An Oral History of the Graphic T-Shirt

We interviewed streetwear's greatest to give us their take on how the T-shirt game unfolded. Read it in their own words.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

In 2007, Complex published a story in its August issue titled, "An Oral History of the Graphic T-Shirt". We did a series of interviews with streetwear's elite, and the story provided a look into how things got from surf tees to all-over prints. We wanted to archive this story online, but we thought it was important to bring the history up to date as well. So we did a few more interviews, finished out the piece, and here it is. Click on to read Complex's History of the Graphic T-Shirt, as told to you buy the game's greats including Eric Brunetti of FUCT, Rick Klotz of Freshjive, Bobby Hundreds of The Hundreds, Paul Mittleman and Adam Weissman of Stussy, Jeff Staple of Stapledesign, and more.

Original interviews and story by Rebecca Louie with additional reporting by Noah Johnson and Bradley Carbone

In the Beginning: Surf and Skate

Paul Mittleman (Stussy): In 1980, there was no such thing as “streetwear”. It was the end of punk and the rise of hip-hop, a grand time to start a DIY clothing operation between two of the greatest DIY creative scenes that youth culture had ever spawned.

Bobby Hundreds (The Hundreds): Growing up in Southern California, I’ve worn T-shirts like 99.9 percent of my life. What was big when I was a kid was surf T-shirts, Billabong, Quicksilver.

Eric Haze (HAZE): Rock and skate were the first T-shirts we got up on and started collecting as kids.

Sal Barbier (Zoo York, SLB): You had Santa Cruz, Powell Peralta, all the cool artists doing cool artwork.

Shepard Fairey (Obey): I loved the graphics that Jim Phillips did for Santa Cruz.

KAWS (Subware): I was really into [Santa Cruz’s] Rob Roskopp. This was probably around fifth, sixth grade. That was what we were [wearing].

Erick Brunetti (FUCT): That’s when I first saw graffiti on a T-shirt, when I saw Haze’s art in the Pop Shop.

Eric Haze: I think it was ’86 [when] I printed my first T-shirts. I printed three styles, including my bat logo, which was probably the first Haze graphic of that nature.

Erick Brunetti: There was Hysteric Glamour from Japan, they came out in ’84, ’85, and then there’s [Shawn] Stussy.

Can I Get a Bite? Parody and Pop Art

Bobby Hundreds: Stussy was founded upon parody. The line was a direct rip-off of high-end fashion lines, but he brought it to the street level. The original SS logo looked like the Chanel logo.

Shepard Fairey: It’s the paradox of being able to be highbrow and lowbrow. I loved him stealing the graphics of a little girl flirting with a little boy. He would draw a Stussy medallion on the boy with a speech bubble that said, “I love to rock my gold for the ladies.”

Eric Brunetti: After Stussy and Haze was FUCT, XLarge, and Freshjive. That was all 1990. Anything after that is garbage.

Shepard Fairey: On the West Coast, Freshjive was doing kind of hip-hop, kind of rave. It crossed over and resonated with skateboarders.

Andrew Chen (3sixteen): The Freshjive shirt that flipped the Tide box opened peoples’ eyes to the creative things you can do with a corporate image completely changing it so it represents something new and fresh.

Rick Klotz: Stussy knocked off the Chanel logo, the Louis Vuitton logo, on and on throughout the years.

Eric Haze: My attitude about it from day one is that it’s biters’ paradise and more power to you. This is the essence of the style wars as they evolved. The crazy irony is that as time went on, there were companies who made their mark biting other companies, biting logos, who ended up suing other companies for biting them.

Rick Klotz (Freshjive): One was a parody of the Tide logo, the other one was a parody of the Big Gulp logo of the 7-Eleven. One was of a bubble gum wrapper and one was of Special K. Those really hit hard at the time.

Rick Klotz: So in 2004 I’m thinking it would be a great statement to break down the idea to a street level. So I parodied four companies: Stussy, Obey, Quicksilver , and Volcom. We pre-sold them, and we’re about to ship them, and the owner of Stussy [editors note: Shawn Stussy was no longer involved with the company] calls us and says, “We’re going to sue you if you do that.” They sued us for hundreds of dollars and a public apology. It was heavy.

Eric Haze: Up to that point the market had pretty much been surf/skate. The tipping point was when hip-hop—the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and the like—started to cross over and influence what everybody was doing.

Late ‘80s/Early ‘90s: Hip-Hop’s Golden Age

Kaves (Lordz of Brooklyn):The only other cats that were doing it at the time was Stash and Futura, Haze in California, Third Rail, and Pervert. That was 1990 or something. It was a new way, putting graffiti on tees.

Alyasha Owerka-Moore (Phat Farm, Alphanumeric): Stash and Futura were doing a company called Not From Concentrate, or NFC. Futura and Stash and their ever-popular Phillies Blunt T-shirt.

Angelo Baque: PNB being formed and owned by graffiti artists, I was in awe.

Scott Sasso (10.Deep): The thing that made me think about printing T-shirts was the fact that there were other graffiti writers doing it before I started. Specifically, PNB. A friend of mine came in to school wearing a sweatshirt that was in a graffiti writer’s hand style. He didn’t want to tell me where he got it, and finally he said, “Yo I got it at this spot Union downtown—don’t tell nobody about it.”

Angelo Baque (Absurd/Supreme): You had to be ubercool to have Triple 5 Soul sticker on your binder or a patch on your Jansport. It was still this tiny hole in the wall, nobody knew who the hell Triple 5 Soul was.

Camella Ehlke (Triple 5 Soul): Ludlow Street, 1989. People wore Girbaud jeans, 8-ball jackets, Stussy, Zoo York, tie hats. The store was difficult to find. Guys then wanted to keep it a secret. Our tribe was hip-hop, fashionistas, artsy, all rolled into one.

Haze: There was probably not 25 hip-hop influenced clothing companies in the whole world in ’93. Between the Triple 5 Souls and the ConArts and Haze and FUCT and Pervert and XLarge there was a very small, tight-knit community of people who were reinventing the game.

Jeff Staple (Stapledesign): It was like an exclusive club. You could almost befriend a stranger because both of you were wearing a Project Dragon T-shirt, some shit that only a handful of others were wearing.

Kaves: It opened up doors for anything street culture to [be] put on a T-shirt.

Shepard Fairey: I never even thought it would get as big as it is now. In 1994, I was at the 432F trade show and Marc Ecko was manning his 10x10 booth directly next to me with like a foam cut-out logo as his only piece of signage or prop. None of the crazy extravagant booths that he got into just two years after that.

Kaves: We thought we were killing it, showing at tradeshows. Next thing you know cats like Marc Ecko was like spending $300,000 on just the setup at the MAGIC tradeshow. Like, “How am I competing with this shit?” Money steps it up and you kind of get pushed to the side.

The Sky’s the Limit (ed Edition): Rarity and Value

Bobby Hundreds: Around the later ‘90s, I got heavy into those brands coming out of New York and Japan. I had to save up so I could fly to New York and go and visit these hole-in-the-wall boutiques.

Angelo Baque: It was this second generation of independent T-shirt companies coming out of New York: Staple, Elements of Style, 10.Deep, indie hip-hop groups doing their own T-shirts. It seemed like every cool person had a T-shirt line back then. It was an inner circle of like 12 heads.

Peter Leonard (King Stampede): Supreme was a major part in this becoming what it is. Unapologetically representing a movement and a culture that hadn’t gotten that before. It had a raw New York vibe but it also had a refined, beautiful, fine-art quality to it.

Sal Barbier: They sold my lines at Supreme which was the ultimate compliment back then.

Angelo Baque: Back in 2000 there were probably six accounts you could sell to and you had to depend on Japan for business. It was like sell to Union or sell to Urban Outfitters. And if you sold to Urban Outfitters, it was a wrap.

Marc Ecko (Ecko Unltd.): The early-adopter communities were the Japanese. Shibuya was more Brooklyn than Brooklyn, a thousand Japanese kids with dreads and gold fronts. They really kind of put the whole scene on, giving [designers] the first opportunity to commercialize in some regard.

Jeff Staple: Back in the day you couldn’t produce that many [shirts] because you didn’t have the means of producing that many. Now you have companies that have millions of dollars but are cutting back to create a limited-edition feeling.

Alyasha Owerka-Moore: The clever thing BAPE did was attach the Louis Vuitton attitude. Shut your shop down for a couple of weeks and tell people [product] is only going to be available for three days, You’ll have a line around the block.

Eric Haze: The Japanese have a different mentality, where if it’s affordable they don’t trust it, and if it’s exclusive and overpriced it must be great. That’s kind of jerking your audience, but for whatever perverse reason, it works.

Alyasha Owerka-Moore: A Bathing Ape was a Japanese interpretation of FUCT and SSUR, basically. Erik Brunetti from FUCT was doing huge canvases that were tons of ape things. We were roommates in California in ‘89/’90. I don’t want to say BAPE started off as a rip-off brand; to be kind, I’ll say it was highly influenced by what was happening in American streetwear.

Eric Brunetti: A parody is when you take something and you reappropiate it and give it a new meaning. Biting is when some asshole comes along and takes what I already did, like the Planet of the Apes, and they just dig through whatever movie stills I haven’t used from that and put it on a shirt.

Painting by Eric Brunetti

The Global Pillage

Bobby Hundreds:The Internet accelerated everything. Brands came up faster and everyone was on this Ritalin-addled pulse.

Rick Klotz: A lot of young people just jumped right into it with balls of steel. It’s like, “Fuck I don’t know how to make clothes, but I’m going to do it! I see the next guy doing it—if he can do it, I can do it!”

Nick Jackson (12bar): From 2004 to 2007 there was a massive growth in technology, commercial hip hop, hype about sneakers, hype behind Japanese brands, and it converged to create a scenario where starting a clothing brand was pretty much what being a DJ was when we were in our teens. That also coincided with a larger economic growth. People had money, people were spending, people were buying shit on credit that they really shouldn't have been, and the world was booming. It was all about conspicuous consumption and there was a new wave of brands.

Eric Brunetti: They were taking photos of themselves in their fucking stupid outfits and pasting it everywhere, like, “Let’s put a bandanna over our face, take a picture, and start a fucking T-shirt line.”

Eric Haze: The blessing of the new paradigm was that you could make 300 shirts and get them to 300 kids and sell it through. It cut out the middleman in a revolutionary way.

Marc Ecko: To take a kid at his home and have him say. “Fuck Mark Ecko.” And make a T-shirt brand out of it was very democratic.

Angelo Baque: It just exploded with your BBCs and your 10.Deeps. 10.Deep single-handedly opened up the cool-guy T-shirt market.

Greg Rivera (Mishka): Brands like 10. Deep, people just started to straight-up rip off their stuff and you had bootleggers that were just taking their style and bastardizing it.

Andrew Chen: What you would only find in the most exclusive boutiques two years ago, you could walk into Dr. Jay’s and see.

Peter Leornard: Everybody was excited about [all-over], but a lot of the executions weren’t thought-out. It was more like, “Let’s just pick out this ridiculous wallpaper pattern so we can have our own all-over print.”

Bobby Hundreds: The easy way out was by using a dead rapper or a naked chick or something referencing soccer or marijuana. Put a naked chick on a skull smoking a blunt with “Fuck Fuck Fuck” written all over it.

Eric Brunetti: Streetwear became a monster out of control. It needed to be destroyed so that the kings could rise out of the ashes and claim it again.

Augie Galan (Acapulco Gold): We knew it was coming, it couldn't go on like that forever. It’s funny, like in good times I felt uneasy. Me and Geoff [Acapulco Gold partner], we grew up relatively lower class, so we know when things are going good to feel uneasy. NY's like the financial center of the world. You just got to look over the hill and be like, ‘Why are there 10 condos going up in a 3-block radius so fucking quickly? This is some real funny-money going around.’ We had a slight inkling that the bubble was going to burst so we never over-extended ourselves. We never bit off more than we could chew.

The Beginning of the End: The Recession vs. the T-Shirt Game

Scott Sasso: The economic downturn deadened the T-Shirt fever. Economically, the obvious effect was that people weren’t buying shit so there weren’t opportunities for all those startup companies that started popping up in 2006 and 2007 to actually be in business. A lot of them that started around then couldn’t continue to exist.

Jeff Staple: It was nuclear winter. That recession seriously wiped out a lot of shit.

Nick Jackson: Things got very stressful, and got very difficult for everybody. And you got into the environment where stores were closing left and right, and things started to get complicated. It happened the world over—it wasn’t specific to this industry.

Adam Weissman (Stussy): I would imagine there are fewer people wanting to start a skate company or streetwear company now because it’s not what it used to be. All those small stores that would carry you and who would give you a chance aren’t really around because they couldn’t survive.

Bobby Hundreds: It forced us to concentrate on products that could sell, and that was something happening across the board. Everything was made to sell and that resulted in obviously a lot of black T-shirts because black T-shirts sell.

Scott Sasso: Ultimately, all that stuff has ended up in solid black, solid white, solid navy T-shirts, it’s reductionist to the extreme. It’s just like, “I want universal.” And Uniqlo wins in the end. (laughs). Stylistically there was the equal and opposite reaction to all the art and goofy streetwear tees, which is that people were just like, "Fuck that shit, I want to do the exact opposite of that, I want to do simple, plain, one-color printed tees."

Bobby Hundreds: During the downtime everyone only had so much money to spend so they were like, "I'm going to go with the staples and I'm just going to go with what I know works for me." That starts with the stores and the store buyers, which then trickles down to the consumers. And for the consumers, that’s all the selection they had so they were just going to stick with what was on the shelves.

Making it Through

Adam Weissman: Graphic tees are what we’re known for. That’s what we do. There are a lot of brands that that’s what they do. I think what you’ll see struggling are the smaller brands that don’t really have an identity, that were just started because graphic tees were cool. If they were able to survive the economic struggle, they’re probably good because they managed to survive it and be successful.

Scott Sasso: To my eye, all the micro t-shirt brands are gone. But now that all that shit has died out, and style has gone to this plain, plain, plain stuff, I think that you’re going to start to see some brands starting to show up again, people starting to do some interesting basic graphic t-shirts again.

Adam Weissman: Seeing old Stussy stuff, it’s timeless, and I think that’s the key to streetwear, to keep things timeless. If you look at some of the stuff from the ’80s it’s not that far off from what you’d want to rock today. It’s a button down shirt, it’s nicely fitted jeans or khakis or cords and a fresh pair of kicks, a hat, a jacket, you know, its sort of the same uniform, and if you wear a t-shirt, it needs to sort of stand for something.

Nick Jackson: There has always been good brands and there always will be good brands. And if you're passionate about something, and you really believe in something and you really want to go for it, you gotta take the ups with the downs.

Augie Galan: I think in order to have a successful clothing company you have to have your own style. People have to look at you and be like, "Yeah that's Acapulco Gold." It’s like when you see Ralph, you know that it’s Ralph. He took what he took and made it his own way and that’s his style. And I think in the end it comes down to that word—style.

Scott Sasso: There’s a rhythm to it, there are reactions against things. Everybody goes left, then everybody goes right.  I think there are still a lot of people who are very much about “exclusive–special”, but I also think there is a large group of people who don’t give a shit anymore. They just want what they want. I’ve always beat the “exclusive–special” drum around here, but now when we talk about stuff, the last year or two it’s been like, "Fuck exclusive, let’s put our ideas out there, let’s let the business survive.”

Bobby Hundreds: We got in to this because we wanted to be different, we wanted to have rad sneakers that no one else had, and the cool New Era hat that no one else had. So it’s funny that it flipped the other way and everyone decided to go out there and play it safe.

Design in the New Era

Jeff Staple: As everyone knows, history repeats itself. I think right now we are at the stage right before that. We are sort of at the dark ages right before a new Renaissance period. I do feel like there will be a resurgence or Renaissance 2.0 of street culture.

Nick Jackson: There's gonna be a period of no logo, no logo, no logo. And then slowly but surely, it's gonna start creeping back. I don't think it's gonna get to the level it was at in 2007, which was absurd, but I do think it's going to start creeping back. One thing that will never change about human beings is that they're looking for identity, and that's what clothes have always been about.

Jeff Staple:I think inevitably there will be a little bit of a push back of against the Americana, hand-crafted, hand-tailored things. I don’t think that’s going away by any means because that is genuinely really great stuff. But I do think that eventually people are going to get tired of being so serious and brown. I am already seeing it from a footwear standpoint and footwear is such a great indicator of the culture. You can just see that the [Nike] Bo Jacksons are back the Ken Griffeys are back in their original acid green, neon, and floral red colorways.

Scott Sasso:It's going to be exciting. It seems like its time for a change. We’ve all been buckling down so long. There’s all this Americana, simple, classic, you know. I get it. I’m on it. But I think that it’s time for something new to happen. Everything goes to zero and then it will start again. In 5 years we’ll all be talking about crazy fucking t-shirts again. 

Bobby Hundreds: I'm personally interested in trying to get all-over print back in the mix albeit in a different format. We're working on bringing back patterns and repeating graphics. Camo is always the precursor to that shift, and by this time next year, camo is going to be everywhere. Last time allover print hit it was preceded by camo, and what Bape was doing with camo, and what Maharishi was doing. It's right around the corner. I think people are tired of what's out now. Like chambray button ups with boots is just not practical.

Augie Galan:I think that tees are a part of most young people's wardrobes and probably even slightly older people’s now. T-shirts are always going to be an important part of how people express themselves. You're basically showing somebody what you want to tell them without actually telling them, and that’s what a t-shirt is.

Bobby Hundreds: At the core, the graphic T-shirt is the cornerstone of streetwear. You can't ever change that. Sneakers play a huge part and headwear is obviously in there. But it's really all about T-shirts. Every single one of these streetwear brands out there, the prominent ones, more than half of their sales and the units that they're moving come from T-shirts. At the end of the day in streetwear, T-shirts are king.

Jeff Staple:As a creator I still have a lot of fun making T-shirts. Designing shirts taps a different part of you brain than cut and sew. It’s kind of naive to say, but it takes you back to ’95 and the reason why I got into it in the first place. Even though I don’t personally wear them all the time, I never even considered not printing t-shirts.

Adam Weissman: There’s always going to be a need for a graphic tee and I think done right, anyone can wear one.

Latest in Style