Oct 10, 2006 - 3:28 AM
The living room of Skyler Clay’s Manteca, Calif. home looks much like it did when he and his wife and son moved in a few months ago. Black leather loveseats interrupt flawless beige carpeting. A few isolated canvases hang on an otherwise blank span of white walls. A TV in the corner offers the only diversion in the motionless room. Though it bounces flashes of color off the walls and plays loud music from a videogame, the TV is not the main attraction in the Clay living room. The center of attention is the wreckage of a spilled cardboard box. The content: Clay’s postponed dreams.
About a hundred black t-shirts sporting artwork worthy of framing have fallen out of a box labeled Kama 4k. Half are semi-folded on the sofa; the other half is strewn about on the floor. Clay walks past them nonchalantly – to retrieve juice for his son, Atlantis, from the kitchen or to answer the phone – each time stepping over them gingerly but never picking them up. They don’t seem to be a mess, or to bother the baby-faced 25-year-old. Instead, they are a tangible display of Clay’s long journey to his present success.
The story begins with a tenacious little boy raised by his grandmother and aunt in East Oakland. (Sixty Fifth St. to be exact because, “You gotta say what street you’re from!” he insists). He started drawing cartoons out of his imagination in kindergarten. By high school, he was entering and winning art contests which earned him scholarships to various summer art programs.
A week out of high school, Clay began attending the Academy of Art in San Francisco, majoring in illustration. Learning to meet his instructors’ expectations while still satisfying his own color-splattered visions was a process for the somewhat defiant artist. “I had to figure out how to let go,” he says.
Aside from learning how to obey instructions, and how to draw from reference rather than imagination, Clay had to learn how to paint, period. Though he was a master with Prisma markers and paper, he was a virgin to paint and an easel.
Right before completing his time at the academy in 2003, Clay found an outlet that allowed him to utilize his newly discovered strength as a painter while fulfilling his long-standing urge to unite hip hop culture with conceptual art. He began using plain men’s t-shirts as canvases, which he says he was one of the first to do. Clay painted abstract designs as well as icons in the urban community like Tupac and Michael Jordan directly onto cotton T’s. Each originally designed shirt took a few hours from start to finish. This unique style earned him recognition and granted Clay the return of his ability to express what he wanted to see on a canvas.
Though originally conceptualized in 1998 when it was called Kamikaze Warfare, Kama 4k had been stagnant for almost five years. Clay had been waiting for a breakthrough that would catapult his clothing line to the level he knew it deserved to be at; and he had found it.
With support and admiration for his art on shirts, he was building a solid reputation in the clothing industry and creating a signature style for Kama 4k. Most importantly, he was painting to please himself and still making profit. His days of being a talented servant with a brush were behind him, he thought. But he was wrong.
As Clay relaxes on the sofa and recalls segments of his life, he wears the steady grin of a child in front of his classmates for show and tell. He sits straight up, his hands resting flat on his dark denim pants. He calmly watches his son, who he calls “Papa,” disperse his endless five-year-old energy through flips and laps around the living room. Then his disposition changes. He begins shifting his weight and puts one Nike Dunk on his knee, then switches to the other. Clay moves his hands from resting on his thighs to being folded atop his freshly braided cornrows. He is about to discuss what he calls “the ugly part” of his recent past.
An entrepreneur named Nathan Khors approached Clay shortly after he graduated from the art academy and asked Clay to paint a few shirts for his clothing line. Khors’ clothing line, Cerbae, was also trying to make a name for itself at the time, and has since exploded on the hip hop scene. Clay saw it as an opportunity to make a little cash for his hobby and, at the same time, develop designs he could use for Kama 4k. He began painting three shirts a day for Cerbae, each taking a few hours to complete.
Clay says he never quite trusted Khors, calling him a “trend rider,” and a “privileged lil’ white boy.” Clay really began to question Khors’ integrity when he asked him to mimic the style of an east coast clothing line called Miskeen. “He was on some bitin’ shit from the gate,” Clay says. (*Editor’s note: representatives from Cerbae failed to respond to our multiple requests for comments.)
Against his better judgment, Clay did what he was asked. Before Clay knew it, he had made over 100 shirts for Cerbae. He was producing shirts like a one-man machine while not knowing if he was being given the correct percentage of an unknown profit, since Khors never told him how much he was selling them for (today, Cerbae t-shirts go for $98 according to their website).
After Clay came up with a heat-press technique so he could produce shirts faster, and after the Federation rocked Clay’s designs on an MTV appearance, Khors asked him to stick around and be Cerbae’s head designer. Clay signed a contract that guaranteed him a steady income and an opportunity to build connections in the fashion industry. But it also restricted him to designing only for Cerbae, meaning he could no longer use the designs for Kama 4k.
In March 2005, Clay represented Cerbae at the Magic show in Vegas, where the hottest new designers gather once a year to show off their latest designs. Shortly after, Clay moved to LA to be closer to Khors’ new design studio. Timeka, Clay’s wife who is also a youthful 25, says it all happened so fast. “I tried to just be supportive,” she says, even though all this was going on right when they were trying to plan their wedding. “We’re young, and you have to start somewhere.” She spent time away from her job, and even thought about quitting and moving to LA to help Clay fulfill his dreams.
Meanwhile, Clay was busy filling over $100,000 in orders and training Khors’ friends to paint his designs on Cerbae shirts to help meet the overwhelming demand.
By June 2005, the little voice that initially whispered in Clay’s ear not to trust Khors was now screaming. After hearing Khors remark in interviews that Clay’s designs were his own, and that he paid Clay to create the technique, Clay left LA and Cerbae.
To this day, Cerbae has not paid him for all of his designs, according to Clay, but they still use designs he made for them from over two years ago. Clay checks their website occasionally, and says that without fail, there is always something “borrowed” from his Kama 4k website. “The main thing is, he is not giving credit where credit is due. I do a Huey Newton, they do a Huey Newton. I do Eazy E, they do Eazy E,” he smirks, and slowly shakes his head from side to side. He shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, and looks down often when he talks about “the ugly part.”
Looking back, Clay admits his impatience to marry art and hip hop fashion allowed him to be taken advantage of. He was fresh out of art school with big dreams, and mistakenly jumped into something that was indeed too good to be true. But surprisingly, Clay has emerged from the dust with an attitude of no regrets. “Success is the best revenge. I’m gonna just outshine and expose him,” he says.
The garage may be the most visibly lived-in space of the Clay household. It will never house cars, just creation. There are 15 easels drenched in all varieties of paint – from puffy, to spray, to acrylic. The white sheets spread sporadically on the ground are more often kicked off to the side than used as the landing for colorful drippings.
As Clay bounces into the garage, his steady smirk turns to a full-blown smile. He scans the room, rubs his hands together, then sits down behind and easel with brushes in hand. The buzzing of artificial lights is silenced by music and reminiscing as Clay and childhood friend, Keez, pop open paint bottles and embark on what will be another long, smoky night tribute to Kama 4k.
“We’re not using a name to sell anything – we’re using the quality of design to sell it,” Clay says. “I don’t want my name to sell nothing.”
He plans on painting objects and scenes that are less popular in the hip hop community, like nature and animals. “I want to do shit that’s not in demand and create and demand for it,” he says.
Clay recently attended this year’s Magic show. Though it was his second time attending the show, it was the first time he got to display his talent under his own label. To eliminate any confusion, he signs the bottom left corner of every shirt he makes, “Sky.”
What else can be said at the end of such a journey? A lesson was learned, to say the least. Or as Clay’s wife resolves, “It’s a great reflection of his willpower.” Perhaps the man who went through it first hand says it best when he offers his hard-learned lesson as advice to other anxious entrepreneurs: “Get it off your own steam, don’t hitch a ride.”