Artist Spotlight: Ralph Espiritu

Ralph Espiritu Tattoo Studio

Ralph Espiritu, a tattoo artist and illustrator from the Philippines, is one of Stay Cold Apparel's most popular designers.

"Drawing has always felt like a natural instinct,” said Ralph. "During my formative years, I was drawing skulls all the time. I wanted an education in order to develop more ideas and details in my art. As long as I could remember, I wanted to go to art school, but that wasn't something I had the chance to do.”

At first, Ralph wasn’t sure that art could be a good career choice.

"Before diving in as a full-time artist, I took a nine-to-five job as a graphic designer for a designing studio back in my hometown. I designed stuff for ads, flyers, and you can say that's still art I guess, but it is not the same as what I do now."

Ralph Espiritu Stay Cold Apparel illustrator tattoo artist

While he didn't find his day job creatively fulfilling, Ralph was privately building up a steady collection of band merchandise.

“There are at least a hundred pieces of band merchandise sitting and rotting in my closet,” he confessed. “Not counting all the graphic design shirts!"

In 2009, a friend suggested that Ralph check out Emptees, a website where he could submit graphic design for merchandise. He pitched some designs for local bands and was accepted. Before long, he was contacted by an apparel brand in his native Philippines.

"After a couple of years of designing shirts, I decided to quit my job. I got hired by other bands and brands, and some of them are still my clients today."

These days, Ralph is still drawing skulls, though his skills have matured. Max, the founder of Stay Cold, was browsing Mintees in 2014 when he came across Ralph's work. Since then, Ralph has designed around 20 products for the brand.

God of the Witches Ralph EspirituGod of the Witches Hoodie, designed by Ralph Espiritu

“I definitely have a man crush," said Max. "He’s one of my favorite artists who I’ve ever worked with. If it were possible, I would get all his designs so no one else could."

In the interview below, we talk to Ralph about his influences, his creative process, and what the future holds.

Which artists do you admire?
"There are tons of people who I respect and look up to. My influences come from the tattoo scene, street art, and the fine arts. I carved my teeth on artworks by Thomas Hooper and Mike Giant. Illustrators I admire include Alexander Heir, Pettibon, and Cursegift."

Where do your ideas come from?
"I am often inspired by films and music. Sometimes, I’ll encounter a good lyric or movie quote that I think will look good in visual form. That’s how it always happens: an idea comes to me, it sits inside for a while, spending time in my head, and then I execute it. As for my style I enjoy classic tattoos - not only the traditional Americana style, but also Russian criminal tattoos. They're very symbolic, which I like the most."

Doom Bringer Hoodie, by Ralph Espiritu

Do you have any favorite projects you’ve worked on?
"Lately, I have really enjoyed doing illustrations for Stay Cold. Max gives outstanding support and trust to me and my work. When he pitches me an idea, Max always offers me detailed feedback after I'm done Illustrating his concept. After working together on more than 20 designs, that is amazingly consistent."
Can you describe what you do on your average day?
"Tattooing and painting personal artwork for myself. Planning what to draw next, writing down ideas, then binge watching some TV series and forgetting all about what I'm currently doing for the next two days. When I'm not designing, I am out buying records, doing light carpentry, building stuff for the house, or traveling to spend my time with my family in my hometown."
Where do you see yourself in the next decade or two?
Honestly, I do not think about the future that much. I can picture myself becoming a better artist. This year, I will continue to work with my good friends, collaborate with other artists, and plan an art show in my home town. If I have the same job in ten years, tattooing or doing graphic designs, I could see myself still being very happy. In twenty years, I hope I will still be alive!

Ralph Espiritu tattoo artist Stay Cold design illustrator



  • Dawn Smith

    Where is my order! Its been weeks!

  • rus

    Greatest artist in the whole wide world living!

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2. From Straight Edge To Streetwear: The Beginning of Stay Cold

Max and his band Damager

Max spent his youth roaming the streets of East Berlin and “painting" the city walls without any regard for authority. He became involved in the local music scene and played electric guitar for a series of bands, had finished his audio engineering degree. He developed a habit for drinking and smoking, and although he occasionally thought about quitting, each addiction fed into the other. Every time he had alcohol, he would start smoking all over again. He didn’t question his lifestyle much; he assumed it was part of being a musician. Then one day, his band welcomed a new member to fill in for the bass player.

"Miki was the first guy I ever met who called himself vegan straight-edge. I was smoking during every break from rehearsal, but Miki just sat there and did nothing. That was new for me because everyone in my environment was smoking or drinking.”

Mikita and Max became fast friends, despite their different lifestyles. Miki didn't consume alcohol, drugs, or animal products. Soon after they met, Max decided to do the same.  Given his environment, giving up alcohol and smoking was one of the best decisions he ever made. By the beginning of 2011, Max was hanging out with more and more people who shared a philosophy of staying sober.

“It was a really positive thing for me. Everything in my life changed for the better. I was completely dedicated and wanted to spread the word."

Max started to look for straight edge merchandise that he could wear to demonstrate pride in keeping clean , but soon realized he couldn’t find any within Europe. He tried buying apparel from the U.S., but shipping costs were high and it took months to arrive. Like any entrepreneurial problem solver, Max decided he would respond to the gap in the market by creating his own merchandise.

Max and Diebo, Stay Cold home office
Diebo & Max (left); the first shipments arrive to the Stay Cold  home office (right) 2013

He teamed up with his best friend, Diebo. Together, they created some samples, produced a modest inventory, and started an Instagram page. After six months of laying the groundwork, they launched the website for Stay Cold Straight Edge. The brand attracted straightedge customers but Max soon realized that he wasn’t simply interested in churning out t-shirts with simple text. He wanted to create a fashion label that would allow him to design art pieces and express his creative desires.

"I was trying to build a fashion brand or a skater brand, but it didn’t work out as I planned because I was attracting customers who only wanted to have merchandise, but weren’t interested in the design or artistic elements of the brand."

In order to fulfill customer expectations, he felt like he had to repress his creativity. In the meantime, he and Diebo realized that they weren’t a good match as business partners, so they decided to split up the business.

“I’m really glad we were able to leave this behind us," said Max. "It was hard for both of us. I’m happy that we are still best friends."

Max began focusing on himself and thinking about how to organize the business so that it could be a creatively fulfilling full-time job. Though Max had originally started brand to demonstrate pride for straight-edge culture, he realized his anti-authoritarian message appealed to people beyond the straight-edge scene. While he remained straight edge in his personal life, he decided he would build a new brand that represented the attitudes of rebels from all walks of life: heretic, anti-authoritarian, and anti-establishment.  The idea of Stay Cold Apparel was born in 2014, and on February 2015, he launched the official website.

Max launches Stay Cold Apparel with a new office in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin

Broadening his new audience gave the brand new potential to grow. While Stay Cold was getting off the ground, Max had been running his own music studio. Soon, he had a new problem.   By the end of 2015, Stay Cold had expanded so successfully that he couldn’t keep both businesses going. He had to make a choice between music and fashion. For him, it was a no-brainer. He closed the studio and concentrated full-time on Stay Cold. What started as a passion project had now become his career.  

No matter which direction he takes his business, Max insists on staying true to his values.

“I only do things I love to do. I only design things I love to wear. I only do things that I can stand behind."

Max at work in the Stay Cold office

1 comment

  • Carly

    Bring back straight edge apparel

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1. How A Berlin Graffiti Artist Became A Streetwear Entrepreneur

Growing up in the East Berlin district of Friedrichshain, Stay Cold founder Max has never liked taking the traditional route.

"It’s hard for me to accept things as they are. I overanalyze and I question everything,” he says. "I have problems with authority. This business is the natural consequence of it."

He credits his creativity to his mother, a fashion designer, who encouraged him to explore the arts.

"My mother pushed me into art from the very beginning. I always had an inner ambition that drives me to do creative things. I love to build things up. I painted a lot as a kid."

Though it wasn’t exactly what his parents had in mind for him, Max found himself naturally drawn to graffiti. By the age of 14, he had traded the canvas for the city's walls.  Back then, Berlin was an unregulated no man’s land. It was the perfect playground for the anti-authoritarian artist.

"There were no rules right after the fall of the wall. No one cared whether graffiti was legal. They had other problems to worry about. Those days, you could do whatever you wanted. I became really involved in the scene and wasn't interested in school."

After high school graduation, he wanted to study art but his grades weren’t good enough. His father was a construction worker, so he started an apprenticeship (Ausbildung) as a painter on a construction site.

"From the first day, I knew it was totally shit. My father always wanted to have a son who was like him but that wasn’t me. I was more the creative like my mother who raised me."

By day, he painted on the construction site. By night, he was spray-painting walls & trains. When he finally got caught by the authorities, they had accumulated an entire binder’s worth of photos documenting his graffiti. They told him he’d go to prison if they found him tagging again.

"I finished the three-year apprenticeship, but only for my parents. Afterward, they left me alone to do whatever I wanted."

Freed of family expectations, Max returned to school to obtain the proper qualifications to attend university. It was there that he discovered an interest in music.

“For 12 years, I only focused on music. I played in a lot of bands, traveled around the world like a hippie, didn’t care about money because to me, money was shit. I avoided getting regular jobs, where someone tells me what to do, because I don’t like following orders."

Now that he was older, he also began to realize that he needed to plan for his financial future. He started a t-shirt company with another guy but soon found it difficult to share control.

"We were making fun shirts with really black humor but I separated from my partner. I couldn’t work with him, he was like my father."

Afterward, he studied audio engineering, worked as a concert rigger, and started his own music studio. But the entire time, his interest in visual arts and the influence of his mother was never far behind.

Stay Cold did not only begin as a creative project but as an extension of Max's resistance to tradition and hierarchy.

"When you are doing illegal graffiti, you have do a lot of prep work and research before you actually make the piece. It’s more like planning an act of terrorism,” he says.

In some ways, starting your own business is not so different.


  • Phil DEhn

    Is so cool, and extremely guys rock, and deserve to be doing what you’re doing, much love and respect keep killing guys!!?

  • PHl DEhn

    This is some great insight into where the company started, and the amount of heart, and hard work that goes into it. I’ve been a fan of you guys for awhile now. But taking the chance on getting your story out there, and telling people where the founder comes from, i

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