Oh, the lowly T-shirt. Or is it? Its the uniform of the masses, the secret stash in the drawer of every die-hard Prada-purse-toting, $500-Gucci-pants-wearing label whore, the one cool thing the proletariat can wear and still look good. Your T-shirt flaunts your tribe: It says you are clever. Or cultured. Or a sensitive poet. You are an anarchist, a geek, a lover of sheep, or a badass not to be toyed with. You Are Going to Heaven or You Are Going to Hell. In the end, it is the final fashion holdout for when all else fails. Here are the latest contenders:
The Voice of God
Jesus hates your S.U.V. But he LOVES your T-shirt. A year ago, Eagle Rock hipster Jim Morrison (yes, really, but no, not the dead rock idol) inked his first Jesus Hates Your S.U.V. shirt onto a secondhand tee with a stolen black permanent marker. He wore the T-shirt out to a local diner, and a rabid fan promptly bought the shirt off his back for 20 bucks. A mini--cottage industry was born. Jesus is keeping Morrison busy: Jesus hates your war on Iraq! Jesus hates your botox! Jesus hates your corporate sponsorship, your 80s revival, your president, your honor student, your spring break, your dot-com, your antibacterial lies! So much to hate, so little time. Morrison scours thrift shops for kitschy vintage shirts that are big on irony, slim in fit -- a blue U.S. Navy tee for war on Iraq, a yellow Mr. Clean for antibacterial lies, a Pokemon tee for marketing scam. The tees growing popularity is as much about the person selling them as the product. Morrison is clever Gen-X irony personified: Hes a young, good-looking Columbia University law-school grad and ex-Catholic helicopter pilot whos pitched a television series to MTV, starred in ABCs reality show The Mole and was voted one of People magazines 50 Most Eligible a Bachelors of 2001. (Top that, Jesus!) Each shirt now comes with a matching bumper sticker and a manifesto. But what about the irony of marketing a product that itself denounces product marketing? If Exxon sells an Exxon Sucks T-shirt, its still good, Morrison quips, waving his hand. As long as the message gets out, who gives a shit? Not Jesus.
A rabbit with a penis screaming Next! A cartoon of New York socialite Jocelyne Wildenstein, who got plastic surgery to make her face look like a cats. A portrait of an artist who hosts naked sing-alongs. A giraffe muttering Deep Throat. Would you wear it on a T-shirt? If you shopped at Filth, you might. Filth, a tiny Silver Lake shop on Sunset and Sanborn, is owned by a drag queen and managed by a petite little girl in pink dreadlocks. It started as a rack of T-shirts parked on the sidewalk. But this citys appetite for vice is strong. Filth grew. Now the store looks like a perverted childs room gone insane, with phalluses, porn and condom-wrapped Barbie dolls aplenty. And, of course, the T-shirts. Denean Gable, the pink-haired girl, tours the shop like a museum docent. And this is one made by Squeaky Blonde, she says, holding up a cut-down tee thats been silk-screened with gold stars by Filths owner. Its pretty. And so is he -- Gable points to a picture of Squeaky, given name Tony, which is taped to the stores in-house photo booth. I did that one, she says, indicating a shirt rigged as a halter top with ribbons and tulle. Most of the tees are made in the DIY punk rock aesthetic by local artists, their friends. Many are profane, some are silly, and others, like the sliced-up ballerina-ish one designed by Gable herself, are actually (sssssh . . .) quite lovely.
First its a movement. Next its a show. Then its a T-shirt. In the window of Chinatowns Shop Chuey, six blowup plastic sex dolls are tussling in a mosh pit. Theyre wearing nothing but punk photo baby-tees. Like the ones from Shop Chueys first show featuring arched-eyebrow femme fatale illustrations by artist Niagara, these shirts are mementos for an exhibit, in this case Viva L.A. Punk! In the late 70s, photographer Ann Summa returned home from disco-obsessed Japan to a bustling L.A. punk scene. Represented today at Shop Chuey is a collection of 80 or so of her photos -- some of random punks, some of friends, many of famous musicians before they were famous. Pointing to a shot of punks with briefcases, proprietor David Keeps laughs, These guys are probably casting agents now. To one of frizzy-haired girls lounging by the pool at the Tropicana, and theyre probably soccer moms. There are the Bangles pre-stylists, Henry Rollins with pants pulled up to his armpits, Belinda Carlisle backstage at the Whisky, Sting. The photos Keeps and partner Paul Zimmerman, both 40-something self-described APRs (aging punk rockers), chose for the commemorative tees, however, arent the ones of big-namers. Theyre the anonymous, iconic ones that capture the movements energy, its sense of anarchy as play as lifestyle. Consider an I Love Lucy--esque heart-shaped image of two punks kissing. Original punk rock tees were ripped-up, spray-painted numbers. Keeps and Zimmermans designs, however, are high in production value, lovingly printed in luscious inks by a professional graphics company. I like this one, Zimmerman says, fondling a black tee screened in silver. San Vicente Boulevard, the Whisky, a sheriffs car, a marquee for the band Fear -- a faded street scene beckons like the ghost of punk rock past. Like his business partner, Zimmerman is affable, articulate, and could easily be mistaken for a movie-director-producer type himself. It looks like a hazy memory, kind of like the way I remember that time.
Remember Free Winona? Now theres Free Martha. But did you know there was once a Free James Brown? Billy Tsangares, the man behind the infamous shirts and the fast-talking, slogan-slinging owner of Y-Que Trading Post, has the air of a veteran news reporter, the sass of a political cartoonist (did he mention he was running for Hollywood City Council?). In 20 years, hes sold close to a million shirts, but no one would ever know theyre his. Once, he made a shirt with a rubber duck. Years later, crossing the street in Japan, he spotted a guy wearing the shirt amidst a sea of commuters: There he was, my duck! Today, at Y-Que, the T-shirts are breeding in the corners. Theyre stacked in piles on tables, pinned to the walls, the windows. Theyre jammed behind the counter, where a taxidermied squirrel paddles a canoe. Billys Theory of T-Shirt Darwinism: A shirt survives if it strikes a core issue. If not, it is naturally selected out of the population. A shirt should be cheap (theres a $2.50 pile by the door), fast (it takes 15 minutes to whip up Nobel First Strike Prize with Bush in shooting goggles) and out of control (Chinese Food anyone?). His greatest hits: Abercrombie & Fitch--style Sick Puppy with cheerleader, California in Coca-Cola logotype, Gay Mafia, Wag the President, Mickey Che (Disney, says Tsangares, has been sucking the money out of that goddamn mouse for years), the California state flag with the running-immigrant-family street sign, Love American Style with a chubby-cheeked Anna Nicole and octogenarian hubby. T-shirts can mark pop-culture moments, but he notes that sometimes You can speed it up so much that the shirt becomes the trend before the event is even out. Now that is messed up. Nonetheless, hes got his backroom silk-screen printing press ready to go should breaking news require a shirt: My guns are loaded.
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Jim Morrison at www.JesusHatesYour.com; (323) 868-6500.
Filth, 4010 Santa Monica Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 667-2430.
Shop Chuey, 437 Gin Ling Way, Chinatown; (213) 625-3789.
Y-Que Trading Post, 1770 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; (323) 664-0021.