Technically, Art Under Pressure has existed since the early 1990s. Back when young friends Zach Mason and Cory Stowers were writing graffiti, meeting up at the old Southwest train tunnel that displayed so many great pieces and served as a breeding ground for young artists, they modeled themselves after the well-established collective known as AUP. They weren’t your average graffiti crew. It was a concept. AUP symbolized a lifestyle, an ethos that was symbolized in its name.
As street artists, when practicing their craft, they were under pressure. From law enforcement. And rival graffiti crews. Their weapons of choice? Spray paint cans, the contents of which are too, under pressure. Makes perfect sense. Twenty years later, after getting the blessings of the original crew to use the likeness, Mason and Stowers launched a full-service graffiti and skateboard shop of the same name, that opened on Georgia Avenue in Petworth three years ago. For a certain generation, the entire concept of the store was perfect. For those who loved skateboarding and graffiti, two things that had gone together in this city since the 1980s, the place was heaven.
They did custom screen printing and design, serviced skateboards, sold streetwear and had space out back for artists to paint without the worry of the law. Beyond that, though, it was a place to hang out. Kids of all ages would spend time there, just kicking it with like-minded folks or working in the shop. And almost everything on display was local.
“[The shop] was part of D.C. history. It represented some continuity with the founders of the D.C. graffiti scene who influenced us. We just wanted to build a company that could function as a retail space also could function as a way that artists could market themselves,” Mason, 35, said. “Graffiti art and skateboarding culture just always had a lot of overlap, so having the store provide [that] for both of those communities, which are the overlapping sort of street youth culture communities was just something that made sense.”
It was a relatively large floor space and on some weekends they’d clear out the merchandise and throw parties. The events were invaluable. “You could go to events that were often free or they might cost $3 or $5,” Mason recalled. “If you are not 21 years old, you’re not old enough to drink and there’s really nowhere for you to go to hang out and have something going on. We wanted to provide that kind of space. Not just a a place where you could go spend money, but something that did provide and did give back to and was a part of the community that it served.”
But after a while, it just didn’t make financial sense. Caught between the Fort Totten and Petworth Metro stops and serviced by only a few bus lines, it became a destination. As much of a clubhouse as it was for local kids, business was slow.
“We didn’t get a lot of foot traffic. The people had to come and seek us out, and that was cool, but financially we wanted to just do more in terms of sales. And that’s what we’ve found since we opened on U Street,” Mason, a Tenleytown/Friendship Heights native said. New Year’s Eve 2013 was the last day for AUP in Petworth.
In April, the second phase of AUP began. Opening up in a small second story store front, the entire experience is completely different. The feel is far more streamlined, right down to the logo, which has been simplified. For that, you can thank a guy who goes simply as “Rico.” Federico Frum, is a 32-year-old graduate of H.B. Woodlawn in Arlington, and he manages the new space. He came to the company as a screen printer and was eventually asked to take a lead role on U Street.
Before that, he’d been traveling the globe, meeting cool people and establishing the kind of feel he’d bring to the new shop. So far, it’s working. “They said just do what you can do. Do your thing here. I think it’s going good. It’s not going down, you know?” he said. Mason thinks he’s a perfect fit. “Rico’s both and artist and a skater that really embodies the spirit of what we’re all about,” Mason lauded.
In 2012, Rico took a trip to Brazil to hang out with a friend who was painting boats. There, the experience really stayed with him. Of Colombian descent, he ended up staying in South America for some time. “I forget about my return plane ticket. I just stayed in South America for 6 months, stayed in Brazil for 3 months and just traveled around. I just started painting, meeting good people, who were always down to collaborate with you, always down to share and stuff. It just taught me a lot,” Frum said. “I went to Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay. Went down the Amazon river in a boat, slept in a hammock for like 10 days.”
Now, you can feel what he felt in the new shop.
“We try to show respect. We’re pretty much like a community shop. If you come in here, and you don’t have a board? There are boards right there, we can give you. That’s not right, you know? A kid doesn’t have money for a board? You know, we’ve all been there. We’re trying to just show love in that aspect. And you come in here to paint, we’re not trying to hide paint skills. We’re trying to teach you and not try to hold anything back. We’re open to anybody,” Frum says as an employee checks in for work with his dog in tow. “Life is better when you’re more eclectic.”
Thursday evening, they’ll be holding their grand opening party. Although they’ve been open for a few months, they never truly commemorated the fact that U Street is their new home. Although the big “Black Broadway” mural on an adjacent alley’s wall, a project that Stowers coordinated and hopes to expand on, definitely speaks volumes.
“The intention with that mural was, let’s remind folks of the history of U Street. Even we’re here and we’re part of what it is now, we want as artists, we want to be part of memorializing the history and pointing back to a memory of what this place has been and the roots of its artistic origin,” Mason explained.
At Noon Wednesday, inside the shop, four young people with skateboards come in to get new gear for their decks, employees watch skate videos and eat McDonald’s.
Rico asks if one of them wants to grip his own deck. He doesn’t even know which side it goes on. The young people note Rico’s tats. They’re 17. “You want to play your usual? Britney Spears or N’Sync?” one employee jokes. “Or Nelly? I listen to Nelly every morning when I wake up,” he continues. “I haven’t heard that word in so long.” Rico replies with a laugh. They settle on The Fugees.
Before heading to the bank to handle some business, Rico has a phone chat with one of the store’s sponsored skaters. The kid has broken his board in half and is looking to get his monthly allotment early as a replacement. Rico says no. The kid has no footage of him riding and no photos. He offers him a piece of advice that embodies what their brand is all about.
“You gotta make something out of nothing!” he says encouragingly and enthusiastically into the phone. “You’re part of AUP!”