IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS THE PEACE SIGN. AND THE peace sign begat Che and Che begat Huey and Huey begat Angela. I'm speaking, of course, of the subjects of yesteryear's political T-shirts, wearable propaganda that expressed the passions of a generation before Americans settled for clothing that advertised nothing but corporate logos. After years of P.C. designs, inoffensive content and general irrelevancy, "message" tops are coming back with a kick. The movement comes to us from a pair of creative minds living in Los Angeles but working at opposite ends of the fashion paradigm.
Billy Tsangares, a graphics artist and former punk rock musician who owns Los Feliz's Y-Que Trading Post, is not out to reinvent the peace symbol. Most of his designs juxtapose familiar imagery and phrases with such fierce wit that we're jarred into re-examining both the shirts' source materials and their targets with new eyes. He's superimposed, for example, the running-immigrant silhouettes found on signs around San Diego against the Stars and Stripes with the legend "Remember Sept. 10, 2001"; he's taken those same silhouettes and put them in place of the bear on the California Republic flag. Then there's his T-shirt with the words "Shadow Government," and silhouetted Rat Pack figures and lettering mimicking the Las Vegas Sands Hotel marquee.
Tsangares became notorious last December when his store's "Free Winona" T-shirts cheekily celebrated the predicament of alleged klepto Winona Ryder. The shirt played on that perennial theme of activist T-shirts, the political prisoner, as well as on its retro-chick iconography -- its image is not of Ryder but, according to Tsangares, was taken from a porn magazine's wig ad.
"Free Winona" was just the tip of a Himalayan iceberg, for the store's Web site (www.yque.com) offers an expanding gallery of topical shirts that changes almost by the hour. Tees commenting on Jean-Marie Le Pen, Robert Blake and the failed Venezuelan coup appeared almost instantaneously. Y-Que even has a T-shirt commenting on another T-shirt -- Abercrombie and Fitch's "Two Wongs" fiasco. These ripped-from-today's-headlines items make Tsangares' Battle of Bethlehem and Enron/Evildoer shirts seem archival by comparison.
"I could have a new shirt screened by tonight about a news event that took place today," he says. "T-shirts are populist art, a forum for people to digest news. I make them largely for show because it's kind of fun to have an audience on the Web. They're not really profitable."
The Tsangares aesthetic is guided by pulp simplicity: "How do you take a touchy subject and turn it into a tacky design to make people think?" He says he prefers white T-shirts because they "imitate newsprint or early punk rock fliers," and, while he dismisses the political importance of his work, his garrulous T-shirt commentaries on Y-Que's Web site make it plain he thinks a lot about what he's doing. Tsangares, after all, became a homeless advocate in San Francisco six years ago by starting a Dadaist plan to pay homeless people $5 an hour to hold signs with commercial advertisements on them. ("They complained that they could make more with their own signs asking for money," he says with typical self-deflation.)
In the end, Tsangares' fearlessly irreverent T-shirts shock because their design elements are disturbingly familiar in a world made unfamiliar by murder and war. "Everything seems to be taboo when it first happens," he says. "But it's like working at a tabloid -- you take a subject by the balls and play with it until you become callous."
REBECCA KOTCH STANDS AT A DISTANT END OF THE artistic and business spectrum from Tsangares. A veteran corporate marketing strategist who's worked at Nike, Microsoft and House of Blues, the 35-year-old Connecticut transplant has formed her own company, Exit 27 Productions, to promote BushWares -- T-shirts, ashtrays, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia that bear the Solomonic words of President Bush. So far, Kotch has worked with five Bushisms: "Smoke 'em Out," "Bring 'em to Justice," "Dead or Alive," "Make No Mistake" and variants on "No Evil-doers," and plans to add "Axis of Evil" as a paperweight and T-shirt.
If Kotch's novelty line seems like a form of right-wing fetishism, think again, for this card-carrying Democrat says she became fascinated with the cadences and imagery of Bush-speak during his 2000 presidential campaign. "I think these words are similar," she says, "to what you hear when you think of big brands like Volvo and FedEx: Volvo equals 'safety,' FedEx equals 'overnight.' There are six key phrases that brand our president."
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The idea to market Bush as phrase maker, she says, crystallized in her mind after September 11: "I saw 'Evil-doers' with a circle and slash," she recalls. With a little prodding from friends and business partner Darren Eng, she soon set up a Web site.
Oddly enough, Kotch found her products popular on both sides of the Elephant-Donkey divide -- proof, she believes, of their bipartisan appeal. "We're taking unfashionable words and turning them into fashion," Kotch says. "It's up to the consumer to decide whether the intent is satirical or patriotic. A product line like this couldn't survive if it were mean-spirited. I've seen shirts that say 'Bush Sucks' or 'Cheney Sucks,' but that wasn't what we were trying to do."
Nor does she intend for Bush's postSeptember 11 aphorisms ("No Evil-doers" appears across women's bikini briefs) to be literally interpreted. "We're really marketing the message of the moment," she says. "'Evil-doers' can mean anything to anyone -- they can be those girls who were mean to me in third grade."
For now, BushWares markets solely through the Web at www.bushwares.com, with sales concentrated among e-consumers in California, Texas, New York and Florida. One has only to read Kotch's lips to figure out where she plans to turn for her next inspiration: "The original George is in development," she says.