Comeback Kid: The Return of Graphic Tees

In the past few years I’ve noticed something; it shouldn’t even be noticeable, I doubt many other people have even taken note of it. It seems, to me, that graphic tees are back in a big way, and they have a new message for the world: it’s time to represent.

graphic tees

A decade or more ago, graphic tees were where it was at, though it was mostly a “fashion” for men, the ladies had cutesy tees from places like Delias and Aeropostale. Men’s shirts consisted of crude sayings and graphics referencing the newest Will Ferrell movie. There was the always consistent “My mom thinks I’m special” or “I Support Single Moms” presenting the silhouette of a stripper, pole included. The point stands, however, that they did what they were intended to do: represent your personality, who you were, at first sight.

Then they kind of faded away.

The argument can be made that they didn’t actually fade away, the slogans just stopped be funny, or we just became so accustomed to them they stopped being a “thing.” The closest thing seen as a graphic tee became band shirts, a long used signification of what you liked. But then something started happening, something that crept in the only way fads tend to do, moving in one by one until–BAM! We’re all doing it.

Graphic tees are back.

The newest representation: Where you come from.

This isn’t new, by most standards; as we grow up, T-shirts become a staple — you get one for your school, your sports team, events, etc. There’s a reason that T-shirt quilts are now a thing. Now the un-ironic-but-totally-ironic graphic tees are back and they’re primary focus is where we live and what we do. In an age where making fun of yourself is a go-to, backhanded way of loving yourself (“No, Stacy, I’m such a basic bitch, for real!”) indie stores are popping up to promote shirts that do just that.

graphic teeIn the midwest, a specific store that promotes — get this: The Midwest — has become all the rage with up-and-coming areas that the rest of the world has no idea exists. You can’t go more than a mile (or the many miles it takes to get to another civilization between farmlands) without seeing someone sporting a Raygun shirt. “Welcome to Crown Town!”, “NEBRASKA”, and “FACT: A.C. Slater Almost Wrestled in Iowa” shirts are everywhere.

They’re also on everybody. Lumberjacks, cheerleaders, hipsters, drunks, farmers, and the elite are all running around wearing Raygun graphic tees, proudly displaying one hilarious saying after another.

On the popularity of his brand, founder of Raygun, Mike Draper, says, “It’s crazy. Especially since in the early days, if they had a shirt on, I probably sold it to them. Now they may have no idea who I am. The whole thing is quite a bit bigger than myself.”

Draper, not to be confused with Mad Men’s Don Draper, started Raygun while attending University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His senior year there, he and a friend started selling “Not Penn State” shirts on campus in 2004. After he graduated, he started selling his graphic tees on the streets, having other people print them. Then, he says, “to cut out the middle man and to have a niche, I moved back to the Iowa in early 2005. I bought a press, started making shirts, selling online, then opened the store in 2005.”

Since then he’s has opened three Raygun stores — in Des Moines, IA, Kansas City, MO, and Iowa City, IA, respectively — with plans to expand in Des Moines, Spring 2015.

The inspiration for the hilarious homegrown designs? “Not a lot of people are making uber-pro Midwestern-themed shirts. I’ve always liked humor, so I guess I’ve always liked funny shirts. The late ‘90s was the beginning of the “ironic” t-shirt. Kids would go to Goodwill and look for “World’s Greatest Grandpa” shirts, etc.” He continues, saying, “They’d also be looking for shirts not sold at the mall. I think that was the genesis of the hyper-local t-shirt movement. Most of the ironic shirts now are created for irony, not un-ironic shirts bought from Goodwill to be ironic when a 17-year-old wears them. I’m not even sure what it means any more. But people tell me we make ironic t-shirts and I believe them.”

It also helps that getting graphic tees printed is so easy now. When Draper started, he created his designs and had other people print them; and it seems he’s not the only one. With DIY selling sites like Etsy, and easy printing services online like CafePress and Redbubble, artists are finding it easier to get their products out to people. Custom printing services are showing up in cities, as well. In Kansas City, Big Frog Custom T-shirts is a widely used printing company.

Another tool to make your impact on the graphic tee comeback? Create your own press.

Nicholas Smith, Assistant to the Regional Director of Eastern Kentucky University School of Justice Studies and dilettante, did just that a few years ago, and he says the process of creating personalized graphic tees was pretty simple. “The basic process was to get a cheap quilting hoop, a type of decoupage glue, and a fine fabric mesh, which is readily available at any fabric or craft store such as Michael’s or Jo-ann Fabric. From there, you take an image and transfer it to the fabric by mod-podging the areas you wish to keep clear of ink. Once complete, you let the glue cure and then transfer your image. I found that the best tool for this was a cheap silicone squeegee, but a bar coaster worked nearly as well, and had the benefit of being free and disposable.” Seems pretty simple. If you’re going to go the DIY method, try a handy video like this one, just in case, though.

With so much potential at the tip of your fingers, it’s time to start looking for the best graphic tee for you. What’s the message you’d like to present the world on your chest? Will it be a Raygun creation, something from Etsy, or your very own creation? Sound off in the comments below!


Pictures from Raygun, with love.

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Rachel Fair

by Rachel Fair

Adopted Kansas Citian, Wannabe Cheetah Girl & Constant Wearer of Headphones. The two great loves of Rachel's life are words and music. Finding solace in both, she is constantly making mixes and finding ways to tell stories through the sounds of others. When she's not creating playlists, she's writing here, blogging there, and tweeting in between.