You never really know someone until you’ve traveled together. Something as simple as the way they order dinner, or speak to your AirBnB host can change your opinion of even your best friends, bringing you closer together, or tearing you apart. One of the most important indicators of a human’s quality is the type of souvenirs they’ll buy on vacation. A tourist in New York who snags a Statue of Liberty snow globe sends a very different message than one who cops those black T-shirts that read “Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck.” What kind of person actually buys those, anyway?
“Well, you know… fat people,” offers Ashik Hossain, a thirty-something man with a buzz cut who hawks T-shirts from a stand inside the Phoenix Mall in downtown Manhattan. Like countless other employees of souvenir shops that occupy storefronts from Little Italy to Times Square, he is on the front lines of New York City’s tourist industry, coming face to face with the 50 million out-of-towners who descend upon the five boroughs each year (or at least four of the five—keep trying, Staten Island). Those looking to return home with a tee commemorating their visit to the Big Apple have plenty of designs to choose from: A black and white panoramic cityscape, a bedazzled Empire State Building, a take on The Godfather movie poster that honors Mulberry Street, even a parody of the Starbucks logo. As the T-shirt shop proprietors tell it, the tees visitors gravitate toward tend to give you a pretty specific and consistent glimpse at who they are.
Take, for instance, Jay. We found Jay working in a relatively nondescript store on Hester Street. He’s just as no-nonsense as you’d expect for a man who goes by only his first name and sells shirts, bags, and souvenirs out of a shop called Shirts Bags Souvenirs. “The biggest seller over here is the NYPD products,” he told us confidently. “Everyone that comes down to New York City, that’s one of the most common T-shirts for people who want to buy souvenirs.”
Jay sees a people from all over the world in his shop, but noted Europeans in particular snatch up his police tees. “They’ll come in groups,” he says. “Like, it’ll be a lot of Spanish people at once, then a lot of French people at once. Whichever country has time off.” They also like to haggle. “They always come through and negotiate,” he says. “They come down here, and they’re looking at a $15 T-shirt, and they want it for, like, $2.” (For the record, Jay explained that the NYPD shirts are licensed by the city, so prices are fixed.)
Vendors all along Canal Street and into Chinatown also told us that NYPD tees are top sellers, a bit of an ironic twist for neighborhoods notorious for shilling illegal knock-offs, like fake Gucci bags and counterfeit Rolexes. Like Jay, they also sell most of their police shirts to foreign visitors. Employees at shops near the Public Library and in Times Square told us the same thing, citing shoppers from Italy and Russia.
It’s not just about where tourists are coming from, though. Some shopkeepers are able to break the demographics down even further. The classic New York ringer tee, as immortalized in that photo of John Lennon that has graced more dorm room walls than puke stains and stolen bar signs combined, skews young. “You know the teens? They love it,” reports M. Riazul Al Nawaz of 8th Avenue Gifts in Midtown. And the T-shirts with a photo of the city’s famous skyline? “Those are, like, 30- to 35-year-olds,” he says. “Especially women.”
When we spoke with Jigme, from Anthony Shops on Mulberry Street, it didn’t seem like he kept as close track of which customers are most likely to buy which shirt—although he did corroborate the connection between joke tees and customers of a certain BMI, for whatever that’s worth. He sums up the entire tourist tee operation in very basic terms: “Most people like things that say ‘New York’ when they buy a gift for their friends or family. So, they come to New York, they want to buy something that says ‘New York.’”
Fair enough. If you follow that thinking, is there anything that says “New York” more than an I Heart NY T-shirt? Munshi, who works near Penn Station at Vitamins and Souvenirs Gallery—which, it should be noted, is light on vitamins, heavy on souvenirs, and doesn’t at all resemble a gallery—cited The I Heart NY shirt as his best selling style in a landslide, across all demographics; every other vendor we met said it consistently sells well, too. “It’s iconic,” Munshi told us. “People come here to visit, and they want the I Heart NY.”
The logo has been a fixture in New York since graphic designer Milton Glaser created it in 1977, in an effort to entice tourists to visit the city during a period of high crime rates. Decades later, the 9/11 attacks turned it into something that even dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers were proud to wear across their chests. That’s no small feat, especially when you consider that the only thing that annoys the city’s permanent residents more than tourists themselves is the crap that tourists buy. Throw in the estimated $30 million product adorned with the logo generates each year, and you have a pretty good idea of the power of that design. It’s in a class of its own as quintessential tourist tee, and the only one to reach true crossover status—tempted as we all might be by “Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck.”
For some, that makes the choice easy. When we stopped by Vitamins and Souvenirs Gallery, Tia Fitzpatrick, a first-time NYC visitor, was perusing the aisles, fresh off the plane from Oakland. We asked her what she would choose if she had to buy one T-shirt to commemorate her trip, and she had no hesitation. “The I Heart NY. I would not get the I Love Harlem, I Love The Bronx, or Brooklyn,” she said. “Just I Heart NY.”