Freegums: South Florida's Freshest

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Freegums. The name brings to mind the gummy smile of a senior citizen with his dentures out, or a dish of brightly colored Chiclets. It's actually the alias of 25-year-old Peruvian Alvaro Ilizarbe, who's been causing havoc in the streets of Miami, Florida since he was exported from Lima at the age of nine. Flexing a loose, colorful style that incorporates claws, laughing hyenas, palm trees, and clever sayings, Ilizarbe's graphic design work is a smart, tongue-in-cheek reflection of South Florida and its environs.

Ilizarbe works in the art department of ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky by day, but as night falls, this Aquarian dabbles in a multitude of projects. His most visible endeavor is a line of reversible t-shirts, a smart idea that might actually justify you rocking the same garment for two weeks straight. His most recent coup–during December 2005's art expo Art Basel–found him and TypeStereo's Mike Del Marmol operating as Fufi Fufi; the pair tooled around the city in an ice cream van stocked full of limited-edition wares from Hunter Gatherer, Grotesk, and Ben Loiz, among others. We interrupted Ilizarbe drawing "snakes with weird skin patterns" and asked him what's good.

XLR8R: Where does the name Freegums come from?

Alvaro Ilizarbe: When I was in college, I needed to make money and so I started doing these big house parties. I needed a name to tie them all in, like Mr. Freegums Toilet Swamps and Mr. and Mrs. Freegums Dance-a-lot. That's how I gave birth to the name.

What are your three favorite t-shirts in your closet?

The first is a Stop Police Brutality shirt I made years ago; it fits so good. It's black with a crazy list of names on the inside, which makes people wanna read it. Then there's a mint t-shirt sample from some blank-maker in Fresno. It fits nice, feels good, and is faded just right. The last is an Eagle Claw "Razor Sharp" promo shirt. I hate it when I remember a good shirt but don't know where it is... It's like my washing machine ate it.

What music do you listen to when you work?

Cash, Madlib, Fleetwood Mac, Daft Punk, Nas, The Wu Tanga Manga Clan, Prince (this guy is at the top of my list), Bloc Party. My favorite song these past few days is "X's And O's (Kisses And Hugs)" by David Allan Coe.

If you could collaborate with one other designer who would it be?

Herb Lubalin. That guy is amazing: his composition, great type treatment, great publications. Look him up–you'll see why. I hope to leave a lot of great work like he did.

Tell us about the ice cream truck you did for Art Basel.

That was one of the best projects I've done. It was a lot of work and it was a lot of fun. I got no sleep for about two weeks and was in a pissy mood but in the end everything fell right into place. It started with a bigger group of people but we all couldn't agree on a theme and it fell apart last minute. So Mike [Del Marmol of Typestereo] and I embarked on a mission. We went around to ice cream wholesalers and saw postings on the wall about trucks for sale. One came through and we gutted it out, cleaned it up, fine tuned the '57 Chevy engine, put a couch in it with a touch of Astroturf, reached out to a lot of artists and made it happen. We met a lot of crazy out-of-towners and saw a lot of interesting people. Mike's wife Cindy got Universal Studios to buy the truck from us to use for an upcoming movie version of Reno 911!: Miami. They blew up (the truck) over the Port of Miami. Fufi Fufi blowing up, kid!

What is your favorite spot in Miami?

Miami is such a beautiful place. It is home to the World's Steepest Parking Lot Ramp. I like taking people there and just putting the car in neutral and riding down it. You should see their faces–it's like they are on a rollercoaster for 1.5 seconds. Amazing. Going airboat riding is great too. There used to be a three-story treehouse right by the water and it was like a two-mile hike to get to it but after all the hurricanes it's barely survived.

What qualities do you most value in other people?

When people look at you in the eye when talking, and shaking hands. Also, when people can be themselves and not worry about how they are being perceived.

What projects have you got coming up?

I'm working on patterned textiles and garments for 2007; in the planning stages of making an album with Sam Borkensen from Friends With You, and I have something going on for the Select Media festival in Chicago that Ed from Lumpen puts together with a lovely group of people.

Is the whole hand-drawn thing getting out of control?

Not really. Nothing will ever be as bad as how graffiti got, like the really bad "graffiti" fonts people use.

Can you talk about the inspirations behind some of your Freegums shirts?

My past line was centered around wildlife. I went to every public library in South Florida looking through hundreds of books and found a lot of good stuff. At times I find myself using Spanish words and working them into my designs, like Muelas Gratis. It stands for "free molars." I was trying to say "free gums"–that would be "encillas gratis"–but after I had drawn it and everything, I was like, whatever, shit looks good. The infamous Freegums Claw shirt came from an early Saturday adventure a bunch of friends and I took to the Everglades. We went airboat riding like crazy rednecks and then walked around looking at alligators. I was mesmerized by their stubby feet; we named one of them "Club Foot." When I got home, I was drawing one of them and I was like "Ohh shit! This would look great on a shirt coming out of your neck like 'Arghhhhhhhh, I want you!"