My Brother Went to Heaven and All I Got Were These Lousy T-Shirts
...in which Ashley fails to cash in once again
My brother was a man of vision, a man with a plan. Before his untimely demise, David Holt had announced new get-rich-quick schemes on a weekly basis, and almost all of them involved t-shirts. This made sense, seeing as he was a graphics guy. What made even more sense for Dave was to coerce his younger brother into creating the actual t-shirt designs, seeing as I was also a graphics guy and much smaller and weaker than him. In David’s view, the t-shirt was the most dependable bait when looking to lure cash from the general public’s wallets. Sports graphics, Christmas gags, event souvenirs, or just a sly double-entendre in Futura Bold, my brother knew whatever the public found amusing or inspiring, they wanted printed on a t-shirt. It was difficult to argue with this conclusion, but, tired of being muscled into his shirt-selling schemes, I tried anyway.
“The t-shirt is a fad,” I argued. “A very long fad.” I predicted that the day would come when the public realizes how weird it looks to have all those big slogans and splashy graphics on their clothes, and the t-shirt craze will be relegated to history. “What will you do,” I asked him, “when folks look at the shirts you’re trying to sell and say, ‘Go back to the 20th Century, Grandpa?’”
David strongly resisted the idea. T-shirts were here to stay, he demanded. And ball caps. And beer coozies. And anything else he could acquire at a discount through his connections in the screenprinting biz. He was adamant on this point.
My utopian hopes for a world without t-shirts were undoubtedly wishful thinking. I can tell you from my own experience as an illustrator that I have never produced a piece of artwork that did not provoke the suggestion that it should appear on a t-shirt. For reasons I can only guess, Americans are steadfastly committed to the idea that their appearance in any public space should serve as a broadcast vehicle, via t-shirt, windshield vinyl, button, or tattoo, for the various cults and fan clubs with which they affiliated. I specify “American” here because my travels in Europe have revealed that this graphics fixation is not so widespread beyond our borders. EU youngsters are prone to sport soccer jerseys during Cup finals and the like, but the only event in Europe I’ve seen that drew a crowd of adult-sized Spider-Man and Spongebob t-shirts was, appropriately enough, the opening of a new Star Wars film.
You’d have a hard time finding anywhere in this country where the public square isn’t a sea of corporate logos, cartoon characters, hostile political slogans, and team colors, all emblazoned on the collective American torso. As ubiquitous as this graphics-tee fashion show may seem, this was not always the norm. T-shirts themselves were not generally recognized as acceptable outerwear until Marlon Brando’s slovenly appearance in A Streetcar Named Desire suggested their potential sex appeal. (Brando had similar influence years later on outside-the-kitchen applications of household butter.) That was in the 1950’s, when shirts with logos were relegated to children in Mickey Mouse Club and Davy Crocket wear, helping to spread the Disney contagion.
The unwashed counterculture of the Sixties embraced the t-shirt, both for its tie-dying possibilities and as a personal billboard to help sloganeer the war machine into extinction. Lyndon Johnson was no match for their “up against the wall” shirts, and soon announced he would not seek another term. But because The Establishment never saw a protest movement it couldn’t exploit, such smelly hippie couture was soon in vogue with the mainstream, including the human-bumper-sticker trend of the t-shirt.
Not surprisingly, some of the earliest examples of aggressive, corporate t-shirt branding were from beer and cigarette companies. When I was a kid, my father used to come home with Marlboro shirts given away by the guy who stocked the cigarette machines at the Naval Base. (You can probably guess what brand of smokes I was most faithful to later in life.) Soon, with the Seventies in full flower, any and all pop culture occurrences were celebrated with t-shirt graphics, wrapped around the braless chests of a newly-liberated populous who were fully rejecting outdated notions of reasonably-attractive clothing. The trend has continued through the decades, the notion of becoming a walking advertisement for Pepsi or the Miami Dolphins as common today as school shootings or butt dials. Still, though pedestrians happily sport Cookie Monster or Mylie Cyrus or Bill Murray on their clothes, it’s a bit surprising in today’s me-centric era of selfies and self-branding that you rarely see anyone walking around with their own name or image on a shirt.
I did once. It was a misguided promotional effort. I had some shirts made with a drawing I’d done of myself on it. The idea was that people I encountered would look at the shirt, then look at me, realize what a fantastic job I’d done of rendering my own likeness, and begin begging to find out how to deliver wads of cash for my illustration services. The first day I wore one, I caught a reflection of myself in a shop window, a full-grown man strutting in public with a cartoon drawing of his own head on a t-shirt. I never wore it again.
That sort of self-reflection can’t be unseen once seen. In fact, the very notion of having drawings and slogans on my clothes, which seemed second-nature when I was a young man hoping to express hip fandom credentials, now seemed such a bizarre concept that it could no longer be ignored. It was like suddenly realizing that people had squids for heads, or like Rowdy Roddy Piper putting on his special sunglasses to reveal that everyone was promoting the message “obey” (a future made reality by Shepard Fairey’s t-shirt line). Now a graphics tee can never not look weird to me.
I suppose this is why I painted the vision of a tee-free society to taunt my shirt-hustling brother; I thought everyone would have the same revelation I’d had. I believed people would discover how awful they look with the “Myrtle Beach Mud Cup 2004” monster truck graphics on their hot pink Fruit of the Looms, eventually laughing at this mismanagement of their personal style the way we laugh at photos of our high school haircuts. And maybe, just maybe we’d all be a little miffed at the hucksters and ad men who convinced us all to dress like toddlers for so long.
Sadly, if this day ever comes, my brother won’t be around to see it. He passed away a few years ago, robbing me of the “I told you so” dance I might someday have performed. As it stands, he would be pleased that the opportunity to shirt the shirtless has only expanded, surviving economic recessions and evolving fashions. The t-shirt is the easiest clothing option to manage, and Americans long ago adopted convenience as the national religion. Plus it’s the quickest way to pronounce something important about one’s inner self: a love of Billy Squire, a commitment to 5K walkathons, devotion to the “stupid” one is with, Crest toothpaste fandom, or a lingering childhood wish to convince the adult world that you are Batman. America’s relationship with the t-shirt is deep and complex, and it doesn’t appear to be withering anytime soon.
And that’s a good thing for the Holt family because my brother left behind hundreds of unsold XXL shirts. Let me know if you’re looking to publicly commemorate any college football games from 2009.
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his portrait and art-rant blog, Thrdgll, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, firstname.lastname@example.org, where he longs to hear from you.)