Ed. Note—This is the third installment in our series taking you into the people and processes at Wattie Ink., following designer Dan Toledo's path from there to here. To get caught up, go read our story on Brittany Arcila and Shannon Price here and here.
There are two paths for a graffiti artist. The first is to buy rattle cans, bomb local underpasses (maybe get arrested on a defacing property charge), work a minimum wage job, and try to live for the art. The second? It’s to dive deeper, perfect the craft in school, become a master, and then make an honest, creative living doing what you love. Of the two options, Dan Toledo chose the latter, and today he is one of Wattie Ink.’s incredibly talented artists. He's designed many of the company's iconic designs, such as the USA Skulls Collection, the American Punk Collection, both Street Collections. We sat with him to talk about what makes a Wattie Ink. kit so much more unique than any other apparel piece in the space.
Q: What’s your story, bro?
Toledo: Well, I grew up in Ramona, California. Middle of nowhere. Mountains and rodeos. But I was always into art. Once I got into high school, I was into anime and hip-hop. I got into graffiti and I liked art that—I guess—isn’t seen as acceptable by the community. I was just into something different.
Q: When did you start turning your passion into work?
Toledo: It was about then, around high school. I was working for a graffiti clothing company, interning for them. I went to a school that taught multimedia classes, got introduced to Photoshop, and got into graphics. After a while I thought "If I’m gonna do something with this, I gotta get a degree, or no one is gonna take me seriously." I got my associate’s degree in graphic design.
Q: Did that help open doors?
Toledo: I actually had a friend at that school that helped me get a job for one of the smaller sister companies at No Fear. So yeah, but not in the way you might expect.
Q: What have been your inspirations? You said hip-hop was one.
Toledo: Y’know, I try to appreciate all different kinds of art. Tattoos, graffiti, cartoons, anime. I try to figure out a way to mix things from them all together. I think it allows me to show people I’m versatile.
Q: How did Wattie Ink. come into your circle?
Toledo: I was looking at jobs, because with a lot of the clothing companies, they went big, and then they went bankrupt. My friend that I worked with at No Fear recommended me for this job here.
Q: Could you see in your first days with Wattie Ink. that the creative process was more open than with many other brands you see in the triathlon and cycling space?
Toledo: My previous work had a lot of skulls, dark stuff. I’d done it for years, and it’s a lot of the same thing that Wattie does.
Q: So it translated over easily.
Toledo: Yeah. I’d never seen that kind of art in cycling.
Q: Is it different for you to see your work coming together on these technical pieces, versus the cotton tees from your No Fear days?
Toledo: (chuckles) I would see people wearing my t-shirt design and it was mostly on bros, gangster-type people. Now it’s like cyclists, triathletes. I see my stuff in magazines. It’s pretty crazy.
Q: Where is the art headed in apparel design as it relates to Wattie? You have the enviable position of being able to push the direction, to shape things.
Toledo: I‘m always just trying to come up with something no one else is doing. Most brands are asking "how can I make these lines look more cool?" For Wattie, the questions become “how can I make something more artistic?" Everything we create here at Wattie is so different from everybody else’s.
Q: Is it cool working with a team of other artists that also each bring their own flavor, their own signature to the process?
Toledo: Yeah, some have street style, inspiration from art shows, and other design inspirations.
Q: I see your storyboard behind you. When you leave your desk, where do you go to find ideas?
Toledo: I’ve gone to ComiCon, tattoo conventions, Monsterpalooza. I still study comics and anime, pop art. I go to a lot of gallery shows, too, look at work from artists like Rat Fink. I love looking at the masters: golden age illustrators from the 1950. Back then, they knew everything. I try to learn more from people from the past. It’s inspiration, as well as a chance to meet these other artists.
Q: Is it cool to come into work and get paid to do sketch work on these “Hi My Name Is” labels as a practice for a new kit, versus doing this stuff at home for free?
Toledo: When I have time, I try to create some original art, like what I did with the graffiti kit. The whole Street Collection, that was the realization of a bunch of ideas.
Q: Do you continue the creative flow at home?
Toledo: (laughs) Yeah…but I gotta rest my eyes for a bit after being in front of the computer for eight hours. I try to learn more and get better at painting, colors, and human anatomy.
Q: What do you truly love to work on? Is it the edgy skull work, or the street stuff, or something else?
Toledo: I really, really enjoy the challenge of realism and anatomy. That means doing portraits, and I try to make them as realistic as possible. I do workshops or have friends send portraits.
Q: And what challenges you the most?
Toledo: Painting, for sure. The colors, mixing them; lights, shadows, simplifying things.