Pablo, Romy, Cali

The Life and Times of the Underground Renaissance Man Cali Thornhill Dewitt

Interview: Thomas Jeppe
Photography: Julian Klincewicz

The artist Cali Thornhill Dewitt is an essential Los Angeles figure. From punk to art to celebrity circles, Dewitt’s biography reflects the many threads of cultural production that exist in L.A., a city best defined as a collection of peripheries. This resonates in Dewitt’s now­ notorious memorial sweatshirts, which fuse the swap meet designs of West Coast gangs with the personality cults of Hollywood figures. They are an example of how quickly an idea can go viral. After making one dedicated to the 60s jet set actress Romy Schneider for 032c, Dewitt’s design became the focal point of Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” sweatshirts, with versions eventually making their way to Forever 21 and knockoff markets back in L.A. This is Dewitt’s dream: to make a bootleg so good that it becomes bootlegged by the people who invented it. And it is only the most well known part of a lifelong output dedicated to local scenes and ephemeral practices.

Artist Thomas Jeppe spoke to Dewitt about the importance of music, the roots of his aesthetics, and global communication.

Thomas Jeppe: You recently said, about your involvement with a lot of different subcultures over the years, that you are attracted to the thing that feels most honest at that moment.

Cali Thornhill Dewitt: Yeah, I guess I would mean what feels right, what I’m gravitating towards. It may not be conscious.

But then, with this quite immaterial aspect of honesty, it begins to make sense that you could be equally into things that seemingly clash with one another.

Although for me, I don’t think anything clashes. There’s a lot of rules, gatekeeper people who are like, “This is what you have to do.”

Of course. But this is how subculture gets defined—by these formal and semantic boundaries.

And that was a problem for me when I was a little kid. People teased me when I was literally like eight, because I liked this music and that music.

Do you remember which?

I had a lot of freedom—wake up, leave the house, come back at dinnertime. I don’t think kids get to do that now. So I was out on the streets, getting the bus. I really liked music when I was young, and I really liked punk. But I also liked Duran Duran, you know what I mean? So older kids would see me, and I would have a Sid Vicious t­-shirt and a Duran Duran button, and I would be told, “You can’t do that.” [laughs] And I was just like, “Well, why not?” And I kind of still feel like that. Walking over for this interview today, I was listening to the new Kodak Black mixtape, it’s really good. It’s gonna color this week for me. I’m going to listen to it every day. Do you know what I mean? It’s so limiting to say you can only do one thing, and it must be about one thing.

When did you find the community that shared your position?

I stopped going to school when I was 16, because I couldn’t wait to get out and be in the world. There was an all ages space in L.A. called Jabberjaw—when I found that, I just stopped going to school. And it was different from punk and hardcore, because it was really weird.

How so?

It was truly all ages, like 60 year olds. Everyone from me to like 60-year-old Manson fanatics. Do you know what I mean? Like really weird.

So these are more or less the people from the hippie movement who stayed?

No, no. I’m not saying that’s all there was. Most people were probably more like 25. But there was everything. It was pre­-Internet. Do you remember Amok books? They published all the weird shit. It was that sort of scene. I got to know the people at Jabberjaw and I volunteered there—meaning I stood behind the counter and gave people coffee. It was in a really bad neighborhood in L.A. A lot of crazy shit happened around there. It was on a border between a Crip and a Blood neighborhood while that was still happening. It was like Pico and Crenshaw, now there’s a nightclub there. There’s a halfway house for real prisoners across the street—like San Quentin, Folsom dudes. But at Jabberjaw there would maybe be someone like Mudhoney who would play there to 50 people. Or Beat Happening. But then the next night there’d be a drag performance. And then the next night there’d be like a birthday for someone deep in the S&M scene. So it was a lot of underground cultures coming together. Like Catherine Opie was probably hanging out there, Goddess Bunny, that was another regular at Jabberjaw. Ron Athey, he’s a performance artist from that era. He’s like a hero. Just look at the pictures of him and imagine being 16 and this guy’s, like, in your orbit. When I say Mudhoney and then a hectic S&M birthday party, I mean hectic. [laughs]

So this is something like the 80s and 90s Modern Primitive generation.

It was absolutely that. True 90s weird. Punk was so violent in L.A., and there were so many gangs that it was a relief to meet all of these people. Because they were hitting the same sort of nerves I wanted hit, but without the gang violence. And then also it was a place where—and Sub Pop wasn’t huge yet—all those Amphetamine Reptiles bands played.

So this informed your openness to some very varied scenes.

Both then and now. Recently, I was thinking how a lot of people I grew up with, as they grow older, are stuck on one thing. “I had this experience in 1993, and that’s the experience I’m gonna think about and talk about.” Because as I get older, people are like, “Oh, you’re in this new shit or whatever, and I don’t like that.” They get critical of the new stuff, and it’s because they’re not learning the language anymore. They’ve stopped. And every year that that happens, they're less connected to the world as it’s growing.

Which is the mechanics of a generation gap.

Your whole life, if you stick around, there’s a new crop of people who you see around. Generally, 95% of them you see for two years, and that’s their time before they go get their real life started, whatever it is. You never see them again. The people who are not contributing are not around that long anyway. They’re like, living out. They want to have their picture taken in a cool outfit and be at Max’s Kansas City, or whatever. Most people want their version of that when they’re younger, and then that’s enough for them.

This raises a point about the nature of being an audience member—being seriously connected to music, but rather than making it, being attentive and dedicated to it from the side of the audience.

Yeah! Because that’s a real thing—being part of the community, being an active member is contributing. And that activity can be as big or as little as you want. And that’s why one of my early dreams was to have a record label, to be part of that process. I said I would never put another record out like two years ago, just because I’d put out enough. And then this year Brendan Fowler and I started a new record label. Because we saw a band play in L.A., like their first show, and we both got that excited.

What’s the new label?

Some Ware. Which is also our new shirt label. We’ve had some parties in L.A., and we give everything a catalogue number—so the shirts have a catalogue number, the parties have a catalogue number. The first record hasn’t even come out yet, but it is at the pressing plant. But the first record’s gonna come out and it’s gonna be like, catalogue number 11. Who says that your record label can only have catalogue numbers for the records?

It's interesting to think about these smaller-­scale activities alongside your memorial sweatshirts. Those were initially produced on a similarly intimate scale, but then at a certain point something clicked, and it suddenly spoke to a mass of people. It had the right chemistry at a certain moment that—

That Forever 21 made their version.

Has it come to that?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

What’s their version?

Some people have been sending it to me—the text is a memorial for the Christian figure Simon de Cyrène. It’s not cool, but it’s funny. I love bootlegs. I love the idea of making a shirt or something that two years later you could see on an old Chinese woman in the subway. To me that’s the reason to make a shirt.

It’s the process of dissemination at its clearest.

Some people thought I would be mad when they sent it to me. But I think it’s fine. I don’t really claim ownership of it. You know, you can hold on to something really tight, and scream about it, or you can just let it go. I prefer to just let it go.

What do you think about the shift of the meaning when it reaches the scale where it shows up in Forever 21?

Well it couldn’t keep the same meaning, so I just think it’s an interesting twist.

But at the same time, you’re quite explicit in noting where it came from, in terms of its Los Angeles, Chicano roots. This was a community aesthetic.

I think it’s important for people to know that this is something I saw Hispanic gang members wearing, and I would make—people would make—in L.A. at the swap meet, for very cheap. It was most often a memorial for someone who died. So if you and I had a group of 10 friends in El Monte and one of them died, we would all go make one and wear it to the funeral and wear it in the neighborhood. And I started making them because they stopped. Not because Hispanics stopped, but because the places where everyone went to make them at the swap meets stopped making them. So I was going to the swap meet to make a set of 20. I was driving and I was like, “You know what, I want to make 20 of them.” And I have the list still. I wrote it while I was driving, it was like, Marlene Dietrich, Harpo Marx, DJ Screw—just a list of 20 people I liked. And I wanted to put 20 of them on the wall. Like it was literally a thought I had while driving at noon. And then I went to the swap meet, and the stand was gone! It was there, but it wasn’t there. I was like, “Where’s your heat press machine?” And I have one friend in L.A. who was equally into that, named Alexis Ross, and I called him and he was like, “Well, we gotta find it...” So we went to other swap meets, and they were all the same story. It then became this thing for Alexis and I to try to locate it. Finally when I located it, it was literally a die-­cut school uniform place in Wisconsin. I mean other people I’m sure also made the letters, but this is the place I found that still had them. And I called them like, “Are they all gone?!” And they were really confused. They’re like, “We have a die cut. We make this stuff to order for high school uniforms.” They didn’t understand that I cared, or—

The desperation.

So I just started. I got a heat press and I started ordering from them. And then it became a thing that I enjoyed doing. It became a thing where when Rene Ricard died, I could ride my bike to the studio and make it within the hour and give it to someone who I knew knew him. It became this nice thing that you could do. Because I don’t keep them, and they’re not really for sale. They’re either for trade, or for someone close to the person, or someone who really loves the person. That’s what they should be for.

So I’m curious then what your position is about the nostalgic aspect of these pieces.

I mean, I don’t think a lot of people know where they come from. But there is currently—like in the last year—a sort of lame nostalgia for Hispanic gang culture. And the drawings that maybe would appear on handkerchiefs by guys in prison. You know that style? No one really cared about that. And it doesn’t matter that people are drawn to it now, because they’re drawn to it mostly simply as an aesthetic. But the ultimate goal behind the production of these memorial shirts—which was more of a fantasy, so I can’t believe that it’s kind of happened—would be that it would make it into the bootleg market, saying either Kanye stuff, or “I Feel Like Pizza.” [laughs] In L.A., Santee Alley is where you can get these kinds of bullshit $5 t-shirts. And it’s back there now. I can’t think of a better outcome.

So in the last two years or so, we’ve seen each other in a few different places around the world. And you’ve been traveling a lot. Has this had an effect on what you’re producing?

It’s had an effect, though I’m not even sure what the effect is yet. While things are happening, I have a hard time digesting them. Because of drugs or whatever, when I was younger I had a hard time getting a passport. I probably could have tried harder, but it was something that I was kind of afraid to deal with. So I actually didn’t leave America for 19 years. From 1994 to 2013. And I really was dying to go somewhere. So now I’m making up for lost time.

Where did you go first?

Tokyo. Because I got offered to do a show there. And I loved it. I love Tokyo. I’ve since gone back like eight times. It’s my second city. Again, it was a relationship that started with music. There’s a record store there called Big Love that has a small gallery, and they were one of my best customers with the Teenage Teardrops label.

But things expanded very rapidly from then, in terms of international travel and invitations and so on.

They did. And at the same time, I had to commit to doing my own work more. Doing a record label and publishing things for people was my version of making work for a long time, because I was not ready to take the risk of putting myself out there. Some people out of the gate are comfortable doing that, but I wasn’t for a long time. And I’m glad I wasn’t. Because if I had gotten these opportunities when I was younger, I would have annihilated them. I would have burned them to the ground.

Now that you're focused more on your own work, you've got to face much more public attention. What are your thoughts on privacy?

I love privacy. [laughs] I think it’s important to know that you can just say no. Like with the Kanye thing, I don’t talk about it publicly. I just think some people really like the limelight, and they like to talk about themselves and post six things a day on Instagram. I don’t like to do that. Anonymity is super good, as much as you can get it.

It seems like it’s running the opposite direction from you.

You can hold onto it, you know what I mean? You can come into things quiet. You don’t have to fist pump your way into every room. Because from when I was younger, I was on tour with Nirvana and stuff, I already know that I don’t want to be in that—that fame, that attention level, everybody like, “AAAHH!!” It’s like being inside a tornado.

Clearly things don’t have to be run on that level.

Like this new Kodak Black mixtape, I love it, and I don’t think hardly anyone’s going to listen to that, you know? You gotta watch a video of him. He looks amazing. He’s got all gold implants, like a full mouth, and he likes to floss—like literally floss them—to show these are implants. He’s not popping them in, he’s living with these gold teeth. I can’t floss between my front teeth. This is a bridge. I know what he’s talking about. And I love that that’s a thing! Because he’s young. He had to go and have all of his healthy teeth removed. It’s fucking awesome. My teeth alone were a big operation.

Your gold ones are replacements?

Yeah, I insisted. [laughs] It took a year, 17 root canals, nine teeth pulled. It was harsh.

At what age?

It was only four or five years ago. Because they started falling out from my mouth. With this gold one in front, the real one fell out when I was talking to my mother in law. I was embarrassed, so I went to the bathroom and I was like, “Aw, shit!” And then I came out and I was trying not to talk. And my wife Jenna was like, “Did one of your teeth fall out? Why are you shutting your mouth like that?” And my mother in law is so nice, she’s like “Oh, do you guys need some money for the dentist?” [laughs]

Yes!

Probably, but I’m not gonna take it from you.

Well, congratulations on the new ones.

Dude, I’m stoked. Eating apples, eating carrots. [laughs] All that shit that I couldn’t do.

Interview: Thomas Jeppe
Photography: Julian Klincewicz