Darren Romanelli is the man behind Pancake Epidemic. If you don't know what that is, don't worry. Neither does he.
“I think the fact that I can't explain exactly what it is is why I'm still into it,” Romanelli says with a laugh.
Put simply, Pancake Epidemic is a Parisian salon in 21st-century Los Angeles. Being part of a salon is a vague dream we've all had, one that begins with everyone in heated conversation around a table in low light, debating art and politics, sure, but mostly drinking wine. Then word travels throughout the city and suddenly celebrities are beating down the door and publishers are lining up for your manifesto.
The real thing, of course, looks nothing like the fantasy. Pancake Epidemics occur in the morning above a Miracle Mile IHOP. There is no rigid schedule — sometimes they're every week, other times six months will pass between them. At each one, a project, often a newly released collaboration between an artist and a brand, is the centerpiece. The attendees circulate the project and mingle. They've included musicians (The RZA, Riff Raff, ho99o9, Action Bronson, James Fauntleroy), artists (Bert Rodriguez, Blanda Eggenschwiler), chefs (Animal's Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, Eddie Huang), surfers (Jordy Smith), athletes (Baron Davis) and other creatives (MOCAtv's Emma Reeves), all with a certain anticorporate edge.
Bringing together a group like this requires quite a Rolodex, but that's not enough on its own. The reason Pancake works is that it's run by Romanelli, a cultural puppetmaster with an uncanny ability to match artists with patrons — patrons, in this day and age, being brands. There are others like him, such as Daniel Lahoda, L.A.'s so-called “wall dealer,” who deftly juggles street artists, business owners and brands to create murals downtown. Outside-the-box agencies including Alt Terrain and the Marketing Arm mix brands and celebrities into concoctions of publicity. But nobody does it like Romanelli. Not even close.
Great artists are perennially concerned about selling out and are thus allergic to anything smelling of corporateness, and some corporations want to associate with artists only so that the artists will paint their logos in murals. What makes Romanelli special is that he combines the two parties in a way that makes them both happy. It would seem impossible that legendary Beautiful Losers–generation graffiti artist Barry McGee would design a limited-edition speaker for Beats, but that's exactly what was on display at a Pancake in February.
Romanelli's enthusiasm about the creations excites the brands and convinces artists that brands are paying them to do what they would be doing otherwise.
Growing up in L.A., Romanelli always loved brand iconography. He went to the University of Oregon because Nike was founded there. After graduating in the late 1990s, he began performing surgery on vintage items from well-known brands, cutting them up, mixing the components and putting them back together under the alias Dr. Romanelli. People went head over heels for the results. Usher and Chris Brown both rocked his famous Nike Flight jacket, made from snipped old logos, patches of leather and a lining of fine silk.
Actually connecting with the streets, instead of just pretending to, has always been Romanelli's priority, and the streets have been eager to connect back. He had a sewing facility in Crenshaw and used to take duffel bags out of his car and bring them inside. He was approached by some guys who hung around the neighborhood and wanted to rob him. “What's in the bags?” they asked him, hovering. “When I showed them, they tripped out,” Romanelli says. “The idea of reconstructing these [Michael] Jordan track suits was kind of a new idea those days.” He gave them a couple jackets and they became fans.
Dr. Romanelli's early work led to the creation of StreetVirus, a successful marketing agency Romanelli still runs with his partner, Nate Hahn. StreetVirus specializes in reinvigorating old intellectual property. For example, when Disney hired Street0x200BVirus to make Mickey Mouse cool again (or maybe for the first time), Romanelli bought the rights to the walls of liquor stores throughout L.A. and put up murals of old Mickey cartoon strips. He projected old silent Mickey Mouse films on the side of a building on Sunset and La Cienega.
Two years ago he was hired to revive Popeye. He created a mash-up of Popeye and Beetle Bailey, pitting Army versus Navy. Army and Navy apparel with patches and prints of Popeye and Beetle Bailey started showing up at Bloomingdale's, and suddenly Wilco released a music video with the band animated in Popeye world.
“Nine out of 10 projects, there's a music layer,” Romanelli says.
As he grew into a full-fledged kingmaker, Romanelli's sense of community, that irreplaceable ear to the streets, seemed to fade. So he started Pancake Epidemic as a sort of think tank to power StreetVirus' creativity. It was essentially a party of mostly artists he knew, who came to drink coffee and eat breakfast and talk about making stuff.
At one recent Pancake, an Echo Park street vendor named Alejandra fried purple tortillas on a portable propane stove. She served pickled cactus and a red salsa that was so spicy it made people sweat. They begged Brandon, who brews Stumptown espresso at the coffee bar, for cups of milk.
Alejandra's business manager — her 8-year-old daughter — sat next to her, playing games on her iPhone, while a part owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, an art writer for the L.A. Times and Money Mark from the Beastie Boys ate their breakfasts three feet away. The wall of one room was covered in rows of identical Felix the Cat clocks, creating an eerie funhouse vibe. StreetVirus has been hired to reintroduce Felix and cool him up. The 40 or so attendees flowed through the room, giggling and snapping photos for Instagram.
These days, Romanelli is pushing Pancake to churn out original properties. He opened a Pancake Epidemic–themed, Stumptown-supplied coffee shop and barbershop in Seoul, South Korea. He also started Pancake Epidemic Press, whose first publication is Supermarket Supergroup, a children's book and music album Romanelli created with his wife, Candice. It focuses on promoting healthy eating.
The album Supermarket Supergroup is produced, in part, by James Fauntleroy, a Grammy winner who writes songs for Common, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake.
“He bribed me with some amazing jackets, although he wouldn't have had to,” says Fauntleroy, who has been a fan of Romanelli's work for a decade. “I have a daughter who has eating restrictions, so when he described it to me I was super excited.”
Romanelli's recent projects include bringing Kendrick Lamar and artist Eddie Peak together for Lamar's “Sing About Me” video, last year's exhibit of actor Steve McQueen's personal effects that stuffed his motorcycle and favorite refrigerator into a room at StreetVirus' headquarters, and a futuristic Daniel Arsham sculpture of Felix the Cat.
Romanelli can't possibly barter jackets for every one of his stellar collaborations, so what's his secret?
“Patience of understanding how long things take to come to life in the collaboration world. Sometimes they take months or years to get them done,” Romanelli says. “I see the project coming to life, then I work backwards. You put it out in the universe, then you water it till it becomes something.”
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