Be the Artist: Graphic Tees are Everywhere

This summer’s Be the Artist series asks the question, “But is it art?”

The Ever-Present Graph Tee

There are many graphic t-shirts available.

The graphic tee is everywhere. It’s at school, company picnics, concerts, and comic cons. Printing patterns on material didn’t start with the t-shirt, but the graphic tee made it the commercial and pop culture fashion forerunner it is today. Iron-ons, silkscreening and embroidery have all been used. T-shirts are worn by all ages around the globe. They can be used to show your fandom or personalize your wardrobe. You can also share your political or social views or advertise a company.

Since this is such a widespread form of fashion, art, and expression, instead of trying to rope in a boring history, I’ll give a few cool facts about graphics t-shirts that I gathered from a variety of graphic design and fashion sites including and

  • Since the 19th century, t-shirts have been popular.Th century, but the term “t-shirt” was first used in print in the 1920s by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his book This Side of Paradise:

“So early in September Amory, provided with ‘six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc.,’ set out for New England, the land of schools.”

The term that refers to the shape of the shirt of course, and took awhile to catch on, but it’s here to stay.

  • In the 1930s the first graphic t-shirt was seen in a movie. The Wizard of Oz. Remember the Emerald City workers wearing “Oz” t-shirts? The t-shirts were also produced in white as a promotional item.
What percentage of graphic tees are you wearing today? An Air Corps Gunnery School member is even seen sporting one on the cover of “Life Magazine” (insert) in 1942.
  • In the 1950s, graphic tees with pop culture logos begin to really become popular, mostly from a company named Tropix Togs, and, thanks to rock ‘n roll, band t-shirts hit the scene big in the 1960s.
  • In the United States, one study found that 91 per cent of Americans had a favorite shirt. (I do.) An average person owns about 27 t-shirts.
  • The most expensive shirt made ever was sold for $400,000. 16 diamonds were sewn in the fabric.

You will probably see someone wearing a graphic tee today, whether it’s for art, activism, advertising or any other reason. (Or you may be wearing one right now yourself.) Don’t bother trying to escape, the graphic tee is ready to tell a brief tale about its wearer.

Author P.J. O’Rourke summed it up well in his commentaries:

“The 1960s was an era of big thoughts. And yet, amazingly, each of these thoughts could fit on a T-shirt.”

Collages With Tees

This series was an attempt to give art lovers, both young and old, a fresh perspective on something they are familiar with.

For this final project for this summer’s Be the Artist, we’ll do some upcycling by using t-shirts as a medium on other surfaces.

We think of graphic tees as a shirt that has something printed on it. But when the shirt becomes old, worn out, or too small, we toss or give it away. Try turning your t-shirt in to a colorful medium for another item of clothing or canvas.

You’ll need a few old or unwanted t-shirts (clean out those drawers), and depending on what you want to put them on, some needle and thread or glue.

It is a fiber art abstract mosaic using t-shirt fragments. This technique takes advantage of the colors and texture of a T-shirt.

Cut your tees into squares or irregular shapes. Use two graphic t-shirts of different patterns or colors to create a beautiful mix.

Now, find your canvas. You can make wall art, or you can create wearable art.

Cut up old tees into small pieces. They can be glued to a piece of canvas for an abstract wall art.

Get an inexpensive canvas and start building your mosaic on it. Overlap the cloth pieces a bit to create a cool effect. It is best to use tacky craft glue. You can create a folk art look by covering the canvas.

Wearable art can be created with strong clothing such as jeans, denim jackets, or tote bags. Look for ways to cover spaces—on the sleeves or leg cuffs for example—and sew them on with a simple stick one at time until you get a pattern you like.

Remember the scrap sewing on my “K-Pop” jeans craft. It’s similar to the “K-Pop” jeans craft, but this time you use tee shirt scraps. They can be used to upcycle old pants, jackets or t-shirts.

You can cut your tees into cool irregular shapes to highlight the image. Sew them on to an old pair of jeans or another garment.

You can now start assembling the pieces. Pay attention to the patterns and colors on the graphics. You’ll find details or cool patterns you might not have yet noticed or appreciated.

I hope, as you head into the fall and winter months, this summer’s Be the Artist series helped you gain an appreciation for the creative process that goes into the things we see often, but may not really think of as an artistic creation.

tshirt decorated pants
The graphic tees that are upcycled can be used as an art medium on other items. All images: Lisa Tate

T-shirts, tattoos, or tiki mugs may not be the first thing we think of when we think of “art,” and they may still not be considered fine art or high art by some, but that’s okay. As long as they have their admirers, they don’t need to be.

If anything, this series should have given you a good reason to look around and see the beauty and creativity in the world.

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