Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.”


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.


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.


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



T-Shirts from the Collection: Vegas Rules


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.

My All-Thrift-Shop Art Gallery

I’m very proud of my art collection: not the one I share with my wife, though. “My” collection is on the wall in my garage/man cave: artwork entirely thrifted from Goodwill Industries. Total cost: less than $40. But I’ve visited commercial galleries whose art pleased me less.Collection

You shouldn’t find original, competent paintings at a Goodwill for $2.99 or a little more. But in this town, sometimes you do. Sometimes for less.night

My favorite is a panoramic painting of a small town at night as darkness takes command and the fog rolls in. I lived in San Francisco’s Richmond District for several years: the foggiest part of a foggy city; I identify with darkness and fog. I also appreciate that tthe painter made a realistic vista into an array of almost-abstract shapes.


My second favorite is a mountain landscape painted on a broken skateboard in the style of PBS painting maven Bob Ross. It’s not great art, but it drips with cultural references and honest kitsch.  I also like the way the artist adapted two empty bolt holes (they had attached the board to the wheel trucks) into strange stars on the horizon; and hid the other two bolt holes in the composition.

And then there’s a pleasant portrait of a young guitarist, and a vintage, original poster by a well-known English woodcut artist.


Oddest of the bunch is a strange but somehow pleasant tropic scene composed of black lines filled in with shaped pieces of colored paper tape, and maybe some marking pen. It’s not great art by any standards, but somehow I just keep looking at it.


Hawaii2Other art scatters across the walls, including one piece that my wife Rhumba commanded me to buy: a Hawaiian sunset painted on velvet. No man cave can lack one truly cliched work of low art, she argued. I have to say: it’s far superior to “Dogs Playing Poker.”

I could amass this not-bad selection so cheaply because Santa Cruz, my town, is up to its neck in original art. Everyone’s a painter here, or seems like it, or dreams of it. They can’t all be good at it — believe me — and it stands to reason that the dross would end up at Goodwill. And it does: oh so many bad paintings. If that’s your style, come on down to 204 Union St. There’s a good coffee house down the street when you just can’t take it anymore.

But among that dross you find jewels: something that someone just got tired of looking at, perhaps, and donated. Or that that their heirs donated while disposing of the estate.

I do wonder where the art came from, and sometimes I can find out. A college art teacher — a freeway flyer who teaches at multiple schools — painted the midnight city. Realism-into-abstract is her specialty.

Another local painter, who has a website and probably also a day job, painted the pensive guitarist. Is it great art? No, but it’s simple, pleasant, and has a point of view. I’m all about the point of view.

Very occasionally, I see art at Goodwill signed by people I actually know. And I will never tell them.

As for the skateboard/landscape painting, somebody told me they’d seen a display of them on sale at a gas station, back aways in time. That may be all I ever know.


Not exactly original, but coffee cup art for a long-gone German bakery in Santa Cruz. And now there is no studel in Santa Cruz. None. Damn.

The source of all this artist endeavor lives decades in the past. When Santa Cruz was a cheap, beautiful hippie haven, artists came here for the beauty and easy living. Money could be made drawing for our surfboard and skateboard industries, too (and still can). But even if you didn’t do that, you could hump your work over the mountains to the big city and try to sell it there.

Some artists still do — they live here, but their markets are elsewhere. On our walls hang some funny-animal paintings by a guy who illustrates children’s books for Scholastic. I also remember walking into a stationery store where the owner sat at the front counter: drawing a page of Archie Comics.

Santa Cruz’s beauty remains, if not cheap. It is, in fact, hellishly expensive. But a university was founded here, with an Art Department, and people to teach art, and students to learn it; and when the students graduate, they don’t all go away, or at least not for a few years. They like it here.

For all these reasons, Santa Cruz is pre-loaded for artistic endeavour. This little shelf of land between the mountains and the sea, home to perhaps 100,000 people, boasts three competent and well-stocked art supply stores.

Because, aside from the groups that I’ve mentioned, Santa Cruz is home to well-off people with time on their hands. Lately they’ve  mobbed the place: people who made big money in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, but aren’t all that impressed with themselves. They were just grubbing for money with the rest of the predators; there had to be more to life. And now in Santa Cruz, in the leisure that is their reward, they search for that “more.”


Another print on the wall: a vintage California Coastal Cleanup Day poster from about 30 years ago, by the British printmaker Christopher Wormell. Cleanup Day is descended from earlier events staged by Santa Cruz-area surfers.

That’s why I think that you can find a well-built artist’s studio behind so many custom-built Mediterranean-style villas around here. I tour these studios during an annual event called “Open Studios” where people visit artists’ workplaces, inspect their output, and perhaps buy some. .

Some of these gold-plated aspiring artists are dabbling; others truly chase the white whale. Which they may never catch. You may shake your head, but you’ve got to respect it. And maybe, as with Ahab, the chase becomes everything.

Here’s a story: on the first Friday of every month, businesses and restaurants and galleries open for the evening and each displays the work of some local artist(s) of their choice. Some hire a band and offer food and refreshments, some don’t. It makes a nice excuse to roam around town, look at art, and drink a beer.

One Friday, Rhumba and I stopped wandered into one of these spaces, a restaurant.  The walls of three rooms were literally covered with hundreds of acrylic paintings, all from one artist.

And most of them were bad. The artist struggled with perspective. His lines were too heavy: some of then looked as if he chiseled them in. True, the prices were super-reasonable. But most of the work shouldn’t have been shown.

We gently asked the restauranteur, an acquaintance, WTF? And she introduced us to a six-foot-tall, 13-year-old girl with braces. Who told us a story.

Her parents had just purchased a house from a wealthy man who pursued painting as a hobby. He took lessons for years, and painted for years. Then he left town for the Sierras. An agent sold the house for him.

When the girl’s parents took possession, they looked into the far corners of the basement for the first time and found 500 paintings, some as large as three feet by four. Five hundred reject landscapes. And yet the artist kept going. And going.

I can only hope that he painted 600 or 700 paintings, and took the best ones with him. But we’ll never know.

Anyway, the parents had given their 13-year-old full freedom to try to sell the paintings for valuable life experience and, hopefully, some cash. Hence this large, strange exhibit hosted by a restauranteur who was a family friend.

Rhumba and I like an art bargain, and we’re pretty good at finding them. So we scrutinized every one of those 500 paintings to see if even one was worthwhile. A few were; I think the artist had had a few good days, or really did improve as he went along. We finally settled on a watercolor:


By the time the artist had painted this one, his lines and perspective were almost under control. The painting is of a road my wife and I could very well have walked down: a sandy farm road through coastal artichoke fields, with a windbreak of eucalyptus in the background. It’s a classic Central Coast tableau, yet one rarely painted.

It’s not “pretty.” But if you’ve lived in these parts awhile, you have that painting in your blood: the sandy soil, the eucalyptus; the smell of salt and a white sky full of marine mist. You know that the ocean lies beyond the distant trees.

Fifteen dollars? Sold. It may well have been the only painting sold that night. We got it a cheap frame. It hangs in our bedroom. We like it. Somewhere out there the artist still chases his whale, perhaps, and you know? He could be closing in on it.

Out in the garage, my thrifted art collection slowly grows. Hodge-podge as it is, I have a true fondness for it. You can talk of good work or bad, good technique or amateur bungling; but the personal connections I make through art are what really make it work for me: the remembrance of dark fog flowing in over neighborhoods, or of hiking down dusty farm roads, or of pretty girls playing pretty music with solemn gravity. And sometimes, a certain mix of colors and proportions alone are enough to make make some aesthetic center in my brain go “Sproing!”

The ten thousand artists of Santa Cruz County keep painting. Perhaps someday, even if by coincidence alone, they’ll come up with something right for you. And if you find it at Goodwill? Don’t be a snob.


T-shirts from the Collection: Sarajevo Park

Sarjevo Park Graphic Artists Under Siege Tee

The city was under siege, cut off from the outside world.  Day after day, year after year, shells rained down on it from enemy artillery in the surrounding hills.  Enemy snipers brought fire on anything with two legs.  People died and buildings fell, every day. Municipal services were in shambles, civic order tenuous at best. Wherever you looked you saw damage.

The citizens carried on. Some fought back with guns. Bu some fought with art.

This was Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia from 1992 to 1996: under siege by Serbian forces for almost four years during the Bosnian War, a conflict so complicated that even Wikipedia’s synopsis made my head explode.

For most of the siege, Sarajevo got no international help at all. So a  Sarajevo graphic design collective called Trio, with very little left to design in a besieged city with few resources, produced a series of darkly humor postcards that injected the name “Sarajevo” into well-known icons of art, film, and advertising.

Trio’s message to the world was: “Don’t forget Sarajevo!  We’re still here!”  They wanted the world to think of Sarajevo whenever it saw the familiar symbols.

Trio’s secondary message was, “Bosnian humor is dark as hell.” Besides “Sarajevo Park,” the design collective produced “Enjoy Sara-Jevo” (a redesigned Coca-Cola label), “The Sarajevo Zone,” (a “Twilight Zone” parody), a bullet-riddled Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup can (renamed “Sarajevo’s Chicken and Rice”),  a classic Uncle Sam who “wants YOU to save SARAJEVO,” and dozens more.  Search for them; they’re very effective.

The designs got out of Bosnia as postcards and posters. They spread across the world. They won approval from leading art critics and the international media even as the siege continued.

The Trio group didn’t produce my “Sarajevo Park” t-shirt, or any t-shirts. The t-shirt is an American brand, and the lettering is slightly different; it’s probably unauthorized. Online, I can’t find any graphic of it except on my own site.

But the message remains — perhaps not “Remember us!” anymore.  But certainly, “Don’t forget!”

T-Shirts from the Collection: The Twilight of the Culturati

First Night 1995 Santa Cruz Tee

Look at this t-shirt. The image is quite sweet: a smiling, crescent moon hooks itself to a clock tower on a pleasant evening. It must be for some kind of happy festival in the small city that I live in: Santa Cruz, California.

That was the idea.  But the festival, and this t-shirt, were  born out of anger, police batons, and broken glass.

Here’s the story: twenty-five or so years ago Santa Cruz was the kind of place where people had to make their own fun: build giant bonfires on the beach, shoot guns into the night, organize group trespassing, start fights in bars.  You know.  Because otherwise, not much happened in this city on the distant, trailing edge of a major metro area.

Nothing whatsoever New Year’s Eve, outside of celebration at a few clubs.  Downtown Santa Cruz greeted the new years with empty streets and darkness.

So an anarchic band of townies, surfers, characters, and reckless youth began their own New Year’s Eve event.  In the run-up to midnight, they’d gather at the Clock Tower at the north end of downtown. The crowd would carouse a bit, count down the New Year, carouse a bit more, and event leave.  I’m sure that alcoholic beverages had presence in the crowd.

As these things do, the non-event grew in size and popularity and unruliness.  One year, somebody was stabbed.

The next year, on New Year’s Even 1993, the police showed up in force to control the festivities.  But that’s now how things worked out.

You’ve heard of the fog of war, that state of fast-moving conflict within which nobody knows what’s really happening.  Well, it’s nothing next to the Fog of Santa Cruz.  The police say one thing; word of mouth says another; and nobody trusts the newspaper. People pick the narrative that they want to believe.

At any rate, very soon after midnight on January 1, 1994,  a platoon of police advanced quickly and aggressively on Clock Tower plaza. Their intent was to disperse the crowd.  Advance warning? Not very much.

Thus occurred — a disturbance.  Some might call it a riot; some might call it “refusing to cooperate on the grand scale.” But all agree on this: some of the celebrants fled south through the heart of downtown and merrily broke expensive plate-glass shop windows along the way.

The next morning found the town’s authorities and media aghast. Violence! Misbehavior! Expensive broken plate glass windows!  It was soon agreed: New Year’s Eve could no longer be left to run itself in downtown Santa Cruz.  In my opinion, the shop windows sealed the deal; those things cost money.

And on  December 31, 1994, “First Night Santa Cruz” made its debut: a family-friendly, alcohol-free festival that completely occupied downtown with live entertainment, a safe and walkable environment of traffic-free streets, and heavy police presence.  But no alcohol.  There at last was a reason for respectable people to want to come downtown on New Year’s Eve.

How did it happen? Well, control of the event was given to a hastily-thrown-together nonprofit staffed by the town’s culturati: the people who’ve served on the boards of cultural institutions and all know each other — and everyone else who matters.  They knew how to get things done. They had the free time to do the things. They knew who to go to for donations and help.

And it worked. First Night even brought in real money.  A $25 button admitted you to numerous  indoor venues that offered full evenings of entertainment. First Night sold something over 20,000 of those buttons.

If you didn’t want to pay, you could roam through the crowds with your friends, watch a parade, see and be seen, listen to live bands, and be there for the New Year’s countdown. And while the streets were alcohol-free, the bars and restaurants weren’t.  For some, that was more than enough.

Suddenly, First Night Santa Cruz was the place to be on New Year’s Eve.  There was a First Night ’96, and ’97, and beyond.  The festival chugged along year after year with seemingly no end in sight.  Tens of thousands showed up annually from Santa Cruz and beyond. Below is the 2001 t-shirt.

First Night Santa Cruz 2001 Tee

And yet, button sales began to sag.  The free entertainment and the whole free outdoor scene still drew the many thousands, but attendance at the entertainment venues was in decline.  Money got tight.  Simply, First Night programming began to bore people.

First Night Santa Cruz 2001 Tee 2The culturati who ran First Night Santa Cruz put the same kind of show on every year: culturally inclusive, politically aware, family friendly, a touch feminist. But above all, cultural.  A typical year’s schedule might include: children’s dance companies, jaunty classical saxophone quartets and classical guitarists, modern jazz bands, Paraguayan harpists, folk singers, family-friendly local rock and blues groups, ethnic dance troupes, socially-important art installations, and so on.

To the culturati, this was their mandate.  It never changed, even though the acts always did. After the first few years, the community began to find the programming lackluster; not everbody, but a lot of people.

Fire eaters and giant robots and screaming, offensive punk bands might have jazzed things up; Santa Cruz is  home to all those things. But First Night Santa Cruz couldn’t kick out the jams of decorum and metaphorically howl at the New Year.  Its whole reason to exist was to keep the calm — and keep glass shop windows intact.

Before too many more years passed, First Night Santa Cruz was in trouble: battered by bad weather, a bad economy, and just bad luck. They’d even missed a year.

First Night 2006 Small LogoWith limited funds remaining and a spunky new director, First Night did what institutions always do when they’re in trouble but can’t change: it doubled down.  First Night 2005 was the most cultural and significant of them all.

Below is the major t-shirt graphic.  Click to expand; there’s a lot of detail. I particularly like the tutus on the fish, and the sea otter with a trumpet.  Honorable mention to the children dressed like stars, and what appears to be Glinda, the Good Witch of the West.

First Night 2006 back iew

First Night Santa Cruz 2005’s theme was “Rivers of Life.” It honored the San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruz’ badly abused hometown river, and the local efforts to fix it. It honored the United Nations Decade of Water and Life. It featured environmental cartoons drawn by children. Children painted to look like fish marched in the parade. Moreover, an entire block of Pacific Avenue was transformed into an artificial wetlands with an artificial river running through it. Attendees were invited to throw their New Year’s resolutions into the river and watch them float away.

For all I know, that year’s festivities were an artistic success. But this was the last First Night Santa Cruz.

And yet, downtown Santa Cruz still rocks on New Year’s Eve.  To this day, people still come in large numbers: for the scene, for the countdown, for a little street entertainment, and for the many restaurants and night spots that took root downtown during the dotcom boom era. The police presence remains heavy; order is maintained.  Many merchants do a good business, and shop windows remain intact.

You can see things this way: First Night Santa Cruz kept order downtown on New Year’s Eve until downtown could live without it.

And yet, anarchy cannot be suppressed. Not entirely. For upon the death of First Night Santa Cruz  “Last Night Santa Cruz” rose almost immediately.  Anarchists (the kind who would carry cards if anarchists issued cards) and free spirits gather on Pacific Avenue every New Year’s Eve to stage an unauthorized DIY “Last Night” parade featuring… anybody who wants to take part.

The police worked against “Last Night” in the beginning, and are still not its friend.  But “Last Night” is peaceful and arty and a little bit crazy in the fine old traditions of Santa Cruz hippiedom. People like it. So the powers that be have never mustered the will to shut it down.

Besides, “Last Night” breaks no windows.  That’s the important thing.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, and change again and stay the same in different ways.  If you want fire dancers and giant robots and participatory art in downtown Santa Cruz, the art and history museum handles that now, and rather well. They even have free live music in the evening once or twice most weeks, where you can have a drinkie on their (private) square, if you so desire. And the anarchists’ community center will take care of your screaming punk rock needs.


And the anarchists’ community center presents a lot of screaming punk rock.