By Cynthia Robertson
San Diego homegrown artist Dave Ross is making graffiti colorful, cute and a true art form — and for that, he is being featured at the San Diego Festival of the Arts on the weekend of June 8-9. Ross is arguably best known for his creation of BunnyKitty, introduced in his 2016 book, “The Origins of BunnyKitty: A Tale for All Ages.”
It is a story of acceptance, rising to the occasion, and being brave, Ross explained.
“It’s a book meant for families and it drives these messages home through characters like BunnyKitty and Mommy Bunny, who are based on my late mother and collaborator,” he said.
Ross’ mother wrote about the magic spell in the book and helped edit the story after he wrote it. But the transcript actually sat in Ross’ computer for over a decade before he finally pushed to get it published, mainly because of his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s.
“I was racing against the clock to make it happen so she could hold our book in her hands. The entire process of the making of this book was a sacrifice my family made, and without the help of my loved ones, fans and peers, it would not exist today.
“Unfortunately she didn’t get to hold the final product in her hands, but having this collaboration out in the world means everything to me and drives me to push forward,” he said.
His mother’s hopes and dreams for him and all of her other five children, Ross said, was to do good things in the world and for good things to come back to them. Both his mother and grandmother recognized his artistic abilities at a very young age and nurtured it.
“I come from an inherently creative family full of painters, directors, inventors and business owners, so they knew right away that I had these tendencies and did everything they could to help me develop the skills needed to be successful,” he said.
And that he did. Ross is one of the first artists bridging the gap between street culture and fashion, with his popular BunnyKitty apparel. Timing was everything, he explained. In 1991, at the age of 19, he was discovered by designer/entrepreneurs Ken Block and Damon Way. At the time, the popularity of hip-hop on the West Coast led some brands to turn to the streets for inspiration.
Ross was recruited by them after creating a T-shirt graphic for their first company Eightball Clothing and its success led to him being the founding artist for their future companies which include Droors Clothing, Dub Brand Outerwear, DC Shoes and others.
“These companies set an industry standard and people began to turn to us for inspiration for their brands,” Ross explained. “I can’t take all the credit, because the team of creatives involved and our fearlessness in our approach are what set us apart.”
Ross does admit that there were not too many graffiti writers working for those types of companies at the time, nor were many companies working in the style Ross and other graffiti artists used. But it was Ross’ designs that would give those companies their aesthetic and were well loved by their audiences.
He also created skateboard art. About those days, Ross said that it was his personal art that gave skateboard art a big push. But the one big thing that he took away from his days in that industry is his work ethic.
“I treat my art career like anyone would treat their day job. I put in eight or more hours every day and run it like a business. If I don’t have a specific project to work on, I use that time to develop more ideas,” he said.
Ross considers himself first and foremost an artist. “I raise questions and tell stories through my work,” he said.
BunnyKitty is just one vehicle for this, and one that was borne directly out of graffiti writing. As early as 1980-81, graffiti came to the West Coast, going on to inspire movements all over the world that are still flourishing today.
“Graffiti writers don’t care much about what people think and that is part of what drove us to do what we did,” he said.
Ross explained that the mental image and perception of graffiti has changed on its own, largely because more people are learning that graffiti is a true American art form that began with children in Philadelphia and New York City.
“These kids had no voice and wanted the world to know that they were there. They had nothing but this form of expression that they had invented amongst themselves to distract them from the decay around them,” Ross said.
Still, Ross has always had a light-hearted approach to his aerosol work. Next to his graffiti pieces, he paints bunnies, cats, pigs and other characters. One day, he merged the two and BunnyKitty was born.
“Two of the cutest animals combined into one, who wouldn’t love that? She is also mischievous but has a heart of gold. I think many people relate to this. And I think that people are ready for a new superhero,” said Ross.
Inspired by illustrators Shel Silverstein, Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Vaughn Bode, Ross created BunnyKitty as an iteration of these artists’ work. Since Ross’ first illustration of BunnyKitty in 2001, she has evolved, growing organically from the underground to her position today in the graffiti art world.
Even with all his success, Ross feels honored and thankful for being featured in the San Diego Festival of the Arts and able to showcase his work in the city he grew up in.
“As a graffiti writer, it’s satisfying to watch my art form go from being rejected by so many to being embraced by collectors and artists not only internationally but now in my hometown,” Ross said.
—Cynthia Robertson has been a local freelance writer and photographer for more than 30 years. She is also the author of a novel, “Where You See Forever.” Her website is www.cynthiarobertson.com.