The Underestimated City (also known as TUC, also known as REP TUC or REPTUC) is a lifestyle and street wear clothing brand from Tucson, AZ that not only provides Tucsonans merch to represent their city with pride but also continues to endlessly evolve and expand their outreach. From working with the University of Arizona and donating thousands to the AZ Final Salute Foundation to getting hats done with New Era, from brick and mortar to adding a warehouse for screen printing to also adding a private office, what may have been once underestimated should be no longer.
Israel Zavala, founder of The Underestimated City, is the mover and shaker behind this movement and brand - an epitome of hard work, building from the ground up, creating a community, and an inspiration for any aspiring entrepreneur. He shares some insight with us on the journey of becoming The Underestimated City, overcoming some of his lowest points, the biggest lessons he's learned and more in the interview below!
You played with stencils and designed skateboards at the start of your journey and growing up, you didn’t dream of owning your own streetwear brand! Can you tell us how creating and owning a clothing brand came to be?
Originally the idea of clothing started when Chepe (my brother) was in Afghanistan. He reached out to me and said he wanted to start a clothing brand. I was like, one, Chepe doesn’t know shit about clothing and two, everybody else knew too that Chepe would always have an idea but never finishes it. So when he was in Afghanistan and told me he wanted to start a clothing brand, I just kind of wrote it off and told him no thanks. But then when he got back from Afghanistan, he actually started taking it seriously. That’s when I decided to jump back on board in helping him.
As his journey started in clothing, I started helping him design and he really didn’t like the direction I was taking, so we butted heads all the time in regards to what we were going to do. Chepe started being Chepe in saying it was his brand and he’s going to do what he wants to do… so in a sense he discounted anything I had to say or do. At that time we stopped but at the same time, it was kind of weird because it wasn’t like all this happened step by step. Coinciding with helping Chepe with his brand, I came across the brand Obey Giant.
Me and Reyna (my son’s mom) went to go eat at Peter Piper and this guy was wearing an Obey shirt that caught my eye and I wondered what it was. Reyna went to work, did some research and printed out a bunch of sheets of his story and stuff like that (we didn’t have a computer at the time). I just started reading his story and the word stencil kept popping up. Shepard Fairey got started doing stencils. So I started doing research on stencils and what exactly they were. That’s when I went and bought my first exacto knife and manilla folders and shit like that. I started learning how to do stencils.
The same time I started helping Chepe with his brand, I started finding out about and learning how to cut stencils. When we ended up stopping doing his brand, we had a little fall out then, he was moving into a new place and didn’t want me to move in with him. I didn’t have anywhere to go so I went to live with Reyna and her mom. I was unemployed at the time so I literally started stenciling all the time and became super obsessed with stenciling. I’d just practice and got better and started putting stencils on everything, spray painting them around (skateboards, grip tapes, t-shirts). I messed around with a few little brands here and there but their names were too long or controversial so I stopped doing those and that’s when I kind of found my nitch which was doing custom skateboards. In a sense I started a skateboard brand from all the stenciling and when I started that, there wasn’t really a market in Tucson for streetwear or for skateboarding or anything like that. There were little skateboard shops but there wasn’t anything huge. So that took off really slow… well, it didn’t really take off, it just happened and I was doing it. Not too many people liked it because it was more of a political kind of stance. The name of the brand was “Power to the People” and then I shortened it by just calling it “Power Skateboards.”
This is the actual story with what happened with the whole REP TUC shit. When I started doing my stenciling, Chepe tried to jump back on the t-shirt bandwagon shit. Forever he wanted to do a Red Star shirt RSWTP (Red Star We the People) RUN-DMC rip. I wanted to do a RUN-DMC rip too but I didn’t exactly have an idea about how I wanted to do it yet and Chepe already had his idea, so I didn’t want to step on his toes and take his idea. I waited for him to put his out and do his shit but again, just how Chepe is (he never goes through with anything), he never did his shirt.
One day I said fuck it and I just started thinking of catchy phrases and what I could put on a shirt. So I started just thinking of stuff and that’s when I was like, there’s really nothing to represent Tucson. I did REP-TUC instead of RUN-DMC. I really started thinking about it (at the time it didn’t mean The Underestimated City) it just meant Represent Tucson but it’s supposed to be pronounced REP T.U.C. (tee you see), just like the RUN-DMC shirt. When I did that shirt, my friends and everybody liked it. Of course, Chepe got a little salty because he said I stole his idea but eventually he warmed up to it because it was pretty cool.
Once I did that shirt, we all decided to go out one night and went to Maloney’s. When we went there I didn’t expect to get any reaction from the shirt. I didn’t wear the shirt to get a reaction, I just wore the shirt because I thought I made a cool design and once we got to Maloney’s everyone started asking where I got the shirt. No one had ever heard of REP TUC, so in a sense it was brand new because it had never been used before. That was the initial creation of REP TUC, when I made that shirt. Everybody at the club was asking where I got the shirt and I told everybody I made it. I really didn’t think I was onto something until this one guy followed me around all night. Everywhere we went he was like, “Dude, for reals, where’d you get that shirt?” I told him I made it and he said, “I’ll buy that one off you right now.” He literally wanted to buy the shirt off my back and I’m like, “The fuck am I supposed to walk around in?” (laughs). I told him if he really wanted a shirt, he could take down my number, shoot me a text and I’d make him a shirt. He took down my number and asked me, “How much?” and I was like, “Ten dollars.” Sure enough the guy texted me, I met up with him and I sold my first shirt ever for ten dollars.
I was like, “You know what... maybe I’m onto something!” I tried keeping the two brands together. I initially wanted to keep Power Skateboards as the top brand and make REP TUC a subbrand of it and as more and more people wanted the shirt with REP TUC on it, no one cared about the skateboarding logo. So I exed out of the skateboarding logo and jumped on the REP TUC thing.
And that first shirt that you sold, was it spray painted?
No, it was actually screen printed but not how we screen print now. At Michaels, they used to sell this machine called the Yudu machine. Oh man, it was this all-in-one screen printing kit and it fucking sucked. It was such a horrible machine but that’s what I did my first t-shirt off.
Why “The Underestimated City”?
The Underestimated City didn’t come until years later. Even when we opened up the first shop The Underestimated City wasn’t the name of the brand, the name was REP TUC still. It was still just supposed to read like the RUN-DMC shirt. The way it came around to be the The Underestimated City was when I first started the brand (and I didn’t really know what it was going to be) I was fine with it kind of just being what it was but as the brand started getting more popular I started thinking of how I could make it appealing to other people who aren’t from Tucson. We would have people coming in and saying what we were doing was really dope but they weren’t from Tucson or people from Phoenix would say it was a dope logo but they aren’t from Tucson so they didn’t want to wear it. Another thing was how it would annoy me how people would call it REPTUC, like that shit annoys me so bad. To this day I can’t say I’ve warmed up to it but I accepted the fact that it would never be pronounced right. I just kind of let it be what it is ‘cause I would always correct people when they would come into the shop and they’d completely ignore what I just said. I felt for me to become mass appealing and sound not as ignorant of a brand I’ve wanted to try and find a name with substance and meant something to Tucson but then other people from other cities could also read it, understand what it means but not necessarily know it’s specifically talking about Tucson. They could hear it and in some way relate to it in their life or their city.
As I was playing around with names, I just remember thinking T.U.C. the first three letters of Tucson, “What’s something that Tucson is?” Tucson is really underestimated and that’s when something clicked, “The Underestimated City.” That’s when I was like, “Dude this shit sounds so dope!” So I wrote it down and I started asking people what they thought of the name, friends and family. A lot of people really didn’t feel it at first, either it didn’t make sense or didn’t sound good or were wondering why I was kind of in a sense putting down Tucson by calling it underestimated. People didn’t really get my train of thought or what I was thinking. The whole scene, everything from art, food, culture in Tucson are underestimated! A lot of people couldn’t relate to it because no one had the mindset like I had of there being a lot of stuff in Tucson that wasn’t being appreciated. I’m in a sense embracing being underestimated, like empowering ourselves by saying we are underestimated and we’ll prove you wrong.
I’m sure there’s a lot of hardships you’ve endured in getting to where you are now. Could you share with us your lowest point and how you overcame it?
I think my personal lowest point and embarrassment was when I first split up with my sons mom and the shop was still in its infancy. I was in a sense still unemployed because we could barely afford to pay the shop rent so I had nowhere to go. One of my lowest points isn’t because I didn’t have money and isn’t because I didn’t have anywhere to go. One of them was just as a father. Even though I wasn’t out of my sons life, leaving his mom and that family aspect was just really hard. Me and Tony still kept a relationship but that was one of the hardest parts was having to leave the family dynamic.
Brand-wise, one of my lowest points was that exact time. Not having anywhere to go, not having any money to live somewhere. Me and Chepe actually lived out of the back of the shop for over a year and we didn’t have money for food and stuff like that. We were living super poor, owning a shop.
I actually just ran into Isaiah the other night at Congress reminiscing like, “Fuck dude, remember that time me and Chepe didn’t have anywhere to go and we were living in the back of the shop?” Literally our friend Isaiah used to work the late shift in a café next to our shop. Me and Chepe and would walk over and he’d hook us up with a burger. He’d cook us a burger and feed us for the night. That was one of my lowest points was in a sense kind of having to beg for food. Financially that was my lowest point. That shit was hard.
There were times where we couldn’t pay the rent. Our landlord was super cool because of the construction and he would let us go two/three months without paying rent. We would literally tell people we were having a release party but in a sense it was really like, “Let’s drop something and hopefully we make enough money to pay rent party!” We used to do that a lot (laughs). But we overcame all our hardships by just sticking it through and riding it out, never giving up. One of our sayings we use is “NEVER SAY DIE” from one of my favorite movies, The GOONIES.
We are in an era of millennials who want to be their own boss and have creative freedom! It seems like this is what everybody wants to do right now. What would you say are some character traits that an entrepreneur needs to be successful?
I’d say definitely hard work and determination. Those are very cliché characteristics of someone wanting to be successful but for me, looking back, it’s easy to say hard work and it’s easy to say determination, it’s easy to just be cliché. When you actually think of the word determination and of hard work, people think its just show up and do what you’re supposed to do and clock out. Sometimes it takes doing the stuff that people don’t see. I’ve met a lot of people that will try the clothing industry, try opening up a business and the moment they hit rock bottom they close because they’re scared to fail. They’re scared to go through the hardships of failure so they just quit but I’ve failed so many times, hit rock bottom, bank accounts being overdrafted so many times and I think for me one of the biggest traits is, you have to have the belief in what you’re doing and what you want to do because money’s not always going to be there. When you’re at zero and have no money to do anything, what are you going to do? Are you just going to waste all that hard work you’ve already put in? Just quit and go work another nine to five again?
For me, the fear of failing has been one of my most motivational things. I’m just scared to fail and look stupid in front of people. I know with that, I have to work hard because I don’t feel anybody can really be successful without genuinely working hard. When I say working hard it doesn’t have to be back breaking labor but I think… not to go a different direction but comparing hard work from the ‘50s to now are two completely separate things. In the ‘50s people had to work jobs, they actually had to do back breaking labor to be considered a hard worker. I think now, with the millennial concept, working isn’t just always being at a desk. For me, I feel like I’m always working. In my head, I’m always thinking about work. I’m always thinking about my next bill or my next design or the next step I want to take my business in. I feel like the determination of not wanting to fail is definitely one of the traits. Hard work is being completely consumed by what you’re doing but not being completely consumed in a negative way where it’s dragging you down. It’s loving what you do, being happy with what you do, and even with hard work and determination you have to have fun with it!
Like you said millennials want to be their own bosses, want to have their own freedom and stuff like that. I think the old way of thinking was that in order to be successful and to make money, you only have to work hard. For me it is being able to play and have fun with what you do. It’ll help you be successful because you don’t necessarily just look at what you’re doing as just a regular job. So I think having fun, working hard, having determination not to fail.
Not just those traits but there are other things that help you be successful. You have to have good people around you. I’ve honestly learned the hard way that you can’t do anything by yourself. I don’t care what anyone says. Anyone that says they made it on their own or made it to the top by themselves, it’s completely bullshit. Somebody had to give you the opportunity to get there or there’s someone that helped you along the way. To say that someone made it on their own I feel is completely false.
I’ve used negative motivation a lot. People tell me I couldn’t make it, I credit those people as helping me get there too because I feel if it wasn’t for that negative motivation I would’ve never gotten to where I am. So there’s always someone helping you get there. Surround yourself with good people that are going to embrace and support your ideas.
You’ve created what seems almost like a family of people who support your brand. How did you accomplish creating this community?
Honestly, not to sound arrogant or anything but I’ve accomplished that out of just completely being genuine with my brand and not faking it to make it. That’s something we always used to say when we were younger when we started the brand was that we’re not going to fake it to make it. We’re not going to bring in rappers, we’re not going to beg rappers to wear our shit because not to say that it’s wrong but for so long that was Finally Made’s way of trying to get their brand out there. Just getting them on the hottest people. For me there’s nothing wrong with that, a lot of brands to that, but I didn’t want to be that brand. I didn’t want to in a sense prostitute my brand out to become popular. I didn’t want to sell myself to become popular.
We did shit our way and we still do. We put designs out that we want to put out. We don’t follow trends. Some of the shit we do might be trendy but we don’t follow the trends that might not make sense to most people but to me it does. There’s stuff that have trended and I like but I’m not gonna put it out at the same time that everybody else is. My main idea has always been to never be one of those brands that flame out. I’d rather have continuous consistency as a brand than being one of these brands that blow up and flames out in a few years.
I think that’s what a lot of our followers and our clientele have seen is that. I feel to a point a lot of people look up to it because not everybody gets to live the life me and my business partner get to. Not to say we live anything lavish or luxurious but we have the freedom and we have fun with our job. I think to a certain point, a lot of the city has kind of seen that and has seen where we come from and support us in our dreams and in all the fun that we have. I feel they vicariously live through us when they look at our Instagram stories. They don’t just see these guys that have made it and are are starting to live his baller life (‘cause we’re far from baller) but they see that the hard work and determination and all the shit we went through in the past has finally got us to a point where we can have fun with our career. I think most brands and most people that start seeing someone successful like that would get salty but our followers look at us and say, “You know what, I contributed to that. I’ve contributed to these guys success but in turn they’ve given us something to genuinely hold onto and be proud of.” Where before our brand there was a void of pride of Tucson. We’ve in a sense got a cult following because of how genuine we are and just how our business practices are.
What do you think makes your brand distinguishable?
Anyone can have a lasting brand. When I say lasting brand, it’s that anyone can still work their nine to five and keep producing t-shirts and shit. There’s still brands out there where the owner works a regular job and still pushes shirts out here and there. Anybody can do that, as long as you have your income from your nine to five. But for the last six, going on seven years now, I haven’t worked another job. This has been my sole income for going on seven years.
I think what makes us distinguishable is, again, we’re not in the business of just making money. We’re not in the business of being popular. We’re not in the business of trying to have the best brand. We do what we love and that genuinely comes out in our product and our business practices. We do what we love, we have fun with what we love, and it also helps that we put out dope shit compared to other people. There’s some cool brands and stuff out there but I honestly know and believe no one does it like we do here in town. We’re genuine, our brand isn’t just about making money, and we put out dope shit.
In the past year you’ve accomplished so much. You got a warehouse for your screenprinting business, you’ve expanded your team, you got a couple licenses from the UA and from New Era, you raised thousands of dollars for the AZ Final Salute Foundation, you had a meet and greet with UA basketball greats Olson, Bibby and Simon, and you now have your own office! I think there’s a fear of failing but there’s also fear of success, has encountering success scared you in some way because you have something to lose? Or does it not phase you? How do you respond to it?
A lot of people are motivated by positivity and wanting to be successful motivates them. A part of my motivation comes from wanting to be successful but I’ve been so used to working off of fear my whole life that it works the exact same way - fear of failing and fear of success. The fear for the most part hasn’t deterred me away from trying. I think I’ve always been more scared of not trying and having the regret later on. The fear of failure and of being embarrassed drives me to be successful but the fear of succeeding and then failing after motivates me too… works in a weird way. I’m not scared to succeed but to a point, I’m scared of the failure that might come with the success, so that only makes me work harder to be successful. The fear of fear is I guess what keeps me going. Everything from embarrassment or to just failing, I’ve just always benefitted better working off of fear than someone telling me I did a great job. Failing and fear makes me better.
What things do you take into consideration when making a big business decision?
Definitely how much work is being put in, what we’re going to benefit from that, how much money is going to go into it, and how big the potential failure is! It’s just a motivating factor in my life. (laughs)
What are your thoughts on the quote “Knowing Your Brand is Knowing Yourself”?
You can either take it very literal or have a bigger idea of what that means. You can see it as the t-shirts you put out are a reflection of who you are but I’ve learned to understand in the years that I’ve been doing this that your brand isn’t necessarily just what you put on a t-shirt. It includes everything from who you are as a business, what you’re putting onto your shirts, who you are personally, and how people perceive you. In a sense, I definitely feel that rings true. Getting to learn my business practices, what I like to be perceived as… I’ve matured over these six years. When I first started my brand at the time it was definitely a reflection of who I was and where I was in my life. In talking to one of my friends, I looked at what I wanted to do back in the day (brand-wise), I wanted to do flashy, ghetto shit and that’s just who I was and what my brand was about at the time. It was to be popular and make money. That was just my mindset coming from the Southside and getting a taste of success from time to time.
As I got older and I started maturing and facing more life situations, I started seeing how I was being perceived and how my brand was being perceived. They both went hand in hand. People saw my brand, started seeing me and thought they went with each other - arrogant, cocky and stuff like that. I didn’t like how my brand as a whole was being perceived and in a sense how my legacy was going to be and how I personally was going to be perceived, how people were going to look at my son in the future. So my brand as a whole, as a business owner and as a father, all started being molded by the perception of my brand. My brand as Israel Zavala. I definitely feel knowing who you are in a sense works back ward with that saying. Knowing who you are will tell people what your brand is and is about. People who know your brand will say it’s a direct reflection of who that person is. But I definitely think when you finally know yourself, is when you finally get to where your brand is as a person in general. It can work both ways with that saying.
Name three of the biggest lessons you’ve learned (business-wise) that perhaps you’d like to remind yourself of in the future.
One, how to spend money the right way. Two, how to have a better work ethic. The most important one is how to treat people and be humble. Just appreciate stuff.
Want some exclusive content from this interview? Sign up for the JRECOGNIZE newsletter!