You’d walk by their booths at the county fairs with cotton candy in one hand, past ring toss games where you could win a pet goldfish and beyond every deep-fried-everything stand, begging your mom to have one made for you, only to walk past another booth in the mall a week later and beg her again. You wanted that airbrushed T-shirt.
Recently, some significantly influential individuals have been embracing the throwback custom artwork. During NYFW, after gifting all the models in his famed fashion show their own custom T-shirts, Alexander Wang had airbrush artists on site for a pop-up in his SoHo store.
Just last month, YG shared a very special preview of a new airbrushed merch design specifically for his lady lovers, featuring a pic of a very young YG under the words “Baby Daddy.” ASAP Ferg, whose father was big in the early hip-hop and fashion scene in Harlem, was recently photographed in a custom Mickey Mouse airbrushed T-shirt with his name down each arm.
Following his Yeezy Season 3 presentation and The Life of Pablo listening party, Kanye West wore (and sold) a tribute T-shirt with his mother, Donda West, on the front and Kim Kardashian’s father, Robert Kardashian, on the back. Heron Preston also just released his collaboration with GAP, featuring an airbrushed eagle on the front of his for $500.
There are stories of artists airbrushing T-shirts dating back to the 1950s. There’s Stanley Mouse, who still lives in California. The son of a Disney illustrator, Mouse initially picked up the airbrush when working on cars in Detroit. He transitioned to putting his work on T-shirts before moving on to graffiti, getting kicked out of school and enrolling in art school.
He’s since had his artwork featured in MoMas in Toykyo, San Francisco and Kyoto, The Tate Museum in Liverpool and The Louvre in Paris. Prior to art school, Mouse’s work with hot rods would lead him to cross paths with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Similarly, Roth started out airbrushing cars but transitioned his artwork on to shirts at car shows in the early ’60s. He would develop the character “Rat Fink” and a host of others that would grow beyond the T-shirts and cars to underground comics in the late ’80s and ’90s, before Roth passed away in 2001.
In New York during the late ’70s and ’80s, a different hustle was going on. Edwin “Phade” Sacasa started off doing graffiti as a kid. By the time Sacasa hit high school, most guys would grow out of tagging trains, but he did not. He would soon find a group of like-minded friends and start to transition his work on to T-shirts.
His mom showed him what his work was worth when she gave him $10 for shirt with an airbrushed rose on it. As he began to make more shirts and more money, a friend said he knew Jam Master Jay and that he would love the shirts. Although skeptical, Sacasa and his buddy headed out to Jamaica, Queens with the perfect black sweatshirt with a gold chain airbrushed on it for Jay.
Sure enough, Jay loved it and even recommended getting it in a store. It was here that the idea for Shirtkings was born; starting with a booth at the Colisseum. Sacasa would go on to outfit the likes of LL Cool J and Grand Master Flash, later becoming a staple in the hip-hop and fashion community, with designs ranging from portraits depicting how individuals saw themselves to classic cartoons looking more rough around the edges.
“Airbrushing never went anywhere,” said West Coast-based airbrush artist Vince Osborne when he spoke to Highsnobiety. And perhaps it never truly diminished. While some of the earlier guys used it as a stepping stone or just part of their path, others like Osborne, chose to make it their main focus.
Now a media giant, Marc Ecko started his entire empire airbrushing T-shirts in high school. In an interview with Inc. he mentioned bringing in nearly $600-700 a week of “drug dealer money” at times, but we went on to transform his T-shirts into a legitimate line and amassed his empire (he’s now co-founder of Complex Media Group and Ecko Unlimited).
Osborne also went on to develop his talent into a successful business. He started with hip-hip-centered designs when the Kool Moe Dee song, “I Go To Work,” dropped in 1989, and he’s the guy responsible for Drake’s tribute Selena T-shirt. “I’ve done thousands of memorial T-shirts,” he told Highsnobiety. He’s continued to do work for Drake as well as being featured in an ESPN commercial in 2012; and he’s responsible for Katy Perry’s airbrushed “Roar” jacket in 2013.
Alan Pastrana is originally from New York City but now based Connecticut, and has a similar background to Osborne. Like Ecko, he got started selling his custom T-shirts in high school during the ’90s.
Pastrana remembers visiting the Shirtkings store and a boutique called Uniques in the city: “They’d have six or seven airbrushers right in the store.” Business has taken a different turn as of late. “Kim [Kardashian] said to me, ‘You’ll be known as that artist that did Kanye’s design,’ and she was right,” he says.
Pastrana told Highsnobiety he almost didn’t take the job creating the memorial T-shirt featuring the Wests’ late parents, Donda West and Robert Kardashian Sr.. With only one night to complete the artwork, Pastrana pulled it off. He now makes custom coats for North West and is responsible for the artwork on Preston’s GAP collaboration.
In the pre-internet age, motivation and inspiration to airbrush designs on T-shirts came to many different people for different reasons. The airbrushing we’re now seeing picked up by Kanye, YG and Wang seems to be rooted in hip-hop culture, while the new project Preston is working on with Pastrana is more reminiscent of hot rod and car culture.
Airbrushing has been utilized on vehicles, murals and even fingernails for years, and airbrushing T-shirts is at least a 60-year-old “trend.” As it resurges within the music and fashion scenes, we’ll certainly see it reach new audiences—just don’t call it a comeback.
Is the band tee trend finished? We take a look here.
- Words: Rae Witte
- Lead image: Ed “Phade” Sacasa