Danny Fuentes knew he had something special as soon as the design struck him: two interlocking safety pins arranged to spell out “LA.” He let the idea germinate for four years before carefully selecting a tattoo artist to ink it onto his neck. He chose black-and-gray virtuoso Freddy Negrete, who learned his trade in juvenile prison and went on to become an L.A. legend. It took him just 15 minutes to finish what will be on Fuentes’s skin for life.
The safety pins design, which Fuentes describes at “L.A. hood meets rock n’ roll,” pays homage to the city that almost killed him, a gay, first-generation American who grew up on the northeast side. The city also saved him by offering an alternative to gang life. As a 12-year-old Chicano with a green mohawk, Fuentes found his spiritual home in L.A.’s punk scene at Oingo Boingo’s Halloween farewell concert in 1995. He also found a built-in clientele for the band T-shirts he hand printed in his Glassell Park garage at 14, and later for Lethal Amounts, his Westlake art gallery and apparel brand.
When Fuentes was preparing to launch Lethal Amounts in 2012, he registered the L.A. safety pins design with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, laying claim to what he’d decided would be Lethal Amounts’ logo. In the summer of 2018, he was surprised to discover that local designer Lauren Moshi was also selling a T-shirt featuring safety pins arranged to spell out “LA.” Fuentes wasn’t familiar with the label, a high-end casual apparel brand founded by sister and brother Lauren and Michael Moshi. Apart from its flagship store on Robertson Boulevard, the brand’s clothes appear in boutiques around the world and on the backs of A-list celebrities including Emma Roberts, Gigi Hadid, Selena Gomez, and Kourtney Kardashian.
The Lauren Moshi design also depicts a pair of safety pins that spell out “LA,” but in hers, the clasps of the pins look like skulls in profile. Still, Fuentes worried the design could be confused for his own. As he saw it, the potential harm was twofold: not only was the design one of his best-sellers, but Lauren Moshi’s brand stood for everything Fuentes and Lethal Amounts actively resists. He saw it as a sterile, corporatized take on his punk sensibilities.
In July 2018, Fuentes sent a cease and desist letter to Lauren Moshi as a courtesy before pursuing a trademark infringement case—but he didn’t have a chance to take the case to court. In an aggressive legal maneuver, Lauren Moshi preemptively sued Fuentes and Lethal Amounts, arguing that Fuentes did not have the right to the trademark to begin with. The nearly yearlong legal saga that ensued sapped resources from Fuentes’s already small operation. Over the course of the proceedings, Fuentes says he had to postpone events, dip into his savings, and borrow from friends.
But in late June, a judge dismissed Lauren Moshi’s suit. Now, Fuentes is preparing to file his own lawsuit for trademark infringement in the hopes of stopping Lauren Moshi’s use of the design.
Fuentes is not the first artist to accuse Lauren Moshi of appropriating a design with roots in L.A.’s urban culture. At least three of those who have accused Lauren Moshi of intellectual property theft, including Fuentes, come from Latino subcultures that have been fetishized by predominantly white institutions.
Asked about the legal dispute prior to her lawsuit’s dismissal Lauren Moshi, the brand’s namesake designer, hung up. In response to a request for comment, her lawyer, Michael Baum, said, “It’s our policy not to comment on ongoing legal matters.” He did not return a later request for comment on the case’s dismissal.
“What we’re seeing here is a microcosm of fashion’s fascination with the other side of the track,” says lawyer Susan Scafidi, the founder and president of the Fashion Law Institute and a professor at the Fordham University School of Law, who reviewed the case for Los Angeles. “This is L.A. versus L.A.”
Moshi made her first foray into fashion at the end of 2003. A recent graduate of Otis College of Art and Design and an L.A. native, she joined forces with her business-minded brother, Michael, to design products for high-end boutiques. With a $50,000 loan from their jeweler father, the two launched Moshi Moshi, a handbag line that failed to gain traction and folded, according to California Apparel News. Undaunted, the siblings turned to clothing, marrying Lauren’s art with women’s basics like T-shirts and sweatpants. By 2013, the Lauren Moshi brand unveiled its flagship store on Robertson Boulevard, flanked by the Ivy (chips and guac, $19.75) on one side and Chanel (purse, $6,200) on the other.
Lauren’s style borrows heavily from punk and post-punk aesthetics, emulating the punk and new wave outlet stores of Melrose Avenue in the ‘80s and the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the same time. While suggestive of subversive, anti-corporate artistic idioms, her line includes partnerships with Warner Bros., Warner Music Group, and Disney.
“Moshi’s business model is based upon co-opting and homogenizing subversive imagery onto T-shirts and sweatshirts to sell at an ultra-high markup to the extremely wealthy,” reads Fuentes’s response to Lauren Moshi’s complaint. “Part of the appeal of Moshi’s products is that, by appropriating imagery that is typically associated with outsiders and marginalized communities, its high-end customers get to feel an exhilarating thrill that they too can partake in ‘cool’ and transgressive punk rock culture.”
Famed L.A. photographer Estevan Oriol found himself in a similar position in 2017, when he recognized what looked like one of his most famous pictures on Lauren Moshi’s clothing. In his signature style, Oriol has documented both the gilded lives of Hollywood celebs and the less glamorous (but no less visually compelling) denizens of urban L.A., from Cholos in lowriders to gang members showing off their tattoos. “L.A. is part of my DNA—it’s in my blood,” Oriol said in an interview last year.
Though he’s photographed celebrities including Robert De Niro, Ryan Gosling, and Kim Kardashian, his most iconic image is of an anonymous pair of hands. In the photo, a woman makes the letter L with the index finger and thumb of her right hand, and the letter A with the index and middle fingers of the left.
The image, referred to alternately as “L.A. Fingers” and “Chola Hands,” helped popularize the now-ubiquitous gesture, which, when he shot it in 1995, some magazines refused to publish citing its gang connotations. The graphic that appeared on Lauren Moshi’s clothing seemed like a stylized version of Oriol’s photo. Seizing on this point, the lawsuit that Oriol filed afterwards highlights a certain irony in Moshi’s own branding.
“Lauren Moshi creates unique pieces that are meticulously crafted in limited quantities,” the suit says, quoting from the website’s “About Me” page. “Every mark, every line on every piece is hand drawn by Lauren. Each garment is an original piece of artwork.”
However, as Oriol’s complaint points out, “[T]he Infringing Shirts are nothing more than an unauthorized derivative of Plaintiff’s Photograph that Moshi created using a standard and readily available digital editing filter.”
Lauren Moshi agreed to settle the suit for an undisclosed amount, according to sources close to Oriol, who say that he signed a nondisclosure agreement as a part of the settlement. Through representation, Oriol declined to comment on Fuentes’s situation or confirm details of the settlement.
Tom Foster encountered Lauren Moshi long before Fuentes and Oriol, when a friend notified him about an image on Lauren Moshi clothing that looked similar to his custom motorcycle, Captain Insane-O. Just like lowriders, choppers figure heavily in the L.A.’s Latino culture. Especially in the niche world of custom bike building, Insane-O was unmistakable and Foster’s style was immediately recognizable. Easyriders magazine featured Foster’s work on its cover for the first time in 1989; Insane-O appeared on the cover in 2007. When Foster saw a picture of the shirt in question, he immediately recognized it from the Easyriders photoshoot.
“They just took a picture of it and lifted it,” he says. “She drew a few aces of spades around the base—boom.”
Foster called the brand to figure out the situation. He connected with Michael Moshi.
“I go, ‘Hey, what’s up, homes? You guys are selling my bike,’” Foster says. According to Foster, Michael said they could “work something out.” Foster was preparing to take Insane-O to Japan; Lauren Moshi was starting to do business in Japan. “Maybe we could do something together,” Foster recalls Michael saying.
In other words, “blowing smoke up my ass,” he says. Foster says that Michael stopped taking his phone calls after that.
Foster didn’t have money for an attorney, let alone the time to pursue a case. Between 65-hour weeks at the local Boeing plant, bike-building full time on the side, and raising his son on his own, “I got my plate full and then some,” he says. In the meantime, he watched as celebrities including Christina Aguilera, Ashley Tisdale, and Paris Hilton wore the shirt. Michael Moshi did not respond to a request for comment.
The since-dismissed lawsuit against Lethal Amounts presents Lauren Moshi’s design as a tribute to L.A.’s punk history. “The Skull Pin Design is intended to convey, among other things, the artists [sic] expression of Los Angeles, as a geographic area, which is edgy, part of both the punk rock and fashion scene, and the interplay between the two worlds,” the complaint reads.
But in her effort to honor those worlds, she put one of its own in legal and financial jeopardy. To Fuentes, Lauren is part tourist, part colonialist straining to find the “authentic” L.A.
“She can’t get an L.A. symbol from a gangster, [so] she’s going to get an L.A. symbol from a punk rocker,” Fuentes says. “She’s hungry to get some sort of L.A. realness.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.