Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The secret to all design is the element of surprise. Surprise is tricky, though. The only surprising thing about shoving a reference into an irrelevant punchline, for example, is that so many people do it. Something has to jump out that makes you look twice. Something has to grab you in a more subtle and unexpected way. And today, we shall see how a lesser meme can accomplish this.

For starters, the word "lesser" goes a long way. It turns that reference into something easy to not get, which is a huge benefit for a design. A.mar.illo's (M)anteater has always benefit from this. "Fuck you, I'm an Anteater" is, for the most part, a relatively isolated phenomenon built purely from a completely understandable source: An anteater on his hind legs, front legs outstretched, looks like he's saying "come at me, punk!" Take a society obsessed with captioning animals, and the result is, well, the interweb'll happily show you. Still, it is the relative obscurity of the meme itself which does a lot of saving. If I can look at a piece and not immediately hone in on the reference, it means my evaluation of the piece is far more unbiased, and an unbiased view is what we should all strive for. It'd save us from hundreds of poorly made pac-man tees, at least.

But further than that, when you take something more obscure, and use it simply as an Easter egg in a more composed piece, you're left with a piece that almost fully erases that original spark. This isn't a piece about a lol-anteater anymore, but a concept in which a huge, Godzilla style anteater eats humans. That pose, made famous by the meme, fits in naturally, as a bad-ass anteater simply would take that stance. This is so important... good parody needs the reference to have a clever purpose, but great reference use makes it so natural that it stops being about that popular reference, but it creates a world for all possible viewers. Unlike even the best Mario shirt, which relies on knowing much about the character, this reads the same whether you know the reference or not.

Still, for someone like a.mar.illo, the thing that makes any of his work so great is his personal style. That's what snagged this a reference in a long-ago contest watch segment, and that's why I still love it. The anteater is distinctively him, but the buildings are some of my favorite things with his work. The perspective goes askew all over the place. It almost feels like the buildings are making way for the anteater, and that bent perspective makes the whole image feel all the more dramatic and otherworldly at once. It lends a sense of discomfort but also a sense of whimsy. There's a fine line at times between style and wrong, and a.mar.illo always falls on the style side. He knows how to work that quirky perspective so it jars the eyes in the best possible way. And those style choices make one focus on the design itself. It's all about putting yourself into your work, and this piece has plenty of personality to it.

This is one of those odd "curated" but not "limited" prints at Tilteed, which means that while the $12 pre-sale is fast approaching the end, you can still pick it up for eternity and such in the catalog. Still, I think we all like $12 more than $18, so hurry if you're on a budget.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dead Buried Hart

Design by Humans: I love you guys, I really do. Sometimes you lapse into a sort of self-parody with the designs you select, but even as you've softened your edge over time, you're still one of the riskiest sites. You've got an amazing blank for your product and a strong print reputation. In the list of sites I'd love to see thrive for years to come, your best work keeps you in the running.

But I don't get this "sale" thing.

Sure, I love that I can get any shirt in your entire catalog for $12 until Monday, especially with all the super strong pieces you've released in the last month or two. Yes, I know that it provides a nice build-up (and a sales cushion) for the 10K finalists and winner to be announced this coming week. Certainly I know that sales bring sales, and a slightly higher-end shop can use them to tempt more frugal customers. But sales also mean no new tees at DBH land. Which is either worrisome in that great talent and tees don't get printed, or frightening in thinking that maybe you guys really need the sales. So while I am all for saving money, I worry 'bout you guys, guys. We cool? Good.

Because seriously, I've gotta say, this is probably THE BEST time to buy some DBH swag. Over the summer some bolt of inspiration came up out of nowhere, and especially in the last month or two we've seen winner after winner print. Winners like After Death, by TobiasFonseca. It's an incredibly classy one-color print, one of the more powerful takes on the "life from death" concept with a great style...it looks almost pieced together, but not in a clip-art way but in a way that gives the idea of being given a whole bunch of little white stones and arranging them into this art. The flow and arrangement really honors the idea without making it tacky, clunky, heavy-handed, etc. It actually takes a tired concept (life in death), and a tired juxtaposition (antlers as trees) and makes it look like you'd never seen it before. And that's what great art and great design does.

Oh, and did I mention it was $12 til Monday? Because if not, I should probably mention you can also save an additional 10% with code K4XZYZ. That's good until October 7, so even if you're holding out for the 10K winners, don't be afraid to use it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Just Enough Support

Why create art?

Well, for starters, it is cathartic. Pure art, regardless of form or canvas, is a bit of a release. It's like a discussion where you get that weight off your chest... it just feels right to let it out.

There's a joyfulness about it too. Some people get absorbed in the self-importance that can come with the minor fame art can bring, but others are simply in it to make themselves happy and hopefully do the same for others.

But what I love to see, especially in terms of the shirt world, is art which exists to evoke emotion, and I think we see this in Fleck's new Threadless print, Zenobia. It speaks to a fragility and a reality that even the mightiest things may be held up by mere twigs. Like a tragic hero, the city herein looks regal and well-built, but below the surface that could not be less true. At any moment the city's construction may be its undoing, and that carries an emotional heft just in the lines and buildings. The image has a tension of being temporal, by looking ancient and by looking frail. Still, if you're not into the search for deeper meanings, I can't think of many pieces that use the shirt canvas more perfectly, anchoring the design to the chest area, but filling the area artfully... I love how it flows from the chest to shoulder, with the bottom seam anchor sparse enough not to distract. The linework itself could be an illustration from an old history book. And the pops of red in the flags are perfect highlights. This is the sort of thing which, at any given time, is always on the cusp of being ignored and not printing. It's art because it can be. It's understated despite all the detail and size. And that seems to get lost in the shuffle. It's heartening to see an example of the opposite.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Print Review: S2S Nation

A little bit ago, I received a request from Canadian brand S2S Nation to review their product. They're a new-ish contest site with a couple differences from the rest of the pack. For starters, you vote on three criteria, perhaps the most important three: Quality, Creativity, and Likelihood of Purchase. This eliminates the questions most people have to ask when voting on a design: does my vote mean I want to buy this, or just that I think it's a creative piece? This is well done, but boring... or else a great concept with a poor execution... how do I score this? Of course, we all know the average voter will simply score all 5s for their favs and get grumpy they had to put in so much effort, but the fact remains, it's an interesting idea to quantify all three separately rather than forcing a user to average on his own. Still, while this is a potentially groundbreaking idea, what S2S is really banking on is simpler: a bamboo/organic cotton blend tee for their blanks. Bamboo, as they say, is super-soft, incredibly sustainable, simple to grow plenty of pesticide free, naturally better for soil than other crops... yeah, these are some o' them hippie folks who want to promote improving the environment. A shirt from S2S, ideally, causes less environmental impact than your average clothing production. It's an idea I can get behind, and an idea that doesn't really have any cons. S2S is hoping that it is something we'll find to have plenty of pros.

All the good intentions, however, won't save you if the product sucks, so where do they stand on that? From a logistical standpoint, S2S Nation is indeed a starter company. They have a number of pieces that show definite promise, but they also would probably be ecstatic if you decided to head over and sub something amazing, because that would almost assuredly help their catalog. At the moment, for my money, their strongest tee is The Creator, currently on pre-order. I ended up being sent another strong one, Broken Melody. Besides coming from Canada, which is fun to start with, my tee was slipped inside this tote bag, which is a fairly useful extra. Apparently these totes are made from recycled bottles. See? I feel greener already!

You can see for yourself... even with my crappy camera, the tee still looks stunning printed. The mesh-work came out clean, the print feel is fine... whoever's screening these is doing a solid job. As for the tee itself? I'm going to say the folks at the bamboo clothing plant are over-selling their product a little... so far I have not purified my body, learned to caber-toss, or spoken with woodland creatures (which I think are all claims I've seen bamboo make before). Still, this is definitely a comfortable shirt. It doesn't break my top-3 blanks, but if it's not as soft as the pitchmen would like you to think, it doesn't change the fact that it is noticeably softer than your average tee. It's also a bit of a heavier shirt, but it doesn't feel it on your body. This could be an excellent thing for those who find American Apparel to be too thin. Finally, can I just say that I -love- the cut? I asked for a large, based on the sizing charts, though I normally wear XL in most blanks. This delivers. To me, I'd say it fits like a large-and-a-half, comfortably between L and XL, but as always, checking the sizing charts will suit you better. And best of all, these things are preshrunk, which seems like such a freaking obvious step to me. Solid print + solid shirt goes a long way toward equaling a solid company.

The big question, though, is this: is a bamboo tee worth the $35 base price? I'm going to go with a resounding "maybe." I would say it's the sort of thing you should make a splurge on once, see how you feel about it, and then choose from there. I can see certain people loving bamboo, especially if you're willing to spend a little extra to support the environment, and while it's a bit spendy for my blood, the right design could certainly twist my arm to go full price. It's like spending more for a "green" lightbulb: between the environmentally friendly (and therefore more expensive) construction and the knowledge your product will last longer than the average product, the price stops seeming quite so high. Right now, however, that's not a concern we need to worry about. If you're interested in trying out S2S Nation, they're currently offering all their tees at $25 as an "End of Summer" sale, from now until an unspecified future date. If there's a tee in their catalog that you're loving, I certainly cannot think of a reason why you shouldn't try them out. S2S seems pretty dedicated to quality product, and those are the sorts of tee sites we need to see more of out there.

But if even $25 doesn't tempt you, I do have one last comment on bamboo to share. I've often heard bamboo described as self-cooling. You're shaking your head in astonishment, because it sounds like absolute crap. But let it be known, I've been wearing my tee the whole time I've been writing this review, and I'll be damned if there's not an odd yet not unpleasant draft in my tee. Art and comfort are two important factors in tees for me, but it is not too late to add "mysteriousness" to that list.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Breath of Fresh Air

In a world of shameless ripoffs, the thing I am most excited about when it comes to this whole curating gig I've got going is getting to show off the stuff that isn't. There's a lot of lip-service toward original and attractive, creative and skillful, but very few people willing to stand up and make a difference. So even if it is often a much smaller contribution than I'd ideally prefer, I love being able to do a little something for people who are breathing new life into art, instead of walking tired ground.

The most recent Tilteed Limited speaks to this pretty literally. It's a piece by fan favorite at Tilteed and friend-of-the-blog theinfinityloop, called Breath of Life. The whole of the piece is artful... the whole idea of creation is easily paralleled. Really, though, the piece is ripe for metaphoric parallels... the moon and the tides correlate, but water makes life possible (and indeed makes up the better part of most life forms), and music can indeed be said to enrich our life as well, as the moon blows powerfully on his horn. There's a haunting beauty to this for that reason... it can resonate with anyone who values life or the arts, but is vague enough that any person could find their own meaning. But the stark white-on-black makes it all the stronger. The horn seems to shimmer, and the details are all the more impressive given the single color scheme. I've always gotten the feeling of a crisp fall or winter evening when I look at this design. It's peaceful, with a little chill, a little darkness, and a little beauty. I hope you all will get your own magic out of it as well.

As with the moon, and all Tilteed limiteds, Breath of Life will eventually phase out to the next cycle (approximately 67 hours or so from now, by my count), so picking up a copy ASAP is in your best interest. $12 is a small price to pay for something that evokes a mood other than "I'm in the mood to watch old cartoons and play videogames."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dogs Bark + Hoot

Design by Humans, as I'm sure is not remotely a shock to you guys (even as rarely as I update lately), is in the midst of its 10K contest. Top 8 was announced on Monday, and while I had the best of intentions to get you a Top 24 post last week, it's appropriate to discuss now anyway, because Monday's shirt was, to me, fully worthy of that $10,000. So we'll get to the contestants later. First, it's time to gush.

Sanguine Parliament by thunderpeel is the sort of tee that makes a cynic like me excited for graphic arts again at a site which is struggling with its identity as one of the last bastions of true design, creativity, and boldness. DBH doesn't want to fully enter that realm, and some weeks that shows more obviously than others, but there just aren't many places willing to take these sorts of risks. This just isn't "marketable," or "familiar," but it is amazing. It takes full advantage of what vector art does best, with slick, smooth design that doesn't feel cloying and cloned, but also an absolutely delicious palette. The white and pink and yellow on feels like some sort of futuristic Neapolitan ice cream, and this might sound odd, but with the drips and such up above, it even evokes cool and creamy. It looks like ice cream tastes. Put that in your weird description pipe and smoke it. The layout, too, is choice. I love how the owls morph into the wolf, giving their ominous glares more power, and making their chubby, cute bodies more vicious for the more powerful predator they are framed by. The echo of the wolf-head, the similar but distinct owls, the flow of the drips... all motifs that are incredibly pleasing to me and cohesive with this slightly odd idea. And who can forget use of blank? This is a big, bold print, but it is totally breathable with all that black being used. And most important, it is simply unlike anything else. People so regularly laud the familiar, and sometimes even use uncreative as a positive, or a quality which evokes no response. There are constantly examples of people pushing forward in all art. There's no excuse to recycle. And it's a boon when any site takes the bull by the horns and is willing to print something of that nature.

Sadly, even at 24 level there weren't any pieces AS exciting as Sanguine Parliament, but most of my favorites were, as ever, leveled. However, I would definitely suggest you vote for a few of the top 8, and help then get printed next week: I am a big fan of the execution and concept of buko's Unleashed Imagination and the stellar illustration put forth in alvarejo's The Perfect Murder, and I encourage you to give them your support. However, to me, $10,000 is about something totally worthy. Something skillfully created. Something dramatic and striking. Something unique and daring. Something that I've never seen before. There simply isn't a single design in the top-8 (nor were there really any in the top-24, despite having high-hopes for a few to go further) that embodies this more than Yonil's "We Did This To Ourselves." It's currently in distant third against some promotional giants. Votes allegedly count less this year, but let's not kid ourselves, we need to fight to prove it's the right choice. I simply cannot see another tee that would deserve the honor more. Any prize this large should truly favor innovation over certain other factors, or else why would anyone bother putting in their A-game for such a huge prize?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Playing Koi

When I started college, I took an Italian literature in translation course that simply opened my mind. I'd seen a handful of Italian films throughout my study of the language in high school, but it all clicked with the literature course. Other cultures have these beautiful, unique expressions of art, compared to our American, Super-bombastic, Summer-Blockbuster, Mega Seller mindset. There's a certain understatement to the Italian work. Comedy is more fun, drama is less heavy-handed, literature tends to have a certain magic to it... surely the translator's hand must be recognized, as well, but it's too pervasive and too different to be all their fault.

I will be the first to admit that these days, I don't read or view films near as much as I'd like to, but I still love the different perspective that especially European arts seem to bring to the table. I've noticed it's the French who seem to excel at this in the tee world... using sketchbook flair and handmade sensibilities, it's so different from what is, once again, the often over-produced stateside counterpart. And that's why I'm so happy to be able to showcase Billy, by babatai. It shows off how a personal piece of art can inhabit any canvas if you really consider it. I simply love the medium being used, and love the mood and realism created with those simple tools. This isn't any 3D rendering nonsense. It's not slick vectors. It's something which was likely created almost entirely in a sketchbook. It's neutral and natural, and it really elevates the tee to something more. One other thing our friends across the pond are great at is fashion, after all.

As ever, Tilteed Limited designs are available for 3 days only. Spread the word, and don't forget to grab your own!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tee Otters

If I could sum up the graphic tee experience, I wouldn't. When I use a summation, it is always a matter of what shouldn't be. It is a treatise on those few things which debilitate the art into being one more disposable product. It's like a college essay. There's no limit to right answers, but there sure as hell are wrong ones too.

One thing that I am pretty sure of, though, is that all art requires a sense of the imaginative, and the current Tilteed limited design truly understands this. I'm a bit biased, of course... it was one of my first Contest Watch features in the long long ago... but I don't think that bias changes anything. See Otters, by Ninety, is just magical. It's the crux of what imagination is... one observer, one dreamer, seeing something spectacular, and the rest of the world ignores it as folly. The design is drawn with a sense of whimsy but a strong execution as well. The concept is just adorable. The colors? The blue used for the water is perfect. That blue has had me addicted ever since seeing this two years ago. In short, however, the design simply speaks volumes about how things should be. Most people don't see anything but where they're headed. They want things to be simple, straightforward, and easy to ignore. They want to walk their path, and forget anything else. And those people miss a building full of otters. There are truly special things out there in the world. Look for them, because once you find one, you'll be 100 times happier with it than all the populist mediocrity you thought meant something.

If you're in love with the sheer charm of this piece, you've only got a limited time, as with every Tilteed limited you might fall in love with. Don't miss out, and tell your friends. Great art should be celebrated. No matter what the canvas.