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Retail Laboratory tests Roosevelt Row with graffiti hoax

It was Christmas in March last Friday at Retail Laboratory, the hipster boutique on Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix's art district.

Shoppers were in and out of the "micro department store" all day, browsing the Penguin shirts and Jonathan Adler housewares, making some purchases.

There certainly hadn't been this much buzz about "RetLab" since Kurt DeMunbrun and his co-owner Chris Bale wore white lab coats out on First Fridays last fall to publicize the shop's opening.

The lab coats won the pair an instant rep as jokesters, but no one expected the prank they pulled last week -- tagging their own store with graffiti.

DeMunbrun says the prank was designed as a dig at the anti-gentrification crowd. But the sympathy shopping was a nice byproduct, particularly since the rescheduling of Art Detour from the first weekend in March to the last brought a precipitous decline in the three-day event's attendance.

"We haven't been this busy since the holidays," DeMunbrun said Friday.

Generally speaking, business has been good for RetLab -- by downtown Phoenix standards. But that's an awfully big caveat. Recently, DeMunbrun and Bale opened a second location at Biltmore Fashion Park, to help support the smaller shop. The two still live above the original RetLab, located at Artisan Village, new condos at Roosevelt and Seventh streets. Artisan Village has been the object of derision among a certain crowd of downtown artists who decry it as the first big sign of the gentrification of Roosevelt.

For months, Roosevelt area residents and business owners report, graffiti has appeared in the neighborhood, often accompanied by the tag, "RESIST" -- obviously code for "resist gentrification." So when news hit on the morning of the first day of Art Detour that RetLab had been hit, panic spread.

At 10 a.m. Friday, one of DeMunbrun's neighbors banged away on his door at Artisan Village, horrified at what some (really bad) graffiti artists had done to RetLab's exterior.

The storefront windows had been spray-painted fluorescent green, with the words "RESIST," "PIGS," "SCUM," "CHILD LABOR," and "GO BACK TO L.A.!" hastily tagged across RetLab's windows, doors and sidewalk out front.

The neighbor was "genuinely concerned" for DeMunbrun's safety, the shop owner recalls. "He was willing to help us clean it off," DeMunbrun says. "He felt really sorry for us."

Sucker.

The neighbor, like many gallery owners on Roosevelt, was duped.

"Okay," RetLab's marketing director, Traci Barrett, admitted to New Times late Friday afternoon. "We did it. We planned it, we painted it, we did it ourselves."

It was all a hoax, conceived and produced by DeMunbrun, Bale, Barrett and Tara Logsdon, a former graffiti artist and resident of Holgas, an artists' residence/studio complex down the street.

DeMunbrun says his faux tagging and demonstration (staged later that night) were a collective statement about a statement, essentially, in response to the so-called "RESIST" campaign and its anonymous antiestablishment types.

"Resist what?" asks DeMunbrun, who, with Bale, moved to Phoenix from Los Angeles last year. "What exactly do they want people to oppose? Progress? I mean, it's not like you have old folks being kicked out of their homes and then their homes are demolished.

"This place [Artisan Village]," he adds, "was built on a dirt lot."

Despite numerous taggings throughout the downtown arts district, Sergeant Ken Metzer, who supervises the Phoenix Police criminal damage unit that monitors Roosevelt Row, says his squad knows nothing about "RESIST" and hasn't received any complaints. (This despite an increased police presence in the area that began late last year in response to safety concerns on crowded First Fridays.)

DeMunbrun and Barrett, meanwhile, say they were shocked anyone took their hoax seriously. The paint was water-soluble. The graffiti itself looked like the work of kids (and included a frowny face).

It fooled Greg Esser. Esser owns several buildings downtown, including eye lounge, a gallery located just a block west of RetLab. After DeMunbrun refused to call the police, Esser did it himself.

"Fortunately, the officers I had tried to reach weren't in that day," says Esser, who didn't realize RetLab had pulled a fast one until Friday night.

Until then, Esser and a number of gallery owners were certain that a graffiti artist well-known on Roosevelt Row was responsible for the tagging. So Esser planned to rat him out.

"Because [RetLab] pretty closely copied [the RESIST campaign], I made an assumption that it was the same person, and I shouldn't have done that. I overreacted a bit," Esser says. "[DeMunbrun] had an opportunity to tell me that it was a hoax, but for whatever reason didn't."

Esser called off Phoenix PD before any supposed culprits could be interrogated.

"I feel terrible about it," he says.

The RetLab guys don't.

Friday night, they launched a staged protest (DeMunbrun and Bale paid a trio of actors to carry signs and shout into a megaphone) including some downright ridiculous material, comparing RetLab to a Wal-Mart.

"Wal-Mart bought the Heimlich Maneuver, so if you're choking, you have to buy it back from Wal-Mart!" protesters chanted.

RetLab's neighbors came to the shop's defense when the "protesters" began shouting "RetLab is run by commies!" Some heated words were exchanged between the protesters and Artisan Village residents (with the residents shouting, "Don't you kids have anything better to do than slag on corporate America?").

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