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Aaron LaCrate Talks His Rad New Exhibit "Just A Kid From Highlandtown"

Aaron LaCrate isn’t your average kid from Baltimore, and he’ll be the first one to tell you why. Bodymore Skateboard Co, the skate shop he started at eight-years-old, and his brand Milkcrate have turned into a global streetwear and music phenomenon. MILK.XYZ sat down with Aaron to talk never selling out, building an empire out of the grimy skate and street art scene in Baltimore, and what inspired him to bring it all back home in his latest art exhibit. Check out the full interview below, and peep our gallery for behind-the-scenes snaps from Aaron LaCrate’s newest exhibit “Just a Kid from Highlandtown”, inspired by the very basement where it all began.

Can you tell us about what you’ve done with Bodymore Skateboard Co and how it fits in with the city of Baltimore?

Basically, I started the first skateboard shop, Bodymore Skateboard Co, up in Baltimore when I was eight years old. No one knew what skateboarding was and you couldn’t buy skateboards so we were selling them out of the basement. That was twenty years of a lot of different things – Milkcrate, different Bodymore products, and projects, doing music for The Wire, doing the actual clothing brand with HBO for The Wire – we’ve always done Bodymore in and around all that stuff.Bodymore has been this theme that’s worked in parallel with Milkcrate and my relationship to the city. At least when I was here, the city was extremely raw, and my creative experiences and how I learned to be creative was all about that mentality. It’s a very honest city. I don’t believe in watering down the city or pretending the city is something it’s not. That’s never been my thing. Bodymore Skateboard Co is an evolution of all of that. I noticed a lot of African American kids downtown and their boards were falling apart, they didn’t have nice equipment, nice clothes, and for whatever reason, that bothered me. They were very talented, doing great tricks, and it struck me. I didn’t even know these kids and I wanted them to be the team of Bodymore, or at least the kinds of kids who I associated my brand with. Bodymore is all about giving these kids clothing, decks, etc so they have a branded look for themselves. Just doing that turned into a front-page Baltimore Sun story. A Sun reporter saw these kids skating, now looking super fresh, with head-to-toe outfits on, and it struck her so much she wrote a whole feature on them, not even me. I was pulled into it, but she was more interested in them, so that was my subliminal intention in a way.

What was it about the skate scene in Baltimore that inspired you to start endorsing and empowering these young skaters?

I grew up in skate culture and I grew up in this city skating when we were the outside. People forget since skate is so big now, that there was a generation of people that took the brunt of that before there were little white girls wearing Thrasher tee shirts. That was my generation, being an eight-year-old kid, long hair, bangs in the front, wearing certain clothes – you were definitely an outcast and you were treated like that. You were called a “skate rat”. It was a really derogatory term to be called back in those days. Me being a white skater in a black city – Baltimore is something like 80% African American – I was always the outcast. Racially, from the start, and then wanting to be a skater. No one knew what that was at that age. I was obsessed with hip-hop DJing, Baltimore club music, stuff that was coming up in that era. It was always this journey of me being the outsider. I’m very happy to be the outsider. I’ve embraced it and turned it into something. In order to do anything, you have to figure out what makes your brand different, and being an outsider did that. Getting to know these kids I learned that when they went to the skate park they traveled in their own little pack, and they weren’t embraced. Skateboarding seemed to become less diverse since I was a kid when we would all bond together. The bigger it got, the less diverse skateboarding became, which bothered me since skateboarding and graffiti were a huge part of me becoming who I am. I knew where these kids were coming from, and without getting too involved in their lives I wanted to give them some dope gear and have a simple relationship with them.

Would you say that Milkcrate and everything else that you’re doing is built for the outsider, or is it about bringing people together and out of the outside?

Streetwear, in general, started as an underground subculture. It was counterculture. I personally don’t enjoy being a part of a herd in regards to anything. I don’t think I try to be that way – I was born into a certain era where it was very much this punk rock kinda do it yourself, don’t tell me no, mentality. The idea for Milkcrate drew me in for those reasons. As trends evolve and emerge, all this stuff that was for the small group of outcasts becomes cool. Once the outcasts make it cool, the herd wants it and they take it and make it uncool, so you’ve gotta go do something else. That goes back and forth for twenty years, and that’s what this exhibit is about. Cool shit can’t be outside, or it won’t be for long. You can’t say what’s for anybody, just choose to make what you want. Whoever can afford it can buy it, that’s capitalism.

As the leader of a record label, your fashion conglomerate Milkcrate, and so many other ventures, what do you do to stay ahead of the curve without selling out?

The concept of the Milkcrate…when we were all starting our brand, there were the first generation streetwear brands like Supreme, and then there were the second generation brands like me and Staple. Twenty years of Milkcrate represents the second generation of streetwear that, before that time, didn’t even exist. When we were coming up with our name, and I was a graffiti kid, we were trying to find a name for our brand that was as authentic and organic as possible, but was so subversive that it could never “sell out”. Our logo is a record at an angle, as authentic as you can ever get to the idea of music and DJing. When a kid is in college, he keeps his favorite records in the milk crate. You had the guys in the Bronx carrying hundreds of records in milk crates to the park to do the free party. The hipster biking with his milk crate, the guy at the bodega sitting on his milk crate. Every NBA athlete’s story is that they got their start shooting on the milkcrate basketball hoop in the hood. I lived in the city, I had milk crates in my basement, I loved them. The milkcrate was my best friend, it can do so many things. The average person is not gonna get that. My idea was to never be able to sell out. The closest we got was with Schoolboy Q. We connected with him on a music level, we collaborated on a bucket hat for Black Hippie. That’s about as much as Milkcrate could ever sell out, with Schoolboy Q rocking a tie-dye bucket hat with our logo on the front of it [laughs] Sometimes I wish I had come up with a more marketable idea. All my stuff is gutter stuff. At the end of the day, I did something pretty remarkable if I can lead a mass herd of people into the gutter.

I think where your roots are is so strong, and it’s all about where you come from when it comes to a brand.

I like the challenge, so I came up with a name that’s almost unmarketable.

Right, because people are like “what is that?” But when you go into the history of the idea of a milk crate, and then how it aligns with your brand, it’s super powerful.

Exactly. It makes it a little harder for people. It pushes them a little bit. If you want to be a part of it, you’ve got to look into it a little which I think is important. You don’t want just random people. That’s a line of defense for selling out too because it discourages people who just want to put it on their head and be cool and not understand it at all.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur or a creator?

I was always a really creative kid, I loved my MAD magazines. They must have put a MAD magazine in the crib with me or something. I loved the art of it and the satire of it – they used to do a lot of weird subversive stuff, and I started tracing the cartoons. Then, graffiti came into my life. So, you had the graffiti lifestyle of me as a tiny kid hanging with these creative, genius criminal artists. Then I had the skating, punk rock, fuck the man kinda thing going on. Everything in Baltimore in the 80s, which was kind of a wasteland, pushed me to be creative. It was a necessity for me, I needed to do something. This whole concept of creativity versus violence, that’s my life story. Luckily enough, I was young and educated enough that kept me believing in creativity. Some kids I grew up with were way more talented than me, way more creative than me, but they didn’t follow that path. Graffiti is the first step into a criminal lifestyle – thirteen-year-old kids could go out and spray-paint over the whole town and their parents didn’t give a shit, nobody cared. That wasn’t me, but it was my friends. It escalates to the criminal lifestyle. Creativity kept me around that stuff, but it allowed me to channel that energy into something I could believe in. It was me in my basement living a fantasy and wanting to be a part of a reality, and being ahead of the trend.

Your new exhibition “Just a Kid from Highlandtown” opened this past weekend. What can people expect from that?

It’s amazing, it’s gonna show the story of the neighborhood where all this stuff happened. We’re rebuilding the basement where my first skate shop was, and where my first creative space was.

That’s so cool!

Thank you, thank you. We put together my first DJ setup from Value Village or Salvation Army – that crappy turntable, that crappy speaker, the records, the crates, everything. The assembling of the DJ setup was an art installation in itself. It’s vintage hi-fi, which is becoming cool again. Having speakers and speaker wires and all that – I have that rig, plus twenty years of photos of kids skating, doing graffiti, being mischievous in this neighborhood, photos of me as a little kid decked out as a little gangster or whatever I thought I was back then, my various identities, everything I went through from skating and so on, is on display. I always say I don’t care what you’re into, let me see your kid pictures. We’re all doing the same shit now, so I need to see what you were doing and dressing like at eight years old. That’s what this show is about, showing twenty years of my brand. Completely do-it-yourself, no one gave me money, no one taught me how to do it – it came out of the basement. We’re recreating the basement, there’s a gallery of photos, the famous stuff people have to see. We also have my first six screenprints, these original screens with the ink still dried in there, and those six ideas spawned this whole thing. There are so many layers, it’s not like I just painted a bunch of shit and put it on the wall. There are exhibits within the exhibits. I hope it blows people’s minds. I’ve done it every which way and I’m showing that I’m just little Aaron LaCrate from Baltimore. I’m trying to let kids know that you don’t need to work for anybody. Kids think success is going to a job and getting money from somebody else. Kids think too low, so I give them a kick in the ass [laughs] That’s what’s challenging me now, how to inspire the next generation – the kids who have nothing and the kids who have everything.

Going off that, what’s next for you after the exhibit opens?

If you pull up Highlandtown, all you get is horrendous statistics, pretty much. There’s also all the yuppies that moved in, everyone wants to live in a city, but Highlandtown is really trying to be an arts district. The place that we’re having the exhibit, the Creative Alliance, is a really beautiful building and gallery, so even being able to do something like that around the corner from where I grew up is amazing. No one knows this story! Baltimore is this raw, crazy city with this history of street art and graffiti, all this shit that’s more popular than it was before. This idea of the little white girl being a barometer for culture, what she’s wearing, how she’s acting, how she’s dancing, when I was growing up none of that existed. This story doesn’t exist for Baltimore, and now this story is getting on record with the media and I’m a storyteller. This is the history of a city’s cultural contributions to the world. This is a story to solve a lot of problems for people, especially for a town like Highlandtown that’s trying to become an arts district and doesn’t even know that they’re connected to Banksy in a way. You’ve got to create in and around your own history. These stories don’t come along very often. How far can that thing go? It’s a brand.

“Just a Kid From Highlandtown” opens at the Creative Alliance Oct 13 and runs through November 25.

Images courtesy of Aaron LaCrate

Stay tuned to Milk for more groundbreaking artists. 

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