If you had a time machine and traveled back to when Chris Licata made a harmless bet with a friend, he wouldn’t believe you if you explained how his life was about to change. In fact, it’s kind of hard to believe knowing it’s already happened. The innocuous wager was if he could successfully get his Alaskan Klee Kai, Sudo, to paint. The answer was a resounding “Yes.”
“The bet came first,” Licata says. “The bet was over a bottle of bourbon [laughs]. We got her to paint, brush to hit the canvas. It took about a month of everyday practice.”
Not only did Licata and his partner, Anaïs Hayes, train Sudo to paint abstract works on canvas, but the concept eventually morphed into a fully fledged cannabis business in the form of their District Derp art gallery.
“[Derp] is a very silly word, but cannabis makes you feel kind of silly,” Hayes says.
“Sudo has a way of staring at you,” Licata continues. “It’s this blank face that happens where she’s just staring at you, and we’d call her a little derp. The more we started saying it, the more disarming we found the word. It’s not necessarily an insult; it’s just poking fun.”
“It’s a whimsy, and you don’t have any reservations,” Hayes finishes.
The company started in 2018, and has a variety of custom Sudo pieces available for purchase with included gifts of cannabis flowers, THC cartridges and edibles.
“We were frustrated one night [and] we wanted better service,” Hayes says after a bad experience with a dispensary. “We looked [into it], and you needed a gimmick — something to get people in. We were like, ‘We have a dog that paints. Is that anything?’”
To paint, Sudo wields a brush in her mouth, and upon making contact with the canvas, Licata uses a clicker to indicate progress. After every click, Sudo gets a treat. When there are lots of clicks, you get a happy pup.
“She needs to hear she’s accomplished what we intended for her to accomplish,” Licata says. “So that’s getting the brush to the canvas and swiping across, and then I click. The more clicks she hears, the more excited she gets.”
On the cannabis side, the couple says they’re gifting about 500 edibles per week, along with additional cartridges, flowers and pre-rolls. Beyond the meticulous amount of detail and thought put into the paintings by Sudo, both Hayes and Licata are heavily focused on transparency in their THC products, from quality control to customer service.
“We try to have a personal relationship or know something personal about all of our clients,” Licata says. “We want them to have trust that we’re going to put their needs first. Their health is our priority and we’re going to continue that. [It’s] the small, intimate business relationship we have.”
District Derp runs their cannabis through tests for potency, pesticides and heavy metal. Hayes says the reason is simple: You don’t want to be associated with something that can make people sick. So far, edible potency ranges from 10-15 milligrams in their cookie options to 80 milligrams in the Big Bitchin’ Brownie.
“I thought about my personal experience with edibles,” Hayes says. “I wanted an edible to [be enough to] last two to three [uses], and tried to figure out what a high dosage is for a casual user. People have different needs. Some people are taking it to help them sleep and some people want something that will last eight hours for an adventure around the National Mall.”
Like every other business in D.C., District Derp experienced change over the course of the pandemic, including how they interacted with the attached stigma of owning a business associated with cannabis. In early 2020, both Hayes and Licata opted against sharing their full names, but as the business advanced over the course of the past year, so did their approach.
“There’s absolutely still that stigma,” Hayes says. “You still hear the ‘It’s still a bad substance’ stuff, especially in people who don’t interact with marijuana, but it’s decreasing. Also, we decided to put our names on it to counteract the stigma. We realized by not putting our names on it, we were going along with it. We had the realization that this is something we’re proud of. This is something we want to bring to people. It’s something I’m excited to put my name on now.”
With a social media surge and a successful return to business last summer, Hayes became the first of the two to go full-time. A typical District Derp weekday starts with production kicking off at 8 a.m. and wrapping up at about 3-4 p.m., with emails and orders taking place in-between. From 6-10 p.m., more orders come in and deliveries go out. Once a month, Sudo dusts off the paintbrushes and gives her fans another work of art.
While a painting dog seems gimmicky on its face, and even is to an extent, Hayes and Licata are genuine in their attempt to connect with the D.C. arts community. District Derp sponsored local artist and curator Kelly Towles’ POW! WOW! DC festival in 2019 and 2020, and Licata says there are several collaborations on the horizon between local artists and Sudo.
“We really love working with the creative community in D.C.,” Hayes says. “There are so many great minds here, and what we’re trying to do this year is more collaborative works. We feel very firm with where we are in the cannabis scene, but what we are first is an art gallery. That’s how we started.”
This month, District Derp is participating in two 4/20 giveaways with vintage shops Underground Goods and Zhuzh. Short-term goals for District Derp include incorporating accessory sales, branded items and a fuller “smoke shop experience.” As for Sudo’s art, the couple plans to roll out the red carpet for their furry artist in the form of a comprehensive gallery opening.
“That is a goal,” Hayes says excitedly. “We were planning to do that before the pandemic hit. That was the plan for 2020, and then [mimics explosion].”
In the meantime, you can check out Sudo’s catalog in full on the website. Licata promises you’ll be surprised.
“I don’t know if you’ve actually stared at ‘Jovial Nature,’” Licata says with a sincerity mirroring that of a person who’d just left their favorite artist’s exhibition. “It’s our first painting with Sudo, and I think it’s incredible. It’s incredible that a dog painted it. We’ve got it up on our wall.”
Author’s note: District Derp operates under D.C.’s Initiative 71, which means it does not assign a monetary value to anything with marijuana or THC in the ingredients. Instead, the items noted in the story are gifted along with the purchase of a work of art courtesy of Sudo. For more information about I-71, visit www.mayor.dc.gov.
Don’t miss our virtual Cannabis City panel presented by District Fray and BĀkT DC on Thursday, April 29 from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Register here.
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