Proletariat Re-Launch / Interview With Founder Kerry Simon
This Sunday the much awaited online Proletariat store will be launching. Here are some words from the man with the vision…
It wasn’t long after I moved to Boston that I crossed paths with Proletariat founder and That’s The Hook Up brain child Kerry Simon. With unmatched dedication to his small shop in Harvard Square, Kerry grew a reputation that money can’t buy. Unconforming and supportive of the area’s sub cultures, Proletariat strived to bring the fat of the land to the cream of the crop and quickly became a staple in the graffiti, skateboard and streetwear scene in New England. Since those humble beginnings Proletariat has been temporarily shelved, but don’t worry, it hasn’t collected dust or stopped moving, it’s only been resting for world domination. Get hype to it before it is too late!
AS: What was life like as an adolescent growing up in the in the Texas/American dream? Or is that a misconception? That’s just how I picture you as a kid. WWE, monster trucks, hot dogs, big wheels, Thrasher magazine, propane accessories and shit like that.
KS: You know, I have thought about this a lot lately. We moved around a lot as a kid because my Dad worked for the ever-failing airline industry. This has led to a serious longing for “home” as well as a knack to move somewhere new and meet badass people. Also, after watching him get laid off from countless jobs, even though my Dad is a dream worker, it created a fear in me that led to me opening my own business. The thought that no matter how much of myself I give to a company they could still let me go for cost-cutting is why I started my first vintage shop 3 months after graduating college. Growing up in Texas was a lot of things and most of which were good. The people are friendly, the weather is great 11 months out of the year…we rode BMX, skated, and played in the woods a lot. When I got older it was all about cars…I rebuilt a 1950 Plymouth and a 1968 Ford Galaxie Convertible while in high school, all on cash made at my after school job at a dry cleaners. I have worked a job since I was 11, and work makes me happy. I will say the negatives of growing up in Texas is the fact that everyone is comfortable and for the most part the same. This leads to large suburbs and general contentment and no idea why people would want things like universal health care. But nowhere is perfect and I am sure it’s getting better and hopefully a little less conservative.
AS: As greats from both cultures have come out of your home state, were you ever a skater or writer?
KS: I think calling me a writer would be a diss to all the writers in the world who have made it their life and put in real work. However, I do enjoy writing on shit and leaving my mark. I would say I am the oldest member of the new style of graffiti (which most old timers think is shit). I have skated since I was about 9 or 10. I somehow ended up in a ragtag Cub Scout troop. Our den mother was dating a biker and he would takes us long-haired punks to a massive drainage ditch with his biker buddies and they would pour transitions out of quik-crete and we would skate all day and try to do handplants and shit. Our den-mother was amazing. She would hand sew merit badges like “Ollie” or “downhill” and we fuckin ruled. After that my skateboard has never been far away from me. I skated to work a few miles a day after school when I was too young to drive and when all my old hoopties broke down I would grab my board out of the trunk and skate home. Now can I do tricks? Not to save my life, it just wasn’t about that for me.
AS: Were you were involved in retail and vintage clothing before becoming an entrepreneur in Boston? What brought on the move to Boston and start of Proletariat?
KS: I owned two vintage clothing shops in Texas before moving to Boston with my girlfriend, now wife, Leslie. When I moved to Boston I was done with retail. I wanted to get a job and just kind of learn the city. After looking for a job for about 5 months I got ancy and thought, fuck it. I’m good at this. Proletariat started out as a vintage shop in Harvard Square. I found that it was hard to A. get people excited about vintage and B. source enough vintage once they were excited. Around this point I was going through some major personal changes. I had grown up in a bubble and didn’t really realize it. I was now seeing homelessness first hand and was realizing that living in a city is a LOT harder than the burbs. My friend Liam took me to see Fahrenheit 9/11 and it blew my fucking mind. I never knew there was “another side of the story.” Any story. It literally unlocked a part of my brain that was dormant and I ran with it. That week I created Proletariat as we know it, the fist logo, and the four original t-shirt designs: the Statue of Liberty with the gun, the Bomber planes dropping dollar signs, the USA made of weapons, and the Iwo Jima McDonald’s design.
AS: Being an outspoken person and supporter of the local graffiti and skate scene, did you ever catch flack from the BPD?
KS: Not as much as you would think. I have always believed in the mystical protection of naming my brand and business Proletariat. Imagine the headlines: “Boston Police hassle the Proletariat.” I also think by taking this name on that I will never become wealthy; it just will not be allowed by the ghost of Marx and many other revolutionaries, and I am 100% fine with that. But back to the BPD. I haven’t ever had any issues besides the first few weeks after I opened there was a dude posted up outside the shop everyday who I have to assume was a plainclothes cop. But when everyone who walked in the door and checked out the graff case came over to me I just whispered “hey man, there’s a cop outside, just look at the clothing and come back next week, I don’t want you getting busted.” I guess after about 2 weeks of no one leaving with spray paint the “stakeout” or “intimidation” was over. I also think I played the game as the game was meant to be played. I never promoted Proletariat as a graff shop. 95% of the store was clothing or skateboards and even though the other 5% was a major seller for us, we kept it tucked in a corner and out of sight. Also, I believe I was a pretty good influence on most of the kids who came in and I know if the shit ever hit the fan I had a lot of parents in high places who would go to bat for me.
AS: Well, since the fuzz is out of the picture, when are you getting more of those jumbo sized older KRINK mops in? I know Craig only releases them every few years. Fuck the haters, those things are the jam. Gone to jail twice because of them but thats besides the point.
KS: They are already in stock and will be in the online shop. Now that you bring it up, I’m tired of the haters in the graff game. So what if KR took a common thing like Rusto bucket paint and mass-marketed it. It’s fucking dope! And, by doing so he helped shine a light onto a scene that has been swept into the shadows for decades. He also gives kids hope that their art form will be taken more seriously in the future and that’s a great thing. Finally, what’s the point of hating a guy that is a part of your culture? Save the hate for the asshole cops who give kids a few extra hits with the nightstick or the annoying Back Bay Nabbers who are so adamant about saving Boston’s alleyways over the forgotten misguided youth.
AS: I’m sure your posse of shop rats could answer this one, why should people buy your shit?
KS: There’s only one reason people should buy Proletariat clothing and that is because they like it and relate to it. I remember a day when Hypebeast featured some of our new shit and a bunch of suburban kids came in with their dunks and their crispy fitteds and bought all/only the shit they saw on Hypebeast. I almost didn’t sell it to them but my $4000/month rent was banging around the back of my head and I couldn’t turn the sale down. But at that moment I felt like I sold out. Now, I don’t have to worry about rent anymore and 90% of the time when I see someone rocking a Proletariat shirt it is someone who I either know and personally respect or someone who just seems cool. That’s the beautiful thing about being a smaller brand. No diss to Shep Fairey but he needs to pull the reigns in a bit if he doesn’t want to become Ed Hardy. Nowadays I see a lot more people who are obeying than people who are disobeying. As for graff supplies, I think I fill a niche in the market. It’s tough if not impossible to be an amazing graffiti writer and at the same time run a solid graffiti supply company. There is at least one person who does it and he helped me get my start, but he is an anomaly across the board. (Thanks to youknowwho for dropping off supplies at my shop in the early days) In the Proletariat online graff shop I am only selling shit that is good. I have a long history in this biz, being the first full-service graffiti shop in Boston, and honestly after travelling the country, I don’t think there was a single shop that offered the expertise, first-hand knowledge, and diverse inventory that we offered. All you have to do is ask anyone who used to shop at my place if I ever offered them something they didn’t need or if I ever led them astray. I live, research, and perfect my product line and maybe it is because I am from the South but my name is all I have and I do everything in my power to make sure it is good.
AS: Before I knew you I was a fan of proletariat. Aside from the markers, paint and skate stuff, the aesthetic of your shirt designs were right on the money and I was instantly into it. Do you do the bulk of your designs by yourself?
KS: That’s good to hear. I was afraid I was getting by all these years on being incredibly handsome.HA HA Yes, the designs are almost always out of my head and off my computer screen. There have been a few collaborations over the years with Kenji Nakayama, Skript, Evoker, Big Jus, AUKS, Raodee, Jessica Hess, Buildmore, Goldenstash, Mike Dacey, Nate Donmoyer, and I am sure I am forgetting someone and for that I apologize. The collaborations are always with people who I thought needed to be highlighted for being unique and talented, but for the most part I keep the design work to myself because that is my main creative outlet. I do have to say I get help from my mother when I need it since she has been a graphic designer for 40 years, and honestly to this day I haven’t met anyone who could hold a candle to her in that department.
AS: Your sense of humor really comes out in your work. There is deep synicism mixed with political awareness and a light hearted twist. Do you strive to have this in your designs or is this just a natural product of who you are?
KS: I think it has to be a part of who I am. I would say I am a negative person who is always laughing. I see a lot of wrong in the world around me and I wish we could see how destructive that is. At the same time, no one wants to buy a shirt if it makes them feel like shit, and honestly there is always gonna be bad shit in the world, so we all have to make sure we balance the good with the bad. That’s my New Year’s Resolution every year, choose to see more good.
AS: There’s obviously an attention to detail in the garments offered by proletariat. Hand made labels, limited edition runs, etc. You have even done jackets, bandanas, hats and your own line of denim. Is this a street wear trend or a labor of love?
KS: Labor of Love mixed with making stuff in America. You know, most companies draw a few things in Photoshop, send that crap over to China, and then spend 3 months going to trade shows and marketing their products. In order to make everything in the USA I’ve had to: hire a woman in the Cambridge projects to sew hundreds of bags for me, found the last label making factory in NYC, hand sewn 1,000′s of labels into tees, hand-snapped pearl snaps on limited edition bandannas, the list goes on. Would it be easier to go straight to China? Fuck yeah. Would I feel right about it – nope. Until someone can prove to me that the average Chinese worker is happy making $1 a day, and their bodies are protected from harmful chemicals and labor conditions I do not feel right taking the profit that should be going to them for their work. Right now when you buy Proletariat garments I can introduce you to TJ, a skater in SLC who prints a mean shirt and shreds in his off time. I appreciate his craft and I pay him well for it. Sure, my shirts cost more than some others, but don’t you think you should be paid well for your hard work? Also, what’s up with Banana Republic and Nike and everyone else charging three to four times what I charge when we all know their shit is made with the cheapest labor in Asia? What’s their excuse?
AS: The letterpress prints released through the shop a while back were off the hook. I love the idea of a clothing line as an outlet for fine art. Any other projects like these in the works?
KS: Thanks man. You know, that’s another one of those things where I just saw a talented person and thought we could do something great together. Mike Dacey, owner of Repeat Press, was a customer/friend from the shop. I met him through Kenji, and he was way ahead of the curve on the letterpress thing – and thus we were way ahead of the curve. I am always open to creating and collaborating with like-minded people, but all the stars have to align just right. If I feel like we are late to something or it may be a flash in the pan, I’d rather not do it. (this is why Proletariat NEVER made an all-over print) I was approached by a shop rat who is now in art school and he needed to make a print for his class out in San Francisco so we should be seeing that in the near future. He sent me a design, I tweaked it and sent it back, and so on and so forth and I am definitely happy with it.
AS: So you closed the shop and shipped out of Boston. What’s with the re launch?
KS: Well, I sold the shop to some buddies Mayan Tamang & Eddie Jones, who were the first people in my life who didn’t cop out on a contract, which I find very honorable. The re-launch to me was a bit of a surprise. I’m not gonna lie, when I left Boston, I thought I was done. Paying a few hundred grand to a landlord over a few years to live a simple life was a major mind fuck. Having kids steal on the reg and not being able to afford health care…mind fuck. Living in the shop for my first year in business and working 360 days in a row…mind fuck. Losing interest during the recession when I see all my customers losing their jobs and having a tough time as well…mind fuck. So, my wife and I sold our condo and took all the money and bought a 1984 RV and just fucking drove. We drove through 37 states in the dead of winter for months…camping in Wal-Mart parking lots (never bought a goddamn thing there) just seeing this beautiful country. We then spent a few months in our home state down in Austin…I worked at a coffee shop for a bit, and that’s when I got the bug again. I realized a few things. #1 Designing t-shirts is my art. I’m not Picasso, and I hate making things for the masses, but for me it isn’t my art until it’s on a t-shirt. I’ve put the same shit on the streets and it just doesn’t do it for me. #2 I’m not fucking done yet. I learned so much about running a business in Boston and as lame as it sounds I feel like I can do my part to make this world a better place. That’s why I’ve been committed to making all of our shirts 100% in the USA since we opened in 2004, and that’s why most of my designs have to do with social commentary. I just want people to think about what they wear and what it says about them.
AS: Does jerking off really make you go blind?
KS: As far as I know, only if you do it laying on your back. That’s why porn stars stand up.
AS: Sounds like you have been hanging out with Mormons. Speaking of, what does SLC have that Boston doesn’t? Really. I feel betrayed.
KS: Main reason…my wife’s job. It’s funny, my friends from Texas asked me the same thing when we moved to Boston. The only reason I sold my two shops in Texas was because my wife got a full ride to Boston University for her PHD. Once she finished that she got a great job offer out here in Utah to be a tenured professor, and since that was the point of moving to Boston and since there were no jobs in Boston, we ended up here. Now about SLC. SLC is a great place to live if you are A. Mormon (which I am not) B. Married or serious (Which I am) C. in need of slowing your roll (which I needed) Utah is by far the most beautiful state in the continental U.S. I am within hours of the Bonneville Salt Flats, 30 minutes to the best skiing and boarding in the USA, and 4 hours from Moab and Arches National Park, and Utah has more National Parks than any other state in the USA. It is also cheap, friendly, and a bit quiet. Again, after leaving the city I realized you gotta make the best out of wherever you are. There are trade offs to every place you can possibly live and every town has a scene of some sort, the only way you can go wrong is if you are spending your weekends at chain restaurant bars or in strip malls.
AS: Running your own shop is a dream a lot of people have but also probably one of the most difficult. What’s your advice for the young entrepreneurs out there?
KS: The main thing I would ask them is why they want their own shop. Everyone sees me in the good places – getting hooked up at bars or making retarded videos online, or drinking on the job…but what they don’t realize is even when I am off work I am working, or when they go home after the bar and pass out, I have to catch up on the work that I was supposed to be doing while at the bar. Now, I am not complaining about this at all, but a store is like a fucking baby. You go on vacation? Your employees are calling you and stressing you out the whole time. A customer comes in at closing time and wants to buy/have you put together a skateboard which will make you $150 that you need but will also break your promise, again, to your wife of ever making it home at a decent hour. It is a 24-7, 365 project that is on your mind. Now, if you know all of this, my advice would be talk to people who have done it, and take your fucking time. If your product or idea is dope, you can’t be late to the game. Many businesses hurry to get open and then their customers either watch them stumble or don’t get the best experience. I promise you it is always better to be prepared and late than early and amateur.
AS: What about your upcoming line are you really hyped on?
KS: The messages. I feel like we have been preaching to a small, select choir for a while now. Now with the Occupy movement/mentality, and a resurgence of Made in America, as well as the fact that the younger generation is beautiful and smart and grew up with such shitty role models that they just aren’t gonna stand for any bullshit anymore, I think people are really going to like what I have to say. It’s usually you who has to change for the world, but in this instance I think the world is realigning…
AS: Strike while the iron is hot, I know people are hungry for it. I’ll have to get used to ordering online instead of harassing you at work and drinking your free PBR. What’s the most fucked up thing you ever saw in the shop?
KS: There was a kid I was trying to help out a bit – just so he would realize that he was a good dude and no matter what was going on at home or with his Dad in prison, it didn’t have to mean he was a fuckup. Anyways, he pulled a gun on some professional pharmaceutical salesmen and they fucking beat his face up good. It was fresh and he came running up to my shop to hideout. (His beating was so fresh I could make out the knuckle marks on his skin in pink…well…in the spots that weren’t gushing blood. Anyways, he still had the gun on him and I went ahead and hid him. A few moments later two thuggy dude’s came into the shop and looked around and they were not the kind of guys you fuck with. They asked if I had seen a bloody white boy and I played dumb and they left. A third came up a few minutes later while the kid soaked through a roll of paper towels in my storage room. After that I told the kid that was it, it was not cool putting me and my biz in danger over some street shit and I told him not to come back. I ended up seeing him later and from what I could tell he was straightening himself out and I hope that’s still the case.
AS: You mentioned earlier that you sold your shit, quit your job and toured the US for a bit with the wifey. This is something I have always wanted to do. Any good stories?
KS: Well, it’s one of those things that means a lot more to you than anyone else around you. When you tell the stories to other people, even if they have been on a similar adventure, it just doesn’t translate. I will tell you this one…We drove all night from Oregon towards Arcata on some shitty 2 lane roads in a snow storm through the main National Forests where your delicious marijuana comes from. We saw lots of drop cars and fully loaded 4×4′s just hoofing it on these deadly mountain curves. I was getting worried as we got closer to the Redwoods because the gas tank was on E and from recent experience we found that at least half the gas stations in the USA still haven’t changed over to pay at the pump. So we got to the end of the road, the RV was now below E, and it was 2 AM. There were no lights and no signs just a right and a left. Leslie chose left and we started driving and lo and behold up in the distance was a gas station. I was praying that it would be pay at the pump, and it was. Hallefuckingluja! So I do a little dance and start pumping and then piercing the night air I hear, “HEY!” I looked at my wife Leslie and said hand me a knife or screwdriver. She rolled down the window and handed me the quickest thing she could find…a butter knife. She then rolled up the window. Right about then trotted up this cracked out kid, only about 19 years old but worn around the edges, wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants. (it was in the 20′s outside) He was like “hey hey man hey hey can you give mee a lifft like 10 miles up road?” I was like sorry man, not going that way. At that point I saw he had a large steak knife in his back pocket and he was acting very erratic and was obviously desperate. In my mind I have never been so ready to defend myself and my wife, and I was ready to put that knife in his fucking neck. He was like “Hey hey hey what about 10 miles down road.” I was like look dude: you see that light over there? That’s my grandfather’s house. I’m just filling this RV up for him and then I’m going back there. He’s waiting for me and if I don’t show up in a few minutes he is gonna be pissed. Is there anything else I can do for you? Get you a blanket? He said he would love a sweatshirt and a flashlight and before I could look into the RV Leslie was in the back and she produced her own hoodie and a taplight. She cracked the window, passed it through and I gave it to the kid. By then the gas was pumped and we had to get going so I dapped him up and wished him luck. He was thankful and started telling me how he was the “dark lord of the Juggalo clan” and how he was initiating me in as a member for life. If I ever needed help I should just drop his name and some Juggalos would take care of me.” It was awesome. We drove about 45 more miles that night, hyped up on adrenaline, this being the first time I actually honed in on the prospect of taking a human life.
AS: Shit, is that it? What about On the Road?
KS: Found the book to be boring. I know at it’s time it was some crazy shit, but I feel like I’ve had way better experiences…
AS: Damn. Well played. You are obviously a man who has done his homework, I won’t even ask you the Ozzy or Dio question.
KS: Hahahahaa. I should have know there would be one…
AS: Amen, brother. Highlife or Schlitz?
KS: Highlife at Trina’s, Schlitz at the Good Life.
AS: Crack a highlife and give us some shout outs then!
KS: I’d really like to thank you for offering up the interview and I apologize if it is long. It’s funny, but owning a shop people usually call you a businessman, and I would much rather be noticed for my art, aka my t-shirts. The t-shirts have always been my biggest seller and without those the business wouldn’t exist; plus being called a businessman isn’t really a compliment in my mind. Anyways, thanks to my wife Leslie for allowing me to follow my dream – without having you to share it with it wouldn’t mean much. Thanks to Daniel (DJ Wermser) my O.G. shop rat/friend, James & Kat, Joe & Lis, Big Jus, Kenji, Nate, Skript, Sweet Keat, Chico, River, Owen & Kelly, Ellen, Gaybe, Sam(S) Jordy, Stef (my fake wife), Kavaz, Shuttle, Passion Pit, Vanna, & Spose. Thanks to the thatsthehookup crew & Bill for taking my little Proletariat blog to the next fucking level! KC Russell for agreeing to do the photoshoot for the new Proletariat website and Greg & Liza for being my models. Thanks to all the businesses in Boston who made my tenure there a good one, Peter at QRSTS, Peter @ the Good Life, Chameleon, Hempest, Zach T., Ben B., Josh, Rob & Jeff, Kulturez, LAB, Bodega, Concepts. Thanks to all the shop rats and all the people who came into Proletariat and made it what it was supposed to be – a place where everyone is welcome and accepted until they fuck it up. Thanks to all the bands, bartenders, waiters, and artists who rep Proletariat on their big nights and events – that is when I know I have made something dope. At the end of the day I know that I am lucky to do what I do and everyone who has ever set foot in the door, purchased something, tweeted about, or just given me good vibes deserves a thanks. This next phase is for all of us. And Alph, I’m thinking we need to start brainstorming a collaboration for the two of us as well.
AS: With out a doubt man, can’t wait to see what the future brings!