We have had the pleasure of knowing and watching the ultra talented Santa Cruz local Alex Schaffer-Czech grow his brand Uroko for many years. Each design on Uroko's tees, hats and sweatshirts was inspired by the water and drawn by Alex. Whether it's the movement in the waves or the detail in the fish, his designs are timeless and connect with nearly everyone. Uroko truly celebrates the people who find peace in the ocean, fish, and water.
Can you give us a little background on yourself?
I was born in San Luis Obispo, and lived there with my mom until she finished her college internship at the state prison. She met my Dad, Chuck (not at the state prison), when I was 3. Both my step dad and natural father were Marines. We ended up moving all over the place as a kid. I lived in desert places like 29 Palms, Joshua Tree, and Barstow … you know, the hots spots in California. We lived in Okinawa, Japan for a bit too, which is where I surfed my first reef break and was introduced to the Okinawan culture and Japanese language. When my step dad retired, we moved to Solana Beach. I was 13 years old. This is where I grew up and made my home. I went to San Dieguito High School and grew up riding waves as Seaside reef in Cardiff. Im originally a North County SD kid. I later moved to San Luis Obispo after High School, where I went to Cuesta Community college for 2 years. I received my AA in 2D art from there. It was a great school. I then moved up to San Francisco, where I attended the Academy of Art college and studied graphic design. I didn’t like the school, so I transferred to San Francisco Art Institute and studied drawing and painting. There was a stint at San Francisco Community College in between these two school where I started learning how to oil paint. SFAI was an amazing school. I received a wonderful education from them. I lived in SF for 10 years, then moved to Santa Cruz. I've been here now for almost 15 years … longer than I lived anywhere my whole life.
On top of running and designing for uroko, I work full time as a graphic design teacher at Los Gatos High School. I'm also the lucky Dad of twin 7 year olds (Autumn and Koa), and fortunate to have a loving wife who tolerates me for the work horse that I am.
How did you get started with graphic design?
I started studying graphic design via screen printing when I was in high school. I took night classes as a sophomore at San Dieguito High School. I had to learn about graphic design to screen print. This was before people were really using computers to do this type of design work. We would shoot our layouts and designs and get them “camera ready”. Color separations were being done by hand through cutting rubylith. I remember using Photoshop for the first time. It wasn’t anything like you see today. While in high school, I started my first brand called phreedumb. I built it up for years and sold to accounts as far as LA (which seemed like a 1000 miles away back then). It was a great experience, but there was a point that I needed to drop it and focus on school. Running phreedumb opened the door to a lot of outside design work in the surf and skate industry. I started designing tees and ads for shops that I either worked with or was employed by. I still do freelance work to this day if I have time.
What inspired Uroko?
Uroko was inspired by a few things that happened to me. As I mentioned, I have always done freelance work for different businesses. One of my favorite things to do is design T-shirt graphics, and I was making tee designs for a shop I was managing in San Francisco at the time called Aqua Surf Shop. I did one tee in particular that did extremely well that they still sell to this day. I was paid a fair wage for the design, but looked at the volume of tees that they were selling and thought to myself, “I should have sold the design for more, and … I should be making my own tees and selling them.” Another store I made a design for also let me know that the tee I designed for them was crushing it, so thats when I decided to build this brand. I originally started the brand under my art business called ASC STUDIO, but quickly realized that this wasn’t very cool and was not something people could identify with. So”uroko” was born in 2010.
What does Uroko mean and why did you choose that as the name for your brand?
Uroko means “fish scales” in the Japanese language. Being a fisherman, I have always loved looking at different fish scale patterns. As a wave rider, my family always called me a fish because you couldn’t get me out of the ocean (or any body of water for that matter). When I was coming up with a name, I didn’t want to name my brand something cheesy like “Scales” … I felt that was too obvious. I thought back to my Japanese language skills and remembered that “uroko” meant fish scales. I liked that people would struggle with the name a little because it’s foreign to English speaking populations. Growing up in the surf industry, I watched people struggle with names for brands like RVCA and Volcom, so I knew that my brand name would have a little mystery around it and people may remember the name … even if they couldn't pronounce it right. It is pronounced “YER - OH - KO”. In Japanese is would be pronounced, “U (as in “ew”) - RO - KO”.
What was your biggest surprise in starting your own business?
The thing I love about running my own business is that there are all levels of challenges that you need to contend with as you grow. There are surprises that happen daily. It's hard working two full time jobs, so the main surprise is that I do both still. I love teaching and working with high school kids, and I love building this brand and making connections to all the different surf and fishing communities out there. There may be a point where I have to quit teaching, but I am going to hold on to my teaching job for as long as possible.
What's your favorite design and style in your current collection?
Since I draw all the designs for my brand, I have a connection and story behind each design. My favorite fish drawing is probably the Coho tee.
I spent so much time fishing for these growing up, that I had a lot of time meditating about past fishing trips with my granddad when I was drawing it. It was a joyful drawing to make. I like all the collections for different reasons. Im having fun building out the "crustacean collection" currently.
Where is your favorite spot to surf?
My favorite spot to surf is the Cobra at G-Land when its breaking. :-) Locally in the Bay Area … I would rather keep that a secret.
To check out more from Uroko, check out his website or browse his collection on our site.