The Rise of T-Shirt Culture Inspires Local Artist

The end of the 20th Century saw the rise of the T-shirt — and adorning such attire with arresting images and messages. In the past decade, with increasing access to technologies, more people are making T-shirts with distinctively crafted messages. And they’ve made not only onlookers, but artists and even warring factions take note. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

It was in the African country of Liberia in 2001 where a group of women began a non-violent movement for peace. Here a bloody war had caused death or injury to hundreds of thousands of people, and the fighting included scores of child soldiers. Two years later, the women pressured warring factions to attend peace talks. Uninvited, they went, too, wearing T-shirts identifying their objective: “We want peace. No more war.”

The talks ended with promises of peace, and the women helped forge history. In a recent documentary, one described her experience upon returning home: “The people said to me, ‘how did you manage?’ I said, ‘With this T-shirt I’m very powerful.'”

Even in this country, T-shirts have proven to be powerful — and controversial — vehicles of speech. In recent years, messages on some have prompted First Amendment lawsuits. Those messages have ranged from those disparaging former President George W. Bush to one with the words “Islam is of the Devil.”

T-Shirts are ubiquitous and many are tailored to or by one individual, thanks to some of the modern technologies that Pricilla Summers uses.

“Pull the screen down and use the squeegee to pull the ink through the screen and it goes on to the shirt,” she says as she’s showing me her T-shirt-making process.

As owner of Kopilot press, a custom screen-printing business that takes orders as small as ten shirts, she doesn’t see a lot of contentious messages, but mostly customized ones for a school, family or group of friends.

And it’s the full range of messages emblazoned on T-shirts around the world that inspired Louisville artist Leslie Lyons to create an exhibit of photographs with people wearing distinctive T-shirts.

“I have always loved T-Shirt culture,” she says.

Lyons went behind the camera to make Talking Back: An Exhibition of T-shirt Messages and the Bodies Who Wear Them. It had its first showing in New York City in October. It’s now part of a larger exhibit about identity at the 21C Museum Hotel, where director William Morrow made the decision to include the photos.

“The person wearing the T-shirt has control of the immediacy of the message,” Morrow says, “and Leslie captures that beautifully.”

To find her subjects, Lyons put up flyers and printed notices in local press about photo shoots in New York City, New Orleans, Austin, Los Angeles and Louisville. People often came in droves wearing their shirts, and she photographed hundreds of people. She says she had to work quickly to get the right shot of the person and his or her message.

“It had to be immediate,” she says. “You know, what they’re coming with on the message of their shirt kind of gets you into them immediately. Tell me about this message? Tell me what this means to you? And so you can get to something pretty intimate pretty quickly just by asking them why they came with that message.”

The exhibit features a diverse range of people. In one photo, a woman with long, blond hair sports the phrase “Fame is not sexually transmitted.” There’s also an Iranian-American student from Princeton University wearing a shirt that says “Weapon of Mass Destruction” in Arabic. And on another wall, an Iranian-American woman with “Iran” across her chest and the words “I come in peace,” written below in Arabic.

The range of messages here doesn’t surprise Diana Crane, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written about fashion and T-shirts. She says fashion, but especially T-shirts, says a lot about our modern world.

“We’ve moved into a society where people express their identity through clothing instead of trying to be like everybody else in their own social class,” Crane says. “And so T-Shirts are the way of sort of expressing where we fit in to this whole very complex mosaic, which our culture has become.”

Lyons says she hopes her photos reflect that mosaic and this exhibit helps document our own history.

“A lot of these messages are sort of a zeitgeist of what people are thinking about and what they care about,” she says.

Lyons is looking to take the exhibit to other cities after it closes here in April. And she also plans to keep taking more photos of powerful T-shirts and the bodies who wear them.

Top Photo Credit: Pewee Flomoku