From walls to malls: Turning a passion for street art into a business

Eduardo Gonzalez,

Michael Alvarez came up with the idea to open a graffiti-based shop shortly after being arrested in 2009 for painting inside an abandoned warehouse in Fremont. The warehouse had a skatepark built inside and was a hangout spot for kids. It was defaced by gangster tags so he covered them up with murals.

“I didn’t do the tagging and scribbles that you see on people’s fences. I was doing really nice though-out productions that take time and money,” Alvarez told The Pioneer. “We wanted to do something nice for the kids but when the cops came in and everyone scattered I was the only one that got caught.”

Alvarez said he was lucky to have gotten away with a minimum of five years probation rather than serving jail time, considering vandalism is deemed a felony in Fremont.

“So here I am, 27 years old, facing a felony charge,” he said, “by explaining to the police my business plan and showing them what I wanted to do with my life, they reluctantly gave me probation but didn’t make me go to jail.”

Alvarez had to redirect his life from this point because if he got caught for graffiti again, his five-year probationary period would then turn to jail time. Nevertheless, dropping his passion for art was not an option.

In 2011, Alvarez pursued his goal and opened the business Twenty Four Karats in his own neighborhood and has since gained much attention with the help of his diverse connections in the graffiti and music industry.

His brother, DJ Hoeks, said, “He comes from a graffiti background and I come from a music background. We combined our networks so when we started printing shirts it was easy for us to start. It pretty much happened over night.”

Even if locals aren’t familiar with the brand Twenty Four Karats, chances are good that they have seen their ICEE-like “TFK” logo on a sticker, banner or cardboard cutout posted around their neighborhood.

On Nov. 25, 2017, on the 15000 Block in San Leandro, on Farnsworth Street, TFK celebrated its sixth year as a custom-design clothing company. However, the name TFK can be traced back to 1992.

Although graffiti is what originally got Alvarez into trouble, the success of the TFK clothing brand is indebted to his early involvement in graffiti culture. Alvarez was part of a San Leandro graffiti crew named The Freestyle Kings (TFK) that formed in 1992 and named the shop in homage of their leader, Duke, who died in 2009.

The shop name was then eventually changed to Twenty Four Karats after a minor conflict with Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B. who had a hip-hop crew that was also named The Freestyle Kings.

The name TFK has gained a reputation through a unique marketing strategy Alvarez calls “guerilla marketing.” Guerrilla marketing is a do-it-yourself strategy in which posters, billboards, stickers, duct tape, paid murals, T-shirts and other things that help promote the name TFK get strategically placed in and around neighborhoods.

Guerrilla marketing is similar to graffiti in which the neighborhood is utilized as a promotional canvas. However, unlike graffiti, guerilla marketing it is not permanent and can be easily removed. TFK can be fined for defacing any public or private property.

“Guerrilla marketing is really-loud, in-your-face promo for different businesses and brands that helps get the name out there with creativity,” said Alvarez. “In the game everyone veers towards the norm and I want to show people that you can do what you want.”

Much of TFK’s promotional success has also come from San Francisco Bay Area icon and DJ, Chuy Gomez.

“We met Chuy Gomez five years ago through Sway from the radio show Sway in the Morning,” Alvarez said. “We gave Sway a T-shirt at a Raiders game and he then came back to buy an XXL for Chuy. Chuy really took a liking to us and has since become the face of our branding.”

Chuy Gomez has become the biggest contributor in getting the TFK clothing brand out to celebrities such as Scarface, Yukmouth, Mac Mall and many more, according to Alvarez. TFK holds T-shirt release parties on the 24th of every month and usually has a guest celebrity and DJ performing.

Apart from celebrity interest, TFK’s success has also put them into malls around San Diego and Las Vegas in stores such as Fitters, The Fresh Yard and Urban Necessity as featured pop-up guests.

Alvarez wants to continue pushing his success and get his artwork placed permanently into more stores and claimed that, “The future of TFK is looking bright.”

The TFK shop will be moving locations in February of next year to collaborate with Handsome Hooligans Barber Lounge and Spa on Washington Avenue in Downtown San Leandro to create a unique barber or custom design shop.

Alvarez said, “I have many new ideas and there is a lot coming from TFK in 2018.”