2488 Words with Erik Brunetti
We catch up with FUCT founder Erik Brunetti in an exclusive interview to talk origins, being the ultimate agent provocateur, and why his label is still king...
“I started writing graffiti in the mid-80s, I think…” Brunetti begins. ‘When I became a bike messenger, that’s when I started. And that’s probably my earliest recollection of actually bombing – I’d write in New York, and Philly too.” Erik Brunetti grew up skateboarding, into punk rock, and into making art. He’s in London to visit Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery where his friend, American painter John Copeland, is exhibiting twenty-five paintings made between 2009 and 2017 from his Murderme collection. It’s a show entitled Your Heaven Looks Just Like My Hell.
“During the mid-80s, around ’85/’86, I was travelling around the USA and hitting up different skate spots with my friend, Brian.” Brunetti had been skating vert [ramp skating] in Dallas and Houston, before Brian and he headed west to the infamous Del Mar Skate Park in San Diego. Built in 1978, Del Mar had played host to many of skate history’s most influential riders, including Tony Hawk, Danny Way, and Mike McGill. Whilst the skatepark boom was nearing its end at the time of Del Mar’s construction, the park’s proximity to the beach and San Diego’s sun-scorched summers meant people came from afar to ride its particularly tricky bowls. By 1982 only a handful of Californian skate parks remained, and Del Mar had become the focal point of Californian skateboarding. “The attraction to California was entirely due to skateboarding. California had all the pools and all the best spots.” Brunetti explains. Once it was time to move on from San Diego he travelled up the coast to Venice Beach and decided to settle there for a while.
Venice makes sense in the wider FUCT story. By 1958 Los Angeles was embracing all things ‘can do’ as part of Eisenhower’s Space Age dream, whilst Venice remained largely a resort town filled with beats and artists. By the ‘70s they had been replaced by bums and drug addicts. Still, it gave way to the skateboarding counterculture revolution later on in that decade; Venice nurtured the alternative. “When I lived there, the energy was very dangerous and alluring. I started FUCT in the middle of Ghost Town, on Brooks Ave., by Oakwood Park. Across the alley, a block over there was Dennis Hoppers walled-in compound. He has just shot the movie ‘Colors’. Venice back then attracted creative from all walks of life, gathered into one small city on the coast.”
It’s no surprise then it birthed more than one counterculture movement: the benchmark for All-American Subversion, communicated via cloth. “If you grew up skateboarding and into punk rock, and then graffiti, it all sort of comes together, you know? It’s all sort of like one… All the people you run around with.” The camp of Steve Rocco’s World Industries and a whole group of ‘antagonists, nihilists, and hell-raisers pushing the envelope’ ended up tying into the brand’s birth. Brunetti says that what they were doing in the early days was what Steve Rocco’s World Industries was doing. Rocco started making fun of other brands and running parodies of the ads they ran. Seeing a lot of that, and seeing that there were other ways of doing things majorly influenced Brunetti – to put his own spin on it was how, along with pro skater Natas Kaupas, the FUCT story began.
“There were things we were releasing [early on] that now you just couldn’t release. It wasn’t done to piss people off; it was done in a very subversive way. We were nihilists when we were young...” As FUCT developed it started to hold increasingly bolder visual conversations with its consumers, born from a mutual distaste of ‘the usual version of events’. Through its many messages over the years, the brand sought to destroy the normal paradigm and question everything set forth by corporate conglomerates. Wider conversation with Brunetti quickly reveals his suspicion of corporate and political hidden agenda, a suspicion that’s very well-reasoned on his part. To say he’s political is an understatement. In the days before the internet, re-appropriating pop culture images onto a garment wasn’t by any means easy to do; it was also viewed as theft, a far cry from today’s idea of a graphic ‘flip’. With that in mind, he explains that two of the main graphics that gave the brand traction early on was the Ford appropriation and the Planet of the Apes. However, it’s the Apocalypse Now graphics and the brand’s more obscure imagery he prefers. Regardless, whether it was the poster for Jaws or The Rolling Stones’ logo, FUCT did it first. Cultural re-appropriation, as Brunetti calls it, but on your own terms.
It’s a far cry from the world we live in today; whilst Brunetti may have been the first to put an ape on a t-shirt, it’s an image subsequently popularised and profited off by other brands placing it at the centre of their identity. In today’s market streetwear brands sell for multiples of millions. It plays into a wider idea that Brunetti’s been perpetually misunderstood throughout his career, even to this day. Arguably that’s unsurprising when you’re somewhat a dissident. It’s amusing, Brunetti says, that people see him and his distinctly anti-streetwear look and are confused by the fact he’s ‘the guy that does FUCT’. Whilst dressed in a fairly unassuming manner today, his boots are handcrafted and look more at home on his Texan ranch than London. His aesthetic is deliberate and considered, although he’s ditched his signature custom rancher hat, something he attributes to others constantly asking him where he got it. The ultimate irony of the misanthrope is surely to make a cynical statement about capitalism that others then profit off.
“There was no plan or agenda… we were doing it from a very pure perspective. It was very genuine and we wanted to do something that wasn’t on the market. There wasn’t a brand on the market that was subversive, and the idea was to present a very corporate… the FUCT logo is a very corporate looking logo, it would be pronounced ‘fucked’, and at the same time it’d become an acronym for Friends You Can’t Trust.”
Whether intentional or not, Brunetti has acted as the agent provocateur throughout his life. FUCT was the deliberate prankster, a Discordian living in a system built on rules, order, and accepting the status quo. It’s a ‘90s equivalent of the Situationists, artistically critiquing modern day advanced capitalism in spectacular fashion. There’s a sense of similarity between him and Malcolm McLaren, the English impresario known for popularising the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols, also an artist in his own right.
“I wouldn't necessarily say McLaren was the inspiration, but rather the Situationist Movement itself. I'm not sure if he at that particular time or even myself, later on, knew that we where being directly influenced by it. My background is affirmably rooted in punk rock, so naturally, I gravitated toward rule breaking and anti-establishment.”
Acting as the agent provocateur is something that’s carried through into Brunetti’s work as an artist – he’s had work ranging from ink-and-pen scribble to sculpture displayed across numerous shows over the past two decades. The name Patty Hearst may only still ring a bell to a few but her story was one that, at the time, etched its way into the weirder depths of the American psyche. Hearst, the granddaughter of a publishing magnate, was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a guerrilla left-wing organisation that considered itself a vanguard army. Violently abused and brainwashed, she ended up a wanted fugitive on SLA crimes and in March 1976 ended up sentenced to the maximum possible 35 years on a bank robbery and firearms charge. It was a sad and bizarre story that captured the American public. The SLA’s logo was a seven-headed cobra, based on the seven principles of Kwanza. Brunetti noticed that the SLA logo wasn’t trademarked, so he bought the rights. Ever the agitator, Brunetti owns the trademark to a guerrilla terrorist organisation. It’s a reference that’s been carried through his work as an artist, notably in the form a bronze statue. Recently FUCT sister label SSDD (Same Shit Different Day) collaborated with Tokyo’s Neighborhood on an incense chamber of the same design.
Being provocative is one thing, as is being original, but one can be original and still not have an idea that translates into something commercially viable. It’s a ground that numerous artists, musicians, and brands have trodden. FUCT clearly defied that, or else it wouldn’t have managed to build its 20-plus year legacy. Why then did it work for an American audience? America, by all accounts, was booming in the ‘90s. The economy grew around 4% every year from 1992 to 1999, unrivalled by today’s standards. The poverty rate fell substantially to around 11% by the end of the decade, whilst stocks quadrupled. Unemployment was at historic lows, and in a grander sense, the apocalyptic threats of the Cold War ceased to exist. The digital age was on the horizon, and everything was seemingly great. But whilst America experienced relative prosperity, it was by no means universal. To any observant sceptic there was a deeper untruth; a massive smoke and mirrors. Perhaps the same ground that was fertile for breeding prosperity was, beneath the surface, breeding its own sense of corporate discontent. “It’s very punk,” Brunetti explains. “Why did people gravitate towards punk rock in the ‘70s and ’80? Because it was rebellious, and I think people could tell.”
FUCT was the first brand in a long time to provide a genuine sense of rebelliousness and a sense of legitimacy in something that wasn’t homogenised or fake, something exceptionally rare in the era of Corporate America. As Brunetti suggests, “They could tell. You could definitely tell.” Ultimately, it would all be very different if the brand came out today. There’s a parallel Brunetti draws with musicians such as the Sex Pistols, Elton John, and Pink Floyd – they made a stain on the music industry and changed the game through their own originality.
“I presume [it’s] because FUCT references, consumes, and re-appropriates American pop culture. Americans remember or still love these images from their past and present, and will accept them regardless of how they’re presented to them. Subverted or not, they create a familiar internal dialogue with the consumer. FUCT has unconsciously become the outlaw of this American fashion, streetwear, art culture, or whatever it’s called these days.
FUCT kicked doors down within the world of counterculture, which eventually morphed into what we now come to define under the umbrella term Streetwear, a culture Brunetti argues was pioneered by the trio of Shawn Stussy, Rick Klotz (Freshjive), and him. Initiating conversation about the state of today’s industry and the brands operating within it only serves to provoke his ire, with a rebuke of “It’s like fuc boi clothing, you know? Let’s just be honest!”
It’s definitely a point worth making – Brunetti says he’s suspicious of how brands today have a habit of appearing out of nowhere, and how it’s ridiculous that working for Kanye West can instantaneously qualify someone or their product. FUCT was subversive, as was the skateboarding culture from which it emerged. It actually made a point about society. It was worn to piss off your parents. And it was a way for disenfranchised youth, the weirdoes and outsiders, to identify.
In the ‘90s you could walk into X-Girl in Lower Manhattan or Dr Jives in Glasgow and meet people with a shared point of view – brands like FUCT, X-Large and Stussy bred scenes in the same way record store culture has historically bred musical genres. It’s community. See someone else walking down the street wearing the t-shirt and you knew that they also knew. If you related to FUCT you knew there was a different way of thinking, despite what they – the conglomerates, the mainstream media, the politicians or your parents – told you. It’s just not the same as camping outside the Supreme store for a branded red brick, and it’s entirely why his ire is valid. No better is the spectacle of modern-day streetwear demonstrated than the recent string of tweets in which Brunetti parodies Trump supporting Virgil Abloh and Hypebeast. Perhaps it’s an imagined world not too far from reality. Forever the prankster, and forever the artist. But if FUCT kicked down doors, what’s its enduring legacy?
“Literally everything you see in the industry, there’s a line that goes directly back to FUCT. Like literally every single brand that I see, I can say ‘yeah, I remember when we did that 5 years ago, or we did that 10 years ago, or 20 years ago.’ It’s everything, but it’s hard for me to talk about it [in that way] because it’s difficult to talk about it without sounding like an egomaniac. It’s like asking a rock band, or an artist that pioneered something, what they think about the contemporary versions of themselves. The only honest answer is to say ‘yeah, well you know, we did that way, way, way back then.’ So I could just be humble and not answer the question, but that’s not why we’re here [laughs].”
Whilst Brunetti has a valid point, does it matter what Mick Jagger thinks of today’s emergent bands? Culture evolves within a specific time and place; it responds and reacts to the circumstances and situations of the time in which it exists. So it’s a pretty enduring legacy for a counterculture brand conceived in 1990 to still hold a genuine cultural relevance today. Brunetti’s assertion is that the brand actually becomes more and more relevant every year – he argues that culture and movements are always pushed forward by the youth and that the mainstream establishment has underestimated today’s younger generations.
They don’t, he says, watch TV or believe in the hype being pedalled on what he describes as ‘dinosaur platforms’. The internet has provided a map for them to navigate through the bullshit. It’s an interesting point to raise; there’s a sense of dichotomy with the idea that the internet has accelerated culture to the point we see the streetwear industry of today. Regardless, once the youth get their teeth into something real, he explains, they become loyal to it and they dig deeper. This is why it still resonates not only with Americans, but globally. In his mind, “they aren’t all fooled by the billion-dollar brands.”
It seems only right to draw our conversation to a close by talking grandiose to one of recent history’s most enduring nihilists. What’s the point of any of it, if we’re all FUCT anyway? Brunetti pauses, before once again looking at the big picture. “Good question. I ask myself this more often the older I get. I don’t know, maybe we have been conditioned from our youth to be driven by narcissism and money. I think if those two things are removed from the equation, the answer reveals itself.”