Philly T-Shirts

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis


In an earlier posting, I discussed Street Art as urban vernacular. While having some delicious split pea soup for lunch, I watched Martha Stewart, mostly because nothing good is on TV at noon. This week, Martha is featuring various crafts, and today she hosted “crafter Stacy Monakey,” whom she thanks “for sharing this fun and creative craft.” Monakey and her husband, Mark Lyon, run1girl1boy, a T-shirt company for children and toddlers. Watching Monakey’s demeanor on the show, I detected a counter-cultural mode, maybe even a liberal-arts college background much different from Martha’s domesticly neurotic universe. I was happy to discover that Monakey is a Philadelphia hipster and a graduate of Tyler. This confirmed the visual affinities I suspected (Space 1026, etc.)

Martha doesn’t seem to be the only one that is catching up with the art world. Last month, the GAP produced a series of T-shirts designed by 12 artists from the 2008 Whitney Biennial. My personal favorite was Hanna Liden’s design consisting of a diagrammatic sparrow (bottom right). Liden is a Swedish-American photographer and recent graduate from Parsons. Her surreal photographs are much less abstract than her GAP T-shirt, which suggests other vernacular influences (like street art). Both Martha Stewart and the GAP are catching up on an underground art-craft culture modestly peculating in the sewing machines of urban hipsters, such as the makers of R.E. Load Bags in Philadelphia. What might this all mean in terms of counter-culture bleeding into corporate-culture? I’d rather not speculate, but simply affirm Kerry James Marshall’s ambigu0us “Everything will be all right, I just know it will,” displayed on his GAP T-shirt (top right).

And I can’t help but be supportive of all the craft initiatives, like Crafty Bastards, Trenton Avenue Arts Fair, Pile of Craft, which are listed in 1girl1boy’s Myspace page. What children’s clothing company serenades with “Have Love Will Travel” by the Sonics? Drool, Martha, drool!

After lunch, I walked over to my 40th-Street post office. Sitting on the teller’s desk, I saw a beautiful new stamp issue, commemorating Charles and Ray Eames. The series was just released yesterday (June 17, 2008) in San Diego. Come to think of it, the Eames’s are the graphic grandparents of street art aesthetics, particularly their designs for children: Molded Plywood Animals (1945), The Toy (1951), House of Cards (1952), The Little Toy (1952), the film , Giant House of Cards (1953) , and the filmsParade, or Here They Come Down the Street (1952), andToccata for Toy Trains (1953). The U.S. Post Office has produced the most stunning set of stamps, making their 2 cents postage increase fully acceptable. Like the art for children, street art (and its T’s) must elicit quick and memorable experiences, but must also be twisted enough to allow room for fantasy. Children’s fantasy is quite different from consumer fantasy in that it relishes contradiction. Consumer art (the kind that Martha commonly endorses) must be non-confrontational, nice, therapeutic, another orderly space to escape the life’s tensions. The art of children, the Eames’s, street stickers, and Philadelphia hipsters does not brush over. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but the Frankfurt School’s critique of popular culture is absolutely relevant. See Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York, 1972). Too bad the Frankfurt School condemned jazz, and by extension all that Philadelphia is about.

What makes Philadelphia so great for me can be summarized in the following two experiences: 1) The postal worker who helped me at the counter already knew who the Eames were. Her only misconception had been that they were brothers, since Ray is more of a man’s name. She was surprised how popular the stamps had been after their first day of issue. After the P.O., I walked over to the Metropolitan Bakery to get a fresh loaf of bread, and a young hipster working the counter saw the stamps through the translucent envelope. “Wow!” he cried out, “what is that?” So I showed him the stamps, leading to a short discussion on design.

Philadelphia’s visual literacy does not surprise me, nor do I think it’s simply a result of prosperity. Rather, it’s a magic combination of low and high, life and education, institutions and the street. Artists like The Roots, or King Britt (and old high-school friend) , only make sense in Philadelphia. I’m not sure if there is a Philadelphia School (like the Philadelphia sound of the 1960s and 1970s), but there’s certainly a Philadelphia vibe. Good for you, Martha, for tapping into it.

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had an interesting article on a vintage T-shirt company called Destee Nation. I thank Kat Lewis for this tip. This Seattle company sells “real shirts from real places,” T-shirts from independent stores, the type that was vibrant as late as the 1970s and 1980s, but is now more difficult to find. These places are not the usual replica of historical brands (like CBGBs) but actual places. “Destee Nation is not selling nostalgia or hipster kitsch but romance — the romance of the American small business, the neighborhood diner, the old bar, the mom-and-pop shop that has managed to linger into the era of big-box chains.” Although an interesting idea, the company’s ultimate audience are posers shopping at Nordstrom’s and not quite the “been there done that, got the T-shirt” audience. That being said, the graphics are very good and certainly beat the awful pseudo-reality prints from the big sellers, like American Eagle or Old Navy. If the business model works, what Destee Nation will achieve is the distribution of home-grown design to a general audience starving for the types of experience limited to places like Seattle or Philadelphia. The company’s website, moreover, makes the connection between T-shirt logo and commemorated independent business. Plus, there is a blog tracking expeditions in search for cool logos from small places.



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