The airbrushed T-shirt: A history of hip-hop and mourning

Back in February, rapper Kanye West held an impressive event to release his latest album The Life of Pablo. The occasion included the Kardashians (of course), models at the verge of collapse and special merchandise that caught everyone’s attention. Said garment, was an airbrushed T-shirt that depicted a portrait on each side, on the front the rapper’s late mother Donna West and on the back, Kim’s father Robert Kardashian that passed away in 2003. The one-of-a-kind tee was designed by artist Alan Pastrana and could only be purchased that night for the surprisingly accessible price of $40.

Then a couple of months ago, when Alexander Wang unveiled his Spring 2017 collection, the designer handed special airbrushed T-shirts to the models in the show that were referred to as the “wang squad”. These pieces, that almost outshined the Adidas exclusive merch, were specially produced for the occasion by New York-based artist Noel and cannot be found anywhere else.

Another interesting case is the one of the partnership between American retailer Gap and artist Heron Preston. The former designed a sweatsuit embellished with an airbrushed illustration of a bald eagle and a slogan that says “The Gap is an iconic American brand for the people”. This move is worth noting mostly because it is unusual for this particular company that it is not particularly known for its urban style. Only time will tell if the tactic will help them recapture Gap’s former glory. Meanwhile, the ensemble can be pre-ordered through Preston’s website for the price of $500.

As Rae Witte pointed out in Highsnobiety, airbrushed T-shirts never really went anywhere, therefore it shouldn’t be called a “comeback”, but then why are we noticing it more now than ever before?

First, we must understand where airbrushing comes from.

A quick history of airbrushing

Some people trace an early version of airbrushing all the way back to prehistoric times, particularly because of techniques used in places like “Cueva de las manos” (Cave of the hands) in Santa Cruz, Argentina. But in order to not turn this blog post into an encyclopaedia, we’ll fast-forward all the way to 1893 when the first patent for an object that we could recognise as a modern airbrush was filed by a man called Charles Burdick in Great Britain.

Airbrushing first tried to become a viable way to make paintings, but it was quickly shunned by academics who reached the conclusion that because they came from a “machine” said works couldn’t be considered art. This is a belief that still permeates till this day. Even though airbrushing requires a great deal of study and dedication, some people don’t consider it art.

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The technique found instead its success in the world of advertising and photo retouching (this is where the expression “airbrushing photos” comes from). Thanks to the industrial revolution in the late XIX century there were more products than ever before, hence publicity becoming a necessity for manufacturers. In a world before photoshop, airbrushing was great for creating hyper-realistic images in a relatively short amount of time.

The relationship between airbrushing and advertisement continued to flourish until the late 80’s when computers started to take over. Before they knew it, an entire industry was out of business and airbrushing artists had to find a new line of work. Some, like this lady, started designing T-shirts.

Other industries where airbrushing became popular are special effects makeup, taxidermy and funerals among others.

The airbrushed T-shirt

It is hard to say when the first airbrushed T-shirts started being produced, although some sources point all the way back to the 50’s. In the US, airbrushed T-shirts are generally associated with county fairs, mall kiosks and boardwalk artists, but they got deeper roots in the Hip Hop and Street cultures.

The Shirt Kings

The Shirt Kings were Edwin “Phade” Sacasa, Rafael “Kasheme” Avery, and Clyde “Nike” Harewood, a group of graffiti artists that in the late 80’s moved from walls to fabrics by opening up a T-shirt shop in the Coliseum Mall in Queens. Nowadays they’re often credited as one of the leading forces behind the crossover of Hip Hop into mainstream culture.

They single-handedly didn’t create the movement, but they sure had a big aesthetic influence over it. Some state that the Shirt Kings did for hip-hop what Vivienne Westwood’s SEX in London did for punk back in the 70’s.

The line combined street art and cartoon characters* with portraits of famous people and was worn by the most influential people in the hip-hop industry of the time, including Jay Z and Queen Latifah. Hip Hop was so prominent in the late 80’s and early 90’s that companies like Disney and Warner Brothers, brands that the Shirt Kings parodied, created an urban version of their characters to sell their own merchandise.

* One of their most famous designs was Mickey Mouse smoking crack.

The influence of the Shirt Kings cannot be argued, ripples of their style still reach today thanks to a book that was published in 2013, a new website on the works and artists of all walks of life keeping their legacy alive.

R.I.P. T-shirts

Along with Hip Hop, airbrushed T-shirts are often used as tools to remember the deceased among certain communities in the US. Just like Kanye did with his mother and father-in-law and Drake for Selena, airbrushing a portrait onto a T-shirt (sometimes denim jackets, as well) is a tradition to honour those who have passed away. Some going as far as to order a new piece every time the death anniversary comes along.

The following article explores the reality of a small printing apparel business that specialises, for better or worse, on customising R.I.P. T-shirts. It is an interesting read that bluntly describes the struggles of certain communities and how art can be used to deal with grief.

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The fight against Fast-Fashion

Airbrushed T-shirts are highly valued because they’re one of a kind. Even if the illustrations are done with a machine, the garments have to be drawn one by one which gives them a unique feel.

There’s also a love for the unconventional. Alexander Wang’s “squad” didn’t embrace those tees because it would help them during their mourning process, or for a love of Hip Hop, but more likely for the “exclusive” and the “off-beat” that the industry tends to embrace. Maybe even an appreciation for the “cheap* and ugly” — whatever it takes to make you stand out.

* Airbrushing can be pricey, but nowhere near Wang standards.

Which leads us to our next point, the resurgence of these T-shirts is mostly due to two things. First, it is an extension of the 90’s revival we’ve seen in the past few years. Second, and the maybe less obvious reason, as a reaction to all of the fast fashion that dominates the market nowadays. With chain-stores like Zara and H&M that seem to pop up in every corner and offer new items every week, and online businesses like ASOS that bring cheap, trendy clothes to your doorstep, to own unique apparel seems like an impossible task nowadays. Customisation, to quote Rae Witte again, is a big trend in 2016 simply because we’re all tired of showing up to an art gallery opening and seeing two other people wearing the same shirt.

People feel the need to stand out — even if it’s just a tiny bit.

Only time will tell if the airbrushing trend gets stronger or if other hand-made customising techniques catch on. Since they’re hard to copy at an industrial level, they’re the perfect vengeance against the fast-fashion army of synthetic fabrics.

So far it seems like they’ll linger for a while — at least until Zara figures out a way to airbrush Tupac’s face on a tank top.


T-shirt Printing for Designers

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Printsome is an online T-shirt printing agency in the UK based in London that delivers all across the UK, from printing T-shirts in Brighton to York and anywhere in between. So, if you’re after a T-shirt or custom clothing, get in touch for a quote and indulge yourself in some awesome customer service.

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