I finally watched Dawn of the Rise of the Revenge of the Planet of the Apes Strike Back, a special effects cereal bowl of one man’s borderline homoerotic bestial relationship with a gorilla. And of course, I loved it – although I’m biased – because I love all things Planet of the Apes, as did most ’80 kids who took the Star Wars sci-fi thing so far – and so obscure – as to embrace Dune and The Dark Crystal.
Born the year of the Monkey, anthropoids have stolen my cultural heart from King Kong to Congo. Streetwear, especially, has apewashed me – as the infatuation has pervaded decades of T-shirt graphics, company logos, and marketing materials. Looks like Charlton Heston and James Franco weren’t the only dudes catching feels for monkeys. Take, for example:
In 1991, Eli Bonerz and Adam Silverman opened the iconic X-Large store in LA, reinforced with California workwear and outwardly affiliated with the Beastie Boys. Their “OG Gorilla” became emblematic of not just the local Streetwear brand, but a vibrant period of ’90s West Coast street culture. So much so, that when we collaborated with X-Large in the mid-2000s, it was imperative that we designed a T-shirt involving monkeys.
Before doling out baby underwear in department stores and squeezing out their namesake in a bitter divorce, the Paul Frank brand was actually pretty cool and special. Founder Paul Frank Sunich went from garage-sewing accessories guy to the early-2000s version of Dov Charney, surrounding himself with budding teenage fawns and building a clothing empire. The pre-millenial Droog/Delia’s catalog scene candy-raved around his universe, captained by Sunich’s Mickey Mouse: Julius the Monkey. That simple simian adorned hoodies, boardshorts, and Wahoo’s Fish Taco walls from here to San Clemente before Sunich was eventually ousted from his own company. His current project, Park La Fun, follows the designer’s original premise: handmade goods framing elementary critters. But this time, no monkeys.
Pop, rap, and cash-is-king capitalism came to a head in the late ’90s with the advent of the Internet, BET, and MTV TRL. In the wake of the decade’s Fifth Avenue leaders like Tommy, Nautica, and Polo, urban apparel brands started exploding overnight via rappers. Every emcee under the sun was connected to a baggy brand, from Nas’ Willie Esco to Wu Wear to Nelly’s Vokal. They didn’t even need to stake ownership – as long as the affiliation or endorsement was there. A great example of this was lesser-known line Drunknmunky, which catapulted off the strength of Jay-Z’s co-sign in 2002. In the rapper’s “Excuse Me Miss” music video with Pharrell, he boldly advertises the logo on a black T-shirt, and the rest was history.
If Streetwear’s obsession with apes dawned anywhere, it was probably within the mind of Erik Brunetti. His infatuation with the Planet of the Apes franchise predates all others, and according to the artist, it was within his walls that a couple of the other designers on this list (not to be named) were inspired to pursue primates. It has been said, however, that it isn’t who does it first, but who does it best. In my opinion, Fuct did both.
NOW YOU LITTLE MONKEYS WANNA BE GUERRILLAS. So goes one of the best graphic taglines in Street, spoken by the artist and founder Ruslan Karablin. From Medicom Kubricks to collectable busts to their own T-shirt sublabel, Simian symbolism has run rampant throughout the brand’s portfolio, most notably in Russ’ “Rebel Ape” hybrid of Che and ape.
Okay, not an apparel brand per se, but considering the hardcore pioneers have probably sold more T-shirts of their toughguy gorilla than many independent labels, it counts. Plus, the Gorilla Biscuits and the resulting hardcore scene inspired some of your favorite Streetwear figures, from Benny Gold to Brooklyn Dom to me, myself, and I. Paul Frank even did a collaboration with the New York band. Oh yeah, and so did we. A couple times!
The earliest I can remember finding monkey love in a T-shirt was T&C Surf. The Hawaiian surf label exploded in popularity in the ’80s thanks to their front-crest/back-hit colorful tees dressed with a cast of misfits. Illustrated by Steve Nazar, the T&C characters included the Tiki guys, Joe Cool, and the Mutant Surfers from Space, but none is more memorable than Thrilla Gorilla. Unfortunately, the California licensing division of T&C Surf – who laid claim to Nazar’s art – was clipped, and the cartoons have been trapped in limbo since. We momentarily resurrected them in projects with Nazar, as well as Dave Choe’s “Munko” interpretation of Thrilla.
Before there was Streetwear, there was workwear, and Ben Davis is the archetype. Like Dickies, Carhartt, and Stan Ray, Ben Davis clothing is built to last under heavy duty duress by everyday laborers. Nothing exemplifies this better than a giant effing no-nonsense gorilla, which has graced the Ben Davis label since the get-go.
The closest we have come to unmasking Banksy is, well, a mask. In his rare public appearances, Banksy has resorted to a bug-eyed monkey guise under his uniform black hoody. Monkeys have also been a recurring theme throughout the street artist’s artwork, most notably in his sandwich board series.
A Bathing Ape
Perhaps the most well-known ape in Streetwear is the bathing one. Over two decades old now, Japanese label BAPE is short for A Bathing Ape, which is short for “A Bathing Ape in Lukewarm Water,” a euphemism for complacent, spoiled youth. Much of the brand’s earlier workings were influenced by the Planet of the Apes, as was one its first faces, the musician Cornelius whose pseudonym was borrowed from the film’s chimpanzee.