The Work Behind the W Part Four: Armando Alvarez, Started at the Bottom, Now We Here
Ed. Note—This is the fourth installment in our series introducing you to the people behind the scenes at Wattie Ink. HQ. This week we meet Armando Alvarez, who designed pro kits for Josh Amberger (the Death Metal Collection) and Mary Beth Ellis (the ever-popular Honey Badger Collection). If you want to read about Dan Toledo, Brittany Arcila, or Shannon Price, check out those earlier pieces!
School? What school? Armando Alvarez came up like many kids in San Diego: with a streak for trouble and a penchant for doing his own thing. After finding inspiration in graffiti, Alvarez has found an outlet for his artistic energy with Wattie Ink. as one of the team’s talented artists. We checked in with the artist responsible for some of our most popular pro collections over the phone this weekend, as he was recovering from a cold.
Q: What’s your 20?
Alvarez: I live in L.A. right now because my fiancée just started school at USC, but I grew up throughout San Diego county: San Marcos, Vista, and Escondido.
Q: Much of the creative staff at Wattie Ink. has some art school education. Not so in your case.
Alvarez: I’m pretty much self-taught. I grew up fascinated by art. And as a kid, art was a competition. I had to be better at drawing than anyone else. I would pick fights and show off, to be sure I would be the best one.
Q: What inspired you to be creative in the first place?
Alvarez: My dad was a screen printer for forever, like, 20 years doing t-shirts. I was heavily influenced by what he was doing. He eventually built a business where he would manage artists and ensure that the ink quality was good. He’d bring in the work, I would see the designs, and it just fascinated me. Even the machinery part of it, the actual screen-printing—I was fascinated by it all. I enjoyed going there to see how he made it happen. So yeah, it was a huge inspiration for me as a kid to do art.
Q: How did it evolve for you?
Alvarez: In high school, I really got into graffiti. One friend was doing sketches in books, doing letters, and intrigued me so hard. I was like ‘what the hell!’ By that point, I didn’t want to draw people or life figures. Now I wanted to do solely that—graffiti. It took over my whole mindset for a long time. First it was just sketching in a book. Then I learned the whole graffiti culture.
Q: Did that bring any trouble with the law?
Alvarez: The way I saw it, I was going out there to be something, much to my parents dismay! I got caught a couple times when I was young. Looking back, those were slaps on the wrist, but I was a stubborn kid that didn’t wanna stop. When I was about 23 years old, I ran into a couple close calls with the law that would’ve been more than slaps. More like a year in jail. It put me in a place where I needed to make a choice: do I wanna keep doing this, or fulfill my passion in another way? I called it quits after that. But I was—and still am—super intrigued in the form, and have mad respect for graffiti culture.
Q: I have a big of interest in graffiti culture as well, and you’re right; to the uninitiated, it’s just vandalism, defacing property. But there is discipline, levels of respect, and culture. And, obviously, personal artistic expression.
Alvarez: You know, that’s it, a lot of people look at graffiti as punks writing on the walls, but you can learn a lot from it. For me, it put something in me to strive for in life. I learned design skills from it, and my artistic ability springs from it. It really was a good part of my life. But, yeah, I also never pursued art as a career. I was such a rebellious kid, it was seen as selling out if you were working in art, making money off it. I felt I needed to stay genuine and do it for myself. So I never went to school for it. But at the same time, I did take classes here and there for my own personal growth.
Q: Were there other places you got inspiration apart from the street walls?
Alvarez: When I was going to my dad’s workplaces, I would talk to the creative teams doing the artwork. I ended up becoming friends with them. But I also have artists in the family. My uncles and cousins would take me to L.A. to see galleries and fine art and museums. I’m inspired by classics like Rembrandt and Matisse. But my favorites have always been the Mexican painters. Diego Rivera, David Sigueros, Frida Kahlo. They put their culture in the paintings. You could see where they live, the stories of revolution. You go in my grandma's, and their art is on her walls. That's amazing.
Q: Certainly there was a moment for you where the altruism of the starving artist pivoted to that of an artist that, well, needs to work?
Alvarez: Yeah, I got to a point where I could do it as a side-hustle, freelance. I picked up a few jobs here and there; I’d get references doing logos for bands or t-shirt designs. I eventually got a job with Wattie and was hired to be a printer. I went in to check it out, knowing it was a startup, but the potential these guys had to grow was interesting to me. It wasn’t doing art, but to be in the production side, to see how that all goes, I was up for that.
Q: When did Wattie see your work for the first time?
Alvarez: Well, with the production job, I put a lot of effort into it, showed initiative in a lot of areas, and slowly moved up the chain. After that, I threw some designs out there to the team, and they liked my stuff. Then I began doing some designs for the pros, and a couple of them gravitated toward me to do their kits. It was cool to be one of the first employees with the company, work as a printer, and then eventually become one of the artists. But seeing my kits on athletes at the races? That blew my mind.
Q: Which pieces have your signature on them?
Alvarez: Josh Amberger’s Death Metal series, and Mary Beth Ellis’ Honey Badger were my design concepts, as well as a few in-line pieces.
Q: Was it a bit of a risk to go to work for a company that represented such a departure from the standard triathlon and cycling apparel on the market? I’m sure you did a lot of style comparatives.
Alvarez: I’ve been lucky; the company has been growing, and I’m growing with it. I was there before we even opened, and we just had to have faith it was going to take off. You start working with these guys in the office each day, and suddenly it becomes like a family, and we all want it to succeed. You build relationships with people you’d otherwise be on the phone with in China. Because we aren’t sending things off to Asia to get things done, you get involved more. Second, one of the things that stokes me is how open the team is to design ideas and the directions we could go. Wattie’s always reminded us we don't have to follow the industry. We make our own standard. I can see that in other companies they stick with what's been done. But I love working for a company that does their own shit and flips tradition on its head. We go our own way, and it’s super cool. With Wattie and what he’s doing, I’m just stoked to be a part of that.