The founder of Rogue Status has passed away
By Davis Wilky Lau
Standing on the corner of Rose and Main looking west, the Sad Clown of Venice sheds a tear for the loss of one of Venice Beach’s most monumental pioneers.
Johan “Yo” Esbensen may not have built the roads or the canals, but the vibrance and kinship of the Venice community bears his signature.
One of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met, Yo brought people together from all walks of life and was the father to a generation of misfits, a radiant personality that infected everyone he met to become a bit more like him — and often for the better.
No building nor street may bear his name, but the legacy he leaves behind will forever live in the fabric of the community he created and the lives he touched.
If you roamed around Venice in the late naughties, you probably knew Yo, and he probably knew you. If you’d met, you were welcome around him and for any amount of time.
On the surface, Yo was a successful businessman, designer and community leader, but he was so much more than the sum of those things. A larger-than-life character with a heart of gold, Yo influenced a generation simply by being himself. His flagship Rogue Status store, with its all-black exterior and large white sad face painted above the door, was the home to many for the years it sat just a few blocks from the famous Venice Beach lights.
When I first met Yo, he was a member of the original cast of iconic characters that opened the Undefeated, Santa Monica. Alex, Imee, Osamu and Yo made the store a landmark destination from the moment it opened. Movie stars, musicians and interesting people from all walks of life could be found hanging out on the bench outside the store on any given day, just to chat with them. My friends and I would find any excuse to be around. It made us feel cool by proxy.
Even amongst a team of unique and interesting characters, Yo stood out. In a store famous for its rare and exclusive sneakers, it wasn’t uncommon to find Yo working in a pair of beat-up Chuck Taylors, if not barefoot. Some people are just “cool” and he certainly was one of those people.
When he wasn’t working, you could catch Yo riding around Venice on his beach cruiser chatting up everyone from the homeless to the celebrities in the area, or just sitting on his porch with his half-a-dozen dogs. He welcomed everyone, always full of encouragement for others and the unrestricted nurturing of ideas that’d become characteristic of the community he’d later create.
His tattoos, each with a story behind them, were visual representations of the man beneath. His experiences, ideas, style, all displayed in various illustrations, each intriguing in its own way. The man was stylish in such an effortless way it could easily be overlooked.
In his work, as in his life, Yo never did anything just for the sake of looking good. Everything had to have a message or a purpose. Notably evident in two of the most iconic Rogue Status designs: the all-over print “Gun show” and “Curb your god.”
Yo’s house on 4th and Marine was a hangout for people from all walks of life. With a half-pipe and huge backyard, more days than not you’d find a collection of people skating the ramp or just hanging out.
When he left Undefeated to create the first Rogue Status flagship store in Venice, he brought the vibe and sense of community he’d cultivated at his home to the store. From the opening party onward, it was a go-to place to be in Venice.
He sponsored local skaters, hired kids from the community to work the store, organized charitable events, and always made sure everyone felt welcome.
Many of my fondest memories growing up were in the environments he created. His reach was so vast in the community, you automatically sensed a connection with anyone you’d met through Yo. That is still true today. Many of my friends in Venice, the people I still share a smile and catch-up with after many years apart, I met through Yo.
I never knew much about Yo’s past other than him being Canadian and having lived in New York and Whistler for periods of time. He talked little about his past or himself for that matter, he always seemed more interested in the lives of others. It was easy to sit back and let him dictate the conversation.
During the worst week of my life when a very close friend, Dillon Henry, passed away, Yo was there for my friends and me without a moment of hesitation. He didn’t dwell on words, he went straight into action. He, and the whole
Undefeated/Rogue Status crew showed up at the funeral, dressed in all black. Their presence was stronger than any words could’ve been. As my friend Gabe put it, we knew from that moment they were family.
In the immediate wake of the funeral, Yo helped us design a memorial T-shirt and hosted a gathering at the store. To this day, it’s hard to imagine how tough that time would have been without his guidance and support. He could bring light to even the darkest of moments.
I once asked about a particular tattoo on his arm: a single jagged line that ran the length of his forearm. Yo told me it was the horizon line of the place he buried his father. The elegance and beauty of that simple line sums up the depth and quality of his person. He will be deeply missed by many.
The sun may have set on Yo’s Venice, but for those lucky enough to have known him, to have been there in that small slice of utopia he created on the corner of Venice and Main, we’ll always be able to see that black paint somewhere deep beneath and remember that contagious smile.
Thank you for everything, Yo. Rest easy, brother.
Until we meet again, you’re forever in our hearts.