forgotten venues, labels, zines, and other lost underground enterprises that have grown out of his native Los Angeles, or the Whatsapp threads on which the merch of the future is being quietly woven in the dark like spider silk.

As I’ve come to cherish, any chat with Cali is a lesson in keeping it real, and a masterclass in the power of mystery.

BETTRIDGE: I feel like since we met in 2014 this apocalyptic mood in your artwork is something that has become very real. How do you keep up with that?

DEWITT: I like to point it out again and again, just because it's how I feel. The Earth is sort of in a garbage can, and so to push imagery like that is good, because people don't want to see it or hear it a lot of the time. It's not the only reality, but it is a reality. Maybe I was a little shook at how true some of it came.

One of the things I have a problem with right now is how it's come to the point where privacy is dead — privacy is seen as a negative almost. Everyone feels like they need to say every single thing they think, and everyone needs to talk about every stance they have on everything in the world. I think that's frightening, because individual privacy is great. I like mystery, and it's been strange to watch mystery and privacy disappear.

BETTRIDGE: The cultural petri dish of LA is a surface that you've been examining for a long time — you’re almost like a de facto historian of the Hollywood underground. I’m wondering what your take on the Los Angeles of today is?

DEWITT: It's definitely becoming more sterile, but that thing where people move here to become famous is bigger than ever. There's a long tradition of people moving here with this belief that being famous will solve all your problems. First of all, almost nobody becomes famous. And if you do, you can't handle it. People go insane with the tiniest bit of fame. They lose their minds.

LA is the most haunted city because it's just brimming with unfulfilled desire. Where does that desire go? We've got generations of people who have lived and died here just trying to be seen as special. It's wild. I love that kind of insanity, but it's also quite jarring.

BETTRIDGE: You've had brushes with absurd fame, brushes with failure, brushes with counterculture. Do you consider yourself an observer of all these different layers of culture?

DEWITT: It wasn't my intention, but I've been here forever, and because I'm interested in culture and art and music, I have been around for a lot of it. I've seen people destroyed by that, and I've seen people thrive in it. I don't know. It is endlessly kind of cool to watch.

BETTRIDGE: Since we last hung out, your Saint Michael project with Yuta Hosokawa from Readymade has really taken off. And I’m curious what this California-Japan transpacific mental handshake has been like?

DEWITT: It’s been really good. We're just finishing the fifth season right now. I knew Yuta already, and we had collaborated on some Readymade pieces, and it was a good experience. Then one of my best friends ever is Kubo [Mitsuhiro Kubo, founder of GR8], and Kubo called me one day and he's like, "You know what? You and Yuta should start a brand together." And it was kind of that simple. I flew to Osaka at Kubo's urging. We had a meeting with Yuta, and we were like, "Yeah, let's start a brand."

The creative process is really funny, because we do it almost every day, but Yuta doesn't really speak English and I don't speak Japanese. We have a couple of key words each, and we start work as my day is ending. He usually texts me at about 8:30pm LA time, and we spend a couple hours sending images and emojis back and forth, talking that way. And that'll give him what I thought of during the day, and then when I wake up in the morning, he's going to bed and I hit him up, and usually he's sent me images throughout the night. If there wasn't a pandemic, I'd probably be going to Osaka every six to eight weeks, but we've made it work in this really funny way.

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Highsnobiety / Kevin Amato
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Highsnobiety / Kevin Amato

BETTRIDGE: I love how then Tremaine [Emory, founder of Denim Tears] became involved, and then you guys started working under the banner of Saint Tears. That shirt you guys made of the Black Jesus holding white Jesus in a headlock is one of the great tees of the past couple of years. And it’s actually something I wanted to ask you about, because the medium of the t-shirt is this kind of endlessly rich space. It’s like how artists have been painting on square canvases for a thousand years, and there’s still something to say on that surface. As someone who has made some of the all-time t-shirts in my opinion, but also as someone who has seen so many, what makes a great tee?

DEWITT: I probably love T-shirts more than most people, and I have too many. I can't wear them all. But when I grew up, the T-shirt was very important. You used that to identify yourself to other people. I didn't think about that then, but I think about that now. It's a way to talk to people, and that's why it continues to be exciting.

BETTRIDGE: What are some of the most important shirts you've owned?

DEWITT: Let me glance at a stack and see what comes to mind. One of my favorite ever shirt makers is Chloe and Flannery. Their designs are just really good art. I think the same thing about Come Tees. I have hanging on the wall right now an Agnostic Front shirt that's probably from 1983 that I love. It's such a psycho design. I like all the shirts from the ‘80s that meant a lot to me. I have a Larry Clark “Tulsa” shirt that I really like.

BETTRIDGE: When it comes to tour merch, you created a really pivotal piece of the canon by designing the “Life of Pablo” merch. You even still see bootlegs of that with gothic lettering. But when you were doing that, did you feel like you wanted to revive this genre of legendary concert merch? Because that’s really the effect it had.

DEWITT: It wasn't thought out that way. I just wanted to make cool shirts. They do mean a lot to me, and I don't think it registered with me until a little bit later. It's like this cultural penetration that I think is really interesting. On the last day of the "Pablo" tour, when Kanye stopped the show in the middle and ended the show because he was done with touring, that show was the first time I was in a crowd where every single person had the shirt on. I was like, "This is insane." It's one of those things where at the time, maybe I could've embraced it harder — and by embracing it harder, I mean standing up and be like, "That's me." But it's not really my style to do that. There's been a few moments in life that I'm grateful for, where I'm like, "I could make this a thing that defines me." But I don't want to have anything be the thing that defines me, because I feel like I'm only at the beginning of my life.

BETTRIDGE: I'm curious about what you’ve cooked up with Vans. Tell me about it.

DEWITT: Like a year and a half ago, Vans asked me to do something and I was excited. Some brands could ask you to do a collaboration and you might not want to do it. But with Vans, I've literally been wearing Vans since like 1979. When I was a little kid, one of the only Vans stores was near our house was in the Valley, in California, and it looked like a little circus tent.

I didn’t really want to fuck with the old silhouettes too much. What am I going to do? I don't want to change the shape of them. So they were open to letting me use one of my favorite image pairings, which is coffins and the planet Earth. So there's five models with that on them.

BETTRIDGE: I think there was a six-year period of my life, from like 12 to 18, where I only wore white Vans. I liked how the canvas of them would absorb all of the shit I would get into in my life. If you go to one punk show in a pair of Vans, they're just dirty forever. And if you go to like, five, your white Vans are suddenly dark gray forever. There's something that feels very unique about that, especially now that I’m an “adult” and I don't really wear dirty shoes anymore.

DEWITT: I mean my Vans as a kid were barely there. I could see all four toes. I was waiting for my parents to say that I could get a new pair of shoes, which didn't happen that often.

BETTRIDGE: What exciting projects do you have in the oven right now?

DEWITT: In the last couple of years, a lot of things got put off for me but right now I’m working on this show that’s going to be in Turin, Italy. I’ve been working on this show, and lately it dawned on me that I'm making the best show I've ever made in my life. That’s the way to approach it, like, “I'm going to do the best thing I've ever done in my life.” It's not an egotistical mindset. The feeling is that I want to go for it harder than ever all the time.

The Vault by Vans x Cali Dewitt collection will be available at select Vault by Vans retailers beginning December 23. For more information, and where to purchase, please visit The Drop List, a calendar of Vans’ most exclusive product drops.

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