The Art Department Moves with the Times

Boris

This week at the university which employs me, I filled a dull afternoon by adding new courses to the degree audit rules for the Art BA.  The Art advisor had sent them over with a plea for immediate update.  She’s a good “customer” of my unit, and I like to give her priority.

The degree audit program produces an academic progress report: it tells the student what they’ve taken so far, and what they still have to take to complete their degree.  It had better be accurate, or there’ll be screaming down the line. And yes, justifiably.

Here’s the course description for one of the newly-offered art classes.  It made me smile.

COURSE ID: 122568

EFFECTIVE DATE: 06/03/2019

STATUS: ACTIVE

COURSE OFFERING: ART 181

LONG COURSE TITLE: Art, Power, and Politics

Explores strategies artists use to engage political subject matter in the 21st century. Students create their own projects, research and test approaches, techniques and strategies learning from the ways national and international artists encode and convey information in creating political work.

Methods range from community collaboration to tactical culture jamming, participatory collaborative projects, activism and intervention, symbolic and gestural work, artist-led projects, performances and community projects. Students are billed a materials fee.

Well, why not?  Interesting times lie ahead.  Why shouldn’t the art students of today build activist skills that they may need tomorrow?  Relevant art: what a concept.

I posted this course description over at the Daily Kos, the website for activist Democrats. The Kossacks were not impressed; it got a few grunts and a teasing reference to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

They’re mainly establishment Democrats over there.  They think that everything of import takes place within the party.  Even though the party keeps shooting itself in the foot. Too many big Democrats like the big money from big donors, and it tends to ruin your aim.

My thought is that the establishment Democrats will deliver for America — when they’ve been kicked around and frightened enough. Giant blood-spattered heads of Donald Trump and Jamie Dimon, carried down Wall Street by a screaming mob? That might just make an impression on the comfortable big-donor “liberal” grandees.

If so, my university’s art students will be ready with enthusiasm and paper-mache skills, hit-and-run murals on the walls of the Establishment, and so on.  Get the network TV cameras pointed in the right direction at the right time, and who knows what might happen?

As the great cartoon subversive Boris Badenov once said, “I do the best I can with the tools I got.” I do believe that he was holding a bomb at the time.

Just kidding. Really.

Postscript:

BoriscycleLast year, on a whim, I searched for images of Boris Badenov online and found very few.  This year, Boris, the grinning bad-boy spy from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, is everywhere.  There are vintage images by the dozen.  Artists are drawing their own original Boris cartoons, and there’s even a site that teaches you how to draw Boris Badenov.

Boris is in again.  And now he belongs to the people. What does this tell you about the times?  Break into groups and discuss.  Submit a 1000-word analysis by Thursday.

 

 

T-Shirts from the Collection: My Latest Rothian Acquisition

Excavation Crew Ed Roth Style Tee

Here’s my latest Ed Roth-inspired t-shirt acquisition.  Roth-style monster-in-a-hot-rod designs continue to inspire new t-shirt designs: this one for construction workers. Because they’re all about letting out the id; and I guess that after seven or eight hours on a caterpillar you might just feel the impulse to bulldoze an gas station or something.

Everybody knows what a Roth-style car creature  means — WILD and CRAZY!

But where do you draw the line?  What’s in the Roth mold, and what is not?

Not long after I found this tee, I came across another one that might have qualified: a sheep driving a tractor.  The tee was from some additudinal collegiate agriculture club that was proclaiming it’s badassery. They’d simply taken a clip-art image of a sheep and placed (sort of) in the diver’s seat of a clip-art image of a tractor.

But was it Roth-like? I have criteria:

  • Is the driver way out of proportion in size to the vehicle? Well, yeah, by its size that would have been a thousand-pound sheep.
  • Does the driver have bug eyes? No, just sheep eyes.
  • Did it have fangs or snaggle teeth? No, no teeth at all.
  • Did it have a maniacal leer on its face? No, just a sheep expression. AKA, no expression.
  • Was the tractor popping a wheelie? Nope
  • Was the tractor spewing flames or smoke?  Nope.

You need at least three out of the six to get into my Roth-inspired t-shirt selection. It failed.  I left it on the rack.  Sorry guys, so near and yet so far!

Oh, by the way:  don’t take this seriously.  I’m not that far gone into t-shirt geekdom.  Yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

T-Shirts from the Collection: The Many Faces of the Slug

The University of California at Santa Cruz had no official mascot for its first few decades: just a yellow slug that crawled along the forest floor.  And everybody loved Sammy the Slug. T-shirts followed shortly thereafter.

UCSC Standard Banana Slug Tee

This Sammy Slug tee has been in print since the ’90s; earlier versions of Sammy looked a lot like this: cheerful, bookish, sometimes laid-back.

The banana slug (Ariolimax dolichophallus) was the people’s choice — if by “people” you mean the counter-culture, save-the-world students of a quirky, experimental UC campus build on a hillside.  In a redwood forest full of bright yellow banana slugs.  Above a beach town with a roller coaster. The campus’ unofficial volleyball team called itself the Banana Slugs as early as the 1970s.

UCSC students and faculty were anti-authoritarian, and want no muscled sports gladiators called “Hawks” or “Bears” to represent them.  Sports should be for everybody to take part in, they thought.  so for them, the Banana Slug made a perfect mascot: yellow, mellow and harmless.    And thus the mellow students began calling themselves Slugs.

Santa Cruz UCSC Slug Disc Club

UCSC’s early sports clubs could be non-traditional, like Santa Cruz Slug Disc. Disc sports like Ultimate are still huge on campus.

Eventually UCSC grew large enough to support  sports; some students wanted them.  The university chose a few of the less gladiatorial (and less expensive) ones: men’s and women’s basketball, track, swimming, and so on: but not football. There is no stadium at UCSC.

Intercollegiate sports required an official mascot:  so the administration told the students that they were all now Sea Lions.

UCSC Steroid Dominator Slug Basketball Tee

The intercollegiate teams insisted on a “tough” slug. This version of Sammy is called “The Athletic Slug.” But I think of him as “Steroid Dominator Slug.”

In the end, that didn’t fly. Ad UCSC students and their teams officially became Banana Slugs, or just Slugs.  And the slug became Sammy.  And people do all sorts of things with him.

IEEE Slug UCSC

This tee comes from the student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (Also known as I-Triple E). Bioengineering and the like is big at UCSC; there are many electronic Slugs.

Santa Cruz Hillel Jewish Slug Tee

Other clubs and organizations also make Sammy their own.  I favor this t-shirt from Santa Cruz Hillel, the Jewish campus organization.  Sammy in a prayer shawl and yamulka, calling out to God? Why not? I’ve yet to see a Christian group put Sammy on the cross, but it might be out there. UCSC Slug with Giant Swab Tee

Not to be missed is the curiously unsettling Giant Q-Tip Slug.  Keep in mind that a slug is only ten inches long or so, max, and the Q-Tip becomes less threatening.  It’s from a campus program that recruits students as blood marrow donors; a swab inside the cheek harvests the cells needed to classify your marrow.

UCSC Long Marine Lab Sea Slug Tee 1

UCSC Long Marine Lab Sea Slug Tee 2Marine biologists have their own idea of what the slug should be.  With this tee, the Marine Sciences Department down at Long Marine Labs honore Hypselodoris Californiensis, the Blue and Gold Sea Slug.  The University of California’s colors are blue and gold, so that makes Hypselodoris part of the campus family.

College Eight Back

Look, it’s a giant yellow “8” with slug feelers.  UC Santa Cruz students are split among ten residential “colleges,” each with its own core programs and activities and theme: science, engineering, the environment, internationalism, and so on. And once upon a time, there was a College 8.

A college is a discrete group of buildings, dorms, meeting spaces, and grounds; when they’re newly built,  colleges are given a number, not a name. Eventually some J. Wellington Gotrocks comes along and makes a mighty donation to a college: in the millions. For that, they get naming rights. UCSC College names include Cowell, Stevenson, Crown, Merrill, Porter, Kresge, and Oakes.

College 8 front

That donation can be long in coming.  After it was built, College 8 remained but a number for many years.  The students came to accept the number as an honorable name: College 8 was their academic tribe, and their home.  So it was “Long Live College 8,”  which was and is the college of environmentalism and sustainability.

Eventually a wealthy donor came along and bequeathed an awesome sum to the many needs of College 8.  And the college finally got a real name.

The donor and the university settled on the name  “Rachel Carson College,” after the author and marine biologist whose book “Silent Spring” helped launch the global environmental movement.  And quite a good t-shirt was produced for the occasion.

Rachel Carson UCSC 1

There are those alumni who say, “It’ll always be College 8 to me!” Who can’t respect that?  But “Carson,” as newer students call the college, is now a well-accepted name.

By the way, UCSC still has a College 9 and a College 10; they’ve been waiting eighteen years for their permanent names.  The possibilities are endless.  Empty that change jar in the kitchen and get in on the ground floor.

Here are a couple of more UCSC shirts, just because.

UCSC College 8 Tie Dye Tee

Tie-dye harkens back to the ’60s; so does UCSC, making tie-dye practically the school colors. Tie-dyed tees have been printed for many of the colleges.

 

UCSC Origama Banana Slug Tee 1

A slug is a moderately easy animal to sculpt; even in paper. This t-shirt is a wearable instruction manual for the manufacture of origami slugs.

 

T-Shirts From the Collection: Hokusai Waves at You

The Greate Wave

You know about “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” You may not know that you know. But everybody’s seen the image, and almost everybody remembers it. Even if they don’t know what it’s called, or who created it.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a woodblock print by the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai. It depicts small boats climbing a huge wave off the Japanese prefecture of Kanagawa, while Mount Fuji lurks in the background. The crinkly, stylized sea foam is hard to forget.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa  by Hokusai with Rubber Ducky Tee

The Great Wave is reprinted constantly in all sorts of media: even on t-shirts, where artists like to use it with certain, um, modifications. Like a rubber ducky. When I saw the tee above, I just had to have it.

The Great Wave can be copied literally, as above, or used as an inspiration. Below, the “surfing bus” on a t-shirt from my local transit district crests an unmistakeable Hokusai wave. Note the Japanese-style “rising sun” in the background.

Santa Cruz Metro Surfing Bus Company Picnic Tee

Below, this rather good tee for a local surf contest flips the HokuaI waves in the opposite direction and substitutes a California shoreline for Mount Fuji. Pacific Brown pelicans cruise overhead. Call it “The Awesome Wave Off Carmel.”

Hokusai Waves Carmel Surf Contest Tee

Sometimes “The Great Wave” as a symbol has a personal association. For example, you’ll find the patch below on a t-shirt from the U.S. Naval Oceanography Antisubmarine Warfare Center in Yokosuka, Japan. This unit tracks American and foreign submarine activity in the waters of Pacific. They will not tell you exactly how they do that. About all that they’ll admit to is the publishing of weather reports.

Navy ASW Tee 1

It just so happens that Yokosuka is in the prefecture of Kanagawa, so the Great Wave and Hokusai are local symbols that these sailors wanted to use– in modified form. Instead of the fishing boats in Hokusai’s original, note the trident sticking up out the water and impaling a submarine.

Flip to the other side, where a samurai warrior stabs a submarine with his sword. The text across the top is a translation of the organization’s English name. The text at bottom translates as “hunter” or “huntsman.”

Navy ASW Tee 2

On to the last t-shirt, which just about made my head explode. It is a darker version of the Great Wave — under a crazy Van Gogh sky from “A Starry Night,” perhaps Van Gogh’s most famous painting. Mount Fuji is still there, of course.

Hokusai Wave Van Gogh

This is no random act of art: Van Gogh greatly admired Hokusai. He even collected Hokusai prints. Some Van Gogh scholars suggest that the rolling waves in Hokusai’s work inspired the rolling masses of light and color in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” sky.

We’ll never know. But the theory must intrigue many, because you can find as many different Great Wave/Starry Night hybrids as you want to: on t-shirts, as posters, and even as full-sized mounted art prints.

I do enjoy defining the riffs that t-shirt artists make off iconic images.  You should see what they do  with the cover of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.  And when I have enough examples, I’ll show you.

 

T-Shirts from the Collection: Motorcycles, Jesus, and the Occasional Car

Crusing for Jesus

I track a number of recurring t-shirt themes, and one of my favorite is “Motorcycles and Jesus.”  You might not link the Man from Nazareth with vintage Harley panheads or late-model Kawasaki Ninjas.  But some people try to make it happen: on a t-shirt, at least.

Cruising for Jesus 2jpg“Cruising for Jesus” is a pretty common tag line for shirts like this: that somehow you’re serving the Lord by rocketing down US 101 at warp speed on a $30,000 bike.  Maybe you are; but somebody needs to explain it to me. “Cruising for Christ” is a popular saying on hot rod tees, too — often related to a particular religious car club, or to a particular church.

You also find tees for “The Blessing of the Bikes,” an outdoor blessing ceremony that takes place at churches across the nation around May, just before summer cruising season starts.  The blessing is for the rider’s well-being, not just the motorcycle’s.  And yes, the miinister usually blesses each bike and rider individually. It’s an endurance job, because hundreds may attend.

Blessing of the Bikes Fresno 2006 Tee

Blessing of the Bikes Fresno 2006 Tee 2“Blessing of the Bikes” ceremonies are non-denominational — just show up, Believer or not — but there’s usually a lesson, maybe a short sermon, and a sprinkle of holy water if you’re at a Catholic church or something similar.  The custom dates to 1999, when St. John’s Cathedral in New York City staged a “Blessing of the Bicycles” ceremony, which it still holds annually.  “Blessing ceremonies” can be for motorcycles, bicycles, or both, but most cater to motorcyclists.

You can find videos of “Blessing” gatherings on YouTube, and many of the bikes are pretty plush.  But since the blessing is really about rider safety, I won’t complain.

Much less seriously — and with contempt — do I treat “The Blessing of the Cars” tee from at a ritzy car show run by the Knights of Columbus at the Carmel Mission in ritzy Carmel, California, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor.

Carmel Blessing of the Cars

As a stunt at the Carmel Mission Classic car show, the Bishop himself comes by and blesses $300,000 (and up) collector’s cars owned by extremely wealthy individuals. If you want to decode the t-shirt, that’s the bish in a classic Italian racing car zipping by the mission with the Holy Water in one had while hurling blessings with the other.

And now your Bugatti is One with the Divine.  It’s a fund-raiser for some kind of good causes, but can I say it?  Crass. Very crass.

My personal opinion: if some church wants to bless a car in a way that really matters, hold a ceremony called “The Blessing of the Beaters.” It would serve all the people with battered old cars who desperately need them to hang together: to get to work, to get to school, to run their business.  Because they are too poor to pay for repairs, much less get another car.

A priest sprays a little water on your ’94 Chevy Corsica and prays that it last another year? That’s a blessing that many would like to have.

But back to motorcycles:

Santa Cruz Jesus Died Motorcycle Tee by Skateboarder

Behold this tee: “Jesus Died So We Can Ride.” Is this statement real, or just an attitudinal joke? Those are good questions, because this shirt has a history that’s all about attitude.

It’s the work of a gentleman from Santa Cruz named Jason Jessee.  In the ‘90s he was a  pro skateboarder with lucratives sponsorships from the skateboarding industry, his own lines of merchandise, and so on.  He was famous  (or infamous) for his out-there personality: objectionable, weird, willing to say about anything to make an impact.

Many of his skateboard media quotes were racist and sexist. That didn’t hurt him back then, not at a time skateboarding mainly belonged to disaffected young white males who liked that sort of thing, or at least tolerated it. It sounded bold to them. Being bold was good business.  So was also being involved in the biker/chopper building world, and wearing the occasional swastika.  The motorcycle on this tee is Jessee’s personal ride.

And Jessee drifted from the mainstream and lost his sponsorships. There were drugs. But 2010 or so, he was back in the limelight, with new sponsors much less controversy. This biker tee comes from that period; it was sold through the biker community, and sold well.

Was Jessee really serious with the “Jesus” message, or just being “bold and outrageous?” Opinions vary.  I’ll bet they varied among the people who bought the shirt.

And that’s where we could leave this; except that Jessee’s career crashed in 2018 when all the sexist/racist statements from the ’90s and beyond came back to haunt him.  What played in 1995 was poison in 2018.

Could you say his sponsors hadn’t known? Well, you can say they didn’t have to admit they knew, and when the controversy crested, they all dropped Jessee once again. And what Jason Jessee was or wasn’t, and believed or didn’t believe, will remain a controversy.

I do like the shirt.

T-Shirts From the Collection: Big and Weird

If a t-shirt is big enough and weird enough, I have to have it. Its meaning is irrelevant, save for this: some t-shirt designer climbed out beyond the world we know. And brought us a tee from the Other Side.

M.C. Escher Self-Portrait Andazia Tee 1

You’ve seen M.C. Escher t-shirts: hands drawing each other, staircases passing through the fourth dimension, interlocking lizards… You know the drill. This Escher shirt is different: it centers on a self-portrait of M.C. Escher himself, bundled with some other early Escher works, and all of it hovering above a Dutch cityscape: by Escher or not, I’m unsure.

And it’s a wrap-around. Cool, or what?

M.C. Escher Self-Portrait Andazia Tee 2

I’m from Santa Cruz; this tee was printed down here 30 years ago by a t-shirt imprinter called Andazia. Andazia licensed interesting artwork from various sources, printed the art on tees, and distributed the tees through bookstores, museums, and galleries.

For a time in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Santa Cruz was the national font of M.C. Escher t-shirts. I even met the Andazia people once nearly 30 years ago at a t-shirt surplus sale in their parking lot. I picked up a couple of things, but nothing this cool.

Andazia’s been gone since 2003. But the tee was waiting for me at Goodwill.

Outer Limits License-Wear 90s Tee 1

Now as far as big and weird t-shirts come, they don’t come much bigger and weirder than this. The design spills across the shoulders, down the arms, and all the way to your crotch. And it stares at you. Oh my, it certainly does.

Outer Limits License-Wear 90s Tee 1You’re looking at another licensed t-shirt, this one for the reboot of the classic sci-fi television show “The Outer Limits” in the mid-90s. But the design is from an episode of the original series, “The Zanti Misfits.” Said misfits were ant-like criminals with grotesque human faces, exiled to earth by their home planet. And you’re looking at them.

Some of the design is silk-screen, and some is hand-applied. It’s some kind of masterpiece of over-the-top men’s wear. If I were to walk downtown in this t-shirt, every eye would be on me — perhaps in shock, but nevertheless on me. I’m not going to.

This tee was designed and manufactured by an outfit called Littlefield, Adams, and Company, which placed tees with licensed designs in discount department stores. Can you see this tee hanging with pride in the “Boy’s and Men’s Clothing” section of a Bay Area K-Mart, circa 1996? And it’s Blue Light Special Time…

I’ve got many cool tees, but few where the design so absolutely dominates the entire shirt. Here are some lesser but still excessive tees:

AlfaHanne Bird Skeleton Death Metal Tee

I’m no big fan of Swedish black metal bands, but I had to take this shirt home. Sure it’s all bones and skulls like so many metal shirts. But it has that special Gothic zing of the fur-clad headbangers from northern Europe and Scandinavia. A black griffin skeleton that nearly covers the whole tee? Gimme.

Hokusai Waves Carmel Surf Contest Tee

Now, I am a big fan of Hokusai waves, and this Carmel surf contest tee well rips off the Japanese woodblock print master with an elegant and over-the-top full-width design. And pelicans. The pelicans make it.

Big Dick Choppers 1

I’ve got nothing to say about this one. Nothing.

Airbrush Marilyn by Domingo Vasquez

We’ll end with an airbrush Marilyn. Nothing says excess like a crazed portrait of a relentless ‘50s sex goddess, executed by a local artist over Salinas way.

I love this job; even though I don’t get paid for it.

 

T-Shirts From the Collection: Skulls, Part 1

Ed Roth Inspired Red Skull Hot Rod Tee

Lets talk about skulls on t-shirts. And skeletons, too, but mainly skulls.

Once upon a time, skulls were an unambiguous symbol for death and danger. What else would a skull mean?

Back then, only  outlaws wore skulls on their person. But after World War Two, outlaws got more exposure:  the new outlaw motorcycle gangs made a splash in the media. They wore skulls on their clothing, and this caught the eye of the general public. . Someone who dabbled in the black arts might wear a skull also. Again, more fodder for the public eye.  A skull still meant trouble. Though it began to mean “rebellion,” too.

Santa Cruz Trick or Treat Studios They Live TeeThese days, any 14-year-old can buy “trouble” and “rebellion” and danger for $11.99 at Target: on a t-shirt, a hoodie, a polo shirt, a belt buckle, a woman’s dress or scarf, even a polo shirt. Whatever you want. Have a skull.

And so skulls lost their dreadful impact. A fashion writer for the New York Times got it right when he said, “The skull is the “Happy Face” of the 21st Century.” Like the Happy Face, a skull on your t-shirt can mean anything you want it to:

Caletti 1“I’m wild and crazy;” or “Life is short, enjoy the ride;” or “I’m a member of a fandom that you’re not cool enough to join;” or “I’m a rebel, or want you to think so;” or, “I’m just lightly rebellious and want to tweak you a little, made ya look, haha.” Or even, “I miss Jerry Garcia.”

Given all that, how could skulls not lose their impact? My breaking point came via a toddler wearing turquoise jammies with a pattern of black skulls. He was leading his paunchy GenX parents down Santa Cruz’ main drag. Toddlers don’t usually choose their own jammies, so I’ve gotta believe that their parents thought it cute. “Look, Tyler’s such a little BADASS… just like us.”

Yes: look. At their most basic level, skulls make you look. Because they’re skulls. What else is fashion about anymore but making someone look?

There’s a theory about the skull’s transition to mainstream fashion statement; we’ll touch on it later. In the meantime, here’s a gallery of skull tees. In my opinion, the skull is the single most popular t-shirt graphic. And as I said above, people incorporate it in many different kinds of message.

“Pay What You Owe, or Else”

Cary Carlisle Bail Bond Skull Pirate Tee

Bail bondsman cultivate a tough reputation with their customers. Some of them would like you to think that they’re as tough as biker gangs. Because if you put up a $20,000 bond to get a guy out of jail, you want him scared enough to show up for the court date. Otherwise, he might “forget,” and you’re out twenty grand.

Hence free t-shirts for clients with ominous skull imagery. These bondsmen want you to know that they’re tough mofos who’ll come after you and drag you back to court kicking and screaming.

American Liberty Punk Skull Bail Bond Tee

Not all bondsmen use the skull. Some just tell you that they’ll get you out of jail quicker than anyone else. (Hint: they won’t.) A self-professed “Christian bail bondsman” told me that he treated his clients with more love and respect that the average bondsman. He even steered them towards help for their many problems. But if they ran out on him, he’d come after them just like the badass skull mofos.

Because even a Christian bondsman has to get his money back, or he doesn’t stay a bondsman for long.

 “Looking at Skulls is Our Business”

Dominica Radiology Skull Made of Bone Names Tee

Radiologists love skulls, too. It’s their job to x-ray the damned things. This t-shirt from the Radiology Department at Santa Cruz’ Dominican Hospital is both attitudinal and educational. The “skull” is made up of the names of a skull’s component bones. Radiologists know them all. And as somebody pointed out to me, it’d make a rather good album cover. If there were still albums. Are there?

“My Drill Instructors are SKULL-LOVING DEMONS, and I STILL Survived.”

AF 323TS FRIGGING WAR MACHINES 2

Up to a few years ago, it was common for soldiers in basic training (boot camp) to get a graduation t-shirt from their unit. Consider it a sort of yearbook for their training company, or training flight, or what have you.

All these tees were laid out the same: the nickname and number of the squadron at top or bottom, the names of the boots down either side and in the middle, a killer android or sword-wielding demon crouching on a pile of skulls.

Delta Company Training Tee 1

If you want amateur iconographic interpretation: the monster represents the drill sergeant, the source of all pain and terror. The skulls represent all the crap that were thrown at the recruit, I suspect. Sometimes the skulls sit on a base of alligators; sometimes in a pool of blood. Sometimes both.

That’s my interpretation, but it may be true, because the skulls are always there. And of course they’re part of the macho warrior culture that the services try to sell recruits.  Even if they’re going to end up loading cargo planes at Travis Air Force Base.

AF 323TS FRIGGING WAR MACHINES 1

Other designs could be specified for the front of the tee. This is about as grandiose as they get.

I’m pretty sure these tees were the work of one t-shirt business.  It provided t-shirt layout software that one of the boots could populate in from a library of bloody images. Some tees give credit to a “designer.”

Delta Company Training Tee 2All the boot had to do was plug words and images into a template, pick and size font,  and email the files to the company. T-shirts would then be shipped. It would have worked just like church cookbooks, only with blood and skulls and monsters.

I should mention that I’ve never seen a single person, ever, actually wear one of these these tees. Outside the special goldfish bowl that is the military, people would point and laugh. Perhaps inside, as well. If you want one, though, try Goodwill Industries. It shouldn’t take more than a trip or two.

You can still buy graduation t-shirts for your favorite boot online; a variety are made for specific training units, and you can add your loved one’s name. But the soldiers don’t design the tees themselves anymore — at least, not that I’ve seen — and the new ones aren’t nearly as much fun.

“We Like Skulls and We Carry Badges. Don’t Ask a Lot of Questions”

Gang Task Force 2012 Gunslinger Tee 1

The tees in this section come rom law enforcement: specifically, from anti-gang task forces. That said, they carry about as many secret signs as a Hell’s Angels t-shirt. And as many skulls. And as much menace.

A gang task force is a county-wide or region-wide law enforcement group tasked with controlling gang violence or drug trafficking. It can be completely a creature of the sheriff’s department, or a coalition of different law enforcement agencies.

Gang Task Force 2012 Gunslinger Tee 2First off, note that these tees are anonymous; they don’t identify their sponsor agency or county. Even the term “Gang Task Force” is sometimes abbreviated to a cryptic “GTF.”

This is intentional. The t-shirt messages are dire and frankly, the grinning, gunslinging skulls are supposedly the good guys. But they don’t look like good guys. If that’s how law enforcement chooses to express itself, best to stay anonymous.

In California, task forces wage a never-ending campaign against violent Latino street gangs, Norteno- and Sureno-affiliated. They operate drug-dealing networks, and they fight each other. The street gangs take direction from competing Latino convict networks in the state prisons. There’s a formidable web of organized crime in play: no question.  There is a need for a gang deterrent that goes beyond city limits.

I’m bugged by what these shirts imply, though: that gang task forces don’t always worry about the legal nicities.  The challenge is there: “Want us to follow the rules? Or actually catch the bad guys?” Take a look at this tee:

Unnamed CA Gang Task Force 2009 Tee 1

Can you parse the message? It’s not hard.

Unnamed CA Gang Task Force 2009 Tee 2It is possible that these t-shirts were not issued by or for a particular agency. They could be third-party tees that officiers can buy for themselves.  Even if so, I’m not reassured.

Other things to look for in a GTF tee: the number 186.22. Section 186.22 of the California Penal Code both defines criminal gang activity and specifies special punishments for activities directed by or in aid of criminal gangs. It is the charter of California gang task forces, and their chief legal resource.

San Mateo County Sheriff Gang Conference

As civil servants, the members of gang task forces also attend gang conferences and belong to gang-centric law enforcement groups. These operations issue tees with the same imagery, and of course the number 186.22.

 

San Mateo County Sheriff Gang Conference 2

The backside of the gang conference t-shirt. Note the number 186.22 on the gun barrels.

Apologies for all the conjecture. But one of these days I’m going to find a lawman who doesn’t mind filling in a few gaps for me — in the general sense, at least.

“I’m DEAD, and I like T-shirts”

Grateful Dead Parking Lot Tee

When the subject turns to skulls on t-shirts, you can’t ignore the Grateful Dead. They and promoter Bill Graham (through his Winterland Productions) began issuing bold t-shirts by the early 70s, when skull imagery was common only to biker gangs. A Dead shirt almost always features a skeleton; or a teddy bear; or both.

But the Dead weren’t bikers, and neither were their fans. As the Dead saw it, they were out to enlighten, not frighten. They believed that they and their fans were showing the way to a better world. The name “Grateful Dead” is a folklore term for souls of the dead who bring good fortune to a living man who paid for their burials or otherwise made sure that they were buried respectfully.

I have few Dead t-shirts. The one shown above is a parking-lot bootleg, probably sold at an informal stand outside a concert or festival. The one below was produced for a benefit concert held for the Rex Foundation. The words “Grateful Dead” appear nowhere on it, but it’s a Dead tee through and through.

Rex Foundation Benefit Dead Concert Tee

The Rex Foundation was the Grateful Dead’s charity arm. Beginning about 1983, the members of the Dead would agree upon a cause that they wanted to give money to — scientific, educational, or very often environmental. Then they would hold a concert or two to specifically to raise money for the cause, and give it to them. Hence this t-shirt for a fundraising concert in ’89. The name “Rex” paid tribute to their old road manager, who died in the ‘70s.

By the time the ‘70s were over, skulls had spread to other band tees, especially in the emerging heavy metal genre. Metal was fairly dystopian and aimed at disaffected teenage boys, so skulls were a natural choice. Not the only choice, but common enough.

By the late ‘80s licensed rock metal tees of all sorts were widely available in mall-based teen clothing stores: every rebellious headbanger in America could have their own skull.

Some journalists and enthusiasts link today’s wide acceptance of skulls today with this wider availability of graphic metal/rock clothing. I suspect that they’re right; those ’80s- and ’90s-era headbangers are all middle-aged now, or close. They grew up with skulls. Beyond that, the Disneyfied “Pirates of the Carribean” movie franchise in the early 2000s sealed the deal for skulls as a family-friend symbol of… whatever you want them to be. A Smiley Face for troubled times.

And so in the greater scheme of things, what perhaps started with the mellow Grateful Dead, continues with… Paparoach.

Paparoach

This thing just followed me home from Goodwill one day. I have no idea why.

 

 

T-Shirts from the Collection: Vegas Rules

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When I was a kid, Las Vegas was a mirage of glitz and class and discrete sin that rose out of the desert.  Vegas was all about high rollers in dinner jackets. Sinatra crooned to the crowds. Comedians named Joey and Shecky and Don made them laugh.  For the common man, ranks of slot machines stood at attention like one-armed soldiers. The common men could see Sinatra, too, but they had to bring their one good suit or dress.

Sure, the Mafia ran the place. But they were almost like the Chamber of Commerce — hit men.  Money laundering and siphoning profits works best in a stable environment, so the made men maintained Vegas’ smooth, classy image. It was good for the business that they were there to do.

“Classy” is out now, at least for the masses.  It’s about excess and acting out. And you’re not wearing a dinner jacket, maybe not even your only suit.  No, you’re wearing a t-shirt.

See that tee up at the top of this piece? Go to the Luxor, a casino/resort built into a giant glass pyramid.  Go the gift shop, buy that godawful tee and transform yourself into an honest-to-God Pharaoh. Parade your 4XL magnificence before your subjects in the slot machine ghetto. They can but bask in your pharaonic glory. That’s Vegas now.Lex Luthy Supervillan Lookalike Casino Boss Tee

Meanwhile, upstairs, the VP of Slots for the Luxor is posing for his portrait as a dangerous supervillain with a drink in hand. “Lex” Luthy? Oh, please.

What happened? Vegas went straight; the Mob was out, corporations were in. There was money to be made, but also new competition from Indian casinos. So the industry repackaged Vegas as the place where your every fantasy could come true, no matter how cheesy.  And safely: “What happens here, stays here,” crooned the TV ads.  The folks back in Wichita never had to know.  Just bring money.

That ad campaign’s been running for almost 20 years.  And people believe it. So much for class:

Las Vegas Double Down Bar Ass Juice Tee

ass_juiceIn Vegas, the Double-Down Saloon is well known for its motto “Shut up and drink!” and its signature cocktail, the Ass Juice: vodka mixed with something brown and fruity, perhaps prune juice.  It’s only a few bucks, but for $15 more you can get it in a commemorative mug shaped like a toilet.

Fun, huh? It looks like something you’d find in a roadside souvenir stand in 1955, somewhere east of Tulsa.  The mug would be on display next to the donkey-shaped cigarette box that pushed a cigarette out its butt when you lifted its tail.  My aunt had one of those.

But if even that’s too genteel, you can go to the Griffin, a Vegas-traditional joint with skilled bartenders, fashionable dimness, a firepit, and oral sex t-shirts.

Griffin Bar Unicorn Sex LV

But it’s just funny animals and fellatio, right?.  What’s the big deal? Have a Manhattan, reputed to be the best in town. The Griffin’s bartenders are supreme.  But that t-shirt.  Just… why?

Cheese Burger Hawaiian Restaurant in Vegas eeAnd this: “Cheese Burger” is a Hawaiian restaurant chain that offers plush cheeseburgers to the tourists, and other Hawaiian specialties.  They opened a Vegas branch in a casino, and of course the sedate tees from their Hawaii restaurants just wouldn’t do.  There had to be a hyper-sexual Vegas version

Sex, and more sex, or at least the promise of of it. Excess without end, at least in theory.  That’s the Vegas selling point.  Though I don’t know what they were selling here, or who was selling it:

Las Vegas InvadersI’ve looked and looked, but the “Las Vegas Invaders”  evade all Internet searches. All I see here is a leering man wearing a fire helmet with two firehose nozzle “horns.” “Find ‘em Hot. Leave ‘em Wet,” reads the motto.  Hijinks from some firemen’s muster? Who knows? But stay classy, Vegas!

Oh, some people try.  Vegas is a big convention town, and conventions issue their own tees.  Eventually the attendees have to go home and face the wife (or husband) with their convention swag, so these tees are more restrained. This firemen’s convention tee makes the old Rat Pack into firemen, as a tribute to Old Vegas.  And why not?

Firemen Vegas Convention Tee

And a car show tee is a car show tee, even if glitzed up a bit for Vegas.  Vegas isn’t Vegas without slick cars.  I’m glad that the classic VW Bug fans of America have to have someplace to gather, and Vegas is still a competent and affordable convention town, if you pick the right dates.  This crowd even had VW drag racing.

Las Vegas Bug-in VW Fest Tee

Mag-wheeled VW Beetles aside, Vegas is the rampaging id of America; the unmentionable excesses of every American institution come together here: military, corporate, criminal, governmental. All these power groups love the Vegas desert.  You can do anything there, and walk away. Back to Vegas. No one will see.

The mob used to vanish people in the desert; the mob is gone, but people still vanish. Radioactive caverns lurk underground, left behind by atomic bomb tests known and unknown. In nearby Area 51, the military and its corporate friends test aircraft that they refuse to acknowledge, but which we pay for generously.  They break environmental laws and endanger the health and lives of hundreds of contract workers. They threaten oblivion to any who talk.

Forty minutes outside Vegas lies Creech Air Force Base, where 900 drone pilots fly armed Reaper drones on the other side of the world. And kill people, at the push of a button.  They can bomb a village in Yemen and still get back to town in time to drown their sorrows with an Ass Juice at the Double Down. Just keep ‘em comiing, bartender.

It’s all in the desert. No one can see. You can do anything in the desert. What happens here, stays here.

Las Vegas Speedway Patriotic Tee 2

That’s why this is my favorite Vegas t-shirt: the American flag, hyper-fast racing cars,  stealth warplanes,  an American eagle, greed, and money.  They are the components of Vegas America, all schmushed together by this t-shirt into one malodorous, wrong-headed heap.

And in the far distance lie the towers of the Vegas Strip: the land where dreams rarely come true, though you’re encouraged to think so while someone rifles your pockets.

Or is that just entire the United States of America anymore?  Operating under Vegas rules now:  for everyone, everywhere.

The Unobserved

My wife Rhumba is learning the ins and outs of figure drawing, caricature and lately, digital painting.  Practice makes perfect, and she has the perfect venue for it: a Reddit discussion board where random people post pictures of themselves (or loved ones) and invite any random artist to draw them.

Challenge accepted.honeymoon with saucers

Rhumba would tell you that she’s a developing artist, but she has one thing that some brilliant draftsmen lack:  a point of view.  And so a honeymooning couple posing with the Golden Gate Bridge do so in the presence of an unknown watcher — almost out of frame.

A flying saucer is almost Rhumba’s trademark now, at least on that discussion board.  At the edge of every happy Kodak moment lurks a saucer: Observing? Abducting? Who knows?

holy saucerjpg

Response from the Reddit subjects is nearly unanimous.  They think it’s hilarious.  But Rhumba has an agenda: to point out that this is a world of distractions.  And what they distract you from is the fact that somebody’s watching.  From the fact that unimaginable — by you — things  are happening whenever life pulls your eyes aside. Whenever you stop looking for the barest moment.Fish

Because it’s true.  We have a TV set of a brand that’s been known to send — information — to its corporate headquarters.  Not just when it’s on, but when it’s plugged in.  Nobody knows what information. Nobody know what the information is for.  We’re assured that nothing illicit is afoot.  But we pull the plug whenever we’re not watching.  And of course our computers betray us constantly.

A saucer in the background may seem hilarious — until the context changes.  Then maybe less so. The mother of the tyke below loved her child’s saucer.  And it could be cute: but what’s its agenda?IEyfp9k

Because we don’t really know.  But it’s safe to assume that there is an agenda.  Or that, when enough data has been piled in one place simply because it’s possible to do so, someone will make an agenda.  Because they can.Fidojpg

And even if you knew what the agenda was, would you believe it? People just don’t do those things, you’d say.  You might not believe your own senses.  Washington saucer

But what the hell.  People have lives to live.  They just want to enjoy themselves. You can’t spend all your time looking over your shoulder.  Even if there’s always somebody there. MuscleMan Hot Tub

Life goes on, and it’s easier to treat every private moment as private: even if it’s not.  What’s the harm, right? Even if your pancakes are floating oddly.pancakesU

Enjoy the sunshine.  Hang loose.  It’s a beautiful day!Hangloose

And some day, you may get the answers to questions that you never even thought to frame.Coming soon

And if you do…. be sure to drop us a line!saucer squadron

T-Shirts from the Collection: The Social Iconography of Small-Town Grocery T-shirts

You’re on a two-lane state highway far, far out in boondocks. There are hills, there are trees, there are farms. There may be an ocean. There isn’t much else.

But around the next turn lies a loose group of buildings scattered across both sides of the road. There may be a simple city limits sign. The “town” has no government and no particular facilities.

What you can hope for is small grocery store, perhaps with gas pumps. And if you’re in tourist territory, that grocery just might have a deli, and a t-shirt. The Albion Grocery has it all.

Albion Grocery 1

Albion is a small unincorporated community on Highway 1 along California’s North Coast. The North Coast is noted for natural beauty, a dramatic and rocky shoreline, and giant waves that eat people.

The locals call them sneaker waves. A set of average waves approaches the coast, one after another, but in the heart of the set sometimes lurks a monster that will shoot far up the beach, knock your feet out from under you, and carry you back out to sea in its cold, cold arms. If you are unprepared.

Smart locals never turn their back on the waves. The only defense against sneakers is to run inland when you see one coming.

Pretty split-leaf philodendrons and hibiscus frame the t-shirt’s central image, a wave. But that wave is no pretty tourist image. It’s a spitting, rearing sneaker wave.

Fear it. I’m sure the locals do, while being slightly proud of their sneakers at the same time. Sneakers define the North Coast, like wind and crazy rocks and grim beauty. And they’re something bad-ass that you can tell strangers about.

Farther north in Oregon, coastal dwellers also speak of sneaker waves: certainly they do in Tillamook County, “Home of Cheese, Trees, and Ocean Breeze.” Tillamook is hunting country; deer and elk roam in the plentiful forests. Inland among the trees on the standard two-lane highway, the tiny unincorporated community of Beaver achieved something nearly unique: a combination firearms and grocery store.

Fox Guns and Groceries 1

Beaver is literally surrounded by huntable forest; the people need their guns and ammo. And there are no other groceries right nearby, either. At 150-ish people, Beaver might not support both a grocery store and a gun shop. But two in one? That worked. The Fox family ran Fox Grocery and Firearms for 47 years.

The family sold out in 2016. The new owners changed the name from Fox Grocery and Firearms to Beaver Firearms and Grocery: a subtle change in emphasis. The new owners’ Facebook page says, “Come see us today for your grocery and 2nd Amendment needs in one convenient place.” But some locals complain that groceries are being shorted in favor of guns. All I know is, there’s no t-shirt.

The third and final t-shirt also comes from another unincorporated community:  but one of 20,000 citizens. Isla Vista, California, is a frowsy college community adjoining UC Santa Barbara. And the ocean, and a beach. Sneaker waves aren’t common. You see the possibilities for young college students on their own for the first time in their lives. It could look like Paradise.

Isla Vista Market Beer Kegs in Paradise Tee

But there are liabilities, too. A hodge-podge of developers built up Isla Vista quickly and cheaply after the university was founded. The streets need work, the sidewalks come and go, there’s nowhere near enough parking. And while Isla Vista can boast a zillion cheap college town restaurants, it has only one full-service grocery: Isla Vista Market.

Isla Vista Market offers all the usual groceries: and keg beer. Lots and lots of keg beer. A good business gives the customers what they need, and through its t-shirt Isla Vista Market proudly accepts its role as keeper of the keg to the ten thousand students of the community. And their parties. Of course it accepts their money, too.