For decades, the act of rebellion has been waged with the raw, DIY style of punk zines, hand-altered clothing and graffiti. But the new streetwear line Minnesota Vice is doing just the opposite: reappropriating a sleek, corporate-looking design aesthetic for its own subversive purposes.
The (somewhat reluctant) face of the brand is 26-year-old Alexander Smith, Minnesota Vice’s chief creative director and designer. The mostly self-taught designer and screen printer creates cynical twists on well-known logos and slogans, such as the presidential seal encircled with the phrase “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” or the logo for the anti-drug campaign D.A.R.E. reworked to read “We Don’t C.A.R.E,” or the Nike swoosh with the phrase “Just Do It” replaced by “New Slaves.”
“[Corporations] spend millions of dollars on figuring out exactly how to market to you, and it’s sort of flipping it right back, you know?” Smith explained. “If you’re trying to defeat something, learn the language. A lot goes into the way things look, and that’s why they’re powerful. And if you want to have a similar effect, you’ve got to get on their level.”
Smith formed Minnesota Vice with business partner Chris Juice, aka Chris Henning, in 2012. The company operates out of an isolated, 2,500-square-foot warehouse space in northeast Minneapolis, which acts as something of a co-op and hangout for friends who want to screen-print their own shirts and posters. The company celebrated the launch of its e-commerce site and spring line last month, rolling out a dozen new and remixed designs on men’s T-shirts and hoodies and women’s tanks.
Until now, Smith’s designs had been available exclusively at the hip-hop record store Fifth Element. “We always went to the shop as graffiti kids and hip-hop people,” Smith said, “so when I started the line it was the first place I went to.”
A lot of Minnesota Vice’s earliest designs came out of Smith’s T-shirt designs for his friends in the rap scene, including P.O.S. and Spyder Baybie Raw Dog.
“It was during the  election and when the whole Occupy shit was going down,” Smith recalled. “I made a conscious decision to have my stuff be subversive in some way. The whole idea is subversive mass appeal.”
“He thinks a lot like me,” said rapper P.O.S. (aka Stef Alexander), a longtime friend and collaborator, of Smith. “Instead of letting things drag him down, he makes it tongue-in-cheek. He’s got a lot of anarchist ideals, while also recognizing that if you can’t beat them, join them.”
Obviously, the unauthorized use of corporate logos is problematic, particularly with the Nike swoosh.
“That was just us messing around in the shop, and then people were like, ‘Whoa, I want that,’ ” Smith said. “We weren’t originally even going to sell it, but we figured we might as well until the letter comes.”
The company hopes to expand its brand to a national level. A new print publication, Unemployment Weekly, is also in the works. But the partners say cash doesn’t rule everything around them.
“Money is the last motivator,” Juice said. “If we can pay our bills, and eat food, and continue to operate as artists, that’s the ultimate goal. It’s definitely not the 401(k) goal.”