- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2007

When actress Cameron Diaz bought a purse as a tourist in China, she never expected the uproar she would face by carrying it to Peru.

Turns out the Chinese characters and red star that Miss Diaz found stylish actually translated to Mao Zedong’s most famous political slogan, “Serve the People.”

For many Peruvians, the bag brought up memories of the Mao-inspired Shining Path insurgency, which killed 70,000 people in the 1980s and early 1990s. The voice of Princess Fiona was forced to apologize for her faux pas.

In today’s anything-goes pop cultural marketplace, T-shirts and G-strings romanticize not only political extremists such as Che Guevara, but criminals like Charles Manson and Al Pacino’s Tony Montana character from the film “Scarface.” Some downplay the wearing of such clothing as little more than vague and ultimately innocuous gestures of rebellion that shouldn’t be taken literally. Others are offended that people are profiting off of merchandise that treats violent revolutionaries and mass murderers like rock stars.

The gear available at Imosh, a company selling heavy metal and gothic wear over the Internet, is clearly celebrating life on the wrong side of the law. Its Web site features a variety of merchandise slapped with the penetrating stare and scruffy mane of the murderous cult leader Charles Manson. The front of one T-shirt declares, “Remember Kids, Charlie Loves You” while the back reads, “Role Model for Today’s Youth” ($17).

Fashion Victim, another online store, sells apparel featuring Chicago gangster Al Capone and Mexican revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. All of those images are a part of the public domain, so only the manufacturers profit.

In recent years, many hip-hop stars have come to idealize the rich and powerful drug dealer Tony Montana from the film “Scarface.” Both the Universal Consumer Products Group — which controls the licensing of images from “Scarface” — and Mr. Pacino himself refused to comment on whether or not he receives any royalties, but industry insiders seem pretty sure the movie star profits off of Tony Montana towels and shot glasses.

The amount of money a celebrity receives from products bearing his image depends on “the experience, the reputation and the prominence of the actor,” explains Greg Battersby, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property law. “The more leverage the celebrity has, the greater percentage he’ll be able to get from the merchandising.”

By 1983, when “Scarface” was released, Al Pacino was already a formidable force in Hollywood, having received four Oscar nominations for best actor in the previous decade for both critically and commercially successful work in films such as “The Godfather” and “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Charles Schnaid, the partner in charge of licensing and royalty services at Los Angeles firm Miller, Kaplan, Arase & Co., LLP, claims that royalty rates received by celebrities on merchandise featuring their likeness have been steadily rising over the past 10 years, with bigger stars commanding bigger paydays. While the median royalty rate in 2005 was about 11 percent, established actors like Mike Myers or Al Pacino “would probably command significantly more than someone else,” guesses Mr. Schnaid. “It could be anything up to 15 percent.”

Professor Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, doesn’t think that a teenager buying a Tony Montana poster necessarily wants to get rich quick by killing people and selling cocaine. “As history goes on, some of these faces become in an odd sort of way domesticated,” he says. “[It’s the] same with Tony Soprano, who in many ways became sort of a huggable murderer.”

Most people who buy “Scarface” merchandise have at least seen the film and know that Tony Montana was a violent druglord. But how many of the millions of people who purchase Che Guevara bikinis, hats and key chains know that Ernesto “Che” Guevara was known in Cuba asEl Carnifero— the Butcher — and is considered to be responsible for more than 2,000 civilian deaths?

“I don’t think the image would be for sale like that if it was, for a majority of people, part of an ideology of violence,” says Trisha Ziff, author of the book “Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon” and curator of a 2005 California Museum of Photography exhibit on the legacy of Alberto “Korda” Gutierrez’s classic portrait of Che.

“People don’t think of the horrors of Stalinism today when they wear a hammer and sickle. In a way, it’s appalling,” continues Ms. Ziff. “Cameron Diaz would not have gone to Israel wearing a swastika. It shows just how certain iconic symbols become globally understood and taboo while others lose their meaning and become co-opted into a world of style, where content and history are of less importance.”

Cuban-Americans who are offended by Che’s status as a fashion icon aren’t afraid to speak up. Irate consumers have boycotted Burlington Coat Factory stores for featuring a Che T-shirt in its commercials and protested the New York Public Library’s sale of Che watches.

In 2005, musician Carlos Santana wore a Che Guevara shirt to the Oscars. Cuban-Americans once again demonstrated their frustration, organizing a candlelight vigil for Mr. Guevara’s victims outside of a Santana concert in Miami.

In late December of last year, discount superstore Target was forced to pull CD carrying cases featuring Mr. Guevara’s image from the shelves and issue a statement of apology.

“Is it in good taste and appropriate to wear mass murderers on your clothing?” Professor Thompson said. “Probably not. On the other hand, I don’t think that necessarily means we should be calling for the banning of these things.”

He suggests that people who wear clothing depicting criminals probably do so with a hint of irony or dark humor. “It’s more likely the same kind of tongue in cheek attitude that causes a person in the 21st century to buy a lava lamp,” he says.

Imosh sales manager David Charles doesn’t seem so sure that his customers wear Charles Manson apparel with any irony. He says that Imosh operates out of a “hidden office,” selling merchandise over the Web rather than out of an actual storefront.

“I don’t want any of those psychos coming to find me,” he explains.

“People don’t think of the horrors of Stalinism today when they wear a hammer and sickle. In a way, it’s appalling.”

—author Trisha Ziff