Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Kaitlyn Chow
Produced by: Dan Hwang
Inside a brightly-colored building in Red Hook, Brooklyn, we sauntered into Kevin Lyons’ studio, where decades of design archives adorn the walls and fill the shelves. While embellishing a Big L freestyle lyric poster he’s drawing for the upcoming Stretch and Bobbito documentary, he explained some of the pieces he designed--from permutations of his illustrated monsters to a Ruby motorcycle helmet to sneakers for Converse and adidas. While Donald Byrd played from a cassette boombox, Lyons enthusiastically narrated his wide range of influence on street culture that began in the early 90s.
After college, his first break came in 1992, when he wandered into the offices of Giant Step, who, on a whim, enlisted his help to redesign their logo, which he did that same night. Later in the 90s, with a close-knit streetwear scene with only a few key players, more and more artists who made their names by painting on walls and trains had taken their work indoors to craft gallery work. Legends like HAZE, FUTURA 2000, and Stash saw their fame reach new heights with their monikers blazed across t-shirts instead of subway cars. Lyons noticed this trend, and found his way over to Triple 5 Soul to design shirts while maintaining a steady flow of design work. As the 90s came to a close, Lyons worked closely with Russel Karablin for SSUR and started his own line, Natural Born. Since then, he’s been a key contributor in numerous sectors of a scene that began with just a handful of brands and then ballooned into a bonafide international industry.
As we discussed the genesis of today’s mammoth scene, it was clear to us that the newer generation of people who grew up with the internet as their textbook may have no clue just how far back the culture goes. As Lyons mentions in our chat, the internet has effectively reduced history down to a few years, or however long a brand has been posting pictures on Instagram. When I googled the name of a clothing line I distinctly remember from that era that Lyons art directed called Kingpin, it was no easy task to find images of those early shirts among the scores of others that come up from the initial search.
What separates Kevin Lyons from the scores of fly-by-night upstarts is the ability to continue to shift and hedge as scores of biters swoop in and pile on when a new trend emerges. Lyons, throughout the interview, points to the influence and genius of SSUR, who has a knack for innovating and ducking out in time, as a prime example of survival in an age when t-shirt lines are born overnight. Those who last, he tells us, are able to continue to reinvent themselves after others hop on board. It may seem like this overcrowded streetwear scene is solely derivative at this late stage, but OGs like Lyons prove that a somewhere within the combination of persistence, hand skills, and consistency lies the key to what all the new jacks crave--longevity.
As we parted ways on a cloudless April Sunday, he explained his frenetic pace of work, saying that he pours his whole heart into his efforts because, as he said: “Any of these projects could be my last, so I have to keep working. I don’t know when it’s going to end.” If his long-standing imprint on the game over a couple of decades is any indication of when his relevance will subside, we should get used to seeing that trademark gray beard on these pages for years to come.
FRESHNESS: Can you give us a history of how you became involved with the art and design scene in New York?
Kevin Lyons: My involvement with New York design really started around the early ‘90's, like ‘91, ‘92. I had started doing graphic design as a side interest because I had graduated in film and video from RISD, so I was looking to be in that world. It just so happened that I'd done a bunch of music stuff related to album covers, zines, t-shirts and stuff like that while at RISD. When I got to New York, I tried to pick up work like that simply so I could buy a slice and collect records.
At RISD, I was exposed to and lived with a lot of amazing individuals and artists. Shepard Fairey was a classmate, and I hung with a bunch of talented artists and silkscreeners that later became Urban Folk Art in Brooklyn. We all worked together and it was very entrepreneurial. We wanted to make our own way in this world. We were heavily influenced by both punk music and hip-hop and those sort of independent DIY, outsider-looking-in cultures.
When we all got to New York, we were hustling from the get-go.
What year was this, Kevin?
This is 91, 92. I was a huge fan of Talkin’ Loud Records and Straight No Chaser magazine, both based in London. I had heard a lot about this Acid Jazz Party in New York called Giant Step. I went to their office and I actually met the owners. I had seen an ad in PAPER Magazine for a new Giant Step single, and being an aggressive record collector, I just naively followed the address in the ad. They were a little taken aback, but were friendly and asked, "Well what are you doing?" I had just graduated, and was making logos, and so they said, "We want to redesign our logo. We want a new logo." At the time, they had a photographic logo and they looked a lot like old Soul record label. A little dated. They said they wanted something new and a little more contemporary, and asked me, "Would you take a shot at it?" I said, "Sure."
I went back that night to the spot I was crashing at, and I think I must have drawn all night. I literally came back the very next day, and they loved it.
Did you do the trumpet shaped one or is that the one you replaced?
The trumpet shaped one is the one I did.
That awesome. That was iconic, sure.
Yeah. That was the first big New York thing I had done and as an immediate result, that quickly led to a whole variety of Giant Step events – flyers, record covers, posters, banners, and live painting behind the main stage for artists like Repercussions, The Groove Collective, Guru, MC Solaar, the Roots... They were at Metropolitan at that time in Union Square. Then they invited me to the parties, and I would make banners for them, make flyers for them. They used the logo on a lot of stuff and then we started doing live paintings with a friend of mine, this artist named Ebon Heath, who I had also met at RISD.
Coincidentally, Ebon was also really good friends with Carmella Ehlke, who was the founder of 555soul, later known as Triple 5 Soul. She was on the Lower East Side at the time. She had the shop on Ludlow. Ebon was cool enough to help me with Giant Step flyers, and he, in turn, started to let me help him with a lot of the Triple 5 stuff. We were basically working out of Camella’s loft in SOHO.
You were involved in Early Triple 5 Soul’s design? For some of the shirts?
Ebon and I were partners. Ebon was functioning as the Art Director there, and I was functioning as the Art Director of Giant Step. We shared duties and made a lot of stuff together at the time. I even worked for a stint in the 555soul Shop on Sundays… again to support pizza slices and records, and of course, by this time, sneakers.
The Ludlow or the later location?
Yeah, the one on Ludlow. Yeah. Back in the day. For me, and in my recollection, 555soul was where it all began in New York City. Union came along quickly, but Ludlow was the spot. Camella was a great designer, but she was also, perhaps even more importantly, now looking back, the ultimate curator. Her stuff was amazing, but it was the brands that she invited in and she sold there that made that shop the pinnacle of all that came before or after. There were were only a handful of t-shirt designers that she allowed through that door. HAZE, FUTURA 2000 and Stash, and the Phillies blunt T's. A young jedi named Russell Karablin doing SSUR. The gods, PNB Nation as well. These were all the cream of the crop. The pioneers. All sold out of one single shop. Ahead of it’s time in every way.
Pre-everything, there was Triple 5.
And then down the street from 555 was also 2 Black Guys. Ludlow was a very tightly-knit little neighborhood. What Giant Step did and what Triple 5 did really opened a lot of different doors to a lot of different things. We all participated in this culture, and it was all documented in PAPER Magazine. PAPER was the magazine of downtown New York. They really supported and pushed the culture. Writing stories and giving away quarter-page ad spaces to us. Styling with our t-shirts. They held parties, and many of us did live painting behind bands for those parties as well. It was a lot of flyer stuff. There were a few album covers here and there. It was just a lot of busy production. It was just beginning to have computer design and drawing and scanning and a lot of that stuff. The Giant Step stuff was all hand-drawn. It was never vectorized until years later. At the same time, Alleged Gallery was also just beginning, which was Aaron Rose's thing. Alleged and 555soul existed on the same block, but were very separate. Alleged was more of a West Coast skate-inspired kind of art thing. It was a very different crowd, but again, a small city. There were, however, a lot of people crossing over, and it was the beginning of what became the t-shirt industry, which coincided with the end of graffiti, and of course writers were working their way into galleries and things like that. The new trains were becoming t-shirts.
Do you mean as far as getting your name out? You mean t-shirts were the new trains that way?
Yeah, getting your name out there and how you could make money independently. T-shirt designs were a new way of getting notoriety and getting paid for it. That was like just such a massive thing. Only Stussy had come close to something that big and then maybe Freshjive on the West Coast. When the Phillies Blunt shirt hit the open market, it gave everyone this idea of, "Oh, we got to do this; this is our new industry. This is how we can actually make a legacy".
You brought up Skate, and it's interesting because I remember back then I was like a young teenager in that same zone you're talking about, ‘92, ‘93. I remember Skate companies flipping logos, and in my head, as design evolved, hip-hop starting to do the same thing. Do I have it backwards? Were you guys in New York flipping logos alongside with some of the Skate companies? Or did one precede the other?
Yeah, I think it was very of coincidental. It was at the same time. However, I think that the real direct appropriation came though from New York. And a couple companies from the West Coast which was basically FUCT, Freshjive and of course Stussy. Freshjive and Stussy were doing more fashion stuff. I do think, though, you have to give total credit to skate and surf culture because they really were the first to use logo T's that had illustrations on them as a means of both fashion and as marketing. Meaning, it was a way to get their brand out there. They could not afford television ads or even traditional print advertising or billboards. They were really the first cultures to look at t-shirts as little billboards for their brands. And then, of course, there was punk and rock n’ roll and all of the bands that had t-shirts as well. So you had the Rolling Stone Lips and you had the Powell Peralta drawings and you had all these artists that were coming out of the West Coast, who were really influential.
As you mixed those two, that's where hip-hop kind of landed in that world. I would say that even though Triple Five Soul and PNB were labeled hip-hop brands, they really were also in the continuum of all of this that came before. Add to that mix the overwhelming influence of NYC graffiti and even tagging, and you had these brands. Hip-hop, however, was clearly the soundtrack, but they were coming out of the Lower East Side so there was still a lot of punk and rupture involved. The “Let’s take over the world one t-shirt at a time” attitude was there for sure…
The other shop I mentioned was James Jebbia’s UNION shop on Spring Street in SOHO. That was the other spot in town that carried all of these same brands, but had a little slicker presentation than Camella. James was also a retail pioneer who soon saw the literal connection of this new world and that of skate. He opened a Stussy shop in the neighborhood and then, of course, created Supreme, which moved the scene from that of strictly hip-hop culture to one that was a blend of hip-hop, coupled with an East Coast version of skateboarding.
Right. Now we're in ‘97, ‘98. Have we missed anything, chronologically?
Yeah, my true leap into the scene… In ‘94 there was a kid named Bleu Valdimer who decided to start a clothing line called Kingpin. He said, "I want to create a streetwear t-shirt line. Do you want to be the Art Director?" I said, "Yeah, of course." It was a chance to do kind of my own thing with him, and he basically funded it. Bleu was really well-connected across the city and basically he knew this graffiti artist named Stash really well. I mention Stash because Stash was the “S” in GFS who had made the now infamous Phillies Blunt t-shirt way back when. GFS stood for the artists Gerb, Futura, and of course, Stash. They were the legends. Stash, in turn, introduced me to my lifelong compatriot, Russell Karablin, who was, and is, and ever shall be, SSUR. Russell and I became close friends. I started working with Russell on his line, which at the time which was still quite young, but he was prolific. Quite honestly, people are still trying to catch up to Russell for what he was doing back in the day.
He was tied into Supreme very early, too, right?
He was. He was doing some stuff for Supreme back early in the day as well. Yeah. James had commissioned him to do stuff. His studio and backyard at 7 Spring Street became the hub – the epicenter – of the whole Supreme downtown little scene. It was that whole kind of Lower East Side thing, but it had moved to the rebranded NoLita.
And then, basically I decided out of the blue to move to California and go to CalArts, a strange, impulsive decision to drastically switch things up. Coincidentally, I moved out there at the same time that Russell moved out there. So he and I started working even more closely on SSUR and doing SSUR designs with him in LA. All the while, I went to CalArts and did this high design curriculum. I went to CalArts for two years, and basically that's how I started working with Russ – a partnership which lasted for ten strong years.
And after CalArts, I switched it up yet again. I went to Nike for about a two-year stint up in Oregon.
What was your role there?
I went there basically to work on a small team to redesign the Denver Broncos logo at the time. I went to there around ‘95, ‘96 and stayed until about ‘97. While working there, one day I got a call from a designer friend in LA, named Geoff McFetridge. He was a classmate of mine at CalArts. He introduced me to the guys at Girl Skateboards. One day I got a phone call from Rick Howard and he said, "I want to start a new clothing line called Four Star. It’s going to be a skate clothing line, but I want it to be more like a Nike or a Ralph Lauren. I loved the idea. There were so many dirty little skate brands out there. All surf or punk or hesher. Nothing for this new breed of skateboarders like Eric Koston, Guy Mariano, Mike Carroll, Keenan Milton... these were skaters who wore Nautica and Polo Sport, listened to Hip-Hop, and collected Jordans. They had East Coast influences. They were all super-athletic and played basketball and even lifted weights and worked out. There were really no skate brands out there for them at that time. Four Star would be a brand that directly fit their lifestyle. It was the perfect opportunity and fit for me and my interests and design background. So I left Nike right away. That was a huge, awesome opportunity to work with the legendary, Girl which was obviously co-owned by Spike Jonze and had a super awesome group of guys blazing totally new trails in skate and skate culture.
I moved back to L.A. and worked for them for a good two years starting and making a brand out of Four Star. That put me back into doing t-shirts and graphics as well. The whole time I was still working with Russell doing a lot of SSUR stuff as well. Those were fun, busy times…
What brought you back home to New York?
I started working for a magazine called Tokion Magazine. Adam Glickman is the guy who owned and operated Tokion. He came into Girl Skateboards one day to see if Girl wanted to advertise in his magazine. He and I just got to talking and became friends and then I started doing art direction on Tokion. That eventually led me back to New York City and doing Tokion Magazine, splitting time between Russell and the SSUR stuff, and working out of his studio, but then also working out of the Lower East Side studio for Tokion. That got me back to New York in a sense.
What year is this now?
Late ‘98. Of course it was a totally different place then, but a lot of the same characters were still doing a lot of the same stuff just on bigger, more international scales. The Japan influence in streetwear now provided income for an industry, not just a neighborhood. There were hundreds and hundreds of shops, not just one or two. Bleu had become the guy who started Kingpin, but had now become partners with Stash and Futura in what was called Project Dragon. Russ was getting bigger. Supreme was growing quickly. Camella had a mini-empire.
Then in 99, Russell and I started talking about me doing my own line through the SSUR camp. That’s when I started this thing I called Natural Born.
Natural Born was and still is the single biggest moment in my career. It was the turning point for me. And I probably was 10 years too late. I had been working for others for over a decade, and for some reason resisted doing my own thing. But, truthfully, the vision had never really come. I did not see it until around this time. Everything had built up to this moment. Natural Born really became the resting place of all of the graphics or concepts that other brands had rejected. I had collected them all over the years, but they had really never fit with any of the other brands with which I had been working. They were ideas that were personal to me. They were things I was super into, but had limited commercial appeal. They were the extensions of all of my collections of books and records.
It was important because it was me. It was all mine. I think that it is super important that in this world of take, steal, borrow, and beg that you have something that is yours. That you decide what happens to it. You control it. And there is a home for the stuff you want to make. It gave me a point of view to communicate. It was the very early, abstract foundation for the Monster character world I live in now. One that I would make for me, but to share with others…
Was Stussy the next big stop for you?
Just about, yeah. I would say that it was. My stint back in New York lasted up until fatherhood. I had a daughter in 2002. After 9/11 a lot changed downtown. Russ had built a big studio on Centre Market Street, but it didn't quite work out. Just the whole city changed a lot and at the time. With Stussy, I wanted to see where I could take the brand. For some reason, I thought that it would be better to raise a kid out in California, so I went back out there.
While I was out in California, I got a call from James Jebbia and Eddie Cruz, and they were like, "Would you be interested in going to work at Stussy?" They were both partners in Stussy shops in LA and James owned the one in NYC. Paul Mittleman was at Stussy at the time, but they needed someone help him and to concentrate solely on t-shirts and basically establish graphic leadership there.
And then I started doing my own art, which was like doing shows in Japan and in LA and other places. Traveling…
Is the Monster figure yet a part of your iconography at this stage? Is this part of your repertoire?
No. The Monsters didn't really appear until 2005.
Okay, so I'm way off.
Yes and no. I mean I doodled them all of the time. There were kind of something I did in private, but a lot of the stuff that I was doing was still primarily logos and graphics. It was a lot of graphic design still at this point. We were still out here doing a lot of logo rip-offs, a lot of weed references, a lot of hip-hop stuff, a lot of sayings on shirts. For Natural Born, I was doing a lot of like "Found" kind of hippie, Black Panther type of iconography. That was part of what I was doing there.
Okay. Cool. And then, just tracing it forward, what was the next big stop? Where did you start your stint at Pratt?
I started at Pratt before going to LA. It was like ‘99, 2000, 2001, those years. I was teaching typography, and that's when I had Eric Elms as a student and he had worked done work for Shepard Fairey. Shepard and I were friends from the RISD days. Eric helped me silk screen some of my first show stuff. After Pratt, he came and worked for me and Russell at SSUR. I still remember to this day while I was at Cali, getting a phone call from Eric. He said, "I don't think I'm going to do my senior year at school." I'm like, "Why?" And he said, " Because James Jebbia offered me this Supreme position." We talked on the phone and it was a once in a lifetime thing, so I just laid out his options and told him to just do it. Of course the rest is history for him.
Can you give us a little history of how you started to do shows that included some of your work?
Yeah. It was kind of very similar, because a lot of graphic designers started doing shows right around ‘98, ‘99. Alleged Gallery would have designers like Mike Mills showing their design work as art, and Geoff Mcfetridge was showing in L.A. at the XLarge Gallery. A gallery in Seattle, called Houston Gallery was doing a lot of graphic shows. All of a sudden, people who were once considered graphic designers were starting to have these shows. The t-shirt designers who previously just made t-shirts were suddenly presenting their work as art on a wall.
A lot of the work I did also sort of remained graphic design, just in a gallery setting. I honestly never had any preconceptions to make “art”. I had no real gallery ambition. It was just a new way to showcase and present my work and be more independent from strictly work-for-hire or client-driven work. I did my first show at a gallery called 222 Gallery in Philadelphia. It was around the graphic history of early reggae and rock steady. Then that show sort of traveled and went to San Francisco at a great old shop called Red Five. The show then traveled to Japan, and I began my long-standing relationship with BEAMS-T. I quickly discovered that the shows let me be more “me” and gave me the opportunity to dig deeper into subjects and cultural movements that I was into. It also allowed me to travel and meet a lot more people.
Then I started working with HVW8 gallery in L.A. That was really when I first started doing a lot of experimentation in a gallery setting. When I first started working with them, a lot of the work that I was showing was basically kind of t-shirt graphics on a wall. A lot of t-shirt designers were starting to move in that direction. It was very natural for me to start doing that. The hip-hop quotes that I would take and put on a t-shirt were now being put into galleries. But it was fun and it definitely progressed from there. Shows are really fun and a great challenge. But, make no mistake, I was never trying to be an artist per se. I wanted to just have fun and explore subjects and iconography that I love like political history, reggae, rap, jazz, and sports…
You worked by hand on a lot of cut and paste stuff, even going back to the Giant Step flyers. We're in an almost overwhelmingly digital age, so I'm wondering how you made adjustments along the way. Do you still find some kind of hybrid of hand and digital?
My mentality actually hasn't changed. And the way that I work, although the technology is better and I maybe clean up more on the computer, I still do things the very same way. I still start with a drawing or start with a Xerox and I draw over that. Then that gets scanned . Everything is usually a Bitmap drawing that I scan into the computer and then clean up slightly and re-size and lay out in whatever way on the computer. In fact, when I took over Tokion magazine in 1999 and started doing that method, I was not well-versed in typography in the way that I am now. I had not had a lot of practice in laying out full magazines. It was one of these things where I was asking myself, "What can I do to make Tokion different? I mean there were so many magazines out there."
So you meant to isolate yours, or set it apart?
Yeah, just set it apart. It was funny because I was on the phone with Geoff McFetridge and he was joking, almost poking fun at me like, "What are you to do, hand draw the entire issue?” All of a sudden I was like, "That's what I'm going to do." It was kind of a challenge. It was kind of like, "Fuck you”--not to Geoff, but the mag industry. I told myself, “I am going to do that." I started drawing like every title, every name. It was crazy and probably drove Adam Glickman, the publisher, totally insane. It was way more work than it had to be. We were still doing Japanese translation of the English stuff as well.
It was really a nightmare, but it forced me to do a lot of hand-drawn typography and do a ton of drawing. We did this issue called the “Disobedience Issue,” which was kind of a precursor to Aaron Rose's Beautiful Losers thing. There was a program called Freehand, which made it very easy to work. Freehand was a great computer program that allowed you to almost treat all your drawings like silk screens. You could color the layers easily right in the program itself. You could put them on top of each other. You could make them transparent. A lot of this technology that I had, a lot of mentality that I had was still based on silk screening, which I had learned all the way back in my days at RISD.
The idea of layering things together with multiple drawings and working with trace and scanning it in is the way that I work to this day. Luckily, I'm old and stuck in my ways, because if I had to relearn everything right now, I think it would be almost impossible.
I'm pretty archaic in what I do. People get pretty annoyed by watching me do some of my stuff.
Well if they're hiring you at this point, they're hiring you so you're allowed to do that.
They are. Yeah. But it's having to deal and manage around some of my methods sometimes. Not every production team loves it. At times, it is hard to do a simple t-shirt where you don't have a vector drawing. It's just a one color print. So many things these days are totally vectored. You see the work close. You blow them up to 3,000 times. With mine it's like it's 600 dpi. You can't go that big. I just hate the vector look. It is so not crafted most of the time. It can look very lazy to me.
It's funny because the stuff that I learned very early on in those first years of doing Giant Step flyers and t-shirts and zines is not really that different from the way that I work now. I think when people see the way I work, it's a little dinosaur-like. But at the same time, it's drawing, which is kind of a lost art, like you said before. The default process nowadays is that people start out with a drawing and then they quickly trace it. It becomes vectored, and it all kind of looks like it came out of a computer. It all looks the same.
Right and, I mean, I forget who it was that we talked to. It might have been Kimou from Doubleday and Cartwright. But somewhere along the line, he said if somebody knows what he’s looking at, then at a certain point there aren’t that many ways to distinguish one’s work from somebody else's if it's strictly done digitally.
I would agree with that. So much of what's out there is so cookie-cutter.
Do you see any kind of recoil from the over-digitalizing of things?
I do. There's so much mural art going on now. There's also a lot of hand-painting going on in the world. You see hand-painted lettering a lot. If you go on to a site like Skillshare or one of those, there’s a billion classes on how to draw hand-done lettering and a ton of classes on sign painting. This can only be seen as a direct response to too much digitizing, pure vector art, design done strictly by computer. There had to be some sort of backlash. I think that there is a real swell of more and more kids learning to draw, or at least using drawing a little more in their work. I think there are artists and designers out there who still really value hand-done illustration and hand-done fonts. I think that that's going to remain that way, and I think you're always going to have that counter to what's going on digitally. Analog is like The Force. It runs deep.
What do you make of these smaller design agencies like Doubleday and Cartwright filled with younger designers doing big commissions like for the NBA?
I think what maybe the Milwaukee Bucks or other big brands might respond to when they look at a Doubleday and Cartwright’s body of work is that there's a mentality that goes into it that is closer to the customer that they're trying desperately to relate to. I think that we are in an era where kids can design for kids. You don't always have to go to the big agencies with ad-agency industry creatives. You can go to kids who are actually closer to who really watches the NBA and who actually buys NBA products. I think Milwaukee kind of looked at Doubleday and Cartwright and thought, "Well they're much closer to our core audience. They're much closer to Lebron and Kevin Durant than these a lot of these usual NBA hired agencies that have generally pumped out formulated play dough. So in the end, we'll simply ask them what they want to see in an NBA store.”
That's so crazy.
I think the Brooklyn Nets did a little of that, too. They said, "We're not going to be exactly what the NBA has put out there. We're going to be a little bit closer to who is in Brooklyn and who our customer. Although, I still think that they over-simplified what Brooklyn really is and how kids represent themselves out here. The black and white thing was a fashion trend at the time as well.
What’s your take on how closely related so much work is now? Much of what we see seems cookie-cutter and trendy. It’s almost like people aren’t ashamed to copy.
I think the histories are so short now. The people are like, "Hey, this so-and-so company was the first company to do this." History for many kids doesn't really go back that far back. People think SSUR is like three years old. That it started with the COMMES des FUCKDOWN shirt. People are putting out shirts like Reservoir Dogs and a Full Metal Jacket t-shirt like they never existed before. But those graphics were done ages ago. SSUR literally did them back then. I think that what the internet does unfortunately is cut everything down into this very limited historical continuum and we're so focused on the last year and the last two years ...
That that becomes their history?
Yes, it becomes their history. It is sooo short. I always compare it to the NBA where kids got over Jordan so quickly. Jordan is a shoe brand. "We love Iverson. He crossed over Jordan." And then all of a sudden Iverson retires, and then Kobe Bryant is the kid. And then, now people are like, "Who is Kobe? ... " Yeah and now Lebron is the new king, and all of a sudden soon it will be Kyrie Irving or someone else that comes along. I think the historical perspective is getting shorter and shorter. You're getting people who are doing hand-drawn things now and guys like ESPO won’t be getting the kind of credit that he deserves. Kids are caring less and less about what happened in the past. They're like, "No, whatever's happening now is what I care about." I mean you can make your own t-shirt company in a day now. It used to take years to develop a brand. Gerb, Futura and Stash’s Philly's Blunt took six months to even get to the West Coast. I am sounding super old now with the “back in my day…..” talk.
It is crazy.
You couldn't really even bite too hard back then because everything was so slow. It was hard to bite because it was simply too difficult to get it done fast enough to bite it. Nowadays it's like a kid sees a blog or Insta post and says "Oh, there's this t-shirt company out there, but I can make a similar one and have it out there the very next week. Hood By Air, of course, got copied by 50 different companies in like a month and then, next! It just happens really fast. It's like, hey SSUR's doing all black and white T's. Now every company's doing all black and white T's. Then just as quickly, they’re not. Next chapter….
This streetwear culture is now old enough where it deserves serious historical treatment, and we feel like the design side needs that too. That's one of the reasons we started this Fresh + Creative segment was because we need this shit documented and shot well and up in it's proper format.
There’ve been magazines that have done the history of t-shirt design in New York City and they don't even go that far back. They start at like 2004, 2003.
Oh my gosh.
I mean but that's the fact. I do think though that the internet, like anything else, Instagram, blogs, Twitter, whatever it is, does allow more people to take part in the culture. It can be, at it’s best, constructive and democratic. Because back then it was like, five to ten clothing companies and that's it, and if you weren't a part of them, it was impossible to break into. I think that is one good aspect of this new outlet. And I do think that the internet, as fast as it is and as fast as people bite, eventually weeds people out. What happens is that you're forced to do something different when people start copying you. Biting forces the people who are doing the original stuff to keep making more original stuff. And the fact that people are stealing your stuff just forces you to do it and go deeper into what you're doing. I think Russell's (SSUR) is a prime example of someone who just keeps ahead of that curve. It boils down at some basic level to authenticity. He knows that people are doing black and white t-shirts and booking on them, but he's quick to do the next version of that. He does a New York punk collection and then everyone else is copying that and doing their own punk collection, and then he goes ahead and does reggae the next summer. It does force some of these really talented people to keep changing themselves and developing more and more new work. Talent still rises. It’s just becoming more and more difficult than ever to recognize that and tell the difference any more. It's unfortunate that it has to be such a hustle, and that some people are still out there biting from their own peers. That’s where it's just not cool. But again, there are kids today who don't really know the history, so in a way if we do not tell it properly, they can't really be totally blamed for doing the Full Metal Jacket t-shirt. They just didn't know that it happened before.
We’re all Robin Hoods for the last 25 years. Steal from the rich. Or in this case Corporations and culture. But the fact is you're bound to get bit by other Robin Hoods. That’s what being Robin Hood is all about…
It also doesn't matter that it has happened before because their demographic that their making it for doesn't care.
Doesn't care. Huge point.
That's a weird place, too, for us as older people. It's like their history is the history of what they can thumb down or thumb up or scroll down or scroll up to on their phones and that is crazy that the history itself has been re-constituted. That really trips me out.
And the fact that the scroll up and down thing means that that history is jumping forward constantly. What used to be like, "Hey it's starting 1980. Now it's 2001." No, it started in 2001 and it's now 2003 and then to the next generation it's like, "Oh, that started in 2003." And now it's 2005. Now it’s 2013!
I think that's the difference is that point of which the history begins keeps jumping forward so quickly. And everything else seems really old beyond that. You know to most kids, Michael Jordan right now is a guy who wears bad suits who sits on the sideline with a weird earring? He was the coolest motherfucker on the planet when we were 25, 30 years old, and suddenly he's like the old guy, and Russell Westbrook is cool, who we look at and go, "Oh, he looks crazy." Wow, I use a lot of NBA references…..
Yeah. But having said that, I think the unfortunate part is that when people start to look at it and it becomes so disposable, that's when it's dangerous.
What will your role be considering that answer is the future of the people who you're going to be making art for , who is going to be looking at your work? How does that affect the way you make your work?
Well for me it doesn't play a huge role. I do a lot of work that has a contemporary aspect to it. I borrow from contemporary music, from hip hop, and contemporary culture, so that stuff always has a place. I think one of the most consistent influences over time has been musical lyrics. ESPO was doing hip-hop quotes way back when. Stash and Futura were doing it. Russell has been doing hip-hop quotes for 20 years, and to this day that's the most popular thing on any t-shirt on any given day. Hypebeast. Freshness. High Snobiety….
That's been the most consistent single element/influence on streetwear. That kind of keeps the whole industry more relevant.
For me, I've had a second life, which is the Monster characters, and they appeal to both the world above AND to a totally different world than above, simply because they're not really dated. They exist in their own world. They don't have a specific place and reference where, "Oh, that's old NAS," or "That's an old weed reference."
When I would have a show ten years ago it would be my own age people showing up there. It would be all my peers, all my friends. A big inside joke. Nowadays, I show to really young, college-level art students and even high school kids, parents and their kids. They are who follow me on Instagram, and they look at the Monsters strictly as their own thing. They don't have an age. They don’t have a reference. They just are. In a way, they are freed from context and culture. They can certainly lean into it whenever they want, but they can also stand on their own. In turn, they free me from it all as well.
There's no necessary cultural tie, that's fascinating, yeah. And that wasn't even on purpose, right?
It wasn't even on purpose. It just happened that way but that's that, and that's whole other level of appropriation. Nostalgia.
Obviously my characters have Garfield eyes and they have some Sponge Bob expressions. But there's a whole bunch of childhood memory mish mash. They look like Muppets in a sense or whatever you can reference, but they have their own look and feel. They truly belong to me a little bit more than say, a knock-off of the IBM logo, or a knock-off of a Mercedes logo, or a hip-hop reference to a NAS lyric which everybody has already done five t-shirts for.
That transcends trend.
These people who are very iconic and you just know their work when you see it, it's a little easier to navigate, so when you asked that question of, "How will your work be judged amongst contemporary kids," it's like that's one way to get off of that appropriation unicycle a little bit. Not being in the mix of a lot of different logo stuff. Now I still do that work here and there for people. I still do stuff with lyrics on them, and I still do graphics like that for brands.
But, the rules are clearer now, which is to say there are fewer and fewer rules. But, at least I know now that every time I put a lyric on a shirt I’m in danger of someone else putting the same lyric on a t-shirt shortly thereafter. When I see people get into these beefs and battles about that stuff on social media, you really have to be a person who’s literally combing the internet constantly to know if you're actually biting someone. But I think there are a number of individuals out there who are definitely guilty of that because they see a way they can make money off of it. That's just the reality of it. That's been around for ages and ages. But that's pure plagiarism. Not appropriation. But as far as what's going on with kids today, I think it's moving so fast it's just hard to predict.
Even working at Urban Outfitters and trying to trend forecast. What's going on with kids? It's so unpredictable. Forecasting is bullshit. Hire the kids you are forecasting if you want to sell anything to them. That’s where Urban went totally wrong. There's a high school right by my house in Clinton Hill. They get out every day and I see them wearing a BAPE tee, Jordans with adidas soccer pants and they're wearing Supreme hats, all these brands. It used to be like the kid would wear the adidas track suit and a pair of adidas hi-tops. Now it's like, they're wearing a Jordan or a Lebron but their mixing it with Adidas sweat pants and then their wearing a BAPE top, which is like not even made for them. Or they're wearing SSUR for the hat and wearing Hood by Air Hockey shirt. It’s all fashion now and so the rules, like I said, are slowly dissolving.
When we were kids, we'd be like, you dress Skate, you dress hip-hop. You might mash the two a little bit. You wear all Polo. You wear all Skate and now it's like, I think it's very hard to predict and say like, I know what I'm going to make for people.
As a whole, you can really put the history of hip-hop, which is very young, and the history of streetwear, which is very young, together in the same way. It's a very complicated minefield of appropriation, of flat -out copying, of great, brilliant stuff, all mixed together. It's that combination of some stuff's nostalgic, some stuff is local, some stuff is global, some stuff is futuristic, but it's very similar to one another.
The people who have stayed in it and are really relevant are brands who have managed to navigate that, like SSUR and Supreme and several others. Guys like HAZE and KAWS have created their own styles that cut through it all. Other dudes like Jeff Staple, Alayasha Owerka -Moore, and Huf have all adapted brilliantly over the years to stay on top. They've been able to navigate that throughout time. Stussy and Girl are brands who have managed to do that. There's still tons of brands taking cues from all of those, and some of the newer brands like The Hundreds, 10 deep, and Mighty Healthy are paying homage. They’ve respected what has come before them, and they keep pumping out great stuff, too, but there's a legacy of some of these brands that have just lasted. They outlasted people. It's amazing how Obey and SSUR and brands like that are still very, very relevant today. And it's only a testament to them really being forward-thinkers and them being more original than everybody else. Even when that originality involves appropriation. I would argue that originality is also a series of choices and even a lifestyle.
And not just trend-riding or ...
And not just trend-riding. They are trying to set those trends, and sometimes it works. And you have great years, and then sometimes you have lean years. But they managed to walk that very fine line to do the right thing and manage it all. Hopefully in some small way, I've played a part in some of those successes and carved out my own niche within all that. Done my own thing--to get a slice and buy an old Pharoah Sanders record on Fulton…