In the summer of 2004, Jean-Baptiste Regnard wanted to splurge on some clothes, but he didn't want anything as formal as what he wore as a real-estate agent. He was just 24, after all, and he wanted something comfortable and casual for hanging out with his friends. He stumbled upon the emblematic fashion of young Americans since the 1950s: the T-shirt.
"I wanted to treat myself," Regnard remembers, "but when I went to the big stores to buy T-shirts, it was all crap—offensive slogans and corporate logos. I didn't want to spend $40 to wear something I didn't like. I didn't want to become a walking billboard for Old Navy or American Eagle.
"I finally found some shirts I liked online and I ordered a few. But when they arrived they were all different sizes of small. As a business person, I thought that was awfully sloppy. I went over to Kevin's warehouse and told him, 'We can do this better; let's start a T-shirt company.'"
Kevin Sherry, only 21 at the time, was an artist who had just graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). He had no qualms, though, about using cotton underwear as his artistic medium rather than framed canvas.
Today, Regnard and Sherry occupy a large warehouse space in Baltimore's Greektown, where they run Squidfire, a flourishing business that sells T-shirts all over the world and operates two of Baltimore's largest craft fairs each year—the Squidfire Arts Marts are held every May and December. And Squidfire is merely the most successful example of a local movement that has drawn trained artists into independent, Bohemian T-shirt companies.
Rachel Bone, for instance, doesn't have a warehouse. The 26-year-old with an art degree from Syracuse University runs her business, Red Prairie Press, out of her renovated mill house in Hampden. But she, too, is supporting herself by selling T-shirts online, through retail stores, and at craft fairs. She is cofounder of a successful, semi-annual Baltimore craft fair—the Charm City Craft Mafia hosts its next show June 21 at St. John's Church in Charles Village.
The group's holiday show last December filled the two large worship areas at St. John's. The narrow aisles threaded between tables filled with artist-designed and hand-made products—not just T-shirts, but also necklaces, soaps, lamps, and much more. "Independent crafts people are succeeding," Bone asserts, "because their philosophy of small editions and local production fits right into the movement for buying local and being Earth-friendly. Because my generation was the first to grow up with computers, we're hungry to work with our hands again. When everything is mass-produced and sold for $5 at Wal-Mart, it's nice to have things that are individually made."
Katherine Fahey, another MICA graduate, started doing T-shirts because they were a natural outgrowth of doing album covers for such local bands as Wye Oak and Noble Lake. The 36-year-old painter believes there's an obvious parallel between indie-rock musicians who organize their own gigs and release their own records and local artists who create their own T-shirts and posters to sell. "These two worlds meet up when artists make T-shirts and posters for local bands," Fahey explains. "You see these musicians creating their own scene, and it makes you want to do the same."
To get to the Squidfire headquarters, you have to drive past the Ikaros and Samos restaurants in Greektown, across the railroad tracks and into the old Crown Cork and Seal factory. The soot-darkened, brown-brick buildings, which originally churned out bottle caps, still bear their "1906" plaque. Today about 150 small businesses rent out space in the complex; down the hall from Squidfire is a wax museum storage area where you can sometimes glimpse Rosa Parks or John Wayne.
Inside the business's large space, featuring a high ceiling and a row of sun-filled windows, Sherry sits at his desk, scribbling design ideas in a little black notebook. The walls are lined with plastic shelves that hold piles of T-shirts waiting to be shipped off to on-line customers or retail outlets. A swarm of orange insects is printed on a gray shirt. A lime grasshopper leaps through golden wheat on a black shirt. Silver gargoyles flutter above an urban skyline on another gray shirt. In recent years, Sherry has been playing with the boundaries of his shirts, and he has sent the antenna-like filament of a large black anglerfish toward the wearer's neck. Green, thorny vines seem to grow out of the wearer's pants on another shirt.
"We try to come out with 10 new designs for each sex for each season," Sherry says. "To get those 20 designs, I have to draw 60 and reject 40. But I'm always trying a new image, a new technique. I came up with that color fade on the pelican shirt from watching the sunsets in Baltimore when I ride home from work every night on my bike. Printing the angler fish up around the collar was a new approach, and it's become one of our biggest sellers."
When Sherry and Regnard started their business in 2004, they agreed that they didn't want to limit themselves to a small niche—not the heavy-metal niche with its skulls and devils, not the frat-boy niche with its beer and sex jokes, not the punk-rock niche with its carefully calculated cheap look, not the preppie niche with its chain-store logos. The Squidfire cofounders wanted to appeal to a broader audience, so they decided to never have words on their shirts. Their images would be quirky enough to attract hipsters but inoffensive enough to be acceptable for families.
The strategy has worked; their shirts are sold in 87 stores internationally. They suspected they were going to make it when they first set up at the Crafty Bastards show in Washington's Adams-Morgan neighborhood in September 2006 and made $5,000 in eight hours. "We were in the car counting the money as we drove home," Sherry recalls. "I said, 'Wow, I guess people like us. We should go to Vegas.'"
The Pool Trade Show, an excellent opportunity for getting T-shirt orders from retail outlets, is held each year in Las Vegas. Between airfare, lodging, and fees, the trip cost a daunting $10,000 for the fledgling business. And they came home with only $6,500 in orders from 13 stores. "We were already in debt," Regnard says, "and this made it worse. But we told ourselves we should be proud that we got 13 stores. We should buck up and move forward. Then the phone rang, and someone who had met us at the show ordered $30,000 worth of shirts."
Bone started in her business in 2006 after determining that she couldn't stand another office job. She'd already been making T-shirts for the up-and-coming indie-rock act, the Spinto Band, and she decided to set up a screen-printing business in her home. She thought she would support herself by printing other people's designs, but just for the fun of it, she made some designs herself.
Her breakthrough came at the same 2006 Crafty Bastards show that propelled the Squidfire guys. "I made a lot of money selling my own shirts at that show," Bone says, "and I decided I should put more time into my own designs and be choosier about doing other people's printing. I really loved Crafty Bastards, and I wanted to start a similar show in Baltimore—not only because it'd be closer to home, but also because I wanted to be part of a community."
With 10 other such businesses, Bone co-founded the Charm City Craft Mafia, modeled on the successful Craft Mafia group in Austin, Texas. The Baltimore organization sponsors the "Pile of Craft" show every June and the "Holiday Heap" show every December. The events have become so popular that a jury picks from 300 applicants for the 40 slots at each show.
"There's something nice about buying a T-shirt or earrings directly from the person who made it," Bone claims, "in the same way that it's nicer to buy your vegetables at the farmer's market than at the supermarket. The quality is usually better and there's something special about that personal connection."
Bone's shirts have more of a folk-art quality than Sherry's cartoonish imagery. One of her shirts has dozens of leaping maroon dogs forming a spiral on a light gray background. Another has dark-blue paisley spirals spilling out of a wheelbarrow. Yet another uses flowering-animal imagery—inspired by Oaxacan tapestry in Mexico—to create a pale-blue bouquet of birds and cats against a gray field.
Though she now has 30 different retail accounts in North America and New Zealand, Bone hasn't given up on her fine-arts career. She was named a Sondheim Prize semi-finalist for this year's Artscape, meaning her gouache paintings will be displayed in MICA's Fox Building during the festival. She had her first solo show last year in Philadelphia, and she continues to paint as much as possible. "I'm in a strange position," she confesses, "because I have a foot in each world. It's funny that I ended up selling clothes because I'm not a fashionista; I'm not much of a shopper at all."
Fahey also keeps one foot in the fine-arts world. When she was part of a three-person show at the G Spot last October, she sold almost all her paintings. And her striking cover art for the recent Wye Oak album If Children—two silhouettes of children floating through poplar branches and pointing into an eruptive red sky—has national distribution, thanks to the band's deal with Merge Records in North Carolina.
But she is glad to keep doing T-shirts. "T-shirts are like CDs in a way," she says. "You can take the art home with you. Art is so often confined to a wall in a gallery or museum. For a lot of artists, that's really frustrating—you're isolated when you work and then the work is isolated as well. Musicians, by contrast, work with one another and get out there and interact with audiences. T-shirts allow an artist to do something very similar—they allow you to feel less elitist. T-shirts make art mobile."
Fahey is sitting at a table in the Golden West Café in Hampden. She waves her arm around the restaurant and cites it as a sign of Baltimore's advantages as an art center. "You can show up here and run into four musicians from four different bands and as many artists," she says of her hangout. "You can stay in touch with the whole scene. I've lived in New York and Paris, and you could never do that there. This is the most inspiring place I've ever been."
Sherry agrees that the Baltimore art scene has been liberating, especially for an anti-elitist like himself. "My original goal was to move to Brooklyn and be an artist," Sherry acknowledges. "Then I said, 'Why am I going to live in a closet and work a lot of crappy jobs just to pay my rent and never have time to draw? I could stay here in Baltimore, live cheaply, and have lots of time to do art.' That was the genesis of Squidfire—'Screw New York.'
"Besides," he adds, "I never wanted to be a fine artist. I'd rather have 50,000 people see my illustration in a newspaper and throw it out the next day than have one person buy my painting and hang it in their home. I'd rather have 6,000 people wear a Squidfire T-shirt than have 20 people own the same image on limited-edition, silk-screen prints."