The Evolving Symbolism of Facemasks in America

Back in January, it may have been impossible to find a stylist or fashionista who believed 2020 to be ‘The Year of the Mask’. They became a fast staple as news about the Coronavirus pandemic spread, but as time passes masks are starting to speak on much more than the health crisis in the country – and beyond.

Forbes said facemasks are now “a sign of mutual respect”, while Adweek described them with a bit more warmth and scope, calling them “political emblems” of “love and solidarity”. Conversely, VOX and Huff Post said some men are opposed to wearing them simply because they were afraid of appearing weak; a phenomenon known to psychologists as “precarious manhood”. According to The Guardian, the President of Brazil even said they were “for fairies”. The Wall Street Journal wrote a hot take on the adoption of masks, seeing them as an expression of disapproval towards Donald Trump, who on several occasions downplayed the importance of masks in stemming the now tsunami-like tide of the COVID-19 pandemic. On a few occasions he mocked others for wearing them too, including Presidential incumbent Joe Biden. Only a couple months later CNN reported he wore one in public and masks became supported more widely in certain parts of the country overnight. He tweeted about how patriotic it looked on his face.

Whatever your viewpoint on the facemask itself, it’s clear to see now they will likely be a part of life at least for our foreseeable future. Moreover, they’ll probably be remembered in history as a uniform of the era we’re living today, like long curly powdered wigs worn by men in the 1500’s. Or like the bird-shaped headwear plague doctors donned in the 17th century, but without all the shadowy lore.

In America, facemasks are suddenly many expressions. Not simply one. Though, as pervasive and important as the facemask is today few could have predicted  that it would become the potent symbol of shared struggle that it has evolved into over the course of the last few months. To explore its symbolic rise and pervasive appeal, CULTR takes it to the streets, where we get to know the unlikely heroes who dropped everything to create unique ways of addressing the personal protective equipment (PPE) problem. Each grew in their own solution. Now, in addition to making a big difference for local communities their story inspires others. Demonstrating how people can try on the facemask as a philanthropic expression of entrepreneurship, celebrity, and style. 

Initially, the crew used their own vehicles to get distribution started out of the taco shop. Within a month, Terratori Technologies had expanded the program to larger vehicles.
Credit: Jonathan Chia of FWDFuture

That Taco Shop Sending PPE Around the World

Famed for their exquisite jackfruit tacos unlike any other Mexican restaurant in the area, Whittier’s Masataco was one of the most successful businesses in the city even prior to the pandemic. When the city order came to close the vegan restaurant, Masataco founder and chef to the stars, David Fuerte teamed up with Tarun Raj who runs the medical supplies provider, Terratori Technologies. The goal? To create a centralized hub for international PPE distribution out of all the now-unused dining space in the restaurant. Raj enlisted the network and expertise of business partner Jonathan Chia from FWD Future Agency, who is a 4-year combat veteran specializing in import-export logistics. As the partnership grew to add others, it became increasingly successful too.

Between the short supply of PPE available and the demand created by a woefully unprepared government, the team-up at the taco shop struck pandemic gold. For Masataco, the added ingredient of PPE balanced the economic recipe of the business, so foodies in the city still have their favorite vegan taco staple in troubling times. Meanwhile, Terratori Technologies has over the past few months grown into one of the most powerful COVID era success-stories in the country.

A team member at the Masataco restaurant smiles while preparing an order to ship.
Credit: Jonathan Chia of FWDFuture

For Chia, his mask represents rising to answer the call of duty. “It starts at the community level which is why we partner with local leaders like David Fuerte from Masataco to provide vetted PPE to the people who need it most.” Chia tells CULTR. “For us [in the service], this is the moment we’ve prepared for.” 

The first truckload shipment for Terratori Technologies.
Credit: Jonathan Chia of FWDFuture

Today the enterprise ships to half the states in America via a robust network of army veterans. They’re also expanding their local footprint with drive thru aid stations. In less than a month of operation, the effort sold more than 15 million PPE facemasks. Now with three months of blossoming operations under their belt, they’re on track to achieve their goal of 100 million PPE units shipped domestically and abroad well ahead of the end of the year too. By adding new PPE products to the menu, like surgical gloves and hand sanitizer, they’re finding other ways to take the operation to the next level. 

Lively Cult For Good workers pose ahead of a delivery.
Credit: Amanda Plazyk

Entertainment Titans Deliver PPE to the Homeless

For the entertainment world, fundraisers have traditionally been both life support and safety net for artists and performers in times of crisis. By combining forces with members of their respective local music communities, some organizations are aiming to aid struggling artists. Others are working to gift as many masks as possible to those who can’t get them, namely the homeless. Cult For Good does both.

It leverages the starpower of music celebrities to amplify the COVID relief efforts of volunteers in major metropolitan areas. It’s founded by an acclaimed viral YouTube superstar turned rapper named Elijah Daniel. Enhancing charity efforts with fame, the project flexes the coveted clout of a celebrated artist, whose most recent project “The Final Album” was named Billboard’s number one album of the decade. It also enlists the leadership of Jen Stein who manages dynamite music icons like Rusko, Dani Thorne, and Sage Armstrong.  

A team member sorts the PPE for distribution.
Credit: Amanda Plazyk

In action, the non-profit helps those with a crafty lean make and sell masks. With the funds raised from each sale they then purchase more protective facewear for Coronavirus-inspired care kits that are gifted to the homeless. Each holds a few contemporary essentials like PPE masks, gloves, and a bottle of CBD hand sanitizer donated by The Secret Gardien. 

With these in hand, Cult for Good is hitting a growing list of cities. To date, the project has placed more than half a million kits in the hands of the homeless in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Berkeley, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Detroit and Austin. In Los Angeles alone, for instance, more than 100,000 care packages have poured in with the program with 30,000 of those going straight to Skid Row. And that was just the month of March. 

Jen Stein unpacked the masterplan at Cult for Good for CULTR. 

“When the entertainment industry shut down, my first thought was that the people most qualified in disaster management are unable to work, but in order to get shows back, we must first work on this pandemic. So I started making calls to hospitals, people, and really the two most urgent issues at the time were taking care of the unsheltered, and getting PPE to those who need it most. Daniel was already on a mission to get essentials to the unsheltered, and we quickly decided that masks and sanitizer were just as essential as food and water right now.”

Like the team up of Masataco and Terratori Technologies, Cult For Good isn’t just expanding the facemask operation either. They’ve doubled down each step of the way, branching out with new and fresh initiatives. One of Cult For Good’s most recent efforts includes moving a 3D-printed series of prototyped valve splitters for hospital-grade ventilators into mass manufacturing. The technology would effectively negate the shortage of these devices in hospitals by enabling them to work with multiple patients, instead of only one per machine, as is the case today. 

Soliven wears one of his creations.
Credit: Iggy Soliven

The Etsy Army of PPE Creators

Those looking for strong examples of humanity like those at Masataco and Cult For Good will find similar encouragement in the army of seamstresses, costume creators, fashion designers and more taking the fight to the frontlines with sites like Etsy. Some particularly eye-catching PPE masks today are being produced painstakingly by hand, full-time, by artists and fabricators who’ve shifted gears to put the distribution of PPE above even their own career. 

LA-based artist Iggy Soliven, for instance, makes some of the more outlandish costumes found in film and theater. These days he spends his time crafting eery face masks that are intricate and alien enough to make even the most casual Tim Burton fan rubberneck. 

Soliven wears one of his creations.
Credit: Iggy Soliven

“This clarion call to protect those who can’t protect themselves was impossible to ignore.” Soliven tells CULTR. “It sorta became a civil duty to reach out and help the community especially having the matching skill set required to help. Thanklessly contributing also curbed that helpless feeling of being quarantined so it was a great distraction from being stagnant and anxious about this nebulous void of uncertainty.”

Despite being among the more ornate and desirable masks on the market, Soliven judges his success by how many people he can help, in lieu of how many dollars he can make. Like the others mentioned above, he distributes his masks as inexpensively as possible. “I’m not judging those [who are now selling masks] who saw it as an opportunity to supplement their lost livelihood, but I conscientiously couldn’t charge marginalized ‘essential workers’ for something that was vital to their survival.” 

Soliven wears one of his creations.
Credit: Iggy Soliven

It’s small efforts by diligent big-hearted people like Soliven that prove everyone can play an important role in the fight against coronavirus – even without the benefit of medical training. Adjacent to more than half a million listings for facemasks on Etsy, his creations represent a grassroots response to the pandemic that saves lives in style. 

Jonathan Chia rests his feet after a full day of loading trucks with countless PPE facemasks.
Credit: Jonathan Chia of FWDFuture

Stories Like These

Is the facemask’s blooming symbolic complexity in the United States an adaptation of the age we’re in? Or, is it a byproduct of America’s approach to the pandemic? It’s difficult to say. But, with no end in sight to the COVID craze the facemask remains a fixture in our lives for the foreseeable future. While certainly ironic that a face-covering garment could pack such potent expression, it’s encouraging to see that as the need for them grows good humans like those mentioned above are inspiring others to answer the call. Success stories like these give those who want to get involved a template for participating. And for anyone who can’t join in, it still serves to conjure a little hope for tomorrow when we shine a light on the real-life local heroes making a difference in the fight for a better world today.

Featured Image Credit: Curious Josh // Featured Image Caption: Bree Allen models one of the stunning handcrafted facemasks she designed to sell on her etsy store, Wicked Heart Design.




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