Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cambridge Shop Haven for Graffiti Artists and Free Speech

By Ariel Shearer

CAMBRIDGE -- The shelves behind the counter are lined with jars full of different spray can nozzles, and the display case is full of colorful markers. Proletariat looks like a clothing store that caters to skateboarders, but the T-shirt designs show that Kerry Simon is selling more than skate gear. He’s selling ideas to wear, along with an array of graffiti supplies.

"We can’t promote graffiti … This is really like my community disservice,” says Simon, shop owner and artist. “I like graffiti. I want to see it keep going. It’s free speech; it’s art. It’s the only art that’s not for sale.”

Simon has catered to the counter culture since opening the Harvard Square store in 2004. He produces his own clothing and a version of Krink brand markers. But with plans to leave Massachusetts at the end of the summer and put the store to new hands, his loyal customers hope the shop doesn’t change.

“The store isn’t going to be the same … [Simon] said he was going to open a shop the next place he lives. I think he’ll definitely have as much success as he has here,” says Peter Davidson, 17, who started hanging out at Proletariat while living in Cambridge last year. “It’ll be interesting to see how the clothing changes, because some of the stuff here is Boston based. It’ll be interesting to see what he can think of from the other places he goes.”

Simon designs T-shirts that he says satirize the ills of society.

“The graffiti stuff sells like crack; you just don’t make any money on it,” Simon says. “Clothes are what pay the bills.”

Some of Simon’s T-shirt designs depict conspiracy theories, like an image of the moon landing being staged by photographers. Others poke fun at American consumer culture, such as one image of the Iwo Jima flag raising a McDonald’s sign. A special design just for Boston mocks the darker side of the city, featuring images of homeless people and syringes.

“It’s like something you’d buy at Faneuil Hall, except it’s all the messed up things about Boston, like dog crap and rats and Mass-holes,” Simon adds.

Although his T-shirt designs may point out societal ills, Simon sees himself as a patriot.

“Everything here is American made, down to the labels inside the shirts,” Simon says. “I have a kid that comes in once a week and sews the labels in so that it’s still American working, even on the small stuff.”

Simon says many of the people who spend time in the shop are loyal customers and friends.

“Everybody who comes in here thinks they’re really funny,” says Ellen O’Regan, a sales associate who works across from Proletariat in the Garage Mall at Newbury Comics. O’Regan stopped by to visit Simon on her work break. She says she wears Simon’s designs all the time and would love to work at Proletariat.

AJ Lee, a 16-year-old from Cambridge in the store buying a new skateboard, considers Simon a friend.

“Kerry’s laid back, and it’s a comfortable store to be in,” Lee says.

Simon’s relocation is due to his wife finishing grad school at Boston University this year. He says they plan to drive across the country and relax for six months while deciding where to live next. Although he plans to keep his website and the Krink makers, thick pens made of ink that create a dripping effect and made in vibrant colors special for Proletariat, Simon says his ideal business venture would enable him to participate in what he calls ‘socialism through capitalism.’

“I want to have the same shop, but I want it to be a non-profit,” Simon says. “If it was a skate shop, I’d want all the money to go into a skate park.”

No matter where he ends up, Simon’s T-shirt designs and countercultural art supplies will have a presence where they started, in Boston.

“There are very few places I think in the U.S. that we could have done this. But because it’s a very open, liberal type place, it’s a good place to start it out,” Simon says. “I wonder where else I could live besides San Francisco or Manhattan that would have enough liberal people who like to wear what they believe … There’s nothing more American than saying what you mean.”

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